Slow living through caring for others, determination, the little things, and suffering

Issue 2021, vol. 75

*Invited submission to a special issue of Mennonite Life, “Scribing Slowness: An Ode to Slow Living During Fast Times”

Receiving this essay prompt set me at ease, as it is an acknowledgment and practice of habits I am already trying to acquire. I am now able to give them a name and framework — how freeing it is to be in the company of others in the pursuit of living intentionally and purposefully. Since dwelling on what slow living means to me, my personal definition lies in denying myself and practicing self control, caring about others above myself and interacting intentionally, practicing empathy often, determining to accomplish tasks while still finding ways to be present and then finding joy in suffering. All of these convictions begin with my belief that the outcomes and decisions of my life rest in God’s hands. After all, none of these statements are truly convictions if I do not act on them in a way that is pleasing to God. To act, and to ultimately live slow by my definition, does not require the “right” or “best” way. The heart of the matter first originates in who I live for: God and his people.

Caring for others and making investments in the people around me, regardless of any gain for myself, is a first step and priority in how I try to live. God says that it is more blessed to give than to receive. A story from Anabaptist history I often think of that exemplifies this idea best is that of Dirk Willems, who saved his captor after he fell through the ice. He could have saved himself and left his enemy to die, but he instead sacrificed (gave of) himself and chose to let his adversary live. One could say, therefore, that he gave the most he could — his life — to receive the ultimate glory of heaven. While Willems’ example is literally of life and death, little sacrifices are something God calls us to every day, as a death to the self is the gain of God, and an alternative to the world. “Dying to the self” and “denying myself” constructs the core of where my idea of slow living springs forth. This means that I am consciously making choices that honor God and subvert my own wants and desires to his will. I acknowledge that it is not me who lives anymore, but Christ who lives in me. Therefore, I find value in denying myself things, to an extent, because it means that I will gain something more valuable from God, whether through the giving of my time, of my own resources, space and so on. If I can control myself in one situation, it leads to greater self control in other situations. No matter what that self control applies to, when properly done, it will make ripples and help me feel as if I’ve crossed leaps and bounds in other areas of my life. This grander effect can take time, but it is worth it. Strength in one area leads to strength in another, and the same applies to weakness.

After looking within to deny myself, to die to myself and practice self control, the next building block of slow living looks outward by putting others ahead of myself. Being kind to others and finding ways to acknowledge their presence begins this process. Whether I am out and about or at home, I try to reach out to others and ask how they are doing, or ask them something about their life. Sometimes it is as simple as offering a hello, giving a compliment or talking to them about something they’re interested in. Initiating contact and communicating to the other person something I remember or want to learn about them shows that I care, thereby showing these individuals that I see value in them and desire a relationship. Regardless of whether the relationship lasts a couple of seconds, a day, or longer, it is a connection I still strive to make. This connection will not happen with everyone, nor is that the intention; for those with whom it does occur, I consider it a blessing.

One memorable figure from a book I once read, who had a desire to interact with others despite the fact that he could not communicate in the same language, was Dewey Readmore Books. Dewey was a cat who resided at Spencer Public Library in Spencer, Iowa, for a span of years. A number of remarks made in a book written about Dewey mentioned the considerable number of lives he touched — he truly belonged to the patrons of the library, rather than just one individual. One aspect of the book that I appreciated was the incredible honesty: “Maybe Dewey couldn’t give much, but … he gave exactly what Spencer needed.” It is true that small interactions will not fix everything, but can provide something that is needed, and also prove that we don’t need to speak to make an impact. You never know how you can help another person, or by what methods. The way someone else is impacted matters the most, as well as the personal hope that they will pass it on, pay it forward. These are all methods in which I remind myself of others’ humanity, and continue to have empathy for others as well.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee provides some prime examples through the description of the mockingbird itself that remind me what ultimate empathy for others looks like, and also the rejection of selfishness. Working for others, “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs. They don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” The mockingbird, like those who are innocent and mean no harm to humanity, should be cherished and treated with kindness. Those who exist only to do good unto others can be rare. By applying this to my own life, I am reminded to always seek empathy, and also to remember that everyone has a story and struggle of their own. It is not my business to know the details of everyone’s story, but to interact with them. However, I also feel compelled to observe from the outside and try to understand without needing to interject myself. The principle of the mockingbird returns, for they sing and improve the world in their own unique way. I do not compare myself to the bird, but rather see it as a great example, as they do not desire to live in any one place or be noticed. I believe the mockingbird has implicit empathy and that is the reason it sings; it can sense when people are going through trials and has the ability to offer comfort. Therefore, since I recognize that everyone struggles with something and has their own vices, I desire to help others know that we are strong together in Christ. I seek to live as an example of that strength in all I do, for this is the very definition of holiness, the act of being set apart from the world.

