You are to pay special attention to those who by accidents of time, or place, or circumstances, are brought into closer connection with you. ~ Saint Augustine
A day is a pocket of possibility and it’s always there, waiting for your willing hand.
I pin the laundered denims to the sagging clothesline by the flint lining of their pockets, oversized wooden clothespins holding them in the wind. It’s blowing in from the east today, winding through the orchard, flapping the legs of all the farm-stained Wranglers like you can’t keep a good man down.
There’s something to loving the air and the country and the long gravel back roads, and the scent of sun-dried jeans and the grass and the dirt right under you, something to inhaling this whole given world and know this life is your story.
Stress can steal just about everything but our stories — nothing can steal our stories, not even death.
Sling the wicker laundry basket up on the hip, head in to get lunch on the table. Our strained and knotted shoulders can feel wind beaten, trying to hold bits of our broken world together.
But I keep telling my chronic soul amnesia to surrender the idea of being the mortar that holds all our mortal lives together and simply let go, believing that the broken bits of a heart are sand in His wind to carve a better life.
When the Farmer walks in from the shop, smelling of tractor grease and honest work, the kids are arguing at each other downstairs like wild banshees, and I’m trying to corral my circus and my troupe of monkeys and there’s nothing yet on the table to placate the man’s growling stomach after a long, hard day. His jeans are grease-stained, his back pockets threadbare. The potatoes are still bobbing in a boil on the stove. He’s grinning as he reaches for the oven mitts. “Hey, guys. You all sound a little worked up down there.”
I try to get the roast out of the oven before he does. He drains the potatoes. “Hey, why don’t you all come on up here and help get dinner on the table.” He’s calling toward the stairs and the scrambling chaos of kids scuffling down there in the bowels under the house. They crash up the stairs and Hope says, “I’m done, Dad, absolutely done with insane brothers. I have a geometry test tomorrow,” she punctuates every word with angst, “and I have no time for this. Wait — the table’s not even set?”
The Farmer smiles, sets the big steel pot on the edge of the counter. “Know what I heard on the radio today out there in the shop under the tractor?”
Hope frowns, skeptical.
“A study from Yale said the best way to deal with stress is to do a small act of generosity for someone else.”1
I stop and turn, the roast midair, en route to platter. “So some study said you get the gift of less stress — when you bless?”
“Counterintuitive, huh?” The Farmer’s serving heaps of potatoes on a ring of stoneware plates.
“You’re making it up.” I get the ham to the platter.
He shakes his head. “On the radio today.” The underbelly of the sky scrapes the lightning rods on the roof of the barn. “Quoted some white coat at Yale and the gist of it was when we’re stressed and we help others, we end up helping ourselves.”
I cut the ham into thin slices, trying to cut through to the center of things. The juice pools in the plate, catching light. I’m feasting a bit on the confirmation: you diffuse your own stress by diffusing someone else’s.
I turn in the kitchen and the Farmer’s grinning, serving up plates while the herd of kids is laying out cutlery, getting cups, pouring water. I can tell by the way he’s grinning like some cat that he’s swallowed down meaning and he means to live it.
The best way to de-stress is to bless.
Slipping up behind Hope, both arms around her shoulders, I pull the girl in close, kiss her on the top of her head. “You? Looks like you could use a hug.”
“Mummy.” She turns, thinly half smiles, tilts her head into mine, and I rest my cheek on her hair. I don’t know how to love like I want. I don’t know how to smooth out angst or stress or worry, but I know you either leave your worries with God… or your worries will make you leave God.
Honestly — I don’t know how to be what she needs me to be, or what anyone needs me to be. I don’t know how to become cruciform. But maybe life isn’t overwhelming when we simply understand how to give, just in this moment. I don’t know — maybe all there is to living, to loving, is to live into the givenness of the moment. She looks like she just needed arms to hold her.
“Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity,” is what Simone Weil said.2
“You’re kind of scared about everything you’ve got ahead of you?” I say it into her hair quietly.
She nods, and I pull her closer, and she’s so much like me and what if she ends up taking my ways of quiet desperation and I have no idea if I’m doing anything right and what in the world am I so afraid of? I can see the laundry on the line in the orchard, giving itself to the wind, pockets turned out and surrendered.
And I can feel Hope breathing slow, feel my stress ebb, feel it in the warmth between us. We all long for the belonging of communion and yet there’s this fear of the closeness of the fellowship.
Love is our deepest longing — and what we most deeply fear. Love breaks us vulnerably open — and then can break us with rejection. There’s this craving for genuine communion — and yet this fear of losing genuine independence. Need can be a terrifying thing. I know — I’ve built my fair share of fortress walls. You can crave communion but fear being used or manipulated or smothered or burned. I have used a thousand buckets to douse any spark of a terrifying, vulnerable communion.
How can I keep forgetting? Write it up my arms: koinonia is always, always the miracle.
