Updated: Nov 10, 2021
Of all the expressions that have been drummed into my head since childhood, “don’t settle” is probably at the top of the list.
For overachievers, it is music to our ears. It encourages us to keep pushing forward, aiming for the top, breaking through whatever is in between us and what we want and never looking back. There’s no middle ground, no mediocrity, no “good enough”.
In addition to my father’s voice, I have heard many others I respect share this same message. In the words of Steve Jobs,
"Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven't found it yet, keep looking. Don't settle. As with all matters of the heart, you'll know when you find it."
We’ve been taught to not settle in love, in work and in just about everything else.
Don’t stop looking until you find the perfect partner, the perfect house, the perfect black bag, the perfect color of paint. No matter what you do, don’t settle.
Thomas Merton reminds us that “the biggest temptation is to settle for too little.”
That may be a universal truth, but it isn’t true for me. I am not tempted to settle for too little. I am more likely to do whatever it takes to not settle for less than whatever I believe is possible. And for many decisions in my life, that refusal to settle has proved to be a wise choice.
However, it also gets in the way.
It has choked me and held me hostage to ideals that are just that, ideals. I have passed up opportunities because of my fear of settling.
I have opted against taking certain steps in life by pulling the “I’m not going to settle” card.
And it has often kept me from joy, happiness and peace.
This week I did some real thinking about what is “settling”.
Thinking about it now, I wonder if rather than “refusing to settle”, we should focus first on settling within ourselves, becoming calmer, clearer and more connected to who we really are, what we really want and how we want to live life.
I loved reading the dozens of definitions of “to settle” in the dictionary and embracing the ones that speak to me today; “to come to rest; to become clear, to take up an orderly or stable life; to be content with.”
It’s as if I never considered the up side of “settling” until this stage of my life.
I will always believe in going after your dreams, believing in yourself and never giving up but I recognize how important it is that we first “settle” ourselves before going through life refusing to “settle”.
Like everything, it really does start with ourselves. What does it take for you to be settled and be content with who you are and what you have in your life?
It’s a new and important inquiry for me as it becomes clearer and clearer to me that life is short, that we have very little control over the circumstances of our lives and that “not settling” can actually hinder us on our paths to becoming ourselves.
What if not settling leads us to places where outer success becomes more important than our inner contentment?
The wonderful and wise Lily Tomlin contemplates this very thing.
She writes: "If I had known what it would be like to have it all- I might have been willing to settle for less".
Are we so intent on not settling that we miss out on what could be beautiful and meaningful experiences in our lives?
Take the time to look and see if in any area of your life you are refusing to settle. Then ask yourself if by holding tight to that belief, your life is expanding or contracting?
The wonderful author, Wally Lamb, in one of my favorite all time books, She’s Come Undone, offers these words of wisdom:
“I think the secret is to just settle for the shape your life takes. Instead of you know, always waiting and wishing for what might make you happy.”
So, do a little self-reflection and see if you need to settle before you refuse to settle.
Lao Tsu, the ancient Chinese philosopher asks us to ponder this:
“Do you have the patience to wait till your mud settles and the water is clear?”
For most of my life, the answer would have been no.
I am learning to sit in the mud, knowing that, with patience, things do settle and become clearer.
Settling is no longer a bad word.
I can see now that being settled is foundational to a healthy life. When we are settled, we can be closer to a sense of peace, appreciate what is around us and make thoughtful choices about what we want to do to change or transform ourselves, a little bit at a time. Let us explore the question posed by the Buddhist nun Pema Chodron:
“Could we just settle down and have some compassion and respect for ourselves? Could we stop trying to escape from being alone with ourselves?"
If refusing to settle is a way to avoid being deeply connected to our selves, is it worth it?
And, if by “settling” you become at ease, content, resolved and at peace, what is the risk of not?