Mission Statement

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There are many ways of organizing family life. I know about these methods from the handful of parenting books I’ve read, the few parenting seminars I’ve attended, and the homes of organized friends I’ve visited.

As for me, my house is like an archaeological site for organization; everywhere you look are remnants of our past organizational attempts. I like to think of it as the Pompeii of Planning.

There’s the “Morning Routine” and “Evening Routine” checklists hanging in the girls’ bedroom, which no longer bear any resemblance to the reality of our mornings and evenings. (Our mornings sound a little something like this: “If I have to ask you one more time to get dressed, you’re going to school naked! Okay, everyone, to the bathroom!!”)

There’s the magnetic “Chore Chart” on the refrigerator. As of February 20, when I finally erased it from sheer embarrassment, the date written on this chart in dry-erase marker was December 24. It’s been months since I’ve remembered to give Fiona the allowance she’s supposed to receive for her weekly tasks, and I’m only fortunate that this allowance seems as unimportant to her as it is to me. As for household chores, it’s gotten to the point where I wait until things become totally unbearable, then I set the timer for 5 minutes and shout, “Okay, 5 minutes to pick up! Anything still on the floor gets donated!”

And then there are the various organizational computer programs and filing systems that Erick and I have abandoned, like the “His & Hers To-Do List” currently buried underneath my camera, DVDs of the first two seasons of “Downton Abbey,” and three passport applications. Also the “Family Goals” spreadsheet that we haven’t updated since Georgia was born — two years ago.

In other words, I’m too disorganized to maintain any organizational system. But there is ONE thing I wanted to try, suggested a couple of years ago by ultra-organized friends: drafting a mission statement.

As someone who worked five years in the nonprofit sector, mission statements don’t scare me as much as charts or lists. They’re usually brief, no longer than a couple sentences. It may be a stretch to consider a mission statement an organizational tool, but I do; mission statements serve as focal points for businesses, families, or individuals. Everything that organization, family, or person does refers back to the mission statement.

So last month I decided to draft a mission statement. I felt this was important because life comes flying at me so fast these days — there are so many tugs on my time — that it’s sometimes hard to remember who I am, what I’m supposed to be doing, and what I want to teach my kids.

Writing a mission statement proved to be more difficult than I’d expected, though. There’s a reason why the staff of every nonprofit spends hours agonizing over each word in their mission statement: trying to boil down your reason for existence to a couple of sentences ain’t easy.

Then, a matter of days after typing the preceding paragraphs, I had a epiphany while folding the girls’ laundry and listening to an episode of “This American Life.”

If you’re unfamiliar with the weekly NPR program “This American Life,” I strongly suggest familiarizing yourself with it here. The episode in question was titled, “Self-Improvement Kick” and aired on January 4, 2013. I was listening to it in late February because, owing to my aforementioned disorganization and lack of willpower, my “This American Life” listening follows the same pattern as my New Yorker reading: I’m usually months behind (Yet I have no problem checking Facebook multiple times a day. Go figure).

Act 1 of this episode was about Daryl Watson, a talented young New York City playwright who, in 2009, decided to quit his job, sell everything he owned, and walk across the country as “Peace Pilgrim,” trusting in God (and others) to provide for his physical needs.

Here’s Daryl, explaining why he did what he did: I wanted my mission statement. You know how every business has a mission statement? You know what I mean? That’s what I wanted. Like, you are Daryl Watson, you were born on this day, this is your purpose, this is how you’re going to do it.

That got my attention.

Daryl lasts three days as “Peace Pilgrim.” On a Maryland highway late one night, he sees a billboard that reads: “IT’S OKAY TO MAKE MISTAKES, AS LONG AS THEY’RE NEW ONES.”

Daryl realizes that he’s made a mistake, abandons his pilgrimage, and calls his mother (that’s when I started bawling). Here’s how Elna Baker, who narrates the segment, summarizes his epiphany: He’d been on this journey, most of it alone and suffering, and trying to figure out the meaning of life. He’d been obsessing over his dreams a year before that. And three days in the cold made him realize he was doing this to himself. He was making himself suffer.  And he could stop. Which landed him in the same messy place so many of us are in, not having any answers. So we just ignore the questions and get on with our lives.

My own epiphany had to do with those last two sentences, which made sense to me and bugged me at the same time. It occurred to me that, perhaps, drafting a mission statement was an attempt to impose an artificial sense of organization, an abrupt “answer,” on a life that’s irredeemably messy and confusing. After all, most of us already live according to some broad mission statement, whether or not we’re aware of it, like: “Do no harm,” or “Love God and your neighbors,” or “Make lots of money,” or “Stay young and beautiful.” But just as most organizational systems end up under a desktop pile, it’s usually impossible to live out these missions consistently. (And people who do claim to have found All The Answers, to have a consistent mission, often aren’t much fun to be around: they tend to be narrow, judgmental, condescending, and sometimes dangerous).

The solution of “ignore the questions and get on with our lives” bothers me, though. It sounds an awful lot like becoming the Kevin Spacey-type character who buys a big house in the suburbs, barbeques on weekends, has two nice kids and an attractive wife, works a meaningless job, and buys new “toys” to try and fend off a sense of creeping panic.

I’d like to think that a better solution may be: ACCEPT the questions and get on with life. Accepting that life is messy, disorganized, full of unanswered questions, and impossible to box into a mission statement seems healthier than denial. Getting on with life is key, too; in my experience it’s the best way to find partial answers. I can make pilgrimages and meditate and draft mission statements all I want, but the little rays of light that illuminate my unanswered questions usually flicker while I’m folding laundry, washing dishes, or changing diapers.

Daryl Watson isn’t sure if the billboard he saw on his pilgrimage was real. But its message, “IT’S OKAY TO MAKE MISTAKES, AS LONG AS THEY’RE NEW ONES,” is a pretty good rule for life. So if I had to, here is the best mission statement I could draft — for myself, my family, even this blog:


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