I stopped making official lists of resolutions in my mid-thirties. Instead, I began to select “one word” each January to guide me through the year. In a season of chasing after young children, composing lists of unattainable goals felt futile. The simplicity of selecting a one-word vision convinced me to make it an annual tradition.
My 2017 word was present. This lofty concept embodied my intent to practice awareness, foster gratitude, and offer my words as gifts to others.
I wore the word on a silver chain around my neck and engraved on a bracelet on my wrist. These physical reminders prompted me to engage when I would rather retreat, to look deeper when I was tempted to skim the surface.
A review of my year revealed some progress. But in the end, what stood out were my limitations.
Present has a cost. That’s why we say that we must pay attention. It demands a lot of vulnerability and intentionality. Present carries a lot of weight. My hope was that repetition and practice might make me stronger.
But success came only in spurts. Little victories drawn in sharp peaks were immediately followed by flat lines and valleys on the landscape of my days. Oh, I showed up…only to withdraw again and again. Distraction and weakness prevented me from catching up with my shadow and maintaining my focus.
What I discovered was this: my inner static clashes with the noise of the world around me. To lean in and listen deeply means filtering out my complicated motives and confronting my deep-seated fears. Awareness stings and reveals me in ways I can’t predict or control.
This fall, my grandmother died. At 94, her body was giving out and she knew it. Instead of fighting the inevitable, she faced the end of her life head-on. She chose to forgo invasive treatments that might have lengthened her days but limited her ability to live them fully.
When I got the news of her decline, I wanted to imitate her courage and make the most of our remaining time together. The anticipation of this loss made my eyes sting and burn, wearing me out with the intensity of impending grief. I did my best to stay present, to process my emotions, to offer my words as gifts to her and others in my family. By the day of her funeral, my spirit was spent.
In the midst of my family’s season of loss, the world kept spinning. Others in my world were suffering their own pain so I tried to show up for them.
News came of the death of the husband of my college friend, a man my age. One rainy Sunday afternoon, I drove to a church on the other side of town to attend the calling. A hug and a few moments of conversation were all I could offer. Ashamed, I found myself unable to stay past the visitation for the funeral. I retreated to the safety of my car, shaking as I held back pent-up emotion. Tears had only been a blink away for weeks. Once they started, I wasn’t sure when they would stop.
Loss loomed across the street as well. I took brownies to a neighbor caring for her mother in her final days, but couldn’t offer much comfort. As my fresh grief collided with her reality, I lost my composure and my words. I wanted to make it better, but felt helpless to ease her pain. These encounters exposed my own frailty.
Reflecting on my “one word,” I felt the sting of failure when I acknowledged the truth:
My instinct for self-protection demands I keep a safe distance. My fear swerves me away from conflict in order to avoid pain. My pride tempts me to surrender to pull of the urgent, neglecting what’s important. My insecurity crafts a false image to please other people. My energy, my will, my capacity, and my understanding are all limited – by my personality, my sin, and my humanity.
But God used a walk in the woods to remind me: His presence is boundless.
Lines from a poem I memorized in college but hadn’t thought about in years floated through my mind as I hiked on a November afternoon, fallen leaves crunching beneath my steps.
somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond
any experience, your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near
This e.e. cummings poem, whispered by the Spirit, reminded me of my favorite psalm.
“Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,”
even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.”
There is no place I can venture, no hard moment I will ever face, that God’s presence can’t reach. God is omnipresent, free of physical or spiritual limitations. God is omniscient, fully aware of every detail, reality, and need, never shocked or overwhelmed.
When my presence fails, God remains present, both to me and to those I love. In 2017, as I encountered my limitations, my view of God was enlarged. May it continue to be so in the years ahead.