Dear Sister & Brother Vincentians:
Peace be with you. I hope that you continue to remain safe and are doing as well as possible during these days of considerable uncertainty. My prayers are with you.
Last month, I wrote about helping each other, as Vincentians, to broaden our concept of community, i.e. our journey together. We also celebrated Independence Day – our nation’s freedom from a foreign sovereignty, not from each other. As we did, it occurred to me that we should be celebrating and strengthening our interdependence as much or more so than independence.
This month, I share thoughts on seeing our journey through a new lens – a new normal. It involves being more mindful and appreciating the “little things” done for us and those we do for others. To be sure, the following are merely thoughts and feelings shared by a Vincentian to other Vincentians. If they cause you to want to respond, whether to agree or otherwise, then, in the spirit of Vincentian friendship, I encourage you to do so.
These are challenging, even painful times. Reports of separation, loneliness, despair, and tragic loss are every day’s lead stories. But, as suggested last month, perhaps those are the labor pains of a “new normal” being born. Perhaps we will better appreciate the gift of every day.
I – Gift Giving
Gifts are a beautiful tradition. Typically, they are given to another to express affection or to recognize a special occasion. They come in all sizes and price points. No matter the cost or sacrifice to the giver, they are presented free of charge to the recipient. The catalyst for gifts is one’s decision to give to another.
Gifts need not be purchased. Whether we realize it or not, we give and receive various types of special gifts every day. We give gifts of our time and gifts of our efforts. We also give gifts of understanding, compassion, kindness, and love – even when the recipient is not necessarily “deserving” of the gift. What priceless gestures. It is natural and understandable to give gifts to family and those within one’s “community”. But what about all others? They are surely part of God’s community.
Stories are a powerful tool to emotionalize information. In that spirit, I begin by sharing one about a gift.
There once lived a King. His staff announced a huge celebration to honor him. Dignitaries from near and far attended. As the celebration began, a long reception line assembled consisting of dignitaries bearing expensive gifts to give the King. At the end of the line was an elderly man shabbily dressed. It was apparent from his appearance that he was a fisherman. That was rather odd because the sea was at least a several day walk from the King’s palace. When the man arrived at the front of the line, he presented the King with his gift: a sea shell. The King’s guard then said “you come to our King’s celebration and present him with only a sea shell? This is an outrage!” The man responded by saying, “long journey, part of gift.”
II – Keeping Life Precious – Our Gift to God
Humans have an incredible capacity to give. Stories of people’s generosity of heart and willingness to sacrifice abound. They are treasured sources of inspiration. But Life can be a long journey; and one can get worn down by its demands. That can create alienation, cynicism, and despair – not feelings that promote or nurture one’s ability to give.
a) The “Boredom of Daily Routine”
The renowned author/philosopher, David Foster Wallace, observed that much of our journey consists of the flat out “boredom of daily routine”. Like water is for fish, one could say that our daily routines (and all they involve) are the “waters” in which we typically swim. In his essay, “This Is Water”, Wallace provides several examples of what he means by daily boredom. For example, he challenges us to look at an average work day.
You arise, go to your demanding job, and work hard for a full day. By day’s end, you are exhausted. All you really want to do is to go home, have a nice dinner, and then unwind before heading to bed to get ready for the next work day. But then you realize that you have no food at home (or you are asked to stop by the market on your way home to pick some up). It’s the end of the work day. Traffic is bad. The market is crowded (apparently others are short on food, too). And your shopping cart has a wheel that, as you try to maneuver up and down the aisles, keeps pulling to the left. You think “I don’t need this”!
We can relate; and this is merely one example of the dreary, annoying, seemingly meaningless daily routines all of our journeys include. You get the picture. Those moments, those frustrating “interruptions” from what we really prefer doing, force us to decide – numerous times every day – how to respond to them. Do we take umbrage with Life’s routine? Probably, especially if we view things through the lens of “my hunger”, “my time”, “my fatigue”, or even “my desire.” Doing so leads to a mindset of everyone who is not helping me is simply in my way! Think “me v. everybody.” How truly frustrating!
