December 22, 2012

Fight Back with Normal Life

I awake each morning torn between a desire to save the world and a desire to savor the world. ––E. B. White

My friend’s father, who is one part Santa Claus, one part Ron Swanson, has a saying for difficult times: fight back with normal life. When heartbreak hits or unconscionable violence and loss leave us breathless, we can find our way by embracing the small, tick-tock routines of a clockwork life. We jog by the river. We load the dishwasher. We tuck in hospitable corners. We may not feel like getting out of bed, but we do. We put one foot in front of the other down the hallway, the stairs, and all the way out the front door and through our day.

The only way through, I heard a meditation teacher say, in what may or may not have been a paraphrase of Robert Frost, is through.

In difficult times, our routines can anchor us so that instead of getting swept up in worry or tears or frets about the future, we can stay right here in the familiar––maybe even comforting––actions of the day at hand. We clear the table, we mail an insurance claim, we call our moms. We fight back with normal life.

I’ve been thinking of this saying since last Friday. And I’ve also been wanting to tell you about a new ritual I have with a coworker, inspired by something we heard on a Tara Brach podcast. Every day for the past two or three weeks, we’ve sent each other three specific things we are grateful for. Working by a bright window, today’s rain, a scone for breakfast. It served as a welcome relief when the day got stressful, but after a week or so, when novelty wore off and our enthusiasm waned, we nearly lost our new ritual to the forces of old habits. We forgot. And then one night, walking home down Sixth Avenue, I had to text to tell her: about the night air, so drizzly and unexpectedly mild, the hot bath I planned to have at home, the lights on our tree. She texted back right away about her anticipation of building a fire, a new handbag fit for a PanAm stewardess, and the winking pink flowers on a midday walk. We were back on track.

It turns out, as powerful as it is to be heard, hearing her daily bright spots was even better than sharing my own. It reminded me of my first job after college where I loved reliving with each customer who pushed through the door my favorite moment of the day: that first cup of coffee. And so it was with my friend. With each little detail she counted, my day got a little sweeter, and I could feel my eyes open wider: oh yes, that.

As the weather has turned colder in New York, I see more people sleeping in subway stations and wrapped in blankets on the street begging. I hate the feeling of walking by, in too much of a hurry to stop and help, but also not certain what the right thing to do is. Where is the balance between helping everyone and turning a blind eye? What do you do? I asked a friend. You can sit with people and talk, she suggested, or share food you might have. Her simplest idea struck me as the most powerful: just try to really see them.

There is a lot of bullshit in this world, just as there are horrors so unexpected and unexplainable they can make even the leader of our nation cry. Both can make us lose sight of what matters and of hope. But we can fight back with normal life. We can open our eyes and be sensitive to the experience of those around us. We can help. And we can have one moment of sweet, honest exchange about things that, no matter how mundane or seemingly trivial, imbue this briefest flash of life with meaning and beauty, with love and connection.

And I am grateful for that.

Related Posts with Thumbnails


  • Melissa @ Hilltop Hausfrau: The tragedy is completely numbing.

    We have a five year old boy. One who happily goes to his Kindergarten class every day. I feel guilt – “thank God it wasn’t us” – I feel such immense worry, saddness at the magnitude, your weeping President.

    When my exuberant five year old son normally gets on my last nerve with his excitement for Christmas, this year I am grateful for every candy cane induced energy burst, every begging for more time in the snow even though I’m frozen through, every time he cannot get his pyjamas on because he’s wailing with exaustion.

    I’m sure the parents in Conneticut would give anything for these moments.

    Thanks for the grounding message, Sarah.5 years ago

  • Shannon @ This is wonderful. I do love that outlook. I don’t specifically share my gratitude with anyone the way you do, but I routinely use a similar approach when I am feeling overwhelmed, sad, angry, etc. I try to take a few minutes and identify what I am grateful for that day. What IS makings happy and it never fails to make a dent in my negativity.

    Thank you.5 years ago

  • Cadi: I agree with Melissa that this is a very grounding message, sweet Sarah. And Melissa, your thoughts on the subject brought tears to my eyes. Reminds me of how much I have to be thankful for and our good fortune in this little life. I cannot fathom something like this happening in my little town, one that is not unlike Newtown. In the wake of such sickening tragedy, fighting back with normal life is the best most poignant way to put it.

    Your new ritual sounds both soothing and mindful, and I may have to partake of this practice in the upcoming weeks and new year. Thank you for a(nother) beautiful idea.

    Oh, and on a lighter note, the thought of a man that is one part Santa Claus and one part Ron Swanson made me smile brightly today. When I read this post aloud to my husband he had a chuckle too. Sounds like a delightful gent!

