Posted by: Margaret Bullitt-Jonas 11 months ago
My mother is 86 years old. She lives in a retirement community, and sometimes I drive her to doctor’s appointments. One afternoon we sit in a surgeon’s office, waiting to consult with the physician’s assistant and to weigh the decisions that must be made. She shows me her aching foot, the bent toes and fragile skin. Aging is taking a toll on her body. Yet her spirit remains as fresh and lively as a child’s.
“You know what I do first every morning?” she asks. “I get up and look out the window.” I know what she is likely to see from her third-floor apartment: distant hills and a wide expanse of sky, a line of clouds rolling in from the west, the sun rising in the east.
“Gratitude overwhelms me every morning,” she tells me, smiling.
Ah – there it is: the power of gratitude! I think of a monk friend of mine who counsels practicing gratitude as soon as we wake up in the morning. What better way to greet a new day? Gratitude transforms how we see, making all things new. Poet John Keble proclaims:
New every morning is the love
our wakening and uprising prove…
But gratitude is not the only thing on my mother’s mind.
“You know what? The other day it wasn’t gratitude I felt, but something else. I stood by the window and what came to me, quite unbidden, was the thought: how unlikely all this is! I mean, here we are on a planet that is spinning every day on its axis at 1,000 miles per hour, while at the same time it is rotating around the sun at something like 67,000 miles per hour. When you stop to consider it, how unlikely it is!”
We grin at each other, marveling at the way of things. Here in this windowless, impersonal doctor’s office, as my mother and I gird ourselves for her next round of medical tests, the next series of decisions, the next intervention to slow the inevitable process of physical decline, we pause to acknowledge the wonder of it all: here we are! How unlikely!
How we experience our lives depends a lot on what we pay attention to. I know how easy it is to believe that nothing good will come of things, that we’re all headed pell mell into darkness. Gun violence, climate change, political gridlock, all the evidence of human greed, malice, and despair – what’s not to make a person a little crazed sometimes? I can lie awake at night, rehearsing the troubles of the world. I can wake up in the morning and anxiously start cataloguing the items on my list of Things To Do, as if oiling my weapons for a private, last-ditch battle against chaos. Without noticing what I’m doing, I can put on Worry like yesterday’s heavy, threadbare coat. It constricts my breathing and dulls my sense of hope, but it’s what everyone is wearing these days. Do I really have a choice?
Actually, I do. Spiritual practice is all about noticing and creating choices – about coaxing our minds and hearts out of their entrenched habits of anxious self-absorption. With practice, we gradually become attuned to the Love that infuses, embraces, and sustains all things. Especially in fearful times, we can help each other to practice gratitude and to cultivate a sense of wonder about the sheer miracle of being alive, about the gift of this unlikely moment. Life is so precious and so brief! In every encounter we can help each other to stay awake. We can fix our attention on all the ways that Love can flow through us right here, right now, whatever our circumstances may be. Even in a windowless doctor’s office, where it’s impossible to deny the reality of suffering and the inevitability of death – even here, gratefulness and wonder can spring up between two people. Fear can be put to flight.
My heart is firmly fixed, O God, my heart is fixed;
I will sing and make melody.
Wake up, my spirit;
awake, lute and harp;
I myself will awaken the dawn. (Psalm 57:7-8)Share on Twitter Share on Facebook