Our stomachs are incredible organs: like the stretchiest of balloons, they can expand in size from a fraction of a cup to well over eight cups when full. Think of the hours after a feast like Thanksgiving Dinner: cups and cups of turkey, pie, and mashed potatoes sloshing around, with those who didn’t wear stretchy waistbands squirming in discomfort.
Experts call this amazing stretch-and-shrink capacity of our stomachs distensibility. And in truth, it’s amazing just how distensible our stomachs are. Experts are also quick to point out, however, that eating large meals regularly doesn’t “stretch” our stomachs, and conversely, we can’t “shrink” our stomachs by eating less. But eating smaller meals more often will change our perceptions of what hungry and full feel like. And therein lies the difference for those of us who would learn to listen to our bodies’ wisdom more attentively: a stomach that’s always stretched to capacity cannot learn what hunger feels like.
This is not an essay about stomachs, though. As a new year rolls around, once again I am engaged in an annual reflection on how our lives are going. What rhythms are healthy, which are less so? As always, my Mom-sized family calendar is my accomplice and accuser: how did I fill this last year?
Just how distensible are our schedules? Depending on what we cram in, our to-do list can both shrink and swell by massive amounts; and it begs the question: how do we consume our time? Or, how does time consume us? Have we so filled our metaphorical plates that we have lost the ability to listen to our bodies? Are we so stretched to capacity that we don’t get a chance to rest and reset? Are we so satiated that we never get the time to develop a true appetite?
Partly because of financial constraints, and partly because I’m just that sort of parent, our kids participate in almost no extra curricular activities. With the exception of one in-home piano lesson a week, our kids come home from school and that is pretty much where they stay. Sometimes they run errands with me, sometimes we work on projects, and sometimes there are play dates. I battle with them to get homework done and somehow, the afternoon fills up and bedtime comes too soon. For all that we don’t do—swimming or soccer or ballet or fencing or drama or girl guides regularly (all wonderful things in themselves)—life still feels really full.
Our year planner stares me down: will this be yet another year where we celebrate with friends as they become brilliant gymnasts and make incredible advances in sports and the arts, while we—by not participating—seem to fall behind? Yes, it will. The Fear of Missing Out is a real thing, and all the more acute when we fear that those we love will be missing out on life opportunities because of our decisions. Perhaps my son could have been a virtuoso violinist… if I’d just taken the opportunity to put violin on that blasted weekly planner.
But instead, we keep the afternoons clear for now, and I face down this new year thinking of the lessons learned from distensible stomachs. Perhaps our capacity is lower than others’… who knows? But this much I do know: we cannot fill our plates much more without getting that we’ve-bitten-off-too-much feeling that feels like we’re navigating life in a pair of pants a size too small.
Perhaps it is true that our schedule—like a stomach—could accommodate and even digest far, far more than it does.
But that doesn’t mean that it should.
And I’m okay with that.
Life offers us a banquet of opportunity, a feast of possibility. But maximum enjoyment doesn’t necessarily come with maximum consumption. Sucking the marrow out of life can sometimes make me gag. Instead, we’re learning about the beauty of coming to the table hungry, and the wisdom of a serving size that suits our stomachs. Therein lies the fullness of wisdom, and indeed, the fullness of life.