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Be present in the face of tragedy

A favorite poem of mine is by farmer and activist Wendell Berry entitled, “The Peace of Wild Things.” In it Berry writes:

“When despair for the world grows in me / and I wake in the night at the least sound / in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be, / I go and lie down where the wood drake / rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. / I come into the peace of wild things / who do not tax their lives with forethought / of grief. I come into the presence of still water. / And I feel above me the day-blind stars / waiting with their light. For a time / I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”

I have these lines written in a number of places, including at times on the back of a Post-It note stuck to my cell phone. I carry these verses around with me, not as a reminder to escape from the pain of the world but as an invitational first step to confronting what can often feel like mounting emotional paralysis.

In the wake of hurricanes, wildfires, shootings and large-scale events of that nature, it is easy to feel powerless. It is easy for me to find ways to fill my day with things that allow me to dull out the news. It is easy for me to not give myself the space needed to process, let alone respond.

And yet, as counterintuitive as it might seem, when I allow myself the chance for a short daily retreat, 15 minutes out of my day where I step away from everything and go outside and be, change begins to happen. When I give myself space to be present to the moment, present to stillness, present to silence, I often find a spaciousness that I didn’t know was dwelling right under the surface. I find that my heart is opened, my mind is given a chance to clear and my spirit reaches out with renewed hope.

The power of taking a daily retreat is not the retreat itself, but the space it gives me to think beyond myself, think beyond what is in front of me and sense a deeper connection not only to those near at hand, but around the world. And then out of that spaciousness, respond.

For me, one of the most striking lines of Berry’s poem reads, “And I feel above me the day-blind stars / waiting with their light. For a time?” I am left to wonder: What light in me is waiting for its time to shine? What inspiration? What small act of kindness? What form of advocacy? What creative resistance? What seemingly impossible thing can be given shape when I allow myself the chance to claim anew a bit of space in my day?

So, I would encourage you, when despair for the world begins to grow, to go and find a piece of grass, lie down and see what stirs within you. Be present to the moment and see what small, creative or even wild things begin to emerge and go forth from there.

Know as well that this journey is not one you need to go through alone and that I, and many others on this campus, are here to journey with you.

Rev. Alex Serna-Wallender a Contributing Writer for the Voice, can be reached for comment

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