A few weeks ago, our 4-year-old grandson, Austin, who lives in Portland, Oregon, spent a few days with my wife and me here in Sebastopol. I am thankful that at my age I can still keep up with him … most of the time! One evening our 12-year-old grandson, Ben, joined us for dinner. Ben had accompanied my wife to Portland when they picked up Austin, so he and his cousin had already spent a few days together. After dinner we went around the table saying something we were thankful for. When it was Austin’s turn, he looked at Ben and said, “I am thankful that you like me.” It still brings a tear to my eye when I think of that moment. Austin is a child who has had some issues when it comes to connecting with and caring for others … especially other children. So for him to say what he said to Ben really blew us all away. I will return to Austin in a moment.
Have you heard of “headline stress disorder?” I recently read that, in America today, 54% of people say that following the news causes them stress. And a 2018 study found that 68% of Americans feel “exhausted” by their news consumption. In an article called, “Braking News,” essayist, Frank Bures writes, “Among the many reasons that too much news might not be good for you, the most significant is that news tends to be more negative than the world really is … When we consume these stories continuously, it takes a serious toll on us, making us sadder and more anxious, exacerbating our own worries and anxieties.”
I was a freshman in high school when I read Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden,” first published in 1854. It occurs to me that I need the wisdom of “Walden” far more now than when I was a teenager. He wrote “Walden” while living alone for 26 months in a cabin on Walden Pond. Why did he choose to do this? In his words, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life.” I suspect that many of us may not have the freedom or desire to run off to a cabin in the woods for a couple of years. But I wonder if we busy and distracted Americans might need to step back from all our distractions and spend some time considering just what are the “essential facts of life.”
Which brings me back to the wisdom of a four-year-old: “I am thankful that you like me.” One can’t get much closer to an essential fact of life than that. Yes, I want to be engaged with the world around me in all its pain and glory, but I am increasingly aware that occasionally I need a break — a necessary break. Because I don’t want anxiety and fatigue to cause me to miss the giggle of a child, a small hand reaching out for mine or the sharing of a story. When I think of my most treasured times, they were times when I was just there, attuned to the preciousness of the moment I was in and the people I was with.
Again, I hope it is clear that I am not suggesting complete apathy toward and disengagement from the world around us. But taking a break from the distractions and taking time to “front the essential facts of life” today, can only make us stronger for taking on the challenges of tomorrow. As Frank Bures writes, “To let tomorrow’s worries overwhelm today’s joys is a bad bargain.” Or, in the words of Thoreau, “Let us spend one day as deliberately as Nature, and not be thrown off the track by every nutshell and mosquito wing that falls on the rails.”
The Rev. Gene Nelson is the retired pastor of Sebastopol Community Church.