Counting not months but moments.

Some of my friends and I are noticing our interests shift these days. This tweet sums up the phenomenon perfectly.

And it’s not just birds, but the weather, the garden, the laugh of a child. The little moments bear a new luster. And of course it makes sense. As our lives are rushing by in our younger years, the little things can get lost. We always will have the time to stop and look, to smell the roses, we reason, so we put it off. But as we feel our time here becoming more finite, our attention hones. We pause. We marvel. We are constantly astonished.

As it turns out, this experience isn’t so much a reflection of our age as it is our perception of time. When we feel time vast, spreading out before us, our focal point is on the future, but when we feel a possible end to our time here, our attention draws close and we appreciate the little things. So even someone young facing death will have this urge to stop and soak in the little things.

In his book, Being Mortal; Medicine and What Matters in the End, Atul Gawande summarizes research on this experience:

“…how we seek to spend our time may depend on how much time we perceive ourselves to have. When you are young and healthy, you believe you will live forever. You do not worry about losing any of your capabilities. People tell you “the world is your oyster,” “the sky is the limit,” and so on. And you are willing to delay gratification—to invest years, for example, in gaining skills and resources for a brighter future, you seek to plug into bigger streams of knowledge and information. You widen your networks of friends and connections, instead of hanging out with your mother. When horizons are measured in decades, which might as well be infinity to human beings, you most desire all that stuff at the top of Maslow’s pyramid- achievement, creativity, and other attributes of ‘self-actualization,” but as your horizons contract—when you see the future ahead of you as finite and uncertain—your focus shifts to the here and now, to everyday pleasures and the people closest to you.”

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, by Atul Gawande

But our ‘knowledge’ of the time we have is far from certain. Sometimes our belief we will always have another day keeps us from appreciating the days we have. Practices like mindfulness and meditation, reading poetry, help ground us in the present so we can capture those moments, but it’s difficult to keep our own mortality enough in our consciousness to really grasp the preciousness of each moment.

In the play, Our Town, by Thornton Wilder, the lead character Emily, a young woman who loses her life early in childbirth, is given the opportunity to revisit one day in her life, and she sees it all with new eyes:

Emily: Oh, Mama, look at me one minute as though you really saw me. Mama, fourteen years have gone by. I’m dead. You’re a grandmother, Mama! Wally’s dead, too. His appendix burst on a camping trip to North Conway. We felt just terrible about it – don’t you remember? But, just for a moment now we’re all together. Mama, just for a moment we’re happy. Let’s really look at one another!…I can’t. I can’t go on.It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another. I didn’t realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed. Take me back — up the hill — to my grave. But first: Wait! One more look. Good-bye , Good-bye world. Good-bye, Grover’s Corners….Mama and Papa. Good-bye to clocks ticking….and Mama’s sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new ironed dresses and hot baths….and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you are too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it–every, every minute?
Stage Manager: No. (pause) The saints and poets, maybe they do some.
Emily: I’m ready to go back.”

Our Town, by Thornton Wilder

Today is that day, a day for us to realize life while we’re living it, every, every minute as much and as best as we can.

Praying our way into gratitude.

There are as many ways to pray as there are people praying. But what is it, exactly? Maybe it’s easier to answer what it isn’t: a flamboyant show, a chance to pose and preen publicly, a subterfuge, a droning recitation of memorized but not considered words.

What prayer actually is, though, is more complicated: a bridge between ourselves and the mysterious, a chance to become small, and yet fully individual, in a vastness, an experience of awe. Mary Oliver’s definition above in her poem Praying is lovely: a doorway into thanks. Consider the whole poem:

Praying

It doesn’t have to be

The blue iris, it could be

Weeds in a vacant lot, or a few

Small stones; just

Pay attention, then patch

A few words together and don’t try

To make them elaborate,

This isn’t a contest but the doorway

Into thanks, and a silence in

Which another voice may speak.

Pay attention; see the beauty around you; give thanks. Rinse and repeat.

Being a role model

Rob Kenney has a YouTube channel Dad, How Do I? where he teaches his nearly 3 million viewers how to do stuff. He got the idea for his channel wondering about the kids growing up without dads and wanting to help fill that space for them, teaching them how to tie their tie, do their taxes, check their oil, plant a tree, and so on. He tells them he’s proud of them.

https://youtube.com/@DadhowdoI

What a sweet idea. And resource! But, more importantly, how wonderful it is to see someone consciously being a positive role model, using his know-how to help others, and trying to fill a void.

