Doing the Next Right Thing in a Pandemic

I originally wrote this lesson for my local Celebrate Recovery meeting, but just as recovery is for everyone, the lessons of the Next Right Thing are for everyone as well.

When I began my Celebrate Recovery journey six years ago, I was in crisis. Something very important in my life had gone horribly wrong, and while it probably shouldn’t have taken me by surprise, it did. I felt blindsided and quickly fell into a deep depression. Not knowing where to turn or what to do, I found Celebrate Recovery, and during my very first meeting I learned a phrase that changed my life: “The Next Right Thing.”

I am a problem solver both by nature and by dysfunction. My ability to identify a problem, then design and implement a plan to fix it, made me a grade A codependent. But when I hit my emotional rock bottom, I didn’t know how to fix any of it and I found myself unable to see the light at the end of the tunnel. The tunnel was simply too long and too dark. That reality was paralyzing for me.

But at Celebrate Recovery I learned that recovery is not about being able to see the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s about being able to see where to place one foot in front of the other, knowing how to simply take the next right step. I didn’t need to fix my entire situation – which was good, because that was impossible. I didn’t need to understand it all or do it all. I just needed to know what the next right thing was and then keep doing that, moment after moment, day after day. And here I am, happier and healthier after six years of next right things.

One year into a global pandemic, why does any of this matter? Because right now I believe many of us feel overwhelmed by unknowns. It’s okay that we don’t know how to do this – for most of us, this is our first global pandemic after all! But the unknowns can be upsetting and steal our peace – what will happen when our kids go back to school, when or if will our work lives get back to normal, when will I see my extended family again, will we have a “normal” summer, will the grocery stores ever have Clorox wipes in stock again, what do I do with this sourdough starter that is literally living in my house?

The stress of the unknowns cannot only upset us but can also derail the work that we’ve been doing in recovery, which is why we need to reach into our recovery toolbox and pull out “The Next Right Thing.”

So what does it mean to do the next right thing? It means only having to know what is right in that moment.

Overwhelmed by a year living in a house that is filled with people 24/7 who used to all leave every day? You can’t kick them out and you can’t snap your fingers and make the dirt and clutter disappear. But perhaps the next right thing is to work on the dish pile in the sink. Just focus on that one area and that one task.

Finding yourself making frequent trips to the kitchen? As much as I wish I could make the pandemic pounds go away all at once, the truth is that it took me a year to gain ten pounds. I know I’m not alone! Perhaps your next right thing in your next moment of decision is to close the refrigerator door and grab a glass of water. Or put down your phone and strap on your sneakers for a quick walk around the block.

Need more Next Right Thing tips for these crazy times we’re still living in? They’re helping me to stay well during this time, and I pray that they help you as well.

Tip One: The Next Right Thing might actually involve “being” rather than “doing.”

As I mentioned earlier, I am a doer, a fixer. Prior to recovery, I struggled to just relax and “be.” A well-known story from the Gospel of Luke involves two sisters, Mary and Martha, who are entertaining a very important houseguest – Jesus.  While Martha runs around the house cleaning and cooking, fixing and doing, Mary rests at Jesus’s feet listening to Him. When Martha complains to Jesus – can you imagine tattling to Jesus?!? – Jesus reminds her that Mary has chosen to do the one and only thing that is really needed. Sometimes the next right thing is to sit at the feet of Jesus and rest, to just be. Need another reminder? How about Psalm 46:10, “Be still and know that I am God,” or Exodus 14:14, “The LORD will fight for you; you need only to be still,” or even Psalm 37:7, “Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him.”

Let this be your permission to rest.

Tip Two: The Next Right Thing might be to wait.

Our local Celebrate Recovery leader talks often about The Big Empty. The Big Empty is discomfort personified, and when we find ourselves there, our first instinct is to get out of it as fast as possible. For some of us in recovery, that has meant turning quickly to unhealthy coping mechanisms, to a substance, to an electronic device, to an unhealthy conversation, to comfort food that our bodies don’t really need in that moment. During these strange and difficult times, I think many of us are finding ourselves in The Big Empty more often than usual. When we’re in that tough emotional space, the Next Right Thing isn’t always immediately clear. As difficult as it is, the Next Right Thing might be to wait.

