A couple of weeks ago, I went out for a walk with my year-old grandnephew, Sterling, and his mother, Angie. He tried out his new running skills on a steep hillside—with Angie of course trotting backwards below him, to be sure he didn’t fall. He discovered the sounds of walking on a metal grating and a wooden floor, and then tried them both again. He scraped mashed blackberries off the sidewalk and sampled them, and then did the same thing with a dried slug.
I saw—and shared—the delight and wonder of discovery, as he pointed out a dead leaf on the blackberry bush, a stain on a brick wall, a passing airplane. As he practiced squatting down and standing up, stamping his feet, picking up and dropping chestnuts and acorns and stones. How amazing to be experiencing all these things for the first time!
What does it mean to become as a little child? Partly, it implies innocence, seeing things freshly, as if for the first time. Sterling makes no judgements between slugs and stones. They’re both interesting, both new sensations for his hands. One is squishy and sticky, the other is not. Fascinating!
Recently, a lovely little book came out, called the Seattle Walk Report, by Susanna Ryan. This is a sort of guidebook to Seattle neighborhoods, but it’s very different from other guidebooks. This one doesn’t dictate which streets or corners or stairways you should walk to see the neighborhood. Rather, it actually is a verbal and graphic report of what the author has seen on her walk. Yours will probably be very different. Here are a few of her impressions of Capitol Hill as she walked south on Broadway, up through Volunteer Park, and north on 15th. She advises you to “be on the lookout for
She tallies the number of coffeeshops and people in construction she passes. She notes strange places to see paper cups—on a “no parking” sign, wedged into a fence, in a little free library. She spots a greyhound standing next to a sign that clearly says “no dogs allowed!” She discovers there are an average of 7 stickers on Capitol Hill fire hydrants, based on her survey of 30 hydrants, and she divulges the location of an alligator drawn into the sidewalk on East Union between 11th and 12th. And now you’re going to want to go see it for yourself, aren’t you?
I think this is the kind of guidebook Sterling might write. It documents what happens when you are completely focused on your here-and-now. As Susanna walks, she has no destination in mind, no chores to do, no people to meet. She is where she is, observing, listening, staying alert and interested in what is around her. Like Sterling, she does not judge the people who disposed of their paper cups in unapproved places. She just finds them interesting and noteworthy.
Japanese people have invented what they call “forest bathing”—the practice of spending unstructured time in a forest—and Seattle is so blessed with forests. If you’re in the city, there’s probably one close to where you are right now. The goal of forest bathing is not to count steps or altitude gain, or even walk very far. Nor is it to identify species, or their usefulness. It is simply to spend time with the forest—with the smells of cedar and fir and berries, the sensation of soft, uneven earth under your feet or the textures of bark against your fingers, the sounds of birds and small animals and maybe a creek, or even just the patter of fir needles and tiny twigs and bits of lichen that are constantly falling. Here is no agenda other than just experiencing both the moving and rooted beings around you, just being a creature of God surrounded by other parts of creation.
Living completely in the present like Sterling and Susanna and the forest bathers won’t solve global warming or homelessness. It won’t make COVID go away or solve systematic racism. But it can bring us moments of delight and peace and rest—intermissions between our bouts of work about all these problems—refreshments to keep us going.
Something that’s been happening to a lot of us in these last few months is a loss of empathy and of a sense of connection—a feeling of either indifference or irritation about being asked to pay attention to just one more catastrophic situation or one more instance of suffering. Humans evolved in communities of about 100 other people, and our ability to empathize can burn out when one more catastrophe is piled on top of so many others, and experienced by millions. Suddenly or slowly, something breaks in us, and we find ourselves feeling nothing about these issues, because feeling just hurts too much, and it doesn’t seem to solve anything.
Some of the newsgroups I read express that kind of indifference to the deaths of COVID deniers and vaccine avoiders. And sometimes I feel that indifference myself to their suffering, and the pain of those who loved them.
And I don’t want to be that kind of person. And I don’t think you do, either.
Here is another way of being a child. Right now, Sterling’s very life depends on his connection with his parents and other adults who love him. And it’s not just because we feed him and put clean clothes on him and make sure he doesn’t fall downhill. He is also held, touched, kissed, called lovely names, told how important and perfect and beautiful he is.
Babies without loving human contact fail to thrive. But as adults we sometimes think we should have outgrown that lifegiving need for connection. We think we can do it alone. Our TV or computer should be enough to sustain us in our isolation, whether that began with COVID or even before.
We know babies need physical contact and affirmation, but we forget that we do too. Elders without contact also fail to thrive, and so do people of all ages. Loneliness is epidemic in America. Zoom may be the best we can do right now—although vaccination is another tremendous antidote for loneliness, as we begin to gather again. But we all need someone to ask how we’re doing, maybe go for a walk, maybe meet up in a safe place outdoors...This is a part of becoming like a child that we never really outgrow.
But we are also adults. And that means that we can reach out to others as we want them to reach out to us. And we can choose to approach the suffering of others with compassion—even those people whose beliefs and actions we know are terribly wrong. Because they have children, too, and spouses, and friends who care about them. Compassion judges actions that are cruel, indifferent, selfish— even as it works to protect and heal the victims of those actions, and even as it continues to recognize the humanity of those who perpetrate them. Because when we lose sight of the humanity of others, we begin to lose our own humanness.
And as adults, we can recognize when we need to take time out—an hour, a day—to become like a child, to refill the cup of our own humanity. To let ourselves experience the joys of discovery of ordinary things, as Sterling and Susanna teach us, or to experience the calm and peace and connectedness of nature, as forest bathers do, or to reach out to keep the faith of connection with each other as Baldwin says we must.
In those moments of living in the present, with openness and love, we can experience a little bit of the kingdom of heaven.