Under the stars
Where I Look, I Go
Snowboarding turned out to be difficult. I remember my first run down the bunny slope. Every time I attempted a turn, I’d catch an edge and receive a face full of snow. It took me half the day to make it down the bunny slope. On my last run (ever, I thought), a guy noticed that I kept catching my edge and so he stopped to let me in on a secret.
“Hey buddy, let me help you.”
“I’m fine. Thanks though.”
“No really, let me help you… In snowboarding, where you look, you go.”
“Where you look you go. You keep looking down at the snow below you. Try looking up towards where you need to go. And you might want to get a bandage for your chin. It looks like it’s bleeding a bit. Later on bro.”
I figured I’d take his advice. There was nothing to lose.
When I looked ahead, when I looked downhill, my legs and body followed. I made my turns the entire way down the slope without once catching my edge. I just looked ahead and snowboarded. Later in life, I’d realize that this principle for snowboarding would apply to my spiritual life. Where I looked, I went.
I like watching TED talks. You download them off of Netflix. The other day I watched Tony Robbins give a talk. As part of his motivational talk, he told a story from his childhood. It was Thanksgiving day and his family did not even have the money to purchase a meal. His father had been struggling to find work. When a person came to the family’s front door carrying a large basket of food, Tony’s dad walked out on the family. He couldn’t bare the fact that his family needed to receive charity. Tony made a decision in this moment. He decided to focus on the fact that he had food, and on the fact that someone would be kind enough to bring his family food.
For the years to follow he would work to bring food to families in need on Thanksgiving. He currently runs a foundation that feeds over a million people each year on Thanksgiving. Tony could have focused on the fact that his dad just left the family. But he made the decision to look in a different direction.
I used to think about sad things a lot. I’d listen to National Public Radio, some in depth news report about death and torture in a foreign land. I’d turn off the radio and think about my own problems, my girlfriend and I aren’t together anymore, I’m poor, I’m not successful…I get depressed. I switch my stereo to sad music, Bon Iver, that band has sad music. I brood in it. It feels bad…and good. At this point, it begins to rain outside. I sink deeper.
I began to wonder what sort of impact this thinking about sad stuff habit might have on my life in the long term. If I get married, will these melancholy benders erode at my wife’s moral? Maybe she’d end up leaving me. Or what about my work, will my down-and-out-ness cripple my productivity? Maybe I’ll end up homeless.
I decided to bring up this concern to my spiritual director Father Dillard. He’s wise. He even looks wise, like Gandolf. He’s seven foot tall with a gray beard and coke-bottle-framed glasses.
I sat in his office, next to his book shelf of hardbound spiritual classics and told him about this habit of mine.
“What can I say Father, I like sad stuff…I like feeling sad.” Maybe because I get to feel like a victim, and so I don’t need to feel responsible for my life. My life is God’s problem, not mine. He created this mess of a world. I’m off the hook.
Okay so I only told him that first line you see there in quotes.
Then he told me through that full beard which I’m a little jealous I can’t grow, “Do you ever tell God thank you?”
“Um…yea, sure. Before meals and such. I say thank you… alright so I don’t think I say it that much.
As our hour-long session neared its close, I asked if he could hear my confession. He began in the name of The Father and The Son and The Holy Spirit, and told him all of my sins, finally I said that those were all the sins I could recall. Then he gave me this penance: “Spend some time before the Blessed Sacrament and thank God for ten specific things.”
I’ve never received a penance like that from any priest. I usually received penances like, say one Our Father for the virtue of patience, or say three Hail Maries for your friend who made you mad.
After leaving his office, I walked to the nearby chapel at the university, and did just as he directed, I thanked God for ten things. I felt good. Later that evening at home, I knelt down and did it again. When I woke up the next morning, I knelt down again next to my bed and thanked God for another ten things: My bed, the clothes in my closet and in my dresser and on my floor, my hands, God’s presence in my soul, my eyes, my life, the box of Gorilla Munch cereal down stairs in the pantry, my heart, my sufferings, my joys, coffee.
That morning, as I walked out the door to go to work, I didn’t see the cracks in the sidewalk; I saw the sidewalk. I didn’t see the dark clouds above; I saw the light pouring through them. I didn’t see a faint vision of the evil I would face throughout the day; I saw the wet grass below my feet, and looked out at the tens of trees and their leaf bunched branches, stretching wide as if waking up to a beautiful day. God dwelled in this place. In my new-found spirit of thanksgiving, I’d begun to look away from evil. I now fixed my sights on the deifying light that permeated into our natural world. Where I looked, my soul went.
Father Dillard called that penance “an examination of thankfulness”. It’s deliberate. We must choose to do it. Counting our blessings is a choice and a discipline. Use your fingers if necessary.
It’s clear to me now, in choosing to give thanks to God, I end up fixing my sights on the things of God. In the beginning, the inspired writer of Genesis says, God created all things good. Everything was good. That which we perceive as evil (or bad) is not fully a thing. It lacks existence. In the same way that darkness is the absence of light, evil is the absence of good. This means that when we choose to focus on that which is evil, we choose to look into a spiritual black hole. It’s inevitable that our body, mind, and soul follow in this path towards nothingness.
I think we feel more comfortable with nothingness. In his Gospel account, Saint John writes, Men preferred darkness over the light. Of course we’re not happy in nothingness. We weren’t made for it. I’m finally realizing that I want to follow the lead of people like Tony Robbins who seem to choose the light when darkness overwhelms. I want to thank God for everything, things both favorable and not favorable, joys and sufferings, exultation and trials. I want my life to be a journey towards God, and not a constant effort to hide from Him. Where I focus my attention makes all the difference. Where I look, I go.