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The Main Thing

Two Summers during my college years, I worked as a lifeguard on Long Beach Island, New Jersey. Before I make it sound too exciting, I’ll clarify that it was lifeguarding at an indoor pool there on the island. No sharks, no dramatic saves to warrant front page news – no lives lost though either, which of course is good to note. Most of my time was spent attempting to keep too much sand from being tracked into the pool, and yelling, “no running!!”, to boisterous tourists.

My boss there had a slogan that still compels me today: The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.

What the “main thing” is changes as you go about your days, weeks, and years on the planet. It’s about priorities; It’s about mindfulness in the moments of the day; It’s about doing one thing at a time, with focused attention, to prevent oneself from getting too overwhelmed.

We can probably agree that the “main thing” in lifeguarding is safety, though the “main thing” also shifted throughout the day. Sometimes the main thing was to sweep and mop the locker rooms (day in, day out) to keep up with the seemingly endless supply of sand being tracked in.

There are main things at work and main things in life. Main things in life are commonly relational: family, partner/ spouse, children, friends, and so forth.
When a day-to-day task comes up against a main relational thing, we are called to prioritize. Can I mentally set aside my own to-do list to tune in to what my loved one needs or wants? Can I give them the experience of being listened to and empathized with while simultaneously redirecting my own mind-chatter?

Sometimes. Not always. And not always very gracefully.

In this multi-tasking, media and social media filled world, mindful attunement can be a challenge. Many have multiple demands in work, life, school, and home. There are decisions to be made, financial stressors, health considerations, loss, and dealing with difficult people.
When we look to keep the main thing the main thing, we have the opportunity to slow things down. To not jump on board with everyone else’s ’emergency’. Keeping the main thing the main thing shows us our priorities, as well as our purpose in some respects.

A friend and classmate of mine in graduate school was newly in recovery for alcoholism. Our Chemical Dependency professor tasked the class with giving up a substance as a small way to connect a personal experience with what our future chemical dependency clients might be experiencing – though certainly not to be compared neck in neck. (a la, “yes, I know exactly how you’re feeling coming off amphetamines because I gave up chocolate for a whole semester!”). Not so much. Some of the class chose sugar, some coffee, others cigarettes, and so forth. A little experiment of sorts. When my friend chose to give up coffee – in addition to pretty recently attending AA and abstaining from alcohol you’ll recall – I *gently* pointed out that maybe she was doing enough and could allow herself to enjoy her daily coffee.


Not everything can be on the front burner at all times. There are not enough front burners.

What is most important to you in this phase of life? What is most important for you to do today? This week? This month? What is the main problem or concern for you lately? Can you aim to focus on that/ on those?

As the saying goes, your inbox will always be full. So, I assure you, keeping the main thing the main thing may help you create some more room for grace under fire.

If you’d like some support finding or keeping the main thing the main thing, I hope you’ll reach out to make an appointment to meet with me.