What can we change before life changes us?

Recently, I bought a birthday card. On the top it read: “When I was young, I had long hair, took acid, and went to hip new joints.” On the bottom of the card it read: “Now I long for hair, take antacids, and am waiting for my new hip joint!”

November is the month when we think of dying and pray for the dead. Grouch Marx once said: “When you’re middle-aged, you go to bed at night, hoping you’ll feel better when you wake up in the morning. Old age is when you go to bed at night hoping you will wake up in the morning!”

Yet, if we take time to think about life after death, what about life before death? Obviously, I think that humor is an essential ingredient in aging gracefully and living gracefully. The ability to laugh at ourselves and the ‘dramas’ of life can be life saving.

But what else is needed for living? Let me share a parable that someone shared with me. A farmer’s donkey had fallen down a well. Unable to think of a way to get the donkey out, the farmer decided to bury the old donkey in the well. As he and his friends shoveled dirt on top of the donkey, the donkey simply shook the dirt off, and stepped up. As the shovels of dirt fell upon him, instead of yielding to despair, the donkey just shook off each load of dirt, and stepped up. Before the farmer knew it, the well was filled with dirt, and the donkey was standing on top of the well! The donkey then walked away, free and alive.

There are lessons to be learned from that humble story.

First, life will shovel dirt on all of us. We can lose health, lose jobs, lose loved ones, even lose our way. We can allow the dirt that life shovels on us to bury us, or we can shake it off and step up. None of us can control what happens to us in life. We can control our attitude toward what happens to us. As I’ve said so often on the radio over the years, life can make us bitter or better! Instead of being buried by life’s ‘slings and arrows’, we can allow our pain to make us more compassionate toward the pain of others. We can support each other on life’s journey.

Second, we need to forgive. We will have hurts inflicted on us. If we focus on the hurts, we can easily be buried under our resentments. If we forgive, we are free. The only condition that God ever put on forgiveness is that we must also forgive others. Mercy received must also be mercy shared.

Third, we need to let go of our worries as soon as we recognize that we are worrying. The donkey didn’t get out of the well by worrying. He did something. I often say that worry is what we do when we don’t know what else to do! By nature, some of us are wired a bit tighter than others. Early life experiences predispose some of us to be more anxious. I’m not suggesting we blame ourselves for what or who we are, but simply to be aware. Awareness means that as soon as we catch ourselves worrying, we let the worried thought go and step up. If we can’t eliminate worry, we can at least lessen it.

All of the studies of worry seem to indicate that most of the things we worry about never happen. I’m reminded of one of Father Anthony de Mello’s stories in which one man says to his companion: “You are so neurotic. You worry about things that never happened in the past. Why can’t you be like the rest of us and worry about things that never happen in the future?”

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.