Tip Three: The Next Right Thing might be to stop doing something rather than start doing something.

One of my favorite verses is 1 Corinthians 10:13: “The temptations in your life are no different from what others experience. And God is faithful. He will not allow the temptation to be more than you can stand. When you are tempted, he will show you a way out so that you can endure.” I don’t know about you, but I didn’t come equipped with willpower and impulse control straight out of the box. It is only through the power of the Holy Spirit in me that I am able to even have a chance at avoiding the wrong thing and instead do the right thing. 1 Corinthians 10:13 is a reminder to me that God is with me, even in the moments when I’m tempted to make the wrong choice, and that He is faithful to show me the way out, to help me know what to stop doing. 

Tip Four: The Next Right Thing might be different now than it used to be (priority shift and reevaluation).

My favorite thing to do in my professional life is write. I’ve written parenting articles and marketing content and even a couple of For Dummies books. But in the past few years I’ve put much of my professional life on the backburner, including writing. In the months prior to the arrival of COVID-19, I had decided to get back into freelance writing and set some professional goals for myself for the first time in a very long time. I created lists of potential clients, developed article content ideas, set deadlines for goals, and even made a fun little vision board, which I put by my newly rejuvenated home office space.

And then my husband’s office and my children’s school moved into my house for an undefined length of time.

I realized early on in the pandemic that my monthly writing goals were not being met. They weren’t even being attempted. My kids use that new home office space every day and my husband has moved into what used to be my old office and favorite place to write.

And all of that is okay.

Those professional goals don’t need to be met to keep food on the table, so it’s okay to put them aside for now. I’ve experienced a massive shift in priorities and reevaluated what is right for me and for my family right now. Again, the Next Right Thing isn’t about the light at the end of the tunnel or figuring out how to get across a finish line. It’s about what is right right now. Right now that might mean watching a movie on the couch with your kids or FaceTiming with a family member you’re missing or writing a letter to a loved one who could use some encouragement. When the situation changes again to whatever the new normal is going to be, I may reevaluate the items on that vision board.

And that is okay.

Tip Five: The Next Right Thing might involve allowing myself to be cared for instead of being the caregiver.

It was the famously wise King Solomon who wrote in Ecclesiastes about everything in life having its season. He says in verse one of chapter three, “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens.” There are so many opportunities right now to help the people around us, to write encouraging messages on our sidewalks with chalk, to make homemade masks for those without the resources, to organize food drives or fundraising or grocery delivery for a neighbor who is high risk.

Those are all good and noble things and may very well be your next right thing.

But it may also be true that you should be the recipient of someone else’s care at this very moment. It may be the Next Right Thing for you to allow someone to bless you. Just like now might be a time to rest or wait or just be, it might also be a time for you to be cared for rather than doing the caring. For many of us, it is difficult to allow ourselves to be in that position. Listen to what the Holy Spirit is telling you and be open to receiving the care that you need.

Tip Six: The Next Right Thing might be to move focus from what someone else is doing back to what you are doing. After all, it’s your next right thing not theirs!

The last year has been difficult for all of us in varying ways and to varying degrees likely changing from day to day or even moment to moment. I love being home with my kids in the summer, so while I did stock up on household goods like toiletries and over the counter medicines back in February of 2020 to prepare for what seemed like the inevitable, I also got comfort foods, a couple new board games, and a puzzle or two once it turned out that my kids would be home indefinitely. I was prepared to make the best of it and enjoy the extra time with my family.

That didn’t stop me from having a total meltdown a couple of weeks into our new normal. And what was it that triggered that meltdown? I took my eye off of my side of the street and started looking around at other people’s.

I believe that this is tough for many of us all the time regardless of something as unprecedented as a global pandemic and stay at home order. Another important saying that I’ve learned in Celebrate Recovery is that we’re not supposed to take someone else’s inventory. In other words, let God work with them on their stuff and focus on what He wants you to work on yourself.

