Last night my 10-year-old son and I were reading the book White Bird together, which is a grandmother's retelling of her experiences as a child, hidden away by a family in Nazi-occupied France during World War II. It's part of the terrific Wonder series of books by R.J. Palacio. In the story, the pastor of a French elementary school gets word that Nazi soldiers are coming to take the children away. A young maquisard (resistance fighter) leads the children into the woods to escape capture, but a Nazi collaborator gives them up. The maquisard and the children are found and brought back to the school, and the maquisard is forced to his knees and shot in front of everyone.
When we read about history and study past events like the world wars, we tend to think at a distance about the context for the decisions made by leaders and how events unfolded. We tend to divorce ourselves to some degree from the reality of living through that time period. Perhaps we think that was then and times are different now.
But as I read from White Bird, I found myself right there in the shoes of the characters. I suddenly had a deeper sense for the fear and chaos they experienced. I thought of me as the maquisard and wondered if I could summon the courage to put my life on the line for others. I wondered if I could summon the fortitude to make the walk from the woods back to the school at gunpoint, knowing what awaited. I imagined an ordinary day turned into despair and death.
And then I thought: how fortunate am I to be sitting here with my family. Right now.
Most of us are not facing imminent danger. We're not under siege in a warzone. The risk of disease is real (especially now), but for most it's not mortal. We have much to be grateful for…yet why is it so difficult to maintain a sense of perspective and deep appreciation for what we do have as our lives change from day-to-day? When we do capture a sense of appreciation, why does it fade so quickly? Why do we insist at this moment on complaining about being stuck at home, or not being able to get what we want at the grocery store?
There's a lot to unpack in those questions that I'll leave for another time. Still, what I can say is that - for me - writing something down at the start of the day is critical if I'm to embrace the day and give my attention to what is essential.
Sometimes I write down Seneca's quote about "fortune's habit of behaving just as she pleases," or something from Marcus Aurelius, like "You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think." But I absolutely need to write down something foundational; it resets my compass for the day. Otherwise I’m prone to letting my attention and behavior be pushed around by the vagaries of everyday life.
Leave me a comment and let me know what works for you. If you are searching for a daily touchstone, I encourage you to find a quote, a phrase, or a word that speaks to you and write it down. You will frame the day in a whole new way.