Follow Through

Ken Stewart


At the core of the spiritual life for most faiths are the twin notions of reflection and action. In reflection we ponder things, we make meaning of events, we mull things over, and come to some tentative conclusions. In reflecting on social or racial injustice, for example, we reflect on systemic racism in everything from immigration policy (big in the news), to police training, to lack of sufficient support for public education.

We can become outraged in our reflections, but our moral outrage is just posturing if it isn’t followed up with marches, legislation, and otherwise stirring things up for substantial change.  We follow through by picking up and showing up. In general, we follow through by showing up, by being on time, by getting the job done without delay, by taking the necessary action steps beyond our good intentions. 

In the Book of Common Prayer is this well-known phrase – “We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done.” That about sums it up. When we don’t have our act together our lives unspool like a bad cast on an open fishing reel when the line snarls up in a tangled mess.  Sometimes that snarled fishing line is too much like our lives at the moment.  We procrastinate in endless loops, we don’t follow through on good intentions and right living, marinating in anxiety and shame. We do nothing, we delay, we do self-destructive or idiotic things, not getting it right coming or going.  

Environmental activist, Edward Abbey has said: “sentiment without action is the ruination of the soul.”

Dependable procrastination

Having follow through means we can be counted on get the job donewhen we say we will.  We can be counted on to follow through with our good intentions and are not tempted by procrastination, or avoidance, denying our responsibilities.  You might think of not following through as sort of stance of the avoidant teenager, even if that teenager is – 15, 25, 35, or 45, etc. – caught up in predictable procrastination.  Hopefully, as we mature we can grow out of it, but that isn’t a given. Some of us can carry avoidance and lack of follow through well into middle age or beyond. Since I am well beyond middle age and into my dotage, I know from experience what this is.   

Secure attachment

Happy marriages are built on secure attachment – knowing your partner will be there for you no matter what – that you can always count on your partner for reliable presence, for fidelity, for following through on availability, initiative, affection, generosity, and compassion.  That is a lot, and we should do so gladly without complaint or excuses.  It’s a big part of being a grown up.  Yet for many, being a mature and reliable grown up is a difficult and agonizing thing to embody. Hanging out and drinking with your college buddies every Thursday night till closing and then also on some weekends, is not a transition to adulthood and married life.   I can safely say that nearly all the couples I see in my practice have at the core of their issues this lack of follow through, this lack of a sense that you can count on your partner to grow up and show up and follow through.  It’s the basis for almost all arguments. 

 Restraints to follow through 

Sure, anxiety, depression, and environmental factors are all significant restraints to following through - and addressing those factors comprises much of my work.  Patients are depressed and have no energy or motivation, or they are anxious and frozen in anxiety, or the environment is chaotic and keeps them from acting reliably.  In order to get things to change we have to first address the restraints to change before change can happen.  Treat the depression, treat the anxiety, examine and address the environment.  Get at the restraints.  

One of the most common restraints to follow through is the trap perfectionism and the fear of not being good enough – so procrastination sets in like a stalled weather pattern of high temperatures and steaming humidity. Stuck in time.  Stuck in space. Good intentions that, when the explanations and excuses are listened to long enough, lose their credibility and are eventually written off.  Chronic procrastinators are often nice, charming, pleasant to talk to, and meanwhile, they lead lives stuck in amber. 

In not following through you remain behind while others go forward. And those who remain behind stay stuck in anxiety, avoiding what should be next, what is expected, what is required. In not following through you fail to show up, you fail to make an appearance in your life.  Sentiment without action.

 And in following through you do what is expected of adults, you show up, you make an appearance. You step up. You count.  You belong. Where there was disappearance and isolation there is an appearance, a welcomed connection. 

 Fully following through – More than mere words – deep listening. 

Apologies are followed through with statements of empathy – but it’s not enough to say you are sorry – you have to acknowledge and express the impact your actions had on the other person - “I’m sorry I yelled at you – it must have made you feel disrespected (or whatever else you think might have been the other’s emotional reaction to your behavior.  And then you listen – listen without explanation or excuse.  You keep quiet and listen.   
   Between the idea
    And the reality
    Between the motion
    And the act
    Falls the Shadow

In order to do the right thing, you have to figure out what you care about – what you deeply care about and show up.  Do you care about more than yourself?  Or do you care about your community of friends and colleagues?  Does your care extend to a broader context? 