I believe this also means pushing myself to do what needs to be done and also accomplishing that which I do not always want to do. However, If we are all honest, there is no perfect human who is capable of completing all the tasks set before them, whether by order of another or self-imposed. Regardless, when considering slow living, I try to prioritize what is helpful for each given day and complete what is necessary for the moment. Questions that I ask myself are: 1) What’s the thing I really need to do right now? 2) What can I let go of? 3) Where are my motivations coming from? Completing list items is not necessarily my strong suit, but it is important that I try anyway. Along with the will to finish, I try to be patient and realistic in my pursuits. What is worth doing is often not done quickly, and may take time. Not everything will be done, and that is okay too. Sometimes I can get stuck in worrying about how something is done (or not done) and forget why I’m doing it or who I’m doing it for. As I’ve said before, who I accomplish things for matters, but it also matters that I am fully immersed in my own being. While at a church event last year, I heard a woman say, “Being over doing,” and that sense of priority has stuck with me ever since.

The drive of my life lies not just in determination, but also enjoying the process of where I am right now, being content with what I have and not needing more. This is, ultimately, a practice of self-control. The common process of beginning to be present with myself comes from frequently forgotten abilities that we all possess: touch, taste, sight, smell, hearing. The senses are central to savoring the moment, whether through eating a meal, listening to a song, taking a walk or drive, and many other experiences. These moments and how I perceive them translate to, in these examples, the taste of food, the sound of the notes and formation of meaning in the lyrics, the places I go and my surroundings. I take time to be present in these moments, not needing to rush to the next thing or expect certain results from anything. I simply choose to feel the temperature, see the color of something or observe how fast or slow something moves. Focusing on just the fundamentals for even a couple of moments can have a long-lasting impact on any given day. These are breaks I can take from the stress I’m under, and sometimes the sudden subtleness of these moments can be a pleasant surprise. When we choose to make a habit of becoming excited about these small, sensory-based experiences, we will notice them more often and feel their relief more profoundly. Though they may be as quick as a flash of lightning, that does not take away their significance.

As a final thought, I will say that the result of struggle provides an enhanced sense of joy, in addition to becoming more dependent on God rather than on our way. To illustrate this point, I would like to use the example of Sophie Scholl and her brother Hans. They were, most notably, German siblings who risked everything they had during the totalitarian Nazi regime through their involvement in the youth-led resistance group called the White Rose (Die Weiße Rose) out of the University of Munich. Even though their situation was much more severe than many, the actions of Sophie and Hans Scholl spoke volumes on standing up for what they believed in, no matter the consequences. Despite all the odds stacked against them, they marched onward and were secure in their belief that the Nazi party was behaving immorally. If they had the courage to stand up for what they believed in and enriched other lives as a result, surely we too can also be brave in improving our lives—and the lives of those around us — by being who we are without apology. The Scholls were exploring more about Christianity during the last years of their life, and I know that God was guiding them forward during that time.

Likewise, in my life, God rules over my conscience and he guides me forward to where he wants me. Obviously, I am not in the same situation as the Scholls, but I can learn a lot from them. I can learn how to find joy in any struggle I face, because I know that joy brings me closer to God. The words of Sophie Scholl shifted my perspective on this, as she was able to find genuine joy and amusement in almost anything: “I pity people who can’t find laughter or at least some bit of amusement in the little doings of the day. I believe I could find something ridiculous even in the saddest moment, if necessary. It has nothing to do with being superficial. It’s a matter of joy in life.”