“Tell your heart to beat again. Close your eyes and breathe it in. Let the shadows fall away. Step into the light of grace.”–Randy Phillips
The world is full of dark things—things that make you wake up in the middle of the night just to make sure morning has come yet. As Tracy Letts said, “Thank God we can’t tell the future. We’d never get out of bed.”
Terrorism, political scandal, wars and rumors of wars, social tensions—and that’s just on a national level. Who knows what variety of personal burdens wears us down. Ailing parents, errant children, dwindling finances, shriveled dreams.
Some of us feel as if we’re just one phone call away from shattering, imploding, jumping the merry-go-round—we want off. Well, at least some days are like that, maybe more or fewer for some of us.
I’m a realist-melancholy myself. My life motto fluctuates between “What a world! What a world!” and “It is what it is” and “Life is good.” It’s a conscious effort to keep myself from rocking in a corner after a bad day at work or after daring to glance at a newspaper (and I’m almost inconsolable after watching the evening news).
Since our move to Goose Hill, I’ve noticed myself taking more deliberate steps toward happiness.
“I like living. I have sometimes been wildly, despairingly, acutely, miserable, racked with sorrow, but through it all I still know quite certainly that just to be alive is a grand thing.”
For all the darkness, God gave us abundant light. I’m grateful for the words He left us, their promises and comfort. He takes our burdens and cares about our needs.* But even beyond the pages of scripture, He’s poured out goodness to help us overcome the gloom. I’m talking about those things which remind you to “tell your heart to beat again.”**
Though it’s nothing earth shattering (thank goodness), here’s a list of things that help me to stay grounded. Maybe they’ll also help you to remember that life will keep going even after your bad day or week or season or year.
- Tend a garden. It’s Laura’s dream to have a vegetable garden (and my dream to throw watermelon rinds and tomato slices out my back door into the compost pile). But for now, we settle for a patio herb garden. It’s comforting to look out and see the cilantro and lavender, chives and rosemary inching their way toward the sun. Sure, it’s been a learning experience—we lost a crop of basil to a late frost and a batch of green onions to root worms (yet haunting Laura’s nightmares). But to watch something grow, to nurture it, and then enjoy the harvest is rewarding beyond measure. It helps me remember that to everything there’s a season.
- Keep plants in every room of your house. Last week, Laura and I made a table arrangement of succulents—hearty little plants that will be hard to kill. But plants like ivy, bamboo, lilies, and philodendron not only cleanse the air of toxins, but also increase oxygen levels (which helps with a great many endeavors). In the dining room corner, we keep a peace lily, one of the many potted plants that my family received when my niece Paislee passed away in February. It provides the perfect reminder that life goes on, even beyond our grief.
- Give nature a visit. We slam the door on restoration when we isolate ourselves from the great outdoors. Get outside at least once a week. A few months ago, Laura sent me an article about the health benefits of walking in the grass in your bare feet. Of course if I tried it here, I’d end up with toes full of goose poop and E. coli. If you live in a goose-free area, go ahead and sink in your toes. We weren’t created in a laboratory or an indoor habitat: God plopped us right in the middle of nature and gave us the command to get our hands dirty. If nature for you means taking a walk down an asphalt path among the dogwoods and erratic squirrels—well, take it.
- Keep wildlife close by. For sure, the animal kingdom has a lot to teach us about ourselves—and it’s scads of fun to observe. Buy a bird feeder and watch the show. Don’t step on the ant for once in your life. Make your peace with spiders and other insects—you need them, and besides you’re out numbered.*** If you want an extreme encounter, buy a microscope and go check out a drop of pond water. Watching wildlife do its thing can be absolutely horrifying but equally as gratifying. In some strange and wonderful way it makes us feel connected to something larger than ourselves and helps put our problems in perspective.
