Recently, I was chatting with a wise and witty mom, and she mentioned how, at the end of a busy day of errand-running, she sometimes finds herself pulling into her driveway and asking herself, "Wait---were those red lights or green lights?"
This scary revelation really struck a chord with me. Many is the time I've traveled hundreds of yards down a freeway before realizing my mind has been many miles away. And not in a happy, relaxing place, either. Grocery lists unravel themselves down the concrete ribbon beneath my tires. Did I mail that bill? What happened to that shoe-store receipt that I wrote the important phone number on? Mental meal-planing, lesson planning, closet-cleaning strategies, planned confrontations---er, conversations--- with my spouse on important family issues, snappy comebacks to the radio talk show host currently pontificating away on the car's speakers, witty bumper sticker designs to put the driver ahead of me in his place regarding Darwin (at least that one counts as sort of paying attention to the road)---all these things and hundreds more swirl in my head like the bits of litter stirred up by the breeze from my vehicle's passing.
We all know how stupidly irresponsible it is to drink and drive, but how many of us are tempted to text and drive, or take our hands off the wheel to answer that tantalizing ring-tone? Or even merely to adjust the radio? Statistics are proving these habits to be so dangerous that we have a moral obligation to our families, passengers and fellow drivers to just wait and take care of those conversations when our engines are off and our minds focused on the job at hand.
If being mentally "present" while driving is so important, is it important to also be "present" to the people we encounter in the course of our daily lives, even if we're only interacting with them briefly, perhaps will never see them again in this life? Very important, because for the moment, that interaction is the only "real" thing in your life. The past is gone and the future hasn't arrived yet. It never really does.
What's the point of all this rushing through one job in order to get to the next, of multi-tasking, plate-spinning, of bolting one untasted mouthful of food in order to gulp down the next? Where are we getting to that's more urgent than where we are and what we're doing now? Even during lockdown, for those of us who were largely confined to our homes, many of us experienced a sense of aimlessness, a great burden of "what else is coming?" Instead of cultivating peace and patience, we wallowed in dread and became addicted to bad news, always scrolling Twitter to reach a horizon of assurance or enlightenment that never comes.
This kind of distracted rush through life certainly doesn't improve the quality of our work, our relationships, our life. If we take a few steps back and view our lives impassively, we'll probably see that this method of frantic but fruitless productivity actually works against us. We generate a lot of heat, but very little light. By trying to accomplish too much in a day, to occupy every moment with external distractions, we end up doing our jobs badly, leaving them unfinished, which makes us feel frustrated and inferior. And just who are we trying impress with these unproductive habits that have some people, (moms especially) running around like ants on a hot metal plate?
The dictionary defines the words "mindful" and "mindfulness" as being "attentive or heedful". The term "mindful" is used a lot these days in a more Buddhist/yoga context, but in its basic definition, it just means paying attention to what you're doing. Looking a clerk in the eye and smiling
(assuming you're not wearing a mask), listening patiently to a story you've heard from your grandmother several times already, putting an extra flourish on your husband's plate as you serve up dinner, coaching your pre-schooler to to tie her shoe---being "mindful" during these prosaic moments produces more long-term value than multi-tasking; half-listening, mumbling distracted responses, cutting emotional corners.
Being mindful in the moment re-connects with the now. By forcing yourself to take the time to really look at the details of a flower petal, a ripe orange or a sea-shell, you lower your blood-pressure and heart rate, and the humblest aspects of God's creation are rediscovered in your awareness. By looking deeply into the eyes of a friend, spouse or child, by opening your heart and really listening to their mundane observations or surface talk, you may discover what you've been rushing to find.
"The very nature of the Person (Christ) I had met was His now-ness. He was so overwhelmingly and everywhere Present, so that no other time could even exist where He was. It was no good, I suddenly saw, looking for Him in the past...if I wanted to feel the nearness of Christ---and I did want that, above everything else---I would have to find it in the people that He put before me each day."
-----George Ritchie, "Return from Tomorrow"
(c) S.Kirk Pierzchala, 2021. Originally published on the blog, “Beauty and Belief”.