Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Prioritizing Your Life

A professor was teaching a classroom of freshmen students about prioritizing their lives. He put two empty glass jars on the desk in front of him. In the first jar, he took a smaller jar of sand and poured it in first. He then took a jar of small rocks and poured those in. Then he tried to place a large rock in the jar. There was no room for it. The students watched as he put a similar sized large rock into the second jar. He then poured the same amount of small rocks into the jar as he had poured into the first. They flowed around the large rock and fit perfectly. Finally, he took a jar of sand containing the same amount he’d poured into the first jar and poured it into the second jar. That, too, fit.

He told his students that the first jar represented living your life with the wrong priorities. The big rock – the things that were the most important to you – didn't fit because you’d prioritized the stuff that didn't really matter first and those things were taking up too much room. The second jar represented living your life with the right priorities. You focused on the most important things first and everything else had plenty of room to flow around that priority and it all fit together. The students got the point.

The Catholic Church teaches her children that there is a proper order by which our lives are to be lived. Namely, that we are to put God at the top of the list, service to others next, and ourselves at the bottom of the list. Contrary to what most people believe, this is the only order which produces real and lasting happiness. God is love, and love is the source of all happiness. When we put love first, and show that love is first by how we serve others, our lives become filled with love and this in turn ensures that our lives are filled with happiness. In imitating the Catholic Church’s methods of parenting, we need to teach our children how to properly prioritize their lives.

God First

God alone knows what the future holds, so if you aren’t putting God first you’re driving without knowing where you ought to be going. He’s got the map, He’s got the directions, and He’s the only one qualified to navigate your journey. There was a long stretch in my life where I ignored God for the most part. In a crisis I might call on Him for help, but the moment I was out of the crisis I was back to putting myself in charge of running things and my life was a total disaster on every level because of it. I was too scared of failure to admit I needed help, and my refusal to admit that I needed help created situations that ensured I did fail. It was a vicious cycle.

God knew me, knew how stubborn I could be, and knew what it would take to get my attention. He got my attention by showing me exactly how my choices in life were impacting my son – and not for the better. I loved that child with everything that I had in me to give, but I wasn't showing him that by the way I was living. In fact, the way I was living showed that money was my greatest love because that’s where I spent the most time and effort.

God showed me this reality and helped me to reorganize my life. It required making some hard choices, a lot of sacrifices, and a lot more changes. God first started by redefining for me what success meant. I was caught up in the notion that success was defined by job title, bank account balance, college degree, or property ownership. That’s not God’s definition of success, though. He defines success by how well we love others. In other words, God’s definition of success is by the quality and quantity of relationships we have with other people.

When I began to align my life by God’s priorities, I became better at choosing how I spent my time. Instead of investing it in various ways of making money, I began to invest my time in helping others. I invested in developing relationships by choosing to participate in groups with other people and reaching out to others. I invested time in my son and in our relationship together.

I am not rich, nor am I likely to get rich, by the standards of most people around me. Yet my life is better off now than it was 7 years ago. I have developed more genuine relationships with other people than I ever had back then, and the relationships I have with my family members are happier and healthier than they were before. I still work for a living, and I still strive to provide for my family, but that’s not my highest priority any longer. Those things are simply tools to accomplish my primary priority of building relationships.

You cannot give what you do not have, and if you aren’t filling your cups with love to the point where it overflows its bounds and spills out onto others the love you have to give will gradually diminish over time. When we put God first, He will help us to fill those cups to overflowing with love, rearrange our priorities so that they are more in line with His, and help us to focus our energies on the things that matter most, rather than wasting our time in areas that aren’t going to produce the results we really want to see. We will become the parents that we were meant to be, without all of the stress that comes from trying to pack our lives with too much stuff.

Others Next

In Chapter 15: Service to Others, I discussed the psychological benefits of teaching our children to serve others. Those benefits aren’t just for our children, though, they are for us to claim as well. We as parents are in a unique position of being given the opportunity to serve others by how we choose to serve our children. How we serve them, in fact, sets the stage for how they serve others.

If we serve our children begrudgingly, as if they were an inconvenience to us or a burden, that’s exactly how they will perceive themselves and how they will learn to serve others. If, however, we can serve them with joy and an attitude that says that serving them is a privilege, they will become eager to serve others so that they can experience that same joy and take advantage of that same privilege. Serving our children isn’t about becoming a door mat for them. It is about demonstrating how much we love them by the way we care for their needs and setting an example for them of how we expect them to treat the people around them.

Outside of the home, wherever possible, when we serve our communities we should bring our children with us so that they can also see that service doesn’t stop at our front door but continues out into the world. We are all part of the world and all responsible as individuals for caring for others around us. If our children are with us when we volunteer to serve at a soup kitchen, or join in a community wide clean up initiative, or take food to shut ins they begin to see themselves as part of this larger community. Serving others doesn’t have to take away from our time with our children but can be tied into that time.

Since coming back to the Catholic Church, I have made it part of an act of service to my church to sing with the choir. Although he was reluctant at first, my son has joined me in this. We attend the rehearsals together, discuss the music together, and share in the frustrations of trying to get our church community to sing with us rather than treating it as a performance. It has provided a way of bonding the two of us closer together and giving us more things to talk about than school or work.

Ourselves Last

When my son was very tiny, I did not have a bedtime for him. He went to sleep when he went to sleep, and I was a complete wreck. Thank goodness my mother was around to help me, because she told me that setting a bedtime wasn't for my son. It was for me. His bedtime gave me a time to recharge my batteries so that I could give him all of the attention he needed that next day.

Establish a firm bedtime for your children, especially the younger ones. Many behavior problems in young children are actually the results of sleep deprivation. I remember one morning when my son was in third grade. I had recently moved his bedtime to 9 pm, and he woke up that morning as cranky as a bear just out of hibernation. He yelled at me, “I wouldn't be so cranky if you would put me to bed earlier!” I heeded his advice, returned his bedtime to 8 pm, and the cranky mornings resolved themselves. Since then, I have noticed a direct correlation between him staying up too late and acting like a jerk the next day. Our biggest fights have usually come the day after he's stayed up too late, even now at age 16. So give yourself a break, and put your kids to bed early.

At the end of the day, we do need to take some time to be alone, to reflect on our day, and to regroup. Serving others is tiring work even when it is joyful and fun. While it would be nice if we as human beings could be as self-sacrificing as God, it simply isn't a reality. We need at least a couple of hours a day of free time where we are not pressured to do anything except simply be. As one famous cardinal put it, we are not human doings. We are human beings. If your routine currently does not include alone time, go over your schedule with God’s help and see what can be eliminated to give you that time.

A word to the wise is that sleep should not be the thing you eliminate to make more time for other stuff. Sleep deprivation doesn't affect adults any less than it does kids. It simply makes you a cranky parent and makes serving your children and others around you even more difficult than it normally would be. It’s also not good for your health and makes you more susceptible to disease.


I hope you have enjoyed, or at least found thought provoking, this chapter of Catholic Parenting: What the Catholic Church Teaches Us About Parenting. If you are just stumbling onto this series for the first time, you can find the introduction and earlier chapters by clicking the link above.  I hope you will join us tomorrow for Chapter 32: Valuing Effort Over Results.

I want to thank you for taking the time to read this post. Please feel free share your thoughts, comments, or stories about how you have struggled with or been helped by prioritizing your life.  

Popular Posts