Between the conception
    And the creation
    Between the emotion
    And the response
    Falls the Shadow

Disrupted Expectations

The biggest source of daily anger is disrupted expectations.  You don’t get what you expect –your partner or child doesn’t do what they said they would do – and you were counting on it. Chores don’t get done. Things aren’t picked up, cleaned up, fixed up, done up – and we’re let down.  Our public leaders don’t do what we expect them to do and we’re enraged. They don’t make good on their promises and we’re furious. There is no fairness. There is no justice. There is no follow through on promises, no follow through on protection, no follow through on simple human kindness.   Instead there are empty promises, halfway measures, distractions, or other pressing priorities.   People aren’t protected, respected, or honored – and we’re angry.  Like the bumper sticker says, “If you are not angry, you aren’t paying attention.”  But, that anger needs to be followed by effective, committed actions.

 Its exhausting to be angry all the time.  To emotionally protect our expectations we get cynical, we withdraw, we give up.  As a cynical patient who was disappointed with his grown children told me: “When all else fails, lower your expectations.”   How low can we lower them until they are scraping the ground?  What is left for us if we don’t succumb to cynicism and hopelessness?  

 Between the desire
    And the spasm
    Between the potency
    And the existence
    Between the essence
    And the descent
    Falls the Shadow

I not only promise to follow through, I take the next step without hesitation.  I take the next step without excuses. I take the next step no matter how inconvenient, no matter how painful, no matter how difficult.  We are defined – sometimes proudly, sometime shamefully – by the choices we make, by what we desire, by what it is we commit ourselves to. 

A story of commitment and desire

When I was in my 30’s I got into distance running just at the running craze was starting to take off in the country.  I started in the spring of 1978, barely able to run 2 miles – stopping at the one-mile mark, out of breath, and running home.  A few weeks later I entered a 2-mile fun run and did much better than I thought I would. After that, I increased the distance of my training runs and entered a 5-mile race.  Again, I did much better than I thought I would.  Throughout that summer I entered a number of 10k and 15k runs – my times improving throughout the summer.  That fall in mid-October, I ran 20 miles without stopping.  I was genuinely surprised I was able to do it. After that, I ran nearly every day the rest of that fall and all throughout the winter, till the next spring, I entered Grandma’s Marathon and finished in a little over 3 hours and 13 minutes. In the  fall of 78 I ran the City of Lakes Marathon about 10 minutes faster than I ran Grandma’s that spring.  I continued running year-round – 50 miles a week in the winter and about 70 -75 miles a week in spring, summer, and fall.  I ran like that for 9 years – 14 marathons and numerous shorter races.  I even ran the Boston Marathon twice.

 I was a committed, and obsessed runner.  When I compare my marathon times then, in the early 80’s, to how times are nowadays, I would be finishing in the top 50 in races like the Twin Cities marathon.  Sadly, a freak injury to my right knee ended my running career in the late fall of 1987. 

 It was a good stretch. And it taught me a lot about discipline, mental toughness, focus, and follow through.  During that same time – from the middle to late 80’s I got my PhD. The discipline, mental toughness and follow through I learned in distance running carried over into graduate school.  Don’t think about it, just sit in your chair and write that dissertation.  Don’t think about it, just put on your t-shirt, shorts and shoes and head out the door rain or shine, summer heat or freezing cold.  As the Nike ad says – “Just Do It” 

The Importance of What We Care About

The philosopher Felix Frankfurter wrote a book, “The Importance of What We Care About” - and what we care about is at the core of ourselves as moral beings.   What we care about, what we desire, what value requires reflection – about not only the nature of our desires, but why we desire what we do, and what it says about us as moral beings.  How it defines us as moral beings.  When we follow through, we enact our caring, we enact our values – we extend our moral being through our bodies into our relationships, into our marriages and families, into our community, and into the world.  The question is –how do we wish to define ourselves –to ourselves, to those around us, to our community or our tribe? How do we want to be known? What do we wish our legacy to be?  When we go – what do we want to leave behind?