Catching Fireflies

On mild summer evenings, there is something blissful about catching glimpses of fireflies illuminate my front yard. The intermittent flickering of bioluminescence is a simple reminder to witness something relatively small, perhaps otherwise insignificant, but incredibly profound these days. This glimpse into nature’s light show affords us an opportunity to reflect on those episodes of joy in our lives. All too often we overemphasize the duration of bliss or relaxation during the lazy days of summer at the detriment of these experiences: How long am I going away? When do I have to return to reality? Can this last longer?

I was fortunate to have several of these moments with my family this summer as we took time to get away, as so many do during the season. And while we took our share of pictures and videos, I tried to be mindful of these “firefly moments” with my wife and boys, taking in the colors, smells, sounds, and emotions of experiences, even those some would consider mundane or not worthy of such attention like eating a meal together. The last couple of years have, if anything, provided us with the stark realization that such moments are graced moments. And so I think there are “four commandments” to consider as we embark on a new school year.

Be Mindful

Mindfulness has become potentially misunderstood in our culture as an psuedo-easy-going philosophy during difficult times, a zen-like mantra to relax. But mindfulness is much more than a mindset or a cognitive exercise in breathing; it is a way of being. Being mindful means cultivating a profound appreciation for all thoughts, experiences, and sense we encounter on a daily basis. It does not eschew pain or uncomfortable thoughts but rather recognizes them for what they are, giving gratitude, and letting them go. It is an embrace of the sum total of our world not a selective mental buffet. But it first requires us to allow these thoughts and experiences to permeate our lives.

Be Open

It is a true mindset to be open to growth but it comes with the inherent recognition that we may be wrong about our perceptions, attitudes, and beliefs. Openness is not psychological naivete but rather invites us to see our relationships and their settings for what they are, not what we desire them to be. Being open to people and ideas that run counter to our own risks getting hurt or emotionally wounded in one way or another. To be open also entails that we invite and welcome new ideas and concepts that challenge the status quo. Echo chambers may be kind to our ears but in the end they do not contribute to our intellectual or moral growth.

Be Vulnerable

Often times vulnerability is collapsed into an image of weakness or powerlessness. Far from it, being vulnerable is a fierce ability to unite mindfulness and openness into an adaptive attitude that allows us to nimbly adjust to ever-changing circumstances and provide an emotional network for those around us. Brené Brown discusses vulnerability as the ability to “drop the armor” which allows us to be open to experiences and purpose and meaning to our lives. These last two years have not invited us to be vulnerable; they’ve thrust it upon us. But this does not mean we have to overshare or burden others with emotional baggage. Instead, we should be more present to the duress of others, more patient with the impatient, more clam with the distracted. In short, we are called to look and act beyond what is in front of us. We are a people of horizons, looking beyond today. We are a people of hope.

Be Hopeful

Being hopeful is not wish fulfillment. It is not merely desiring that our circumstances change or that we are somehow able to eliminate pain and suffering from our lives or the lives of our loved ones. Benedict XVI wrote about hope in the encyclical Spe salvi where he notes, “Human life is a journey. Towards what destination? How do we find the way? Life is like a voyage on the sea of history, often dark and stormy, a voyage in which we watch for the stars that indicate the route. The true stars of our life are the people who have lived good lives. They are lights of hope” (Spe salvi, no. 49).

Recently, the Feast of the Assumption serves as a reminder of the model of hope, the Blessed Mother Mary. The act of saying “yes” in the face of uncertainty is the ultimate channeling of mindfulness, openness, and vulnerability. We affirm ourselves when we take up this simple affirmation: yes. It is saying “amen” to the challenges and joys in our life. But only when these three actions are completed can we truly appreciate the hope that persists in all of our lives!

Look for the fireflies in your life. Catch one. Release it. Discover the joy in your own small revelation of bliss.

It’s a Great Day to be a Bulldog!

Being Vulnerable

Vulnerability often carries the connotation of weakness or frailty. It is a cultural antonym to what appeals most to our sense of strength and courage. And yet in numerous ways, nothing could be further from the truth. Brené Brown’s work on shame and vulnerability highlights the many ways in which this trait is paramount to successful leaders and their constituents.

Yet as I write this, our world is facing a pandemic of the Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) which has escalated our physical and psychological awareness about what it means to be vulnerable in a very raw way. Social and athletic events are being postponed or cancelled altogether; travel is reconsidered or restricted; and we are reminded about some of our most vulnerable populations in the elderly and homeless. In short, it has upended how we perceive what we understand about the common good for all. In his encyclical Mater et Magistra (1961), St. John XXIII wrote about this core value of Catholic Social Teaching and its relevance to our collective lives:

To this end, a sane view of the common good must be present and operative in men invested with public authority. They must take account of all those social conditions which favor the full development of human personality. Moreover, We consider it altogether vital that the numerous intermediary bodies and corporate enterprises—which are, so to say, the main vehicle of this social growth—be really autonomous, and loyally collaborate in pursuit of their own specific interests and those of the common good. For these groups must themselves necessarily present the form and substance of a true community, and this will only be the case if they treat their individual members as human persons and encourage them to take an active part in the ordering of their lives [Italics mine] (no. 65)

We are both individuals and part of a community, independent and interdependent, private and public. Respecting the dignity of all peoples is most needed when we feel most vulnerable. And we shouldn’t shy away from using the word or feeling its effects. Vulnerability is not a call to retreat or withdraw but a time to deeply consider the needs of our respective communities. It challenges us to sacrifice in many ways, not simply for some generic cause of the greater good but for the betterment of every individual’s ability to flourish and grow together. Being vulnerable is bearing witness to the vulnerability of others in a way that empowers everyone. It is the radical awareness of our shared humanity.

It’s a Great Day to be a Bulldog!