December 2013: Pieces of String Too Short to Use

by Brad on December 1, 2013

“Manifest plainness, embrace simplicity, reduce selfishness, have few desires.” – Lao Tzu


It’s the time of year when we seem to experience most strongly the complexity of our lives. Perhaps there’s no time that we don’t feel its strain, yet the holiday season certainly makes it more obvious. As I listen, I hear many people complaining, yet few stopping to inquire what they might do differently. So now there are two issues: (1) complexity itself, and (2) the unconscious acceptance of it … as if it came with life’s territory. Neither one needs be so.

IMG_1161I recall as a youngster helping my dad clean out my grandmother’s house after she passed away. Among the findings was a little tin candy box, with a piece of adhesive tape affixed to the cover so as to create a label. Written neatly on the label: “Pieces of string too short to use.” It struck me as rather odd even then, for its contents were described so accurately – pieces of string too short to use. Reflecting now, that little box is a metaphor for so much about our lives today. I’m well aware that her place in the Depression era probably thrust her into a scarcity mentality. That time had long passed, however; yet the thinking that caused her to save the string had lived forever.

I suspect the same phenomenon explains much of life’s complexity today. We live in a culture that encourages our “wanting-ness,” so we continue to accumulate, unaware of the impact it has on our lives. We unconsciously, and yes, unnecessarily, add complexity to our lives, then wonder why life is so difficult. And when we see that, despite all our efforts life doesn’t get any easier, we try even harder, making things even more complex. Worse, even the suggestion of simplifying causes us to shudder, as the thought of letting go of something rattles us to the core.

Here’s a new metaphor to ponder as you navigate the territory between here and the end of the holidays (or beyond, if you’re willing to accept a life-long challenge). The real you is hidden underneath all the “stuff” that makes your life complex. Moreover, it was the not-real you who put all the stuff there in the first place. You don’t see it, however, because your unconscious thinking causes you to identify with your complexity, not with your truth. I remember reading about Michelangelo and his statue of David. When asked how he could possibly create such a beautiful piece of art, he noted that David was already in the marble; all he had to do was to remove what was “not David.”

How about if the true you is already in there, and all you need to do is remove what is “not you?” For starters, you’d need to stop adding to the marble. From there, you could start chipping away. The shift, however, is not one of effort. It’s shifting your ways of seeing and thinking, so you come to know your inner David (your true essence). Today’s complexity is the result of thoughts, not “stuff.” True, those thoughts have been so unconscious and so persistent that they’ve worn some pretty deep ruts in your behavior. In many ways, you’ve become your thinking. Yet Michelangelo said he saw David in the marble, and that made it easy for him to create. Nothing got in his way. Back to grandma: her problem wasn’t the string – string doesn’t take up much space, especially pieces too short to use. It’s the thinking that caused her to save it. That thinking cripples creativity, imagination, dreams, and a belief in what’s possible.

Exercise: Chipping away what is not true: I suggest that the real you, as well as what truly matters to you in life, is inside you, and always has been. I also suggest that if you don’t fully experience that ‘you’ today, it’s only because he or she is hidden, obscured by years of unnecessary, but unconscious “wanting.” A practice with power to change that comes in two parts: simplifying and listening. Simplification is not about depriving yourself, but about finding David in the marble. Make some quiet time for yourself (perhaps a challenge of its own). Reflect on every part of your life. Write down everything you discover that makes your life complex. Don’t judge or censor; it doesn’t matter right now if you can’t live without it; write it down. Listening is about allowing your reality to guide you. Go back and review your list. You may have over 100 items. For each and every one, ask yourself how it adds or detracts from the sanity and quality of life. Listen; just listen to what you hear. Through a regular practice of doing this, repeatedly, you find your “pieces of string to short to use.” They’re everywhere. Like Michelangelo, you allow the real you to emerge, by going quiet, by listening, by allowing (vs. forcing/controlling). Simplicity opens imagination. That’s how we create.


A River Runs Through It  [Life lessons offered by nature]

As ideas for this article rolled around in my head during the month, I found myself “noticing for complexity” wherever I went. During one particularly chilly walk in the woods, I couldn’t help noticing how the fallen leaves had been blown everywhere by the wind – piling up in the middle of the trail here and there, and covering the water in a little cove along the river. At first I laughed, for the “mess” reminded me of a former neighbor, who, after manicuring his lawn to golf-green perfection each week, would proceed to rake the surrounding woods of his acre lot. I was always mystified at this, yet never sure whether he was trying to force nature into compliance with his sense of order, or if it were instead just a case of runaway obsessive-compulsive disorder. Either way, I think he added more complexity to his life than he subtracted.

Viewing my current scene in the woods from nature’s perspective rather than my old neighbor’s, I saw no “mess” at all, but one more manifestation of nature’s elegantly simple principles. Nature’s energy goes wholly to the process of creation. She doesn’t stop to check on the results – some work; some don’t. She doesn’t force order on things – order happens all on its own (another of her principles). She doesn’t decide whether she has “enough” – she just keeps creating. She doesn’t worry about how uncertain everything is – she just converts uncertainty into opportunity (another principle).

Nature’s version of “David” is creativity. She knows what matters, so nothing stands in her way. It’s just this perspective that has sustained life on earth for billions of years. (And not to change the subject at the end, but it’s our failure to hold this perspective and to know what matters that risks the future of what nature has created.)


Openings to New Possibility

Available for you:

  • The Road Not Taken Community, a no-cost subscription that offers you connection, interaction, challenge, and learning. See articles, newsletters and blogs; you’ll find “new stuff” here regularly. I welcome comments and conversation; this kind of dialogue is an example of how we may all learn together.
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An invitation to possibility: If you have the courage and determination to step apart from the crowd and challenge conventional thinking so you can live instead with authenticity and freedom, contact me for a conversation that can shift your thinking forever. I will help you reach a level of clarity and perspective – about yourself, others, your life, your work and the world – that allows you to live your truth, every day. Trade the way it is for the way it could be.

Book of the month Haiku, by David Cobb. There are a lot of books out there on the topic of complexity – in both our personal and business lives. There are also a lot of books out there on the topic of simplicity – in both our personal and business lives. Haiku isn’t about simplicity; Haiku is simplicity. In this collection of elegant verses, you’re invited to share in the process of creation, to slow down and “get inside” the essence of things. In so doing, you bring yourself to your own inner truth. As I’ve noted before, new ideas are great, but only the felt experience of ideas actually changes you. Experience the ideas. … And if you’re on Cape Cod, you’ll find this book available at the Market Street Bookshop in Mashpee Commons – 508-539-6985.


Download December 2013 pdf

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