3 steps forward, 1 back

by Kristin on April 7, 2011

in Belief, doubt & hope

Photo by marioanima

Maybe you’ve been here before: You decide to clean and organize a closet, but first you have to empty it, creating a huge, overwhelming mess. And then, when you’re in the middle of it, you begin to think “Why didn’t I just keep the door closed on all of this, and pretend it wasn’t there?”

We’re doing some work in our basement, fixing up the laundry/storage room. I know it will be so much nicer and more organized when we’re done, but in order to get started we had to empty out the entire space—first into our living room, where I tried to sort through and make sense of the bins of Christmas decorations and craft supplies and out-grown kids’ clothes, and then into the garage. As we worked at it, I felt like we were taking more steps backward than forward. There was a small part of me that wished we had just carried on with the flawed laundry room of our past.

Backtracking to uncover something better

I’ve actually been thinking a lot, lately, about all of the backtracking we often need to do in order to move forward. Getting divorced, for instance, felt like a huge setback in my life, but in my case I believe it had to happen if I was to move forward in developing my sense of self, my vocation, my other relationships and even my understanding of God.

And speaking of my relationship with God, in 2005 it seemed to be gasping its final breath—I had decided I didn’t need church, and maybe not even God—when I met a pastor, visited a new church, and saw everything I believed in a new light.

Jason’s recent layoff fits into this category, too. In some ways it feels like several steps back, especially when there isn’t a paycheck coming in, but we both feel certain he had to be sidelined for a bit if he’s going to really use all of his talents, reach his full potential, and do something not just adequate with his life, but truly exciting.

That step back, while annoying, is important

At church last Sunday we sang Siyahamba, the South African hymn about “marching in the light of God.” While we’re not a church that does “liturgical dance,” sometimes we’ll dance the Jewish hora or, in this case, the African “elders walk.” This dance isn’t really a dance, though. It’s more like a journey taken together around the sanctuary. The progress is slow, but steady and intentional, driven by faith and hope and the support of the people you are journeying with: three steps forward, one step back, three steps forward, one step back.

As Pastor Jim said before we started, it’s much like walking with Jesus. I was thinking about it later, and realized that the pace is healthy and important. Sure, we’d rather just take four steps forward (and couldn’t we move the tempo a little faster, please?). And it’s true, that if you do the math (3-1=2) we could just call this two slow steps forward (in the time in might otherwise require to take four). But I think that misses the point.

It’s not just that life sends obstacles our way, or that the road map isn’t always clear, so we have to do some backtracking. What I’m saying is I think those steps back are more than just an inevitable evil along the road of life. I think they help pace us, slowing us down so we can take a breath, look around, help someone nearby. I also think they offer important learning moments—moments that help us understand more about ourselves, have more compassion for others, and see the possibility of other paths, other directions. When that happens, those three steps forward we take are much richer, more filled with gratitude and purpose, and firmly planted on the best path.

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  • http://themoderngal.com The Modern Gal

    Great post. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about patience and how much is needed to get by in this world and how little I seemingly have. I think this is another way of looking at it, and I absolutely agree that those steps backward really are some of the best learning moments. And if that’s the case, then are they really steps backward?

  • http://takingtheyoke.blogspot.com Ray Hollenbach

    When you discover you’ve lost your way the best choice is to go back to where you took a wrong turn. So in a manner of speaking, the most progressive person is the one who takes a step back sooner.

  • http://jennafarelyn.blogspot.com Frelle

    I needed to read this today. Grateful to Sugar Jones for spotlighting your post on her fb page. Nice to meet you, and thank you for sharing your heart.

  • Randy

    Thanks for this! Between you and Jamie (the Very Worst Missionary) I’m rethinking some things about my spirituality. I never really expected to do that. Open mind, open heart really is the way.

