I have a conundrum when it comes to the ideas of “life” and “simple.” Perhaps it’s my knack for odd life choices, but I find life to be anything but simple. And as soon as I think I’ve cemented a handful of life’s shifting sand, there it goes slipping through my fingers.

I’m again in one of life’s impossible seasons, and that makes pursuing simplicity a purgatorial game of whack-a-mole. I want to have rhythm in my days and weeks, but their unfolding is governed by things firmly outside of my control.

I’ve been living in the fog of life where all things future are murky at best and a mirage at worst. “Where is all of this going?” is my constant, unanswerable companion.

We’re currently trying to bring a teenager into our family who has never, ever, lived in a family.

A simple tool for a not-simple life

If you know anything about attachment or early developmental trauma, you know we have some tricky situations and behavior on our hands. We’re told adoption is impossible, and foster care is new and not really defined here in Lebanon yet, so we’re flying blind with the court situation and our family’s future and ourselves personally, all while moving toward (hopefully?) becoming a Lebanese-American family.

And how exactly do we do that?

In short, there’s no handbook. No handholds as we move forward with almost no light for the path. And while our situation is easily recognizable as impossible-to-know, I bet you also have moments of craving a simple handhold when a simple life is out of reach.

Maybe there’s been a diagnosis with no clear path and no certain outcomes.

Maybe you know something is going on with your child but you and the professionals can’t figure out what it is.

Maybe you discovered that someone close to you isn’t who you thought they were.

Or maybe you’re in a situation you don’t feel right about getting out of just yet (a job, a relationship, a commitment) but also don’t know where things are headed.

The situations are complicated, but there’s good news: We can simplify our experience by simplifying our thinking.

A simple tool for a not-simple life

In times of uncertainty, our brains start spinning.

We ride the anxiety carousel, imagining countless possible outcomes/conversations, while nothing is being improved or becoming more clear. And this carousel keeps us from affecting what matters most: living daily and hourly according to our life’s purpose.

Here’s the short phrase that’s saving me these days:

What is now? What is next?

I have my phone set to send this reminder several times a day. It fits on a small post-it and is easily written on mirrors. And the more I respond to it in my mind, the more readily it presents itself in the moments I need it.

My son is spinning out of control. What is now? Oh, he’s hungry and could use a little TLC. Let’s do that.

The only downtime I would have had for the day should instead be spent with my husband. What is now? Wow… I have a husband who still loves me. How great is that? How can I care for him at this moment?

One of our students is screaming that she wants to die, presumably because her teacher read something she was writing. What is now? You know what? Her life is hard, and she misses her mom, and maybe she just needs someone to listen and care for a few minutes. Let’s do that.

Here’s what’s magical about this compared to the carousel. All of these things are actions.

When I take action, I’m living. When I’m in my head? Not so much.

Actions are real investments in what matters most and they are inaccessible from the dizzying state of the carousel. What is now? brings us back to action, back to life.

What is next? is similar, but allows us to peek forward just enough to prepare for the next actions.

A simple tool for a not-simple life

Sometimes in the morning What is now? gets a bleary-eyed “say whaaaat?” as I turn in circles looking for my misplaced coffee. But What is next? reminds me that things will go better today if I take a moment to plan.

If you find yourself literally or mentally turning in circles today will you try this for me? Write this phrase somewhere you’ll see it. And when you see it, stop and ask yourself, “What is now? What is next?”

Then, respond in action.

At this moment for me, next is purposing to enjoy my coffee and my shower and my coffee-in-the-shower before then unknowns of my day begin.