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