It has been a couple of months since I’ve had the time to sit down and send out a message like this. As many of you know, in the late autumn my mom was diagnosed with some serious health issues. For many months, I’ve been focused on making trips to Michigan to be with her and my dad, while trying to keep up with work tasks and the farm (yes, we have been planting, weeding, harvesting and growing things all winter…hoop houses and the Tennessee climate make for a year-round growing season). Frankly, it’s been a little overwhelming.
I am extremely grateful to this community for the grace of some very flexible sabbatical time, which has allowed me to alternate weeks of focusing on church things with weeks of just attending to my family. My mom, by the way, is doing great, for which I am also extremely grateful. And I’m also grateful that we are beginning to return to a more ‘normal’ church life—in-person services, masks optional, with some music during, and coffee after the service. And yet…
I can only speak for myself, but I’m hearing this a lot from other people…while 2022 may be a little easier in some ways than 2020 or 2021, there’s still a whole lot going on that can feel overwhelming. The Russian war on Ukraine is truly horrible. It is devastating from a humanitarian perspective, and significantly impacting the whole world, both emotionally and economically. Though Covid is better, it isn’t gone. A man I went to school with (much younger than I) caught it a couple of weeks ago and died within days. Climate change is a real thing—I lost my entire blueberry crop a couple of weeks ago to that last snow/freeze which came on the heels of really warm weather. And I spent 20 minutes filling up my gas tank this weekend, because (as the guy at the station explained) supply chain problems mean they can’t get new filters for the pumps, and the old dirty filters make the pumps reaaaaalllllllyyy slllooooowwww.
All right, the truth is that my life is still awfully cushy. It is, in comparison to many other people’s lives, downright extravagant. I have a wonderful home in a beautiful place, a family I adore, work and a community that I treasure, and a very comfortable life. But it’s impossible to ignore the repeated, subtle, on-going hits from the larger world.
We are truly interconnected.
Covid. The economic impacts of war half a world away. The effects of global climate change on the food I’ll be able to put in my freezer this winter. These are all very real proof that we are interconnected. And that can make me feel a little powerless sometimes. I mean, if all the other people on this planet—their choices, their struggles, their behaviors—can have such a huge impact on my day-to-day life, how in the world am I supposed to feel like I have power to shape my life?
Thinking about this earlier today, I was reminded of something I learned many years ago. I used to be part of a program that taught elementary children how to avoid and resist abuse. A basic concept we taught the kids was the difference between passive, assertive and aggressive action. And it occurred to me that these distinctions are relevant today.
Being passive is giving up, being resigned and hopeless, saying ‘there’s nothing I can do.’ Being aggressive means fighting, lashing out, attacking, resorting to defensiveness and expecting the worst. Being assertive, though, is a middle ground that leaves room for healthy action. It means acknowledging what’s happening, standing in our center, and taking conscious action to set boundaries or move forward.
Being assertive requires being fully present; it means deep breaths and open eyes. It means pausing to assess a situation, becoming aware of our gut reactions (emotional, mental, and physical), and then choosing what steps to take. We cannot possibly control all the things happening in the world that impact us, but we can take assertive, conscious action to improve the situation.
And at the center of this sort of presence, of being able to be assertive, is the breath. It is impossible to be anything other than present if we are truly attending to our breath. One of our beloved UU songs gives us a practical way of doing this:
When I breathe in, I breathe in peace.
When I breathe out, I breathe out love.
As I breathe in and out, consciously, I calm my mind and body, and then more aware of my options. My mind clears, my panic subsides, and my resolve grows stronger. While I cannot control the whole world, I can choose to respond rather than react. I encourage you to breathe—whenever passivity or aggression knock on the door, breathe mindfully, and invite centered presence to show you the way towards assertive, steady action for the common good. And, in fact, we are all breathing together, exchanging the air on our planet with one another and the rest of life. Our breath literally connects us.
So let’s all breathe together, and make conscious choices to respond to a world that needs us.
In faith and hope,