When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
“The Peace of Wild Things,” by Wendell Berry, in The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry. Copyright © 1998)
These past many days have been sobering ones here in Toronto. In the aftermath of the inconceivable actions of one person that resulted in ten deaths and a number of seriously wounded victims, I felt the sense of “despair for the world” descend on my mood, a feeling I had all too often the years we lived in California and watched in horror the newscasts that too frequently often began with another school shooting or some other act of violence. Returning here, to a city I love, offered a respite from those all too common events, a chance to regain my footing. And then, tragedy struck here: a van attack by a troubled young man–and Toronto was in shock with the stark reminder that, in today’s world, no place is immune to these senseless acts of violence and the loss of innocent human lives.
Where does one find the kind of peace that Berry describes? In our over-developed, crowded cities, where life seems to be defined by constant motion and noise, how can we reclaim the sense of peace, of gratitude for the world, so necessary for the human spirit to heal? These past many days, I’ve followed this city’s response to a violent and unimaginable tragedy. I’ve been touched by the way in which people came together to offer support and solace to one another and the families and victims of this tragedy. Last night, thousands of citizens, national, provincial, and religious leaders of all faiths walked together along the route of the attack before joining in a vigil to honor and remember the victims of the attack. Many expressed that coming together was not only a way to remember those lives lost in the tragedy, it was also a way to begin, somehow, to come to terms with the shock, grief, and loss, to begin to heal and find a sense of peace, to heal. One person put it this way: “I come because this is, I guess, a part of the healing process. I was here on the day of the accident, and now to get rid of those images, and to overcome those images, I believe this is the best way.” Interspersed throughout the vigil were times of remembrance, prayer, silence and stillness–the necessary ingredients to begin the healing process, find peace and some sense of gratitude for the world.
What is stillness? According to Pico Iyer, travel writer and author of The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere (2014), it’s less about meditation and more about “sanity and balance…a chance to put things in perspective.” We all need time to ourselves. Time to be quiet, reflect, and gain some perspective. Stillness offers that to us. “Going nowhere,” Iyer states, , “isn’t about turning your back on the world; it’s about stepping away now and then so that you can see the world more clearly and love it more deeply.”
If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.
(From: “Keep Quiet” by Pablo Neruda (In: Extravagaria, 1974)
Perhaps our increasing societal numbness to what former President Obama named as “routine” violence in the U.S. and so many other places in the world, is, in part, a result of the constant motion and noise that fill our daily lives. We race from meeting to meeting, social event to social event, respond to dozens of emails and texts each day, spend hours in front of screens when we’re alone. There, we’re assaulted by constant over-stimulation: news, trivia, games, retail offerings, advertisements, on and on. “A big luxury for so many people today,” Iyer says, “ is a little blank space in the calendar where you collect yourself.” That’s giving ourselves time for stillness, the opportunity to be quiet and allow us to care for our inner lives, and to feed our malnourished spirits.
(Illustration by Maurice Sendak, In: Open House for Butterflies by Ruth Kraus, 2001)
Writing for the New York Times in 2012, Iyer cited Nicholas Carr’s 2011 book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. Carr noted that Americans spend eight and a half hours a day in front of a screen and that the average American teenager sends or receives 75 test messages daily. And added to that is our continual exposure to the visual images of violence and suffering dominating the daily newscasts. We’re numbed by the continual assault of information and images. Iyer also recalled the wisdom of Canadian author Marshall McLuhan (The Medium is the Message) in 1967, when he warned his readers, saying “When things come at you very fast, …you lose touch with yourself.”
Think about it. It’s not unlike the “noise” in your head as you navigate the rush of information and appointments when given a diagnosis of cancer or other serious or life threatening illness. You feel overwhelmed and exhausted, yet you keep trying to navigate between opinions and the best decision for your treatment options. It’s quite common that, for a while, the physicians’ voice temporarily becomes your own. You need to give yourself some time to ponder and let things sink in without the clamor of medical opinions or the concerns of loved ones. Only then can you regain the ability to listen to yourself and your heart. Only in stillness can you find your voice, the clarity of what matters most and is important to you here and now.
But little by little,
…as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world…
(From: “The Journey,” by Mary Oliver, in Dreamwork, 1986)
How do you find your voice? Giving yourself times to be still, quiet, and in the moment, can help. Cancer, or any chronic illness, as Dr. Paul Brenner, MD states, “is Life: You hope it can get better but fear it will get worse. There is no choice other than to live into what is happening now.” Those with cancer, he notes, live in the truth of the moment because that is all that exists. Living in what is ultimately is being present to the now, not living with regret for the past nor worrying what the future holds. It’s not always easy, nor does it come naturally. We have to learn to be comfortable with stillness, with the quiet and solitary time so necessary to having a sense of peace.
Stillness, the time to be fully present in the moment, can help us clear away the static, clarify and discover what is truly important. Prayer, meditation, yoga, tai chi, a solitary walk along a wooden trail, an ocean beach–these are things that can help ground us in the present, the here and now and quiet. As Iyer reminds us, stillness–learning to be in the moment—isn’t about turning your back on the world; it’s about stepping away now and then so that you can see the world more clearly and love it more deeply.
I have come to believe that stillness is an important part of what helps us heal, whether we live with loss, cancer, or other chronic illness. During a 2004 PBS interview former poet laureate, Ted Kooser, spoke about his recovery from oral cancer in 1968. During the period when I was in surgery and going through radiation, I really didn’t do any writing. But as I came up out of radiation and was trying to get myself back in some sort of physical shape, I would walk a couple of miles every morning and then find something along that route to write about…It was very important for me to see something from each day that I could do something with and find some order in, because I was surrounded by medical chaos or health chaos of some kind.
Kooser wrote over 100 poems about what he noticed on those solitary winter morning walks, pasting them on postcards and sending them to his friend, author Jim Harrison. In the introduction, Kooser describes how his morning walks helped him heal:
“During the previous summer, depressed by my illness, preoccupied by the routines of my treatment, and feeling miserably sorry for myself, I’d all but given up on reading and writing… One morning in November, following my walk, I surprised myself by trying my hand at a poem. Soon I was writing every day… I began pasting my morning poems on postcards and sending them to Jim…”The result of those poems on postcards was his volume of poetry, Winter Morning Walks : 100 Postcards to Jim Harrison, 2001)
Annie Dillard, in her book, Teaching a Stone to Talk, offers a “recipe” for embracing stillness“At a certain point you say to the woods, to the sea, to the mountains, the world~ now I am ready,. “Now I will stop and be wholly attentive. You empty yourself and wait, listening.—
It is a practice I have embraced in the past many years, one that always helps me right myself and remember what is good and important in the world. I have come to cherish stillness as life seems to be more complex. Perhaps you have discovered the power of it too.
- For this week, consider how quiet and stillness have been part of your healing process.
- When did you discover the value of stillness? What happened in your life at that time?
- What practices have helped you learn to embrace quiet and turn your attention to what is, instead of what was or could be?