I don’t know about you, but the ongoing daily spate of alarming and/or disturbing news is wearing me down. It seems I’m not alone: I happened to catch a headline from USA Today a few days ago that said “No, It’s Not Just You, Everybody is Exhausted”.
“What’s to blame? The list is long — and growing, experts say.
“Wildfires, terror attacks, rising tensions with North Korea, racist rallies, political investigations in Washington, the non-stop barrage of presidential tweets, more and worse mass shootings from Las Vegas to Florida, a tsunami of sexual harassment accusations, the role of Russians in our elections, climate change, red state-blue state division and not one, not two, but three of the worst hurricanes on record — including one that nearly blew Puerto Rico out of the Caribbean Sea.
“Put together, it’s understandable why exhausted Americans are limping along and running out of gas…”
On the other side, here’s an excerpt from the New York Times:
“Here’s a surprising message, and it’s coming from two prominent authors: Things are good! Our cover this week features Steven Pinker’s “Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress” and Gregg Easterbrook’s “It’s Better Than It Looks: Reasons for Optimism in an Age of Fear.” We’ll see whether readers are convinced…”
I haven’t (yet) read either book, but in an interview with the Harvard Gazette, Pinker says:
“To my pleasant surprise, war is not the only scourge that has declined over the course of history. Extreme poverty has been decimated: It’s gone from 90 percent of the world’s population to 10 percent. Literacy has increased from about 15 percent to more than 85 percent. Prosperity has increased; longevity has increased from about 30 to about 71 years worldwide, and 80 in the developed world.”
Interesting. You’d think we wouldn’t be so discouraged.
I’m torn as I write this, aware of the lure of banal platitudes but also longing to find wisdom, a way to look at the world that is both realistic and optimistic. I want to be able to see things as they are without losing my ability to be peaceful. I know there are no rosy, pat answers, but perhaps there may be watchwords that can help me, a “literary luminaria” of sorts, leading me, like a trail of bread crumbs, to a more peaceful place.
I turn to my favorite authors and search for words to guide me. Mystics, poets, artists, writers, and spiritual leaders universally encourage us to simplify, slow down, and be still. Watchword number one.
“Move outside the tangle of fear-thinking.
Live in silence.
Flow down and down in always widening rings of Being.”
From Rob Bell:
“Walk, don’t run.
Walk, don’t run.
…and in doing so,
See a whole world right here within this one.”
These reflections echo Buddhist thinking, admonishing us to ignore the clamor that is always vying for our attention and stay in the present moment. That is an ongoing challenge for me, for many – we look ahead. Too far ahead! Talking about writing, E. L. Doctorow famously said “It’s like driving at night with the headlights on. You can only see a little way ahead of you, but you can make the whole journey that way.” That paradigm applies to how we can live our lives, as well. Staying within the range of the headlights is probably the single best thing we can do to maintain a workable perspective. This reminds me of the aphorism that asks “How do you eat an elephant? (Answer: One bite at a time.”) One bite, one headlight’s worth, one day at a time – these phrases all have the same message. We can’t solve everything, but we can live in this very moment. We can do what is right in front of us.
Secondly, I find an invitation to rest and be gentle. In his Book of Blessings, John O’Donohue has an entry “For One Who Is Exhausted”.
“When the rhythm of the heart becomes hectic,
Time takes on the strain until it breaks.
Then all the unattended stress falls in
On the mind like an endless, increasing weight…
“Weariness invades your spirit…
“There is nothing to do but rest…
“Take refuge in your senses, open up
To all the small miracles you rushed through…
“Draw alongside the silence of stone
Until its calmness claims you.
Be excessively gentle with yourself.”
Next (I started to say “finally”, but the possibilities for illumination are countless) Pierre Teilhard De Chardin reminds me that peace cannot exist without faith:
“Above all trust the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
To reach the end without delay…
Yet it is the law of all progress that it is made
By passing through some stages of instability —
And that may take a very long time.”
“… A very long time.” Am I listening? I don’t think Chardin is advocating complacency. Rather, I think he is asking us to understand that “our” time may not be God’s time. We need to keep at our tasks, but – ? – also to take our eyes off the clock.
Collectively, somehow these thoughts calm me. I can’t make sense of what is senseless, but I can consciously work to slow down and practice peace right where I am in any given moment. I can practice surrender, loosening the urge to control and letting go of thinking that I know what is best. Humbly, quietly – yet fiercely – I can decide to “trust the slow work of God”.