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Do the Next Thing

This strikes me as being highly ironic. As I struggle like never before to meet the deadline for this blog, the topic could not be more appropriate. Suffice to say March and April have been one of my most intense times in several years. I won’t even go into the health issues, financial issues, family issues and more that have recently presented themselves. Yet I am not alone.

Stress, as it is perceived by each individual, is different for everyone. While a woman in a third-world country worries about providing enough food for her children, another in a first-world country agonizes over an unwanted pregnancy. Stress trickles down to every age group and every culture, from infants to the elderly. The trick is managing it so it doesn’t alter our well-being. Easier said than done.

I always fall back on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs when it comes to stress and survival. This hierarchy ranges from physiological needs such as food, water, and shelter at the bottom, to self-actualization at the very top. One cannot skip a level to advance to the top. I am not entirely sure what being self actualized encompasses, so I assume I haven’t made it there yet. The rest of the pyramid I have completed in this lifetime. 

However, stress has a way of bouncing us in and out of these lifetime levels. When this happens I have to take a deep breath and reconsider what my most pressing needs are to maintain any sense of sanity. It helps me to prioritize, aka put the big rocks in the jar first.

I learned about these rocks in nursing school when most of the students in my class were drinking out of a firehose. One day, sensing our anxiety, our psychology instructor showed up with an empty jar to prepare a demonstration. First she filled the jar with big rocks and asked if it was full. We said yes. She added pebbles to the jar and asked again. She continued doing this with sand and finally water. The jar was finally full. Everything made it into the jar, but the big rocks had to go in first.

My friend, Joy, has a similar way of managing her life. I met Joy at preschool drop-off where our daughters, now lifelong friends, first met. Joy was a seasoned mother with five children. I was a new mom. Our family values were similar and we bonded. Decades later, our families are still united and recently we attended Joy’s 70th birthday. All of her family members were present and the love they had for her was palpable. She had added two more children to the flock, remained strong in her faith, retained the same husband, and the same sweet, kind disposition.


I consider myself to be her antithesis, with my sarcasm and general mistrust of the world. I pursued my selfish career options while she adored being a mom. I’m sure raising seven children and a husband was not without its challenges, and while she recalled her life at her party, she said something so profound it will never leave me.

“Do the next thing, Joy.”

Joy had seven kids in school, dance, cheer, drama, speech, a home business, and that’s not even counting the extended family and elderly generations. In my mind it was a perpetual three-ring circus. I remember seeing her concerned, sometimes she was tired, but never unhappy, hopeless, or wanting to give up. Maybe she was able to hide her emotions with grace and dignity. This is something I have never mastered. 

She claims she survived with a little self-talk and encouragement, often speaking out loud to remind herself to, “Do the next thing, Joy.” Or, as my psychology teacher demonstrated, put the big rocks in the jar first. 

Oddly enough, both these women were named Joy. Perhaps their joy and positive energy just oozes out of their pores. Not the case with someone named Jo.


But their wisdom has had a profound effect on me and as such I wish to pay it forward by sharing their knowledge. Following Joy’s party, I practiced my own self-talk and routinely reminded myself to, “Do the next thing, Jo.” I have to say it is working quite well. Sure, I have restless nights when I feel I have not accomplished what was required for the last 24 hours. But I am learning to forgive myself for my human shortcomings and value what I do accomplish. And that’s a lesson that takes a lifetime to learn. 

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