Stoic Saturday: Focus On The Task at Hand

It is possible to become a parent without intending to, but you shouldn’t parent your kids without intention. Even if you stumbled into the role, felt unprepared and overwhelmed (what parent hasn’t?), once the responsibility of the position is yours – act accordingly. Marcus Aurelius says this:

Concentrate like a Roman – like a man – on doing what’s in front of you with precise and genuine seriousness, tenderly, willingly, with justice. And on freeing yourself from all other distractions. Yes, you can – if you do everything as if it were the last thing you were doing in your life

The concentration habits or Romans was something they never covered in history class, but I don’t think he is talking about the average citizen here. I think he is talking about the ideal kind of person you should strive to be, and the step to take toward being that person by being living in the moment.

Being told to “live in the moment” has almost become cliche, but I think it goes one step further from having an awareness of the moment you’re living right now. It calls you to be a participant in the moment you’re living right now. It isn’t talking about appreciating what is in front of you, it’s talking about doing what it in front of you. I know this is a challenge for me. Do I sit on the couch and watch my kids play while my mind is somewhere else, or should I join them and be an active participant in their development?

Does having three kids actually make it harder to give enough attention to each one, or is that just an excuse for not concentrating on each of of kids completely in the moment they need me? Devoting one-on-one time to each is important. They need to know they have my attention without distraction from their siblings, or my phone, or the TV, or whatever needs to get done around the house. There are times for those, but if I am doing something with my kid, then I need to be free from other distractions.

I think the word choice is important here – “Freeing yourself from all other distractions.” Not minimizing distractions, not blocking out distractions, but freeing yourself from them. Distractions hold you back. They are not just an inconvenience, they are just background noise, but rather they are genuinely harmful. Time with my kids should be time with my kids. Anything else that is important can have it’s own time, and anything that isn’t important doesn’t deserve my time. There will never be a shortage of things competing for my attention, three kids pretty much guarantees that, so I need to be aware of what is competing for my attention and be quick to decide who gets none of it.

I find it interesting that he says to concentrate not just precisely and seriously, but tenderly and willingly. It is not like were are trying to do math homework and need to shut up and focus so we can begrudgingly buckle down and get it done, but we are to care about what we are doing. Whatever it is we are focusing on is something that we have chosen to spend a chuck of time our of our lives on, the least we can do is do it on purpose and with care. When your kid asks you to read the same book for the 100th time, do you do it willingly? When your kid misbehaves and needs to be taught a lesson on why you don’t play with nail polish (not that that has ever happened to me….) do you do it tenderly? It is not enough for your head to be present, your heart needs to be invested too.

And how differently would you do things if you did them as if it was the last thing you did in life? Would you be so quick tempered at your kids for not having their shoes when it’s time to go? If getting your kids ready to leave for school in the morning was the last thing you’d do in life, I bet it wouldn’t matter so much that a kid can’t find one shoe. You would probably take a moment to appreciate how the kid who can now zip up their jacket all on their own has learned and grown. And you’d take an extra minute to help teach the kid who can’t. If a game of CandyLand was the last think you ever did, would you have one eye on something else while playing? Would you stack the deck to try to get it over as fast as possible? Probably not. And doing a disservice to a game of CandyLand certainly isn’t doing it with justice.

Is it realistically possible to bring this level of focus and intentionality to everything you do? Maybe, maybe not. I wonder, how does one change a diaper with seriousness, tenderly, willingly, and with justice? Tenderly, sure. With seriousness, okay. Willingly? I suppose if I did as if it was the last thing I did in life, I would leave my son the the cleanest butt the world has ever seen.

Today’s takeaway – purposely eliminate distractions and focus on what I’m doing (even diapers) as if it is the most important thing I’ll do. Because in that exact moment, it is.

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