Two years ago, in the middle of my second divorce and a few months before my fourth baby was born, I was looking for anything that would help me survive the dark storm that was rolling in. I was feeling desperate and despairing, so I was willing to try anything. When I saw a challenge from Gretchen Rubin to write your own personal commandments to be happier, I didn’t really think it would make a big difference to my situation, but doing something was better than doing nothing and letting my mind wander with worries and fears.
However, since I drafted my own set of personal commandments two years ago, I have found myself turning to them over and over again. They are a reminder of who I want to be, of small and simple things I can do to take control of my own life, and a quick way to boost my own happiness on a regular basis. Writing my own set of personal commandments helped me to clarify what was important to me and what I value most. Every time I return to my commandments, which is almost daily, they take me back very quickly to the overarching principles that I want to live my life by. On difficult days, I often find myself repeating one or two of them as mantras to guide me through a rough patch. They have been enormously helpful to me.
Below are my Eleven Personal Commandments and a brief explanation of each of them. I hope they’ll inspire you to take a closer look at your own core values and come up with your own personal commandments. For more inspiration, Gretchen Rubin has some tips for writing your own commandments here along with her 12 personal commandments that are really fun to read about.
My Eleven Personal Commandments
1. Fall in with it. This commandment, and so often my daily mantra, was inspired by a line from Robert Frost: “Always fall in with what you are asked to accept. Fall in with it and turn it your way.” So many of the difficult things thrown our way are often out of our control. This commandment reminds me to be flexible, rather than passive or resistant. I have to push myself to “fall in with it” so that I can embrace even the most painful circumstances and actively use them to improve and grow. This is probably my most important and most challenging personal commandment. As Virginia Woolf said, “Arrange whatever pieces come your way.”
2. Do it now. Because I always, always, always would rather wait and do it tomorrow. “The only menace is inertia.” St. John Perse
3. Look for what’s right. I grew up hearing my parents and grandparents say over and over, “Are you looking for what’s right, or are you looking for what’s wrong.” As they taught me early on, you can always find something “right” in any situation. This isn’t always easy, but it’s always rewarding.
This is something I love to see in other people too. Just recently, a friend’s father passed away unexpectedly. Rather than focus on all the “wrong” things – the ways that it was unfair and unfortunate and the tragedy of the whole situation, I only heard them express what was “right” – the fact that just a few months earlier the entire family had been able to get together for his birthday, how he survived (even though he was unconscious) just long enough for everyone to make it into town to be there when he died, how beautiful the funeral was, etc. It was a difficult situation, but it was so inspiring to see their positive response and a good reminder to me of why it’s important to push myself to look for what’s right as often as I can.
4. This too shall pass. Apparently this was one of Abraham Lincoln’s favorite lines and it’s become quite dear to me too. I bought this print a few years ago and it hangs in a corner of my house where I pass it and read it everyday. On a good day, it’s a reminder to savor the joy and the people I love, to remember that it is fleeting and to enjoy the moment. On a bad day (or month, or year), it’s a comfort to remember that it won’t last – there is always a light at the end of the tunnel.
5. Dig Deep. This is my parenting mantra. My kids are my world and my greatest joys, and yet, the reality of parenting – and especially single parenting- four children is that it’s hard. I want to dig deep for them and do the thing that feels right, the thing that expresses love, even when I don’t feel like it. This can be big, like patiently responding to a loud and crazy tantrum or fight, or small, like getting out of bed when they call for water in the middle of the night instead of yelling “go to sleep” down the hall and rolling back over. Sometimes I get this right, sometimes I don’t, but it helps to have the commandment to refer back to.
6. Thank God for the things that I do not own. I stole this one from St. Teresa of Avila. As a single parent family, we’ve struggled with money. This is my reminder to be grateful, to avoid comparisons, and to see the blessings in a simple life. Things can truly be baggage, and wishing for things we don’t have only weighs me down. I want to strive for wholeness and happiness and avoid seeing the acquisition of things as the only marker of success and progress. Yes, thank God for the things I do not own.
7. Reach out. I know intuitively that we’re not on this journey alone, but as an introvert, reaching out doesn’t come naturally to me. This is one that I need a lot more work on. It always forces me outside my comfort zone to reach out, but every time I make a real connection I am reminded of why it’s worth the trouble to push myself in this area.
8. Do the next right thing. My dad heard this somewhere when I was a teenager and it inspired him so much that he repeated it to us all the time – for years. Though I may not have fully understood or appreciated it back then, I find it very helpful and even comforting now. So often I feel like I have no idea what I’m doing – as a parent, as someone trying to earn a living, as a creative person, as a human being in general. But rather than let myself become overwhelmed by the unknown or the fear of failure, or become paralyzed by doubt or uncertainty, I remind myself that all I need to do right now is the next right thing. Sometimes the next right thing is just to make dinner and wash the dishes.
9. Enjoy the process. This is one of Gretchen Rubin’s personal commandments, and I liked it so much I included it in my own. Especially when it comes to work -writing/photography, I focus so much on the end results and whether or not it earns me any money, that I forget that I really do love writing and taking pictures. I find this one also helps me more cheerfully accomplish all of my mundane household chores. Instead of rushing through the dishes, I can actually choose to enjoy the process just by paying attention to what I’m doing.
10. Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace. When I let myself spiral into fear and worry about the future, let me be an instrument of peace. When I find myself faced with another’s dishonesty, unkindness, anger, or resentment, let me be an instrument of peace. When I am tempted to sacrifice my own peace to avoid conflict as I do so often, let me be an instrument of thy true peace. When I am too focused on myself and can’t see the needs of those around me, let me be an instrument of thy peace. Let me see beyond my own personal preference, my own self interest, and make me an instrument of thy peace.
11. And last, but definitely not least: Let It G0. I don’t mean this as “relax, let things that bother me go.” It’s more like this:
Yes, like that. I want to let it go when I hate myself for the poor choices that I’ve made that have led me to this point of being a single parent of four kids. I want to let it go when I feel like the past is going to make the future I want impossible. I remember sitting in the theater and hearing Elsa sing her song and wanting to jump out of my seat and join her. It’s perhaps embarrassing to be so moved by a Disney movie, but like Elsa, I just want to let it go, let it go, and rise like the break of dawn. Let it go.