- Find a quiet place. This is the hardest tip for me to take. I’m a busy person—with my hands and my mind. I’m a bit afraid of stillness. But I’m blessed to work close to beautiful botanical gardens. During my lunch breaks, I frequently walk through the paths to add a little silence to my life, to listen for what I don’t usually hear—the birds, my own heart, the rhythm of my body, warning messages my spirit has been sending. For you, a quiet place might mean sitting in the stairwell for a few minutes at your office or turning the car radio off on the way home. Demand quiet time and guard it. The world is a noisy distraction that largely doesn’t want you to think for yourself. But corner your thoughts and figure them out. Put a name to your frustration, a face to your worries, and then deal with them accordingly rather than stuffing them farther down.****
- Surround yourself with light and color. My bedroom looks a bit as if it is sponsored by a cotton candy company—all pink, blue, and white. And I love it because the colors reflect the light. I’m also blessed to have our apartment facing west, so we get all the light from the day—all those last, warm drops at sunset. But even if you live in a windowless apartment, make sure you buy an extra lamp or two to keep it bright, and find at least one picture that makes you happy and brightens your space. (Like the eight-dollar, long and winding country road picture I bought at Hobby Lobby. It’s my favorite wall hanging to gaze at when I need to think about getting away.)
- Enjoy beautiful things. Read poetry (sign up for The Writer’s Almanac emails to receive a poem each day). Read literature (the hard stuff—you know, the books that you have to think about while you read them. Stretch your mind beyond its comfort zone). Listen to instrumental music. Take up a hobby even if it’s just smearing paint on paper or stringing beads to make a necklace. Keep a journal and see what you have to say. Think. Learn. Create. Imagine. Share. Force out the darkness by replacing it with lovely things.
- Find work to do. At the Oscars a year ago, Marianne Moore said, “A happy person is a person with work and love.” Whether she ripped that from someone else or made it up herself, it’s pretty good philosophy (though not air tight). My pastor once said, “We should be living for Monday instead of living for Friday, because Monday is where we find our purpose” And it’s true. Work isn’t a curse; it allows us to be fully committed to something greater than ourselves (even if it’s only delivering pizza to make someone’s Friday night a whole lot better) and to discover our potential and purpose. And at the very least, work gives us permission to think about something other than the things we can’t control.
- Ambush yourself with things to laugh about. I believe in keeping Far Side comic books on the toilet. I believe in searching out comical animal memes. I believe in keeping a comedy in the Netflix queue (currently Last Man Standing). I believe in turning to the funny pages first in the newspaper. And most of all, I believe in hanging around people who appreciate my snarky brand of humor—and who will laugh with me and make me laugh in return. (That’s why I have Laura.) Laughing decreases stress, raises endorphins, and promotes healing and a healthy immune system. It’s one of the most enjoyable things you can do for yourself—and the quickest way out of a dark place.
It doesn’t mean I never have down days. Doesn’t mean that all burdens are an easy fix. It just means that these are my ways of coping with the bad news. Find your own practices and activities to keep yourself in the land of the living.
In fact, I ended on the uneven, very-perturbing-to-my-OCD-heart number 9. So maybe you could give me a good number 10! I’d love to hear about what keeps you happy in the comment below.
* George Herbert discusses the theme of rest in his poem “The Pulley.” He said, “Yet let him keep the rest,/But keep them with repining restlessness;/Let him be rich and weary, that at least,/If goodness lead him not, yet weariness/May toss him to my breast.” God uses stress, weariness, or even despair to send us seeking the rest only found in a relationship with Him. But He also bestows good gifts (like those in my list) to remind us of the rest we have in Him.
**Lyrics from one of my favorite songs. The author (Randy Phillips, from the Christian music group Phillips, Craig, and Dean) tells the supposed story behind the song: “Finally the surgeon knelt down beside his patient and he took off his surgeon mask and said ‘Mrs. Johnson, this is your surgeon. The operation went perfectly, your heart has been repaired now tell your heart to beat again.’ When he said that the heart began to beat. When I heard this story I thought I’ve got to write this song because there’s so many people who have experienced so much brokenness to their heart. And even though God the great surgeon has saved us and repaired us, covered us with his grace, sometimes it takes you and me to tell our own heart ‘beat again, love again, hope again.’”
***Smithsonian states that there are 900 thousand kinds of known insects—they make up 80% of the world’s species. “At any time, it is estimated that there are some 10 quintillion (10,000,000,000,000,000,000) individual insects alive.” Yeah, you’re surrounded.
****There’s a reason scripture tells us to take every thought captive (2 Corinthians 10:5), to meditate (Psalm 119:15-16), and to think on positive things (Philippians 4:8). The Psalmist promotes early morning rising, and Jesus promotes restful getaways. Quiet time is probably a good idea, you think?