Sometimes life overwhelms. Maybe you know this feeling. There are too many meetings to attend, presentations to prepare and give, obligations to meet, and too little time to do it in. There are pressures from work, from home, from church, from social circles. For me it always seems like this is when the car breaks down, or someone gets sick, or the toilet backs up, or the roof leaks. And did I mention that there are bills to pay? Every month? It is too much!

When I was recently getting that familiar feeling of helplessness- that all my efforts were marked by futility in the grand scheme of life- I remembered something that made me smile and seemed to have a revelation at the same time. I thought about my daughter, and how we both learned a valuable lesson.

Molly was very young at the time. I cannot point to a specific age because Molly and I learned the lesson over and over again. I’m not sure that she ever “got” it, but I sure did. You see, Molly’s bedroom was always a mess. There were clothes and toys and books and shoes and notebooks and backpacks all over the place. It was terrible, and a little dangerous. There was no way to move from the door of her room to the bed without stepping on something (a lot of somethings, actually). 

And so we developed a ritual. The ritual played itself out in stages. 

The first stage was the recognition that her room needed attention. Her mother or I would tell Molly that she needed to clean her room. Molly would dutifully disappear to her room where she would work silently for a long time. This stage included a naive belief that Molly was in her room cleaning as she had been instructed. However, that was not the case.

Stage two occurred when we went to check on Molly’s progress to realize that she had not been cleaning her room, but making it worse. She would get distracted and begin to play with… anything. She would find something that she was going to put away, but then decided it was better to play with it. Or, she would remember something else that was in her closet or toybox that needed to be played with. 

The recognition that Molly was not doing what she was supposed to be doing was followed swiftly by stage three: Anger. There would inevitably be some yelling, some threats and usually some tears as well. It seemed self-evident to me that picking up toys and putting them in the toybox was simple and obvious. But there was a disconnect. With tears in her eyes, Molly would spin around in the center of her room not knowing how to clean up her own mess.

Finally, we made it to the “shoes” stage. After I lost my temper and regained my composure, and Molly had cried a lot and then settled down, she would sit on my lap and we would talk calmly and quietly. And that’s when we decided to change our approach. I asked Molly to put away her shoes. She needed to find all the shoes in her room and put them back in the right spot in her closet. When she completed that she was supposed to report back to me. The resulting change was miraculous. In just a few minutes Molly would come charging out of her room announcing that the shoes were put away. And then she would say, “What should I do next, Daddy?”

We learned to clean that room with bite-sized manageable tasks. Shoes. Books. Clothes. Toys. We repeated this so often that it has become a mantra for me: “Put away your shoes.” I can’t solve every problem in my life, but I can put away my shoes. I can’t make everyone happy, but I can put away my shoes. Maybe I can’t keep all the balls in the air, or all the plates spinning (choose your metaphor) all the time, but I can put away my shoes.

For me, putting away my shoes means that I must find the most elemental thing that makes me who I am. What is fundamental to my personality? What is one thing that is necessary for me to carry on in life? That one thing is easy for me. It is my relationship with God. There are many things that I am interested in and many others that I am responsible for, but I must never neglect my relationship with God. I put away my shoes by praying but reading God’s word, by spending unhurried time with God himself.

I believe that everyone gets overwhelmed sometimes. There is too much to do, and not enough time to do it. There seems to be no way out. But listen to this truth that I will stand by forever: Put away your shoes.