Recent events have wound me tightly. I’ve been worrying over my middle school daughter’s ineptitude with homework, fretting over a new lump in my breast, mourning the passing of our neighbor’s dog, and opening my newsfeed with a pit in my stomach. On Monday morning, standing in front of the bathroom mirror, reflecting on nuclear war, undone English assignments and mammograms, my heart began to pound.
“I am battling the approach of a panic attack,” I realized. I’m not alone. In her article, We Can’t Survive in a State of Constant Agitation, Sharon Salzburg tells the story of Jeanine, who wakes in dread to the news on her phone. Fearful that she will miss anything, she lives her day agitatedly glued to a screen:
“She would not respect herself if she turned a blind eye to the painful truths of the world, but the world breaks her heart. This habit does not do anything to help her change the things she is so concerned about. In many ways, it substitutes for action.”
I found Salzburg’s article right after reading about the devastation in California. Okay, I thought, time to shut my computer. Time to act. But how?
My vocation lends itself to contemplation more than action, which is often a source of much consternation for me. Growing up in a family of do-gooders (in the best sense), I struggled with my identity. I felt as though I was put on earth to find beauty, to listen to it, to write it. Such work is so often unquantifiable (hundreds of pages scrapped, hours of quiet seeing and being that seem to help exactly no one). And though my work takes me right into the middle of suffering, my actual output can feel ineffectual and insignificant.
But this work–writing and being–is what I have been given to do. So this week, I took action. I met with people and laughed, prayed, talked and listened. I went for long walks in the woods. I knelt down next to my dog to see the world from her eyes. I stopped to wonder at the way the sun lit golden oak leaves. I made an appointment for a mammogram. I helped my daughter with her homework. I said goodbye to my neighbor’s dog and then I picked a bouquet of flowers from my fading garden for their family. I did laundry and made dinner and wrote.
And I tried to love it all, like so many people have before me. I take strength in the odd, unquantifiably wonderful lives of people like Van Gogh. He never knew that his work would amount to much but understood that living in this world is a complicated, messy thing that has less to do with productivity and more to do with the immeasurable. “It is good to love many things, for therein lies the true strength,” he wrote to his brother Theo, “And whosoever loves much performs much, and can accomplish much, and what is done in love is well done.”
At the beginning, and middle, and end of all things, this is my sacramental work, and your work too. So if the world ends in a blinding flash while I am sitting next to my daughter at the kitchen table; if I am standing in a glade of young alders with my dog; if I am here, at my window, writing; I want to be loving fiercely all the while. For I have found that living well in the mundanity of the day-to-day requires great courage and audacious love.
So wherever you are this week, whatever you are doing, may you have the strength to turn from fear to love. May you choose to hope. May you seek wisdom to do your work well. And may you find joy in this good, infused world.
P.S. What is the good work you have been given? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment on our blog, Facebook, or send us a note . If you’re on Instagram, use hashtag #thisgoodwork. You can find our daily Instagram posts, with quotes from inspiring people and photos of daily wonder, at each_holy_hour.
P.P.S. For further reading to help you in your journey this week, I recommend these articles:
We Can’t Survive in a State of Constant Agitation by Sharon Salzberg;
Vincent Van Gogh on Art and the Power of Love. . . by Maria Popova;
The Hollowness of Autumn Leaves Space for Light, by one of my favorites, Parker Palmer.
Oh, yes, and this one: You’ll Never Be Famous, and That’s Okay by Emily Esfahani Smith
8 thoughts on “Consider: This Good Work of Ours”
I am so sorry about finding lump! Ugh!! Beautiful words and they helped me take a deep breath!
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Thank you, Andrea! That uncertainty we all live with, even when we forget for a while that life IS uncertain-is difficult. In a state of panic, I can’t do any good work-and there is so much good work to be done! On one hand, there’s so much that feels broken on a personal and global level-on the other hand, there’s this transformative work we can all do. That’s where faith helps a good deal, I think-helps us see the reality that love is never wasted and that the world is infused with grace, despite everything. I’m trying to constantly remind myself of this!
Power and strength to you!
Kim, your words are just what I need right now. Thank you so much.
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I am so glad, Lois! May all grace and strength be yours this week.
Kim, I’ve had a level of panic rising,too. It ebbs and flows daily. Given all that surrounds us (over which we have little immediate control), my panic threatens to burst out of me, splashing every surface of my life. A long time ago in the face of a seemingly insurmountable crisis that threatened my family’s well being, I learned to focus on what was right in front of me. The lesson came to me in the form of a cardinal, startlingly beautiful in his redness against my winter backyard. He sat on window sill and looked at me. What did he see? Worry, anxiety, a worn heart. What did I see? Beauty in the moment. Hope, calm, understanding. Blessings on you and your family. Your words are always a great comfort to me.
Ah, Jill, lovely Jill. Thank you. Birds have comforted me greatly as well–and so have the people who are like birds, who are able to live in the moment in grace and ARE just who they are. Apparently to BE like a bird takes a lifetime of hard work. We are all on that journey. I love that moment you describe, this moment of wonder in the midst of crisis. You are an encouragement to me!
Wow! This post was so dead on for me this week, thank you! Like Jeanine, I obsessively track the news throughout the day. Last Monday, I was the first in our family to see the news about the Tubbs fire in Santa Rosa. I realized my husband’s uncle was within a couple blocks of the buildings actively burning there. I immediately jumped into my crisis mode: hounding family members for his address and cell number, locating his home on interactive burn area and evacuation maps, forwarding local news articles and city websites to his children and sister, and finally making contact with him personally. He had been evacuated at 2am Monday. The fire had taken the first two houses on his street, but his house was spared. As I worked frantically to learn of his safety and reach out to help, I became aware of the contrasting lack of concern on the part of my husband’s family. They assumed their characteristic “All will be fine” stance – a message left on the home phone was enough. Over the week, I moved from panic, to frustration, to plain-old indignation. Why weren’t they worried? Why wouldn’t my mom-in-law reach out herself? Why wait four days before calling his cell? When I suggested it, his niece flat out refused to take in his cats so he could move into our vacation share. To make it worse, I started feeling a vibe like they felt it wasn’t my place to worry so much, to extend a helping hand. It took me a while to realize that by jumping in so quickly, I was making them look derelict. The more I did, the worse everyone else looked. While my intensions were good, I have yet to develop any grace in my efforts, to help in a way that soothes the pain of those I’m trying to help. Yep, as a do-gooder, I’m rather like a bull trying to serve tea. You’re post has helped me let go and seek a gentler, subtler way to express my love for my husband’s family. Tonight, I’ll simply call my mom-in-law to see how her day was.
Alison, first let me say that if I am ever in crisis, I want you on my team! Secondly, I am so glad your husband’s uncle is okay. And thirdly, I love that thought about calling your mother-in-law. It reminds me that I need to do the same! And finally, we are so glad to have you join our discussions here. . .welcome!