This morning on our walk, Jim and I talked about our dawning realization that our energies and capacity for looking outward are returning, after several years of crisis and trauma related to our daughter Jackie’s health.
I find myself thinking often now about intentional community, gatherings, deeper friendships. We feel ready to facilitate our Bible study group again after a two-year hiatus.
I can think deeply again—finally. I can write, host, converse, and engage with others again without it sending me into days of crippling fatigue. A year ago I wondered if some of these capacities, these functions, would ever return.
I still find myself occasionally feeling protective, guarded, about my time and energies. I’m thinking more carefully about which relationships God would have me invest in. I know that I don’t have the energy I once did. But this experience of late is giving me hope that maybe this river can flow stronger in the future, as I continue to heal.
Maybe I’m more chastened and deepened by all we’ve been through. I hope so. My loves are being clarified. I’m reordering my priorities and values. I’m trying to reorient toward the simple, the slow, the human, the things that last.
It seems like the biggest lesson God is teaching me lately is to pay attention—to listen, to see. For so long I couldn’t see my way out of the haze and fog of trauma and crisis. I couldn’t attend to anyone or anything outside the bubble of our pain.
Now, the air is clearing. God is opening my eyes and ears. I find myself longing for deeper connections with others—to help and be helped to think and talk about and live what matters.
Several writers at The Glen Workshop I attended this past July spoke about attention and distraction. Poet and essayist Lia Purpura called attention a “fragile, fertile space.” She gave us questions to ask when reflecting on our own distraction:
What could this time have been (if I hadn’t spent it in distraction)?
What have I given away by allowing myself to be distracted?
What gifts are there to discover by attentiveness?
Molly McCully Brown wondered if gratitude could “re-engender” attention better than self-discipline could: that is, rather than grabbing ourselves by the scruff of the neck and forcing ourselves by discipline to pay attention, perhaps fostering gratitude could better serve that end.
And Lauren Winner spoke of how “voluntary confinement”—or submitting to limitations, even in what we allow to crowd into our lives and minds—leads to “inner spaciousness” and real freedom. She also asked our spiritual nonfiction class an amazingly fruitful question as she talked about learning to pay attention to others’ lives: “Who or what might you be beckoned to love?”
Maybe as we limit distractions, we find the mental and spiritual space we need to free our minds and spirits to travel further down certain roads, to mine deeper, so that we discover what is quietly and tangibly there. Plumbing mystery takes time—and rabbit trails. We can’t follow everything deeply—we must choose. This, by necessity, means not choosing other things. While it seems paradoxical, this limiting, this choosing, increases our capacity to experience and know more fully.
Living an examined life:
Who/what is forming me?
What am I becoming?
What are my deepest commitments? Values? Loves?
We are being formed all the time, most often by habitual activities and practices that we may not think much about. By grabbing our phone first thing in the morning. By mindlessly turning on the radio when we get in the car. By what we watch and read. By the lives and behaviors of those around us. By how we crowd our calendars, and with what.
What if we order our lives around rhythms and practices and habits that foster depth and make us more human? This will involve limits. We will choose this over that. I believe strongly that art and literature ought to factor in somewhere, somehow. This is because art and literature are formative—not just informative. They help us to see, to live vicariously the experiences of others. They help us to pay attention, to be present to what life is, to what it consists of, to what makes it real and human. Simply, they make us more whole, more integrated.
But one thing I’ve learned from the last few years with my daughter’s medical crises is that trauma and fear stop our eyes and ears. We can’t take in, reflect, slow down, or smell the roses when we’re terrified, when we’re waiting for the other shoe to drop. I lived in that space for almost three years as Jackie’s health deteriorated.
For so long, I just couldn’t attend. How could I, when I could barely make a simple meal or write a grocery list?
If I’m starting to be able to pay attention, see, hear, smell now, that must mean I’m not in fight-or-flight mode anymore. I can tell. It feels different.
I’m entering a new season, one in which God might just be making beauty from ashes, refashioning a gift out of a deep injury to my soul. It’s for me, but it’s probably for others as well.
In everything I seem to read or listen to lately, God is saying the same thing to me. Pay attention. Listen. Look. I just finished Steven Garber’s book, Visions of Vocation: Common Sense for the Common Good, in which he says the same thing in different ways: “Pay attention to your life. Ask of it questions.”
When I heard that Frederick Buechner had died recently, I listened to his 1992 address at the Festival of Faith & Writing (on Rewrite Radio podcast). Pay attention—isn’t that Buechner’s main message to us, in everything he ever wrote?
“Stop. Look. Remember. See with more than your eyes,” he urges us. “Listen to the music of your own life—the voices of people you love, feet coming up the path, water flowing from the tap.” Pay attention. “How do you do it?” Buechner asks. “I don’t know… Take time to do it. Think about all the dumb things we do with our time. Be mindful.”
“Love your neighbor,” Buechner tells us. “You have to see them to love them.” And paradoxically, he says, in loving them, you come really to see them. He says that when we walk through crowds, it helps to think of the words of the Eucharist as you pass each face: “Christ died for thee.” Think of what that does to us if we practice it—how it forms us to love, to attend.
This is my one life. This is your one life. Don’t you want to spend it on things that matter, that have human and eternal significance? Don’t you want to see—to get better at seeing—and to listen? To do so, we have to cut out things that suck time but don’t redeem it. We have to unclutter our lives so we can take the good things slowly—like love. Love is slow.