Last week, I was able to enjoy a nice little beach getaway with my family, an annual summer trip that in some ways serves as a check point for the changes we’ve experienced each year. Now, more than in years past, our daughter is able to join me in a favorite shoreline pastime, seashell walks, where (you may have guessed) you walk along the beach harvesting shells.
The rules are simple enough: while collecting, you keep moving forward until you hit the water tower then you turn around and head back to our spot for the day. But seashell walks with an almost 4 year old play by different rules: you run ahead of parent, grab the biggest shell you can find, throw it into the ocean (yelling “GO HOOOOME!!”), dive into the water, run back behind parent, stop to build a sand castle, run back into the ocean, run circles around parent, throw some sand into the ocean (“GO HOOOOME!!”), stop to pet a dog, run forward going backwards… you get my point.
While I enjoyed mixing things up a bit I also wanted to finish our walk before the tide came in. I tried to encourage my daughter, saying “we really need to keep moving forward” to which she answered “I am!” And she was sincere.
As we kept moving (in some direction) I thought about the idea of progress, how it plays out in our personal plans and goals, how often I hear people comment “I don’t want to take a step back” or “I’ve really backslid”, framing life as a race or ladder- a linear track. And of course, this is essential in some situations- I would like for my odometer to continuing doing its job. Where it gets in the way is when we marry ourselves to a one dimensional idea of progress that neglects the complexity of our goals, our lives, and our selves. In short, we are too complex for purely linear thinking.
When I started my walk on the beach, the goal was “water tower.” Half way through, when I realized how much fun my daughter was having, my goal changed and became to just enjoy her enjoying that time and place. When we decided to return to our spot, it wasn’t “giving up” on the water tower. It was moving towards something we wanted even more: to bury my husband up to his neck in sand. Obviously.
That day, if I had solely tracked our distance on a linear graph, the data would show that we had regressed, maybe even failed at our goal. However, if we open this graph up to measure what we value, it would have shown strong indicators of openness, connection, joy, patience, and quality time, all which tell a much fuller, more complete story about that day.