Instead of the words, "Don't just sit there, do something!" perhaps what we need to hear is, "Don't just do something, sit there!"
There are so many things to be done in this world—things to build, things to fix, things to plan. How does anyone have time to be idle?
The Summer Day
by Mary Oliver
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
What does it mean to pay attention to something else? It means looking more closely when we see something out of the corner of our eye. It means waiting quietly and patiently, with our hand open and still while the grasshopper finishes eating sugar off the palm of our hand, giving up our timeline and leaving it to the grasshopper to fly away when she is ready. It also means listening to the person who is across the table from us with all of our attention, not just a small corner of our mind.
Giving our attention to something else costs us. It costs time, which may appear wasted if we are anxious to move onto doing something more active than looking, listening, and paying attention (notice the word “paying” there). Even more than time, it costs a piece of ourselves, for when we truly pay attention to something else, we give that something else space in our life. What we receive for that attention is a deeper and changed connection to that being—whether it is the person across the table from us, a grasshopper, or God.
If we drive by the field at 50 miles per hour, we will most certainly miss the grasshopper within the field. We will also miss the image and memory of those complicated eyes and the awe they might have evoked. In order to see the grasshopper, we need to slow down…way down, with our minds as well as our bodies. Yes, there are a million things to do, but what might go missing from our lives if we don’t take the time to be idle? The blessing, perhaps.
Every square foot of this world contains wonders, whether we notice them or not. Pieces of grace are scattered around us—or more accurately lavished around us—too numerous to count, clothed in the forms of swans, grasshoppers, buttercups, sunrises, neighbors. Knowing how to pay attention, how to fall down, how to kneel in the grass and be idle is to, I believe, embody humility and respect toward the Creator of the wonders that fill the world. To not pay attention, to not fall down, to stride by without trying to see, is to show disrespect toward both the creation and the maker of this creation. If God put so much creative energy into making those enormous and complicated eyes, it behooves me to take the time to notice them. To see what is in front of me and to appreciate it is, I believe, an essential form of prayer.
May we never be too busy to be idle. When we rush unthinking and unseeing from one point to another, busyness becomes the enemy of significance. Love, awe and gratitude are the best grounding for any truly significant action that I know of and love, awe, and gratitude always require time and attention. Tell me, the poet asks, what is it you plan to do/with your one wild and precious life? Let my answer be, I will pay attention. Let me never forget to fall down, to kneel, to pay attention to what is beneath my feet, above my head, and to hold out my hand to it.
You can contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
When was the last time you were idle and blessed? What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
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