  • Nicola

    I love this post! It resonates with me on so many levels right now. I’m at a crossroads in my career/life and want so badly to just move forward — on to the next, perfect thing. But, it’s not that easy, so I’m waiting and working and planning, and maybe I will have to take a step back in order to be able to surge forward again on a new path. Time will tell.

    Thanks so much!

    BTW – I may want to pick your brain sometime soon about the freelancing life. May I call you?

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    The Modern Gal, yes, this is a different sort of patience, isn’t it? It’s one thing to just feel like you’re not moving at all, but it’s another level of impatience when you feel like you’re moving backward. And you’re right to question if backward really is backward–I tend to think we all see life in a far too linear way.

    Ray, this is another one of your “wise Yoda” comments. :) I love them! And I love that you used “progressive” here, because it’s a word I think we have mostly cornered into a specific meaning, apart from its true, broader meaning.

    Frelle, I’m grateful to Sugar Jones, too! So glad you stopped by and found something to take with you move forward (and back).

    Randy, I have grown to really love the parts of my life and the directions of thinking that I never expected. I’m so glad you’re open to your own surprises, and honored that Jamie and I have played a small part in that bigger story.

    Nicola, it’s interesting that you say “it’s not that easy.” It isn’t, of course, which is an especially difficult thing to accept if you’re the sort of person who tends to mostly sail through life (which I believe you are!). I’m glad you’re open to the waiting and the steps back, though, even if it isn’t easy. Good things are up ahead! And yes, let’s figure out a time to talk! (For those who are wondering, this is my cousin. :)

  • Nicola

    I have to say that your classification of me as (mostly) sailing through life made me smile and grimace at the same time. Because, of course, I guess I have (although with a lot of thought, planning, and hard work – you know what they say about “lucky” people!). And, I’ve had incredible opportunities and support along the way. I’ve been blessed!

    But, in a way, that’s become a trap, at least in my life, where I am right now, especially with my career. It’s created, in me, a lot of pressure to sustain the forward/upward momentum and to continue to make terrific choices that will get me there. It’s narrowed my path instead of expanding it and makes me fearful of “ruining my track record.” The stakes seem higher than ever.

    So, I’m trying to get back to the heart of the matter – what I really want out of my life and career, without worrying (ha!) about the practical matters of money or “track record.” So, it may be that to be happier where I am right now, I have to take that step back. And, be ok with it. I’m working on it!

    Sorry about sending you a personal message through blog comments – I just knew you’d see it! Probably some terrible breach of blog-world etiquette – but, I haven’t read that book yet!

  • http://www.gritandglory.com alece

    this resonates with me on so many levels. from the divorce to the south african song that is oh so familiar…

    thank you for the reminder that baby steps are still progress….

  • http://www.listenfeelbreathe.com.au David | Listen Feel Breathe

    Hi Kristin,

    Thanks for sharing this post. Our daily walk involves all kinds of steps I’ve noticed. Sometimes we seem to be stumbling around as if in the dark lacking purpose and direction. Sometimes we seem to be running as if in a race towards the goal as if nothing could stop us. Sometimes we seem to be moving but then the world seems to be leaving us behind. At other times I feel a sense of satisfaction in just making one or 2 deliberate steps, but knowing that they were every bit.
    I think that 3 steps forward and 1 step back could also be seen as turning back to offer a hand to those who have fallen behind.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    Nicola, sorry for the “grimace” part! I realized after I wrote the comment that it might sound (to someone who doesn’t know you) like you’ve just been lucky, rather than smart and hard-working. Anyway, I can see how success could become a trap, in terms of all the expectations you have and imagine others have for you. And I’m also realizing that “steps back” can come in many forms—less prestige, less pay, less security—and that steps forward can be many things we might not expect, too. I know you will eventually make your way to the heart of the matter. :)

    alece, I’m so glad this spoke to you, and that you “spoke back.” Thanks!

    David, ah yes, the stumbling and the racing! You’re right, there are so many different steps along the way. Thanks for painting that vivid, true picture.