It would be hard to miss that things don’t seem to be going so well in the world right now. In fact, there’s been a sustained period of “not great” for most people in most places. And for many people, times have been terribly difficult and are getting worse. A brutal war, climate crises so pressing they threaten our very existence, fuel shortages in freezing temperatures, punishing inflation, looming recession, political polarization, an ongoing pandemic and multiple other surging diseases. In the past few weeks my uncle and a friend died unexpectedly. So many people have experienced something similar and much more.
Most recently I’ve noticed my overall state of being slipping into a more despairing place and this isn’t like me. When I feel down, I rarely make it to 24-hours in that frame of mind. I have a philosophical orientation that helps me out of most negative states pretty quickly. But not lately.
This morning I had to be somewhere that was only a short drive away. Maybe it was the forward motion of the car, maybe the brief window of time I had to myself before the appointment, or maybe the beautiful early morning frost casting sparkles off of everything as the sun began to wake the world. Whatever the impetus, a line popped into my head:
Comparison is the killer of joy.
I’ve long appreciated the truth in that maxim but it usually isn’t so impactful for me as I don’t tend to compare my life or myself to others. Today though, the line pierced through to that growing pool of despair within me as I realized I’m comparing what life has become today to what life has been all my life before now and won’t be again, and also to what I fear life will be like in the future.
Until that moment, I hadn’t realized how stuck I was in the temporal, completely unavailable for the present. Without any comparison to what life has been and to what life may or may not become, the present remains open for joy. This morning the sun was shining and beginning to warm the cold winter day. There was a magnificent Cooper’s Hawk perched at the top of a tall conifer. And I was privileged to enjoy the beautifully ordinary scene before me.
The truth is that the prior life I’m grieving the loss of was as temporally beset as life is today. The moments I wish I had back are the ones I was in the present for as they were occurring. And the ones that will be the new ones I treasure in the future that I’ve been fearing will likewise be the ones in which I’m in the present for as they are occurring.
When the idea of just staying in the present moment — dropping the longing for the past and the fears about the future, and instead finding grace, beauty, even joy in what is before you in the moment — feels unrealistically simplistic given the real hardship that is right before you, remember that people everywhere still find things to appreciate in the midst of tremendous challenges. In these moments, they are truly present for what is before them and they show us what that looks like.
If what you’re facing in the present honestly doesn’t allow for this though, then this is the time to be present with the pain, the grief, even the despair. And then keep checking back to see whether the present is really still only the grief, the pain, the despair. There will come a moment when this despair is temporally-bound — when it has come to be about the past or the future. This is the time to just be in the present moment. Find the grace and the beauty and the joy there.
Since my return to the present this morning, my whole being has shifted to a different state. The news, events in my personal life, any number of things, can throw me back into feelings about the past or future, but I’m better prepared right now to come back to the present and find the joy that is here.
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