“Don't underestimate the value of doing Nothing, of just going along, listening to all the things you can't hear, and not bothering.”
I've quite an affinity for one of my boyhood heroes and adulthood philosophical role models, Winnie the Pooh. Playwright, whimsical essayist, poet, murder-mystery novelist, and children's story author A.A. Milne created a hundred-square-acre universe ideal for people quite content with their headspace and for exploring meaningful and important things through the lens of a tattered yellow bear and his best friend, Christopher. Milne examined the value of friendship and of solitude, the pain of drowning in meaningless contact and in loneliness, and the question of to what extent ideas in the head can be applied to the world experienced by working, tired eyes. Feed them to the young while they are not yet arrogant enough to learn and they'll treasure them forever in their hearts.
In the course of merely two children's books about that magnificent bear, Milne hands to children the tools to fend off the great wave of Terrible which is waiting until they're just old enough to understand it to engulf them.
Look for a second at some of the words from the wise honey-guzzler printed above: in no way do they condone laziness, as some of Pooh's Scrooge-hearted critics have suggested. In no way do they promote complacency or apathy or an overly optimistic look at a sometimes extremely harsh reality, rather they gently remind of a crucial, ancient truth and effective way of dealing with it.
Not bothering is an art form and a journey, for if it were natural, I wouldn't need to write a dang blog about it.
The Usual Stuff; or, The Futility of Freaking Out
You can hear it now: you're sitting in an agedly comfortable couch with a cup of Folger's decaf house blend steaming in a cup with accompanying saucer, talking with Grammy about some terrible stress forcing your shoulders into a slump when she hands you a cookie and intones something of a Proverb about "don't worry about it" that would be cliché were it not coming from her gentle soul. She speaks from years of experience; from seeing countless "dire" situations pan out or not, and still life trudges on. She's seen the futility of freaking out.
"Don't Bother" is most often said to us when it's that moment of freak-out. Don't worry. Scripture about "I take care of the birds and animals, so just chill already." Hakuna Matata. It's natural in those scenarios where the one entrenched in it feels as though their world is collapsing on their head needs to be reminded by those outside the wreckage that it really isn't as bad as it looks from inside. But this only gets half of the picture right.
The Parts Forgotten; or, The Other Side
We're all about not freaking out when the times get terrible, no? We say, "keep a level head, kid; it's bad now, but it'll get better." Sounds perfect, right? I believe this attitude to be poisonous, and I believe our outlooks are inherently skewed. Allow me to explain.
It's perhaps understandable that we prefer the plenty to the want, the ordered to the chaotic, the times where Favor is on our side to the ones where that elusive Fate is skirting about our path, wagging its tongue at us and chiming a childish, singsongey taunt. It's simple: we prefer easy to hard, happy to sad, and it's easy to be happy when things are working out. On the good days. But living in such a way as to prefer it one way or the other is like living for the drops in a roller coaster: you'll have incredibly quick, spurting moments of joy with a whole lot of buildup and disappointment to endure to get there.
So what if you could learn to love the buildup too?
Let me quit talking in metaphor for a moment (I think in metaphor, okay? Give me a break). I'm talking here about learning to love the terrible, to savor the bitter, to take the utterly sad by the hand and invite it to coffee (sorry... metaphor again. That didn't last long). The second you begin preferring the easy to the hard is the second your days will become increasingly weary and sad: because honestly, "happy" doesn't come around all that often. It's the drops in the roller coaster: you've got to climb to get there.
It isn't enough to say "I embrace the difficult, because without 'difficult,' 'easy' isn't possible." It's the trouble of dualism: you can't embrace the one because it makes the other possible, you must embrace the two together. The Yin and the Yang, if you will.
"Hamilton, you're sounding awfully Buddhist today. What's the deal?"
It's true, I've quite an affinity for the philosophical implications of Buddhism (not the Nihilistic, "religiony" portion that came out of their squabbles with Hindus, I'm talking merely about the philosophy of it). One of the pillars of Buddhism is that Life is Suffering, so deal with it. (Note: it also teaches loving your neighbor as yourself, moderation in all things, the folly of Human wisdom, the essentiality of meekness, charity, purity, and humility, and the futility of Materialism. Sound familiar?)
Fear not; I am no Buddhist. But I am quite a lover of Truth, for my Lord is called Truth, so Truth, in any place it is found, must be from Him. And I feel as though there is a lesson that can be taken from an aspect of this millenia-old (yes, older than Christianity) pattern of thought in regards to the topic at hand.
Let me do this in the form of a question, because I can already feel my usual crowd shifting in their seats: what if we embraced the bad stuff (i.e. pain, suffering, horror, terror, injustice) not just because it leads to its preferred opposite, but because they are valuable in and of themselves? What if we took the bad with the good, so to speak, instead of simply enduring the bad to get the good?
I'll make it a little more Christiany, for perhaps the Christian powerhouse Paul said it most eloquently, far more so than Gotama Buddha or any of his followers (I promise I'm coming around in the end). What if we saw that contentment was possible in all situations? In the imprisonment, in the persecution, in the times when you're being bullied, when you're feeling pressure, when you're feeling fat, when you're feeling lonely, when you've just won the lottery, when you've just spent the last of your month's budget on a surprise car malfunction, when your plans work out marvelously, when your faith in someone is proven to be horribly misplaced, when you get stabbed in the back, when you lose your favorite pen, when your package gets lost in the mail, when your house burns to the ground, when your business flourishes and allows it to grow tenfold in a year's time, when you can't sleep through the night and you have an important meeting the next day? Want me to go on? I can.
Paul said that he's learned how to be content in all of that. Content. That means "not wanting to change it." Not "hoping for the opposite," not "wishing for the present to extend any further than it must," not "living for when the bad turns around;" he is content in all things. How?
Why, it's the verse that means "God's going to let me win this football game," of course (heavy sarcasm): "All of this I can do through Christ who strengthens me."
What this kind of mindset does, of course, is thoroughly destroy the American ideal of "everything is fine, everything is fine, everything is glittering, gold, and fine." If you are a Christ-follower, that mantra is impossible; things are rarely fine. For you.
For all-powerful, omniimportant, ultimately worthy ME.
How can Paul say the kind of thing that he does about contentment, while he's freshly bleeding from a scourging and probably months-hungry in a damp, dark, stony prison? Because he knows that he's about something bigger than Paul. If he were to celebrate the easy times more than the hard, he'd automatically have shifted that focus: it'd be about "What makes Paul comfortable" instead of "what brings my King glory?"
Can you stand on the deck of a ship after all you love has been ripped from you and sing "It is well with my soul?" Can you receive a scholarship to the school of your choice and sing the exact same song? Stand on the street corner peddling for change? Have a difficult confrontation with a friend? Get an A on a test you studied weeks on end for? Run late for an appointment?
Yes, you can. But not until YOU are not the goal, the recipient of both the good and the bad, rather it is the same Christ who strengthens you. Don't say, "don't worry, it'll get better," because the opposite is more true, more often, and more immediate: "Don't dwell on this upturn, it'll get worse."
What you have to do is remove yourself and your comfort from the equation and thrust it on the goal you claim you're living for, should you be following the same Christ I am (and if you're not, I'd be more than happy to talk to you :) ). Toss the good with the bad on the Cross, and pray not for the release from the difficult. Pray instead that you be carried by the Christ who begs you to rush to His embrace; I promise he can shoulder you.