Looking for a new tool for reflection? Make a list!

The world divides into two kinds of people: those who make lists and those who don’t. Or, in other words:

  1. those who make lists
  2. those who don’t

You may be tempted not to care about this distinction.

However, if you are looking for resources on finding, and helping others find, vocation, consider the humble list. Among its virtues are embedded ways of:

  • learning
  • listening
  • loving
  • letting go
  • contemplation or prayer or poetry

The process of making lists slows us down, helps us name what we truly want, educates our desires, and calms our anxieties. Obviously, the powerful lists above differ from grocery lists or to-do lists, helpful as these are for daily living. Lists that take us into mindfulness require us to notice things we would otherwise overlook. They answer interesting and important inner questions. The secret of a good list is locating a candid category that engages a curious mind.

Grace-poem-2
From: https://eerdword.com/2018/01/24/5ish-questions-and-a-list-poem-with-marilyn-mcentyre/

Fortunately, a brand-new book addresses this subject, exploding any artificial limits to the range and power of list making. Marilyn McEntyre’s Make a List: How a Simple Practice Can Change Our Lives and Open Our Hears (Eerdmans, 2018) offers so many examples of both categories and lists that I immediately recognized a possible tool for the vocation classroom, the career advising session, or campus ministries.

Each chapter of this book ends with some lists to try. From those suggestions I have selected ones that might spur a discussion in class or serve as a writing prompt for a journal entry or come in handy during an advising session.

A few samples of categories for list making (a small fraction of the ones in the book):

  • seven kinds of satisfaction
  • what love looks like
  • what I want now
  • things I’ve wanted for the last two years
  • things I’d like to stop wanting
  • this season’s concerns
  • when to speak out
  • how to sustain my own mental/emotional health
  • things to let go of
  • what I’m afraid of
  • strategies that help me with my fears
  • what I know now about happiness
  • what I wonder about my work (or imagined work)
  • what dream images stay with me
  • ways to relieve electronic stress
  • why I’m postponing what I so clearly want
  • hills I don’t want to die on
  • quiet corners where things have been happening
  • how I recognize a summons, or a call
  • permissions I need to give myself
  • who needs my permission?
  • things I want to do before I die
  • things to do to improve the world if I can’t save it
  • favorite gifts I’ve been given
  • what doesn’t matter as much as I thought
  • what to do with my righteous anger
  • moments of insight
  • things I wanted and never got
  • what I’ve learned about my wants
  • why faith matters
  • natural objects that I hold, keep, or visit
  • the epitaph for my grave stone
  • phrases that have stayed with me
  • what tennis (or any other hobby or activity) has taught me
  • where grace has been given

If you use a journal, you might try this practice that I’ve developed over the years. On the right side of the page, I record events, thoughts, ideas I’ve encountered as I’ve moved across time. They sometimes include notes on books I’ve read or conversations that matter to me.

SShowJournal
From the author’s journal

On the left side, I keep lists. These are both to-do lists and to-be lists. They can be dreams for the future, ways to avoid making the same mistakes, brainstorming how to solve problems, etc. From now on, I hope to steal some of these categories above and play with them.

This morning I started a list (on the left hand side) that morphed into a meditation. It’s less concrete than McEntyre’s list on the other side of the page and from the to-do and to-be lists elsewhere in my journal. It goes naturally to the heart of vocation. And it illustrates the contemplative process, moving from quiet to awareness of breath to senses to desire to gratitude and to the shape of a teacher’s heart, ending with a deep desire for the well being of the next generation.

How does the idea of making lists strike you? Do you see anything here you would like to try either personally or with students?

Shirley Showalter is the former president of Goshen College. You can find her essay,  “Called to Tell Our Stories: The Narrative Structure of Vocation” in Vocation Across the Academy: A New Vocabulary for Higher Education (Oxford University Press, 2017). 

2 thoughts on “Looking for a new tool for reflection? Make a list!

  1. I am a list maker because it helps me to feel in control of a situation that might cause me to panic. One example: I have two menu books that I have kept over the years, in which I write down the date when I invite people, who they are, and what I am serving them, including the page numbers in recipe books. I write this ahead of time, planning my meal. Then, after the company is gone, I write something about the event. This has become a diary of sorts over the years. If I invite the same people again, I can go back and check what I served them, in case I don’t want to duplicate. Recently, my husband and I checked back some years ago, and we were astonished at how often we had people over, considering our own busy schedules. I am convinced this menu planning helped to streamline the hosting.

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