I hit a significant mark this week, my sixty-fifth birthday. Or as my friend said lovingly, I’m just a little older than God.
I never really thought I would live this long, but here I am. Surprise, surprise, as Gomer might say. The old quip, attributed to Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, concludes that if he knew he was going to live this long, he would have taken better care of himself. True Deadheads wonder about that, both if he said it, and if he would have, Jerry being Jerry.
Growing up, my high school seemed to have a curse, where a good number of kids died tragically. In fact, my class had five people die in the year after our graduation from the weathered Municipal Auditorium of Atlanta. Built in 1909, it was the site of a pre-inaugural event for President William Henry Taft, where barbecued possum was the special fare served. Later that year, it hosted the first Atlanta Music Festival. After that, it was the home of the Atlanta Symphony as well as Live Atlanta Wrestling where the Odd Couple of Robert Shaw and Freddie Blassie held court. What an auspicious place for the Class of 1972 of Briarwood High to begin its sojourn into life.
One close friend didn’t even make it through the summer, the victim of a car crash, a car that I had been a passenger in throughout my senior year. Going to a glut of funerals early on has a profound effect. It’s not on the order of PTSD formed in combat, but it made an impact on me. Certain wags have opined that it screwed me up enough to set my course to seminary. Who knows?
I have written about it, spoken about it, even preached about it. I used it to speak to graduating seniors at the high school whose board I chaired when I was asked to give them a send off. I processed it with my own shrink and then used it as a reference point with persons who have come to me for therapy and coaching.
What sense do you make out of the close up death of others? How do you carry that into your future? How do you bear the weight of such things as you live your life?
The sense I made was that life was precious. That it is fleeting, can be gone in an instant. Rather than making me fearful, it gave me a rather adventurous lean into life as I wanted to grab as much as I could, while I could. In an earlier blog, I mentioned my high school motto on a make-shift crest: “Promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep!”, a rather Sixties view of life, spun out and on by the tragic death of my Presidential hero, John Kennedy, and later my classmates.
All of this personal experience was embedded in a collective time when good men were being cut down, at home and abroad. In ’68, when I began high school, two idealists espousing brotherhood, were slain. Robert Kennedy felt like a far-away heroic figure, smart, committed, cut down on the far coast.
Martin King was from my neck of the woods. I had heard old men and young, spit his name with derision. The pregnant moment of my young psyche was cast when my grandfather, an Atlanta cop, got up out of the barber’s chair on Lee Street, and took me with him, as the crowd in the shop were using the N word and other nasty references. Kids learn a hell of a lot more by watching adults’ behavior than the Sunday School lessons they mouthed, especially when they belie the very words of love by living hatefully. Death felt real and present for me as a young man.
It’s funny that I would interpret the events of life the way I did. Rather than fearful, cautious, and timid, it all seemed like a time to jump in and enjoy the gift. Any time I had was just that, a gift. Why were friends of mine denied that right while I was free as the breeze on a Southern evening? That question pressed me over and over, especially in moments of joyful bliss which caused me to reflect in afterglow. Sunrises, sunsets, long reaches under sail, treks on the trail…..all gave rise to pauses.
It occurred to me when I was serving as a priest that my outlook was hewn, forged, beat into a sense of celebration. When things fell apart, when bad things happened to good people, when tragedy broke through, it was a reminder of how out of control things really are. We live in the illusion that we have some control over our life, when the reality is that we do not. Those moments of crisis merely break through the convention of control and remind us that we are not in charge. Rather than resenting the capriciousness of life, or whatever God you image, I find myself grateful for the time I have, the opportunities set before me. Rather than obsess on the chances of dire straits ahead, I choose to focus on the moment that is present.
An old high school friend of mine, Ron Harwell, and I were discussing it recently. We recalled the many times in high school and college that we tempted fate, sometimes by our recklessness, sometimes courting danger, and at times, like my saint, Dr. John, just the right place at the wrong time. And other times, fate came looking for us. What a long, strange trip it’s been.
It’s an odd thing to become reflective. I’ve always had an inclination and good eye in looking back, remembering things that happened. It puzzles me why I remember certain things and forget others. Peculiar are the minute details that have stuck in my memory, while others recede. When I get to talk with old friends, it’s such a treat to splash around in those stories.
My point in today’s blog is to point out a simple practice that I have adopted and want to encourage you to explore. It comes out of my practice of mindfulness but is even more simple. I find that the busy people I work with are SO busy, so filled up with time commitments, that the suggestion of a time period of twenty to thirty minutes is unthinkable. In the urgent setting of a hospital, a moment of free time is rare and fleeting. When I frame the situation as “overwhelmed”, heads nod. And yet they instinctively know that they need a break. So let’s begin small.
I have been suggesting a simple word, PAUSE. Rather than dive into a meditation protocol or a mindfulness strategy, let’s start small and build our capacity for quiet. for reflection. Just prompt yourself to PAUSE. I have been encouraging people to pause in the morning, to pause before the next appointment, to pause before the next patient, to pause before a phone call. However it works for you: Pause.
What happens when you pause? There are several things you can choose to do in this time. One is to do a bit of what I’ve been doing in the article, namely, reflecting. Pausing can focus your reflection on this particular time in your life, or, to think of times from the past. When I am engaging in reflection, I find it helpful to couple it with the discipline of journaling, recording the thoughts, memories that come to mind. This can be fruitful to come back to, to assess, to look and see if there are particular rhythms to your day, ebb and flow of emotions.
But another use of the pause is to clear one’s mind of all thought. This becomes a true exercise of freedom. I recommend beginning with three deep breaths. Some folks find it helpful to close one’s eyes. Some find a quick body scan to be helpful. Some have developed a word to recite, to remember, to charge their brain or spirit.
I have become incredibly pragmatic about this, losing any doctrinaire approach to the art of centering. Whatever works is the right place to start, to begin to realize the power and gift of stillness and presence. Try to still your “thinker”, your constantly intrusive thoughts. This takes practice, perhaps the quintessential understatement of our times. Once you get your practice going, you can tweak it as you go.
For me, I have set aside a schedule of times to pause, following my beloved Trappists who set aside seven times for prayer during the day to regulate and form their common life. I use three regular times in my schedule. Keep it simple. In addition, I have typically been playful by adding a random feed of owl photos on Facebook, with a one word admonition of “Pause”, hopefully prompting me and other people to take a simple moment to take a brief break. I experience this as playful, even surprising gifts of interruption of my grind.
This is not the time or place to trot out the scientific research that links health with various practices of mindfulness. It’s clear that it is beneficial in our time of busyness and urgency, to find ways to “pause”.
How do you make this happen currently? I asked that question on a Facebook post and got a number of responses. Some noted that they simply nap if they get a break. If that works for you, if that is what your body needs, good for you. Pausing for silence does a number of things beyond simply resting, but if your body prompts a nap, that’s the way to go.
Some noted using a breathing app that regulates breathing, calming one’s thinking. Some find that a time in nature soothes the soul, which is also true for me, but not as accessible in most of my day’s work. Some mentioned driving as relaxing…I am assuming that is not on I-285 in Atlanta traffic. And a few noted the curative power of beer. Whatever floats your boat, or soul.
If you need some simple directions, feel free to contact me for some suggestions. The main thing is to start doing something, anything, some moment of mindfulness in your day. I’d be happy to encourage you in your beginnings.
I’ve been doing this work and living with this discipline for some time. It is a gift you can give to yourself, even if you’re an old man on Medicare. As my old neighborhood friend, Elgin Wells, used to announce to the crowd before his band, Extravaganza, took a set break: It’s time to take a pause for the cause. Indeed.