Matthew 7, verses 1-5 tell us: ““Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”

Worrying about what everyone around us is doing is crazy-making even in the easiest of times. Focusing on your Next Right Thing is a great way to avoid the “what’s he doing over there!?” trap that only serves to disrupt your peace.

Tip Seven: The Next Right Thing might be to sit down with the Word.

I’m hearing from a lot of people that it’s just so hard to focus on anything after a year of surviving a pandemic: on a book, on a puzzle, on a household project, on work, on your daily devotional. I know that I’ve opened the Bible many times during this time of staying at home and found myself just staring at the page. It’s been easier for me to either work on something physical – like the ever-present weeds in my flower beds – or binge watch television mindlessly.

But even when it’s difficult, making space for the Holy Spirit to meet us as we sit down with His Word is always a good and right Next Right Thing. If you’re finding yourself in an overwhelming moment of choice, consider hitting pause and grabbing your Bible.

Tip Eight: The Next Right Thing might be to give yourself grace.

Like I mentioned back at the beginning of the post, none of us have ever done this before. In spite of past health struggles or times of family separation or even really tough influenza seasons, this is the first time that we’ve lived through a global pandemic with laws about staying home and rules about shopping with masks covering our faces and schools shut down for a year.

There is no expectation that this should be easy for any of us.

When I first began working on my recovery, I struggled to give myself grace. I wanted that next chip at the monthly celebrations and I wanted to only report good things during my sponsor check in’s. Forward progress was very important to me. But during such a stressful and challenging time, treading water may be what success looks like for you. Not slipping back into a bad habit or unhealthy coping mechanism may be the big win.

Be quick to give yourself grace right now.

Tip Nine: The Next Right Thing might be to finish one of the unfinished tasks around you. (But maybe not that 10,000 piece puzzle)

I once spent an entire counseling session discussing things in my house: laundry piles, kitchen appliances that needed to be replaced, in-progress home improvement jobs. I have worked from home since my teenagers were two and four years old, and that has meant having to get my mental and emotional clutter sorted out while still being surrounded by the physical clutter in my home. As much as I have loved working from home, there’s a piece of me that appreciates how nice it must be to compartmentalize – walk away from the physical reminders of at-home to-dos and into an office, then at the end of the day, walk away from that office and focus once again on home.

This compartmentalization and being able to leave work at work has of course become difficult for many people over the years with smart phones and teleworking, but right now the separation is non-existent. For many of us, home has become our vacation spot, our office space, our time with family, and even our school – sometimes multiple schools! And we can’t even escape to the therapist’s office to discuss our dilemma!

There is something wonderfully freeing about tackling just one of the tasks in our physical space that may be impeding our peace in our mental space. We can’t do it all. This is not the time to try to make our homes go from the before shot to the after shot of a hit HGTV show. But we can feel the relief that comes from doing something.

Feeling unsettled and unsure of what to do next? Try spending fifteen minutes taking care of one task that is taking up space on your mental plate. I’ve begun using this time – weeding a flower bed, folding laundry, mowing the grass – as a chance to pray through the needs of a group of friends such as my recovery share group or church small group. I’m finding that the combination of prayer and working through a necessary task is incredibly calming.

Tip Ten: Your Next Right Thing might not be the same as someone else’s.

As a writer, I tend to follow a lot of other writers on social media, and I couldn’t help but notice in the early days of the pandemic lots of calls to finally write that novel that’s been on the backburner or get to work on an inspirational memoir.

There are days when it is all I can do to reply coherently to an email. There’s no chance that I’m going to use this time to dive into my life’s greatest professional achievement!

What is working right now for someone else may not even be close to what is right for you. While it can be helpful to see how folks around you are coping – especially your brothers and sisters in recovery – it may not be helpful to follow friends’ journeys if you find yourself comparing and feeling less-than. At the end of the day, your Next Right Thing is between you and the Holy Spirit. Allow yourself to follow that voice deep inside that is telling you what’s right for you, and if that means muting some other voices for the time being, then do that.

I’d like to close the post by sharing the first six verses of the twenty-third Psalm, which I know are familiar to many of us and provide comfort, especially now:

The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
    He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
    he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk
through the darkest valley,[a]
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely your goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord
forever.

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