The truth is we all have the potential to be role models. Whether it’s how we behave under pressure, handle a crowded line, or talk with someone who disagrees, our actions matter. People will see us and think about whether they want to follow our example. We have a responsibility to be a good one.

Being a good creature

Sy Montgomery’s delightful book, How To Be a Good Creature, is a ‘Memoir in Thirteen Animals‘. What an interesting way to organize a memoir, focusing on the impact various animals have made on her life and what they have taught her about co-existing as fellow creatures on this planet! It is a profound, yet simple, book.

If you were to write a memoir of your life through that lens, who would the animals be that impacted your life in meaningful and enriching ways? What life lessons did you learn? How were your limits expanded from sharing space with that fellow creature?

For inspiration, consider Montgomery’s words:

All the animals I’ve known–from the first bug I must have spied as an infant, to the moon bears I met in Southeast Asia, to the spotted hens I got to know in Kenya–have been good creatures. Each individual is a marvel and perfect in his or her own way. Just being with any animal is edifying, for each has a knowing that surpasses human understanding. A spider can taste the world with her feet. Birds can see colors we can’t begin to describe. A cricket can sing with his legs and listen with his knees. A dog can hear sounds above the level of human hearing, and can tell if you’re upset even before you’re aware of it yourself. Knowing someone who belongs to another species can enlarge your soul in surprising ways.

I often wish I could go back in time and tell my young, anxious self that my dreams weren’t in vain and my sorrows weren’t permanent. I can’t do that, but I can do something better. I can tell you that teachers are all around to help you: with four legs or two or eight or even none, some with internal skeletons, some without. All you have to do is recognize them as teachers and be ready to hear their truths.

Today, consider the wonder of creation around you and thank your teachers of the non-human persuasion.

Being the heroes of our own story

We each decide if we are to be the hero of the story our lives are writing. We each will hear calls to adventure and must decide whether we will rise to the occasion. We each struggle with challenges and learn, or not, from the experience. What will your story be? How will you meet the challenges you encounter?

In this short film, Matthew Winkler outlines Joseph Campbell’s Hero Journey, a path we all must take.

How will we fare?

Needing Mr Rogers

In a week of mass shootings and other discouraging news, we need a dose of Mr. Rogers, a man who believed passionately in the value of children, just as they are, and dedicated his life to teaching them to manage and express their feelings. What a hero he was.

In this clip from 1969, he makes his case. His lessons are as important today as they were then. Take a listen.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fKy7ljRr0AA

Being a Good Samaritan

The Parable of the Good Samaritan is well known. In short, a man lies helpless and injured in the road. Religious leaders rush past offering no assistance, while a Samaritan stops and offers the wounded man succor and solace.

What makes one person stop to help while others rush by? Is it the belief that helping is the right way to show up in the world? A religious mandate even? Or is there more to it?

In a famous study at Princeton, researchers evaluated a group of seminarians, specifically discussing the Parable of the Good Samaritan, and then sending them to a task, indeed to lecture on the very parable, where they would necessarily walk right past someone needing help. Even with the parable fresh on their minds, the future pastors for the most part walked right by. Presumably these were nice people who intended to spend a lifetime in service. And yet, they walked right by. They acted in a way incongruent with their professed beliefs.

A surprising result to say the least. But the conclusion from the experiment was that the biggest influencer in whether they stopped to help was not their religious beliefs or their innate kindness, but their perception of time. The more of a hurry they were in, the less likely they were to help.

So how does this inform our choices?

A general kind intent to help is not enough. We are all the Princeton Divinity Students rushing to our next important task and potentially neglecting the plight of others right in our path. We must slow down the clock and really see the people around us. And we need to be ok with the idea that our plans and schedules might be disrupted. Surely stopping to help someone in need will change your day, will inconvenience you, and cause you to spend time and perhaps money in an unplanned way.

But the help you might be able to offer someone in need could be invaluable.

Going high

We are bombarded daily with stories of fraud, cheating, self-interest, and dishonesty. People talking over each other, shoving, hostile. Everything is so charged and hot. Sometimes it feels like the people who stoop to these tactics might win the race and that we should do it, too. Otherwise, the ‘bad’ side will triumph. And yet.

Honesty matters. Integrity matters. Truth matters. Fairness and justice matter. On the foundations of these qualities, trust is built.

Explaining her ‘go high’ comment, Michelle Obama says,

My answer is yes. We need to keep trying to go high. Operating with integrity matters. It will matter forever. It is a tool.

