As I was running late to work one day, my mind calculated and recalculated the fastest route, as if I could predict where the slow cars would be or when the traffic lights would turn. Not to mention that the time difference would, in reality, be negligible no matter which way I went.
An interior voice wanted to take a route that I was sure was not the fastest. The voice insisted, though, and off we went. About halfway to the freeway, a blue heron passed overhead. Its majestic, unhurried flight took with it all the melancholy and anxiety that had been gurgling around inside me.
I won’t claim with certainty that I was meant to go that way to meet the heron. Sometimes this is true and sometimes it’s not, and generally speaking, the world is more complex than we can account for. But I will say that the experience made it clear that I so often choose a course of action based on the wrong criteria.
Choosing to go the way in which we will encounter the beauty of our fellow creatures or lessen the suffering in the world is so much more important than making it to work one minute earlier.
I spend a lot of time on the innumerable daily equivalents of that one minute. They come in so many sizes and flavors—which task to do first, which type of olive oil to buy, what the right answer is. Their very quantity makes them seem important when actually they’re distracting.
To make choices that are worthy of us, we need questions that will take us to the depths of our lives where we long to be—is it loving? Is it kind? Does it bring joy to me and others?
We need to remember that we are these depths and that we are here to keep falling more deeply into them.
I just activated a new credit card, and the helpful, robotic voice on the other end of the line said, “Thank you for using [our bank]. We know you have a lot of choices.”
We do have a lot of choices, and I often confuse the important ones with the unimportant. Should I push the snooze alarm? Can I wear brown boots with a black jacket? Will I miss the van if I take the time to put on lotion? And that’s just the first hour of the day.
When I got back from China, I was overwhelmed by the entire aisle of salad dressings in the typical American grocery store and the immense selection of deli meats. I almost ran away without my meat when the kind person behind the counter asked me whether I wanted cheese with that.
Because we experience such an onslaught of this type of decision every day, it’s easy to confuse the trivial with the essential. Even those decisions that often seem the biggest—what house to buy, what job to take—will not shape our lives as profoundly as the essential choices, as in, having to do with the essence of things.
Some true choices we face every day:
- Will I practice forgiveness?
- Will I be kind?
- Will I be patient?
- Will I do whatever I am doing with love?
- Will I listen to my mental tapes of self-destructive messages?
- Will I accept help?
- Will I let others love me?
- Will I believe that there is something bigger and more hopeful than I can see at this moment?
The list goes on, of course, but our attention to this kind of question truly determines how alive we are. It is so, so hard to believe this in a culture that constantly asks us to quantify ourselves based on whether we selected ham or turkey. Clearly, there was a right one and a wrong one and we better have picked the turkey.
Personally, I answer “occasionally” or “sometimes” to most of the above list, and those may remain my answers until I die. But that’s not important either. What’s important is to keep asking the real questions.
This Friday, we’ll celebrate a Big Event at work. I have allowed preparations for the festivities to take over a rather significant portion of my life and mental space and use up most of my stress allowance. (Wouldn’t it be great if we really had a stress allowance and when we reached the end, we were cut off? Nope, sorry, that’s all the stress that you’re allowed this week.)
To counteract this, my mom has been sending me reminders every day of the things that are truly important, like love and smiles and miracles. We humans need a lot of reminders. The urgent easily sweeps us away from the important. I don’t know why. Anne Lamott quotes a friend of hers as saying, “Why is not a useful question.” It’s the way we are, no reason attached, like the way chocolate tastes better than broccoli.
I have not remained in a blissed-out state of gratitude all day every day because of her notes, but the people around me have probably breathed a little easier. For example, when someone has said, “I have a question for you,” I’ve replied, “No” with good cheer instead of snarling.
There will always be a next big event, and we can always forget the important stuff when deadlines loom. Important stuff includes wondering at the way light falls from the sky through those specific clouds on that spot in the ocean that will never look exactly the same again, accompanying your co-worker to the storage room because there might be rats and that is creepy, remembering that it is all gift and that it is important to treat each moment, whether it is in preparation for a big event or not, as the gift it is.
So let’s remind each other—of love, of beauty, of heartbreak and the healing that comes afterward, of friendship, of grace.