Feelings of frustration and even anger are only exacerbated when a particular day also includes pain, failure, rejection, disagreement, sadness, or even personal loss. Journeys also take unexpected turns as a result of illness, separation, loss of economic stability, and a host of other setbacks.
b) The Gift of Kindness
Yet, there is another, personal choice for dealing with Life’s “daily routine”. Kindness. It begins with a recognition of the precious gift that we have been given: Life. Each day involves fundamental choices we make – intentionally or by default – regarding how to use that gift. Do we allow Life’s inconveniences to “eat us alive” slowly, or do we keep Life precious? At least part of that answer depends upon one’s focus. Are we proceeding through the ofttimes suffocating existence of each, “boring” day assessing whether those with whom you cross paths “deserve” to be treated kindly? Or should our focus instead be on what motivates us? Each of us has so much more control over the latter.
Clearly, choosing to react with kindness to interruptions, distractions, and “unreasonable people” is not easy. Nor is it likely a game changer. But like the sea shell that the fisherman brought from far away, it is a precious gift. Let us be mindful of how we respond to the mundane moments of daily Life.
No matter what our journey has involved or where it has taken us, we have survived. A forty year, five day a week career translates to roughly 10,000 work days. And a life of seventy years is 25,500 days. By any measure, those are long journeys. And think of the countless interactions we have had with others. In our daily routine, each interaction can be an opportunity to grow as a human being. To get to the “next day”, notwithstanding pain, sorrow, and setbacks, we find the strength, courage, and determination to carry on. Gifts of kindness, respect, friendship, courtesy, love, and, when necessary, forgiveness may seem small. But they matter.
Whenever our paths cross, it is with this unspoken backdrop – these long journeys – that we do so. Each interaction is a gift. Each interaction is unique and helps to keep Life precious, especially if we choose to share the gift of kindness not only with family and friends, but with everyone. When a meeting may be inconvenient and “not according to my schedule”, think of the journey each participant took to get there! Our journey is part of the gift we give to others each day. “Long journey, part of gift.”
III – The Gift of Every Day – God’s Gift to Us
We are expected to “grow up” rather than merely to grow old. Think of the number of people in your remarkable life who have helped you along the way to become who you are! Each of your paths has led you to service as a Vincentian. What a noble calling, if one chooses to respond to that calling and serve with true Vincentian spirit.
Life journeys can be long, tiring, and most challenging. Therein lies why the Vincentian core value of friendship is so essential. As we soldier on through Covid-19 and all other impediments along our way back to God, we can choose to remain inwardly focused, or we can choose to live our Vincentian mission. It is not easy. No one ever said that following Jesus Christ is.
God has given us the gift of eternal life. He has also given us the gift of each other. May we feel and choose to practice both types of love each and every day. Indeed, at those inevitable moments of inconvenience – e.g. at the store, in a traffic jam, at the office, or at home – we can choose to focus on our own interests or those of others. It is up to us to decide. Let us be more mindful of those daily choices.
IV – Conclusion
Last month, I suggested that rather than “return to normal” as previously defined, we strive to emerge from this insidious pandemic having created a “new normal” that focuses more on an inclusive sense of community and the needs of others. For the moment, we find ourselves entrenched in an on-going health crisis that is far from over. Through it all, we retain a freedom to choose how to respond to the daily inconveniences, distractions, injustices, and inequities with which our journey confronts us. May we choose to use the transformative powers of kindness and giving to others for the greater glory of God.
It can be a long journey back to God. Along the way, every day provides ample opportunities to grow spiritually in His name. This Covid-19 crisis has multiplied the daily inconveniences and interruptions that confront us. So let us begin now to view them instead as gifts – opportunities to grow in holiness and closer to God. Little gifts can and do make all the difference in our world.
Covid-19 has also instilled uncertainty – even fear – in so many. Let us see the possible and choose to be part of the solution by shedding our fear and giving the gift of hope to each other.
Best wishes. Stay safe. By the way, the King loves sea shells. Pass it on. “Long journey, part of gift.” God bless.
In Blessed Frederic Ozanam’s name,