Go, go, go. Do, do, do. That seems to be the mantra of our times. We feel like a failure if we are not doing something. If we have to stay home or sit still, we say we are bored. We have music in our ears and smart phones in our hands. We have several windows open on our computers. We channel surf. We text. We call someone to say nothing important, we just want to escape the silence. We fear silence and solitude. We are, I believe, coming to fear ourselves because we no longer know ourselves as well as we once did when we knew how to simply be.
When we simply be, we notice things like the blue belly lizard doing push-ups in the warm sun on our front porch. We notice people walking by us and nod a greeting. We notice the taste of the food we eat. We hear the birds chirping at midnight. We are attuned to the world around us, and if we listen, we might hear, and if we hear, we might know, and if we know, we might change, and the world might become a better place, but first we need to spend some time simply being for a while.
When we simply be, we imagine. We see shapes in the clouds; we consider ideas not previously considered; we dream when we are awake, and when we dream, we can make new realities, but first we have to dream, and to do that we have to simply be for a while.
How do we stop this whirlwind we are caught up in? How do we learn to embrace silence? How do we learn to be? Often times, we learn the joy of being when we are sick. Then, we rediscover the simple joys of our mother’s chicken soup and listen to the music of the wind through the trees or the rain drumming on our roof.
One of the loveliest women I know, my friend Orlagh (pronounced Orla) in Ireland, has had to learn to simply be due to a baffling, debilitating disease. In the fall of 2002, Orlagh caught a seemingly simple flu, but she never got better; instead, she developed myalgic encephalomyelitis that endures to this day. Before her illness, Orlagh ran marathons, taught women’s studies all over Ireland, and was working on her PhD. Now, my dear friend spends her days husbanding her strength in order to tend her beloved animals and garden. A short trip to the market can leave her exhausted for days. By necessity, she rarely sees anyone but her neighbors, and she rarely talks on the phone because it drains her energy. My friend Orlagh has had to make peace with simply being because it is impossible for her to go and do anymore.
This is not to say Orlagh is happy about her situation, but neither is she angry or frustrated. She has, as they say, come to terms with her situation. Orlagh and I had the great joy of talking together last week when she felt strong after a nap. She allowed an hour for us to talk, and we chatted and laughed, filling each other in on the nine months of our lives since we last spoke together. Orlagh touched my heart when she told me that she read every page of my book Dueling With Dementia: Not The Love Story We Planned. It is very difficult for Orlagh to read much these days. She gets headaches, and her eyes can’t focus for long, so her reading my book was a special gift, a treasure to cherish.
We got into a discussion about how neither of us is living the life we thought we’d be living when we first met in the hospital twenty-two years ago when she brought my one day old son Grant to me from the hospital nursery. Orlagh was a nurse, and I noticed her name and asked if it was Gaelic. We began to talk excitedly about Irish myths and legends, and we became fast friends, and our friendship has grown and strengthened despite the thousands of miles that separate us after she returned to Ireland. We knew exactly what each of us had planned for our lives, and we know how very different our futures turned out from what we’d planned.
Orlagh was a bit wistful about how little she can impact the world these days. But I told her that she makes a huge difference in the lives of everyone who knows her. She demonstrates grace under pressure every day of her life. She cherishes her animals and treats them as family. She grows a lovely garden of vegetables to feed her each year. Her home is charming. She always has a friendly wave for a passerby. She has learned the secret to simply being, and that secret is being the best you can be in the moment you are in. If all you can do is smile, then smile with a light in your eyes because that light might chase away the shadows in someone’s soul who is passing by. And when Orlagh smiles at you, she shines so brightly that not a single shadow can withstand her light.
We, too, can learn the secret of simply being, and we don’t need a debilitating illness to do so. First, we need to embrace silence and solitude. Only then can we hear truth whispering to us, and after we hear what truth has to say, we can begin to go and do again because we will know how to use our going and doing to make the world a better place.