Teach us to care and not to care. Teach us to be still. T. S Eliot - Excerpt from the poem Ash Wednesday
I’m often struck by the serendipity of life if one only allows it in. I started a new book this morning, Anne Lamott’s Almost Everything and in it she quotes the excerpt from T. S. Eliot above. Living in the age of information, I was able to google the poem and discover its title. This is serendipitous because my main personal focus for Lent, which started yesterday with Ash Wednesday, is to write every day. Lamott’s book is about hope in our life of despair, how she has navigated the waters of an existentially sad world to find constant hope in the amazing things that humans do to and for each other. It is apropos that much of the first section of Eliot’s poem is about turning away from the ephemeral and towards the everlasting.
“Teach us to be still”. In the world of a pandemic and now a once in a lifetime winter storm that has brought much of what we expect to be normality to a stop, I have noticed that stillness is in short supply in my life. Some of this is due to having a four year old trapped in a house for hours and days on end. But much of it, the mental side, is of my own doing, constantly darting from one thing to the next, a tweet here, a message in Slack there, perhaps another email has come in. This is nothing new. I have struggled with this for years. But it has gotten worse in the last 12 months to the point where reading something of length that is mildly difficult seems beyond my capability.
I’ve noticed that it gets worse through the day as the notifications and the demands on attention grow. By the time the work day is over, my attention has been fragmented and my mind is exhausted, not in a pleasant way after great focus but as if it were a firefly trapped in a jar by a child, constantly flying into invisible walls until it can fly no more. I need to take time during the day for stillness, to allow quiet in the door of my mind.
It is interesting to me the use of “and” in the first line of the excerpt above. When I first thought about the line, I assumed it was an “or”. But an “or” there would have a different, sadder, more desolate meaning. It would be asking to be taught nothingness. Instead, the “and” asks for hope, to be able to care but also to not care, especially, within the context of the larger poem, to let go and be still. We should care about the inhumanity in the world but we should also know what we can affect. We should let go of that we cannot change, not unlike Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer.
The irony of course is that a massive winter storm is the perfect time for stillness. There is nothing to else to do for several days. Yet I felt constant restlessness and irritation. I’m hoping that a return to more meditative pursuits during this Lenten season can teach me to be still again.