At the same time, though, I want to be clear: Going high is something you do rather than merely feel. It’s not some call to be complacent and wait around for change, or to sit on the sidelines as others struggle. It is not about accepting the conditions of oppression or letting cruelty and power go unchallenged. The notion of going high shouldn’t raise any questions about whether we are obligated to fight for more fairness, decency, and justice in this world; rather, it’s about how we fight, how we go about trying to solve the problems we encounter, and how we sustain ourselves long enough to be effective rather than burn out. There are some who see this as an unfair and ineffective compromise, an extension of respectability politics, in which we conform to rather than challenge the rules in order to get by. Why, people rightly wonder, do we need to try to be so reasonable all the time?

I can see how some think that reason leaves no room for rage. I understand the perception that going high means that you somehow remove yourself and remain unbothered by all that might otherwise gall and provoke you.

But it’s not that at all.

When I first said those words…, I was neither removed nor unbothered. In fact, I was pretty agitated….

But where was my actual power? I knew it didn’t reside in my hurt and rage, at least as they existed in raw forms. My power lay in whatever I could manage to do with that hurt and rage, where I could take it. It hinged on whether or not I could elevate those feelings into something that would become harder for others to write off, which was a clear message, a call to action, and a result I was willing to work for.

That’s what going high is for me. It’s about taking an abstract and usually upsetting feeling and working to convert it into some sort of actionable plan, to move through the raw stuff and in the direction of a larger solution.

I want to be clear that this is a process, and not always a quick one. It can take time and patience. It’s okay to sit and stew for a while, to live inside the agitation caused by injustice or fear or grief, or to express your pain. It’s okay to grant yourself the space you need to recover or heal. For me, going high usually involves taking a pause before I react. It is a form of self-control, a line laid between our best and worst impulses. Going high is about resisting the temptation to participate in shallow fury and corrosive contempt and instead figuring out how to respond with a clear voice to whatever is shallow and corrosive around you. It’s what happens when you take a reaction and mature it into a response.

Because here’s the thing: Emotions are not plans. They don’t solve problems or right any wrongs. You can feel them—you will feel them, inevitably—but be careful about letting them guide you. Rage can be a dirty windshield. Hurt is like a broken steering wheel. Disappointment will only ride, sulking and unhelpful, in the back seat. If you don’t do something constructive with them, they’ll take you straight into a ditch.

My power has always hinged on my ability to keep myself out of the ditch.

https://time.com/6233764/michelle-obama-go-high-2022/

Here’s to staying out of the ditch.

Everybody hurts

One good thing to come out of despair is the ability, once you are past it, to help someone in the middle of it realize that things will get better, that this, too, will pass. It’s as if we are all climbing our way out of a pit and reaching up to grab the hand of someone who has already made it out. Being able to reach your hand down to someone still in the pit is a blessing from something awful you may have gone through.

Along these lines, was the It Gets Better movement started several years ago, with prominent people from the LGBTQ community sharing their stories to help others who were struggling and feeling desperate.

Perhaps your last few years have been filled with grief. Certainly for many the pandemic has been a season of loss—of community, of norms, of freedoms, and, for many, of loved ones.

As you go forward, remember that we are each other’s support. We are each other’s comfort and hope. Reach out to each other.

For a very powerful rendition of R.E.M.’s, Everybody Hurts, listen to this rendition by priest, Father Ray Kelly. I stumbled onto this video several years ago, and it recently popped up again. I need to store it in a safe place to rewatch as needed. For me at least, it touches the soul and gives me solace.

Celebrating others

Sometimes it feels like such a competitive world. And we develop an either him or me kind of mentality. A zero sum game, where an advantage for one person represents a loss to another. Like pie. more for you, less for me.

But what if it’s not? What if something good for one person, elevates the amount of good in the world for us all? What if the very act of celebrating another person’s success benefits us as well and makes a more positive, harmonious world?

I didn’t watch the Golden Globes, but I was taken with this picture of Jamie Lee Curtis celebrating the success of her co-star Michelle Yeoh:

Fiercely supportive, celebratory, in Yeoh’s corner to the Nth degree. It wasn’t an award for Curtis, but it was a time for her to celebrate her friend. This energy inspires us all, doesn’t it?

The reaction to this now viral moment has surprised Curtis:

“I’m still stunned that a moment of natural exuberance and joy became some sort of a symbol for women supporting other women,” Curtis wrote in the [Instagram] post.

Let’s be there for each other, rejoicing in each other’s successes.