Not long ago, I posted about a spate of existential depression that hit this winter (Existential Darkness in the Dawning of the New Year). My mood has improved, perhaps due to news avoidance and regular use of a light box for my anxious, moody version of Seasonal Affective Disorder, but perhaps also due to taking some advice from a friend. A friend from church told me she started each day with a simple meditation, asking herself three questions:
- What am I thankful for?
- What do I fear?
- What do I hope for?
It’s a simple list, and it immediately reminded me of guidance I received on prayer some 25 years back. During my Catholic years, I was taught that prayer had four elements: praise, thanksgiving, petition, and listening. Fast forward to a time when I use the word divine to describe tiramisu, a passage of music, or that first sip of coffee in the morning, and that formula for prayer is hard to translate into atheist meditation. While I can sit in awe at a sunrise or a child’s sleeping face, I don’t believe in a being to praise for that natural wonder or rush of love. The lack of belief in a divine meaning leaves asking for help out of the question and listening an act of searching the silence and self rather than the whisper of a savior.
But this list I can do. I tried it at first at night, a few weeks before my artificial sunshine lamp was suppressing morning melatonin and lifting my mood. As anxiety mounted, I asked myself, “What am I thankful for?” I can’t recall my answer that night, but I know I didn’t ponder the question but rather answered immediately, in the privacy of my thoughts. “What do I fear?” came next, and in my anxious state, I could have gone on and on, but managed to name one, the first that came to mind. And in naming it, its power reduced. Not a lot. But enough. “What do I hope for?” was the last, and that answer was certain: I hope to not feel this existential angst and anxiety that had plagued so much of the previous month. And eventually, I fell asleep.
While I never managed to start each morning with that list, I’m still working through it most nights. Well, I work through most of it most nights. Often I fall asleep before getting to hope, a more positive outcome than it sounds in writing.
For me, the order of the questions matters: thankfulness, fears, hopes. Were I to start with my fears, I’d end up wound up in such a knot I’d never sleep, effects of my artificial morning light be damned. And leading with hopes would seem somehow greedy and ungrateful. And to end in fear? That seems, well, sad and scary. Thankfulness, fears, hopes. It works.
I’m often surprised by the answers to those questions, especially when I do this exercise as my rational mind is shutting down and allowing the more random selector of dream material to surface. At this tender spot between the harried day and sleep, I tend to consider more what lies at my core and far less of what “should” be. One night, after an exceptionally hard day with my boys, I may find myself thankful for the time I share with my children, reflecting on that gift that particular homeschooling offers despite the challenges the day presented. The fear follows but with a different note: Have I done enough and made the right choices, the ones that afford them plenty of options as they move into adulthood? What am I missing? What are they missing? My hope sandwiches the fear, and may be either a hope for peace within me or wisdom as I continue on that journey. Or perhaps even both.
Sometimes what starts as a personal reflection turns outward, away from me, finding focus on the bigger world. Just a few nights back, after again another medical bill was rejected by my expensive and questionably valuable individual health care insurance policy, the following answers to those questions came forth:
- I am thankful for the coverage I have, which would probably protect me from financial ruin should something awful happen. I’m thankful for the resources to fill in those gaps in coverage and enough professional medical knowledge avoid unnecessary visits and their inevitable bills.
- I fear for those without the safety net of good insurance, for those who go without care because they can’t afford it and for a society that doesn’t value its citizenry enough to see universal coverage as a right.
- I hope for change in that society, from the top down and the bottom up. I hope someday we’ll get it right.
More often, though, the reflection remains more personal and, with no effort, focused on a concern in my life that often wasn’t at the forefront of my mind during the day. The act of being grateful ameliorates the strength of the fear before it is even mentioned. Naming the fear, even if already weakened, reveals the hope behind it. Daring to whisper the hope in the quiet of my head makes it seem somehow less unobtainable — possible, even.
So each night (and sometimes during difficult patches during the day) I finish with a short reflection that often reveals more than I’d guessed was in my head. It’s not prayer, and it’s not silent meditation, but for now, it’s a way to quiet the noise and focus my attention on the matters of my heart. It is a stillness that brings clarity and peace, and that’s divine.