Five Tasks of Life
Dr. James Natter
Tombstone epitaphs, have you ever read them? They can be hauntingly insightful.
An old New England gravestone I read a few years ago went: “As you are now, I once was; as I am now, one day you shall be.” That stopped me in my tracks. I wonder if the life of this early pioneer was as intense and anxious as mine.
From a psychological point of view, what does my anxiety and busyness tell me? I have heard it said that anxiety is the neurotic emotion indicating I am avoiding the most important issues of life. Ouch! So, in other words, my anxiety can be a warning that I may be unconsciously off track. It is so easy to get caught up in the urgent and good pursuits and possibly miss the more important and life-giving goals. Sometimes it takes a crisis, death, or tombstone to cause us to stop and reconsider.
How might these emotions signal being off track? Attempting to control others, worried that others like me, being demanding about outcomes, name-dropping, having the last word, insisting things be done “my way,” being markedly different at home compared to being in public, are all examples. Often anxiety is a warning that I am making an illegitimate attempt to control that which is outside my control and avoid the more important tasks of life.
There are times when anxiety can become so severe that anti-anxiety medication as well as counseling is warranted. Examples would be those who cannot leave their homes, cannot drive, cannot allow their spouse to travel, cannot function without washing hands or checking themselves scores of times daily. These are folks who don’t just have “run of the mill” anxiety – their anxiety has developed a biological or deeply ingrained component and now influences them to a very high degree.
For those of us who at times have anxiety, what are some simple life-tasks that will help us sort between the good and the best of life pursuits? The following five tasks, which require reassessing goals in certain areas of life, might be a good place to start.
Let’s rate our self-satisfaction in the following areas on a scale of 0-10:
- Job or vocation (sometimes called Contribution to Society or Social Interest)
- Intimacy or one person I can reveal all to
- Friendships (this is especially hard for guys)
- Existential or spiritual awareness (God, meaning, suffering, justice, death, etc.)
- Self or understanding the many aspects of ourselves (Note 1)
Now, reflect on and decide what it would take to make each area a 10.
Where do we find our standard to determine good, better, and best? One source could be the Bible. Jesus, when responding to a lawyer questioning the essentials of obtaining eternal life (both in length of time and quality), replied: “to love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength and your neighbor as yourself” (Note 2). I find it rather fascinating that 2,000 years ago life’s priorities were described so succinctly that psychologists are reframing them today. It also is fascinating that deviating from the goals set up here, leads to a life of neurotic pursuits, characterized by a lot of motion and little progress. Furthermore, I find it surprising that Jesus also spoke of this deviation from goals as he saw it, being a way widely traveled, easy, but leading to destruction. He compared that to the way leading to life which is small, narrow, and travelled by few (Note 3).
Conceivably, earlier generations may have lived life at a slower pace, yet the difficult challenge to pursue God’s priorities appears timeless. What epitaph would be fitting to describe our lifestyles – hopefully one filled with lasting relationships of God, one another, and ourselves? How did we score? Are we pursuing or avoiding the more challenging tasks of life?
Note 1: Adlerian modified tasks of life (Mosak); Note 2: Luke 10:27; Note 3: Matthew 7:13, 14
About the Author…
Dr. Jim Natter is a licensed clinical psychologist and executive director of the Central DuPage Pastoral Counseling Center. He enjoys working with people to help them thrive in life. As a therapist, he uses complementary therapeutic approaches that are tailored to each client’s unique situation, including internal family systems, clinical hypnosis, EMDR, and psychological assessments. He also leads couple communication workshops every spring and fall. Read more about Dr. Natter…