In Praise of Just Being
Published November 2, 2021 (All Soul's Day)
Mid October. New England. Upstate Connecticut to be exact. A mild fall afternoon. Saturday.
The trees are only just beginning to change to their brighter, more colorful costumes, just in time for Halloween.
I am sitting in a wooden rocking chair on the porch of a log cabin constructed almost exactly one hundred years ago, looking out over a large pond/small lake, where the light breeze creates transient patterns on the surface, reminding me of the times when as children we would imagine objects in the clouds. Every so often, a fish rise breaks the tranquility of the moment. An ever-aspiring angler, the fact that I do not immediately jump up to get my fishing rod is strong evidence of the peace I feel at the moment.
A fire burns quietly in the cabin’s large fireplace. Normally, that would consume my full attention (we call a wood fire in that fireplace “caveman television”). But not today. Here, I sit surrounded by nature in all its unprepossessing beauty. The smell of the fire smoke wafting from the chimney adds the perfect complement to all the other senses that so delight me.
Peace. We yearn for it, we need it, but we can't quite define it. I am no Thoreau, but I think he was on to something when he set out to spend time on Waldon Pond.
Stillness. That may be a big part of finding peace. Our lives these days are full of noise, of incessant action, of urgent interaction. While we are fundamentally social beings, we all need time to be alone. Not necessarily to think, but just to be.
To be alive is a wondrous thing. Whatever our individual circumstances, that is something we all have in common, at least for some time. With all our science and learning and accomplishments, we did not create ourselves. We may at times think we are gods, but we cannot create life from nothing.
Shouldn't that at least give us some pause? If we did not create life for ourselves, then life must be a gift. We don't need to understand the giver to appreciate the gift.
Perhaps a key to experiencing peace is to live "in the moment," meaning allowing your focus -- mental, physical, emotional, spiritual -- to remain in the present, on your surroundings and on the people and objects right in front of you. It is likely the most difficult action possible in this world of constant distraction, but it can be accomplished.
I once heard someone say that the present is the only time that truly exists. The past is what it is (or was); it cannot be changed and thus is meaningful only to the extent we learn lessons from it. The future is unknown, even unknowable, and therefore only slightly modifiable by our actions. The present is where all the action is, literally.
We can only act in the present. We can only "be" in the present. Why then do we spend so much time thinking about (and possibly regretting) the past, or worrying about the future? Shouldn't we cherish and enjoy the gift of living in the here and now?
And yet, to be by oneself is not necessarily to be alone. The Apostles’ Creed of the Christian faith refers to the “communion of saints” (communio sanctorum), the spiritual union of all believers, both living and dead, as well as all those of truth and love in whom the spirit of God is at work.
I’ve been told that in some faith traditions, the act of remembering a person keeps them truly present in one’s life. The Yiddish word, Yahrzeit, denotes the yearly anniversary of a loved one’s death, which many Jews observe by lighting a special long-burning candle at home in memory of the deceased.
As I reflect on all this, I am reminded that soon it will be two years since my brother, sisters and I lost our mother, a few months shy of her 95th birthday. She loved living by a different, much larger body of water, and was fortunate to do so most of her long life. I remember that, whenever we asked her what she wanted for her birthday, she would say “peace and quiet.” She is now with her husband and beloved relatives enjoying for all eternity the peace that surpasses all understanding. But quiet? Knowing our family, likely not so much.
Perhaps we can all benefit from taking a moment to just be, to be present in the moment, to be alone yet not alone, and to share, for that moment at least, a faint echo of the peace we hope someday to enjoy forever.
+ In Memoriam +
Joan Manning FitzPatrick 1925-2020
James Anthony FitzPatrick 1916-1988