“We’re here, and we’re for you.” I whisper it, press the words into a gentle kiss on her forehead, and maybe there’s a bit of koinonia in the stress. Maybe the cross penned on my wrist is pressing the possibility of new ways of meaning and being and transforming right into the bone of things.
“There are very few men who realize what God would make of them if they abandoned themselves into His hands and let themselves be formed by His Grace,” wrote Ignatius.3
What would happen if the abandoned abandoned themselves into His heart and let themselves be formed by His cross?
I would look it up later, what the Farmer said, how researchers had asked seventy-seven adults to record three things each day for weeks — any and all stressful events experienced, any and all helpful acts, like opening a door for someone, helping a child with schoolwork, or loaning anything. And that was the full-stop epiphany of the research: “helping behaviors seemed to buffer the negative effects of stress.”4
It was like finding your own pocket miracle. If your hand was willing, you could pull out a small miracle, a small gift — a note that made a soul stronger, a cup of something warm to soothe someone’s knotted places, a hand to help someone up, open arms just to embrace the overwhelmed and whisper grace.
Carry pocket miracles into the world, and you’re guaranteed to find the miracle of less stress in your pocket.
I would read what the researcher said twice, three times, and once more: “People overall did one or two acts of kindness per day, but what was most important was when they did more than one or two per day, we saw a benefit to their well-being.”
There it was: Give It Forward Today — give numerous small gifts forward today, and you get the miraculous gift of less stress. Abandon yourself to the givenness of God, and you abandon a bit of the fears and the stress.
Busy is a choice. Stress is a choice. Giving yourself to joy is a choice. Choose well.
I would walk around with it for days: three gifts a day keeps stress away. These acts of kindness, they were like counting gifts, but even better. Small miracles in my pocket that I could pull out — and let abundance in. It was the most upside down thing — and it was shaking me up. I could feel the breaking in of the Upside-Down Kingdom: dare to be broken and given three times a day, and it breaks a bit of your own brokenness. Bad brokenness is broken by good brokenness.
Riffling and sorting through whole growing mountain ranges of laundry, I’d feel this shot in the arm, a cosmic grace, an epiphany about living: “For in self-giving, if anywhere, we touch a rhythm not only of all creation, but of all being,” wrote C. S. Lewis.6
Maybe it is better to give than to receive because it’s only when we give that we receive what we truly need. Letting that settle into me starts to reshape the broken places.
When the Farmer crawls into bed that night, he’s chuckling.
“I think I know what I want for my birthday—and what I’m giving everybody for theirs.” He flicks off the light switch.
“Uh huh?” My feet find his under the sheets. “And that would be?”
He’s laughing. “T-shirts that read right across the front: ‘Stressed? Go bless.’ ”
“Right.” I turn toward him. “And the back will read: this message is approved by Jesus and the white lab coat life researchers at Yale.”
“How did you know?” I can feel his smile in the dark. I love when he laughs there at my ear, and it’s like you can hear the joy reverberating loud in his soul. We lay there in the quiet, the dog snoring.
“It does seem like a bit of a miracle, though, doesn’t it?”
He’s still smiling.
Yes — a pocket miracle. The bread that we give to feed another’s soul is what miraculously feeds ours.
Be the bread so broken and given that a hungry world yearns for more of the taste of such glory. Be bread so broken and given to a hungry world that your own hunger is filled in communion with God.
When the Farmer heads out the next morning, I watch how he slips his hand into the pocket of his Wranglers like a surrendered willingness.
Watch The Broken Way Video
1. See Mary Brophy Marcus, “Doing Small Acts of Kindness May Lower Your Stress,” CBS News.com, December 15, 2015, www.cbsnews.com/news/doing-small-acts-of-kindness-may-lower-your-own-stress (accessed June 3, 2016).
2. Simone Weil, from an April 13, 1942, letter to poet Joë Bousquet, published in their collected correspondence (Correspondance [Lausanne: Editions l’Age d’Homme, 1982], 18).
3. Saint Ignatius, in a Letter to Ascanio Colonna (Rome, April 25, 1543), quoted in “Abandoning Ourselves to His Hands,” Bishop Felipe J. Estévez, St. Augustine Catholic (September/October 2014), 7, http://faithdigital.org/staugustine/SA0914/ 03197846597C1F18B6D8F09EB9D106 CC/ SA1014.pdf (accessed June 3, 2016).
4. Marcus, “Doing Small Acts of Kindness May Lower Your Stress.”
6. C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: Macmillan, 1962), 152.
Excerpted with permission from The Broken Way by Ann Voskamp, copyright Ann Morton Voskamp.
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Do you sometimes get stressed out? I do. Do you battle anxiety? Is stress stealing from you? “Busy is a choice. Stress is a choice. Giving yourself to joy is a choice. Choose well.” Who can you bless today? Come share with us on our blog. We want to hear from you! ~ Laurie McClure, Faith.Full