Life is hard. I know. Bills pile up, children rebel, bosses yell, friends betray, illnesses ravage, loved ones die, spouses leave, and madmen walk into buildings with semi-automatics blasting a path of destruction and desolation.
The Church doesn’t call life “a valley of tears” for nothing. Like it or not, for as long as we walk though this valley, tragedy will circle around us—sometimes hovering at a distance, sometimes gripping our hearts so fast and close that we think there can’t possibly be a tomorrow.
Again, I get it. I’ve been there. Give me an hour and I might be there again. None of us ever knows how close suffering is until it’s upon us. Everything can change in an instant.
One thing, however, never changes. Life, incredibly hard though it may be, is still a gift—an impossibly lovely, completely unrepeatable, totally undeserved gift. And just as tragedy circles round us every day, so does joy. So does beauty. So does wonder.
The key to not going mad in the midst of the tragedy is to seek out the joy, look for the beauty, and revel in the wonder. It’s to greet each moment with the expectancy of a child, hands held out, hearts open, ready to receive whatever little grace God has for us in that instant.
The good news is that there are so many graces. There are more graces than tears. There are more graces than crosses. And the graces are not hard to find. They’re even less hard to receive. But, if the happenings of yesterday—whether in Washington or your own corner of the world—have made that truth difficult to remember, here are nine shortcuts to seeing and receiving the ordinary graces that surround you everyday.
1. Dance with a baby. Or chase a toddler. Build a Lego tower with your nephew. Host a tea party for your nieces. Wrestle with your kids. Wrestle with your best friend’s kids. Do something entirely undignified and decidedly not grown up with whatever little ones God puts in your path today. Forget about the deadlines, the laundry, and the homework for a mere 30 minutes and let a child show you how she sees the world. Or, more accurately, let a child show you how you once saw the world, so you can see it that way again.
2. Write a check. Not for something you want, but for something someone else wants. Better yet, for something someone else needs. Discover the joy of giving generously. Make a donation to your favorite charity. Mail a money order to a friend who’s having trouble paying his kids’ tuition. Have groceries delivered to your out-of-work sister. Leave a pumpkin spice latte on the desk of the co-worker who just got reamed by your boss. You don’t need to be flush with cash to be somebody’s Secret Santa. You just need eyes that can see the struggles of those around you and a heart that’s sensitive enough to know how you can best help people in those struggles without also hurting their pride.
3. Go for a walk. A slow walk. A rambling walk. A walk in the park. A walk in the museum. A walk in the neighborhood brimming with impeccably restored brownstones. Don’t overthink it. Just set your feet in the general direction of something beautiful, and go. Then, as you walk, soak that beauty in. Give thanks for it. Ponder it. Beauty is a window through which we encounter God. It heals. It comforts. It restores. Surround yourself with beauty for a few sacred minutes, and let it do its thing in you. Eventually, it always does.
4. Call a friend. Not just any friend though. Call the friend who always makes you laugh. Or the friend who always understands. Or the friend you haven’t talked with in months. Call the friend who needs to hear from you. Don’t text them. Don’t email them. Don’t tell yourself you’ll do it tomorrow. Do it today. Dial the number and hear the voice of someone who knows you and loves you, who finds you interesting and funny and delightful and who you likewise find interesting and funny and delightful. Swap stories. Tell jokes. Share book recommendations. Or shoe recommendations. Whatever floats your boat. But do share. And do delight in the singular pleasure that comes when two like minds meet as one.
5. Clean a closet. Seriously. Go find the messiest closet, cupboard, or drawer in your house and empty it. Pull every last thing right out. Scrub it down on the inside. Then, sort through all those things you pulled out. Make piles: throw away piles, give away piles, store away piles, and put away piles. Next, if you like, run out and buy yourself a couple handy-dandy organizing devices—dividers and containers and whatnot. Finally, put those piles where they go: in the trash, in the car, in the attic, or back in the closet. The process may take an hour, a day, or a week. But when you’re finished, in god-like fashion, you will have brought order to one little corner of your universe. It may be a small victory compared to the chaos currently trolling Creation. But it will be a victory nonetheless. Don’t knock it.
6. Play in the dirt. Plant something. Make green things grow. Or play in the water. Or the woods. Or a pile of red-gold leaves in your backyard. Get dirty. Get sweaty. Get wet. Do something productive or do something fun. It doesn’t matter. The important thing is to do it without the computer, smartphone, or tablet in tow. Leave them behind. Forget about them and the billion and two emails, texts, and status updates competing for your attention and fragmenting your mind. Let it all go and revel in some bit of the world made by God, not by a factory worker in China. It really is a good world. Spend some time getting to know it.
7. Make something pretty. Or something tasty. Make something cool. Make something manly. Just make something. You are the image of the God who created all things. As His living image, you’re supposed to be a creator too. So, get busy. Create a scarf. Create a bookshelf. Create a garden or a dinner or a dress. Create a poem or a song or a painting. If you can’t paint a still life, paint your bedroom. Create a beautiful space. Again, just make something. Take a momentary break from being a consumer and be the creator God designed you to be. Become who you are. And wonder at that.
8. Light a fire. Not a big one. Well, maybe a big one. If you’re outside. But a small one will do just as well. You can light a fire in your fireplace. You can set a blaze roaring in a backyard pit. Or you can simply burn a few candles in your living room at dusk. But do light a fire. Sit before it. Feel its warmth. Bask in its glow. Let your mind wander. Don’t do anything. Just be. Let the work and the worrying wait as you watch the flames. Give thanks for the moment. Give thanks for a light in the darkness. Give thanks to the Light in the darkness. Sit with Him there. And when you eventually have to walk away, ask Him to walk with you. He always will.
9. Go to Church. Don’t go for Mass or Morning Prayer or anything formal (although you should do those things as well). Rather, go for no reason at all. Go sit in an empty church. Sit in the quiet. Find “the still point of the turning world” beneath the Cross, inside the Tabernacle. Sit before Him and look. Look at Love who died for love of you. Contemplate what He endured for the sake of you. Marvel at that. Praise Him for that. Say thanks for that. Then, ask Him for the grace to do likewise—the grace to love, the grace to suffer, the grace to endure.
To that request, He will never say no. He won’t necessarily make the loving, suffering, or enduring easy. But He will make them possible. And, eventually, he’ll show you the beauty in it. He’ll show you the beauty in all things. He’ll show you truth and goodness too. He’ll show you that, in the end, crosses burn up and tears dry up, but truth, beauty, and goodness remain. Even if their presence eludes us now, even if they’re hidden behind a veil of suffering, they are there and they endure. They are eternal. They’re the most real things in this world of ours. And if we hold on to the end—loving and laughing, praying and sacrificing, dying to ourselves over and over again—then, one day, truth, beauty, and goodness will be all we know.
The rest will be as ash.