    Merry Christmas to you and yours Sarah!5 years ago

  • Joanne @ Fifteen Spatulas: This was amazing, Sarah. Brilliantly written and very inspirational. Have a Merry Christmas!5 years ago

  • Amy: Once again, this is beautiful. Also, thank you for writing about Tara Brach — I am eagerly listening to all of her talks. Wishing you a most lovely Christmas.5 years ago

  • Susan: Of all the essays I’ve read on the recent tragedy, yours touched me the most. First, it offers a mechanism for action that anyone can do if she is open and willing. Second, it reinforced my own teaching of this kind of practice in my coaching work… gratitude as a way to savor that which is good, that which if we were not to reflect back, might slip away in the blink of an eye… You may already know that psychologist Martin Seligman, thought by many to be the father of positive psychology, encourages exactly this kind of practice as a research-supported means to increase one’s own happiness. Thank you, Sarah, as always, your essay touched me and made my day a little better.5 years ago

  • Doris: Thank you for this message, Sarah. It is a powerful reminder of how we can get through calamity and disaster, even though we feel like we can never make it. And once more, your beautiful writing takes my breath away.

    Merry Christmas.
    Doris5 years ago

  • Rachel Cunliffe: This is a beautiful piece of writing Sarah, thank you. I have been meaning to start a gratitude journal; there is much to be thankful for – especially the little ‘normal’ things.

    A very Merry Christmas to you and yours,
    Rachel5 years ago

  • Tricia A: So beautiful and perfect. Your words always soothe me. Happy Holidays5 years ago

  • Susan F.: A lovely post and your message is something that I needed right now. Have a joyous holiday.5 years ago

  • Karen: Although recent events rocked our beautiful corner of the state, the Newtown community is strong. Wishing our neighbors a peaceful and loving holiday.

    Merry Christmas Sarah. Your blog posts are always uplifting and thought provoking. Thank you!5 years ago

  • Monna McDiarmid: Thanks so much for this post, Sarah. Your message about being grateful ~ of cultivating a gratitude garden ~ is especially relevant on Christmas day. Last Christmas, when we were on vacation in Istanbul, I decided to try to photograph one thing for which I was grateful each day. Not surprisingly, many of those are food items and books… but lots of them are dinners with friends, a lovely walk home, a few moments of stillness and the extraordinary kindness of my partner. The more I practice gratitude, the easier it is for me to see how good things are. I post the photos on flickr every day @ years ago

  • Katie: Sarah,

    I make it a point to avoid constantly commenting of someone’s writing, despite the consistent connection that I may or may not feel. However, after a long day compounded with an inappropriate and truly immature crass comment, this article managed to lift just a little weight.

    I appreciate your words and your level head. Thanks.5 years ago

  • Lana: I love this. In the aftermath of Newtown, I have had many dark, sad days. I didn’t lose a child, but I think the heartbreak that each of those parents felt was so heavy that the only way it could be tolerated was for each loving, kind person to carry a small part of their grief. Like so many comments, I felt guilty when I felt relief it wasn’t Grace. I felt sadness and hopelessness for our world. I like so many others, have turned to acts of kindness to help me muck my way through this, but as I am doing them, I know that none of it is helping bring those children back home to their warm beds and weeping family and it almost makes me feel worse. That the kind act of tucking a lottery ticket under someone’s windshield can even begin to compare with the magnitude of evil we witnessed is sort of ridiculous. But then I imagine that it’s a giant winner, and that the person who won really, really needed it. That makes me feel a bit better.
    It’s going to take a long time to heal and maybe we never will. Perhaps that’s a good thing, though. Perhaps it will force us into making changes and seeing the beauty right in front of us.5 years ago

  • Nikkilooch: I’ve recently gone through my own personal tragedy. These words, “fight back with normal life” are such a comfort. Because the world (ahem, internet) is telling me, “Do more! Be more!” when right now normal seems an amazing goal to achieve.

    Thank you for these empowering words. Doing normal things is fighting back.5 years ago

  • Ann Flora: I’ve made the Fight Back With Normal Life decision many times but never titled it so well. It’s the best kind of defiance of darkness. Thanks.5 years ago

  • geek+nerd: Love this. I have no other words than that.5 years ago

  • Slow January | La Petite Vie: […] My oldest (well, not her age, just how long we’ve been friends) friend and I were inspired by Sarah and are sharing bits and pieces of our lives together via texts. I am treasuring this connection […]5 years ago

  • Ginger: Sarah, as always, I’m a bit behind but, as always, your posts speak to me.

    My sister and I are trying to do something similiar — just taking photos of bright spots in our day for each other. Not only do I get a peak into her life, but also a chronicle of beauty.

    I love the idea of just “seeing” people. It is so hard to look at hurt sometimes, but I have been trying over the last few years to treat anyone I see on the street with the same dignity I would treat any human being I pass by — with direct eye contact and a smile.

    I’ve heard of many great ways to practically help (from fast food gift cards to ziplock bags full of personal necessities). My parents live downtown and so often get asked for money and such. They’ve even had homeless people knock at their front door. Overwhelmed by the impulse to do something, but as you mentioned, unable to meet every need, they began supporting a local shelter that does great work in not only providing a roof and a bed but also emotional and practical lifestyle helps. They keep small cards with them about the shelter’s services with a map to the nearby shelter. It’s not everything, but it’s something. I think it’s a wonderful way to give a hand when the need is too great for one individual.5 years ago

Add a comment