The art of paying attention
Around 7:30 each morning, I dedicate a minute to stand in front of my mirror. I don't mean this at all in a self-indulgent way; the mirror is situated next to my bedroom door, so it is literally impossible to not notice.
When I stand there, I face three sticky notes. Over the summer, I had scribbled them with thoughts about and lines from pieces I'd read: the first cites Mindy Kaling's commencement address, a few words about consistently maintaining self-confidence; the second references a New York Times Op-Ed by David Brooks ("Your Loyalties Are Your Life") which highlights the importance of loyalty and routine.
But the third is most important to me, at least for right now. It's a quote by Mary Oliver: "Instructions for living a life," she wrote. "Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it."
Under Mary Oliver's instructions, I haven't been doing a whole lot of "living." I've realized how easy it is to become overwhelmed by global issues. Earth is withering as a result of climate change. A slew of mass shootings ripped through the South in August. Six teens have recently died from vaping. A Supreme Court justice was accused of sexual harassment, again. Things feel vulnerable and subject to continuous intensification. I often feel disengaged, helpless and caught adrift in the chaos.
But I've found that I can't let myself spiral into paralyzing concern about these issues. I feel a civic duty to contribute to solutions, but I also know that I should understand and define my limitations as an individual. Simply put: to realize that I am not capable of single-handedly solving these issues is necessary.
The future is defined by uncertainty, some of which seems discouraging. But instead of ruminating over that uncertainty, Mary Oliver urges me, let me find groundedness in the life that surrounds me. To observe small happenings reveals a new kind of peace. And so this is exactly what I have started to do: observe.
I now keep a running mental list of these observations: the way in which the rain sprinkles and then pours outside my window, the smooth spin of pottery wheels, the slugs and snails that scatter my neighborhood sidewalks, the click of a door upon entering or leaving, the clarity of stars on winter nights.
These moments of astonishment are utterly meaningless to the politician or the businessman, but they mean everything to me. Often I find myself concerned with abstraction and theory that I lose appreciation of the tangible beauty around me. The world's issues demand my attention, but so does mental clarity. I know that I cannot dedicate my energy wholly to the world's problems, and so I reserve some for the necessary, small happenings. Each morning, Mary Oliver's words remind me of this balance. Then, throughout the day, I follow her instructions: I pay attention, I find myself astonished, and I tell.
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