(The Hamilton Spectator – Saturday, January 28, 2023)
MUKONO, UGANDA – My eldest, a busy university student, mentioned balance before I flew away. “For balance,” she said to me, after I’d asked how I could pray for her in my absence.
It’s a good request, like asking for a compass. Modern western life isn’t known for its tremendous balance. “We’re distracted from distraction by distraction.” That’s how poet T.S. Eliot put it. That was 90 years ago, when phones were used to, you know, talk to people.
Now can you put “balance” in the name of some running shoe, or lace up a pair and go. But you’ll have a better shot at finding your balance without shoes at all. Take off your shoes, so to speak, and then you can listen to your life, what it might be trying to say to you.
Not someone else’s life. Your life. The one with your own experiences and desires. Your own heartbeat and mind. Your own responsibilities. And insecurities. And fears. The life that’s gifted and entrusted to you. The one that, when you meet your maker, is the only life you’ll be asked about.
I actually get around in bare feet whenever possible. If the neighbours see me, even in winter, outside briefly with the garbage, or the dog, they laugh. “Thom, are you in Africa?” I mean, a little snow between the toes never hurt anybody.
But now I’m in Africa, in Uganda, where it’s easier to appreciate these things, especially in mornings from my university guesthouse. From here I watch the sunrise before taking a few steps – about 200, but who’s counting? – to where I’ll sit and eat breakfast while the birds and monkeys and many things unseen go about their own business.
The university, among thousands of developing nation schools in post-pandemic recovery, sits on 90 acres of rolling, green hills. You know the stereotype of Africa’s danger? This is something different. For a dozen years this campus was home, our kids and their friends running around in their own bare feet.
Now it seems even more holy when the sun, that great mass of burning hydrogen and helium, that glorious morning star 150 million km away, rises, somehow so near, to establish its authority for the day.
The sun, of course, doesn’t worry about much. It just shines. Yesterday. Today. Presumably tomorrow. It’s never late, no matter how dark, or crazy, the previous night. It’s secure in its identity. It knows what it is, perfectly balanced and energized. The sun shines, uninterested in doing more. Or less. It doesn’t multi-task. It’s not distracted. Not lost. It’s content.
Contrast this with the anxious busyness of our time, as if doing more and more earns you some badge of honour. As if we’re human doings, not human beings. Not that things don’t need doing. They do. But lose your balance and find what the Germans call “Zerrissenheit,” or “torn-to-pieces-hood.” As it’s been said, “You can go against the grain of the universe, but don’t be surprised when you get splinters.”
So do less and enjoy it more. Nourish your soul. Get outside. Walk in the woods. Pick up a worthwhile compass-like book like, say, Frederick Buechner’s “Listening to Your Life.” Do a social media fast. Exercise. Make art. Create space. Even a humble musical note knows that it needs space before and after itself to have meaning. This is what daybreak here says to me.
A Ugandan journalist friend, a university department head who was once my student, was talking about it with me, the crisis of meaning that’s growing in western nations, along with mental health issues like anxiety. “It’s coming here too,” he said, even here, where more people’s heads are where? In their so-called smartphones.
God help us. No, really. Help us find our way. Help us with our balance. Help us shine. It’s a reasonable prayer for a late January day, before we’re completely out the gate of another year.