The Gift of Quietude

This is a paper I wrote after my junior English teacher gave us the assignment to spend 20 minutes outside without technology, company, music, sketchbooks, or exercise besides walking.
The community park near my house in Aurora is a place that feels old-fashioned and odd. I remember my sister and I taking dance classes at the community center when we were younger and biking on the path which runs through the property with my brother. The last time I was there was last summer when my brother, sister, and I decided to walk there while our parents were at work. I brought a giant, heavy textbook I got from the library about the history of graphic design and read underneath an oak tree, now and then joining Penny and Simon in soccer. I visited the park again on Monday, May 4th, after a long day of school around 5:30.
I lay down in the grass and the sunshine and looked around me at the overwhelming green of spring and the life that surrounded me. About thirty feet away sat a teenage couple sitting at a picnic table in the gazebo; the boy blared hip hop music from his phone, and to my ears it was just distorted and distant enough to ignore. I propped my knees up so I couldn’t see them laughing and making out. It was pretty gross and I’d rather they not be able to see me either. Instead, I watched the river and thought about the water which never stops moving; it constantly glitters and reflects and flows, carrying ducks and geese with it. Two ducks preened themselves and each other and gently glided together through the water the color of a beer bottle. A few men fly-fished, wearing tall boots and standing in solitude and patience. Across the river, several construction workers labored at some unidentifiable (and far from finished) project and I thought about how each one works and has a life and brain and family like mine and how when they look at one of the ancient oaks growing by the river, they might not see the intricacies that only God could create. I asked myself if that was okay and I don’t know. As I stared at the trees, their branches and bark and leaves and roots, I tried to zoom in my mind. I saw the bark close up; the texture jumped out at me and my mind zoomed in further. I saw the cells, the cell walls, the chloroplasts and chitin as if under a microscope in biology class. Biology class didn’t bring great thoughts to mind because it only reminded me of the sickening smell of clams waiting to be dissected and half-true friendship. The dark frustration in my mind contrasted with the breathtaking, remarkable beauty of spring around me and I had to force my mind to relax.
My thoughts were free in these twenty minutes. They were relaxed and thorough; my mind wandered from one thing to the next, dwelling on beauty, emotions, other people, and conflicts within and without of my mind. There was no agenda, simply time. This assignment itself was not difficult in any sense but I would say the most difficult thing was thinking about my friendships, my anger, and myself, and easing my mind away from those three. Those three subjects are not often far from my mind in recent weeks, but they’re always painful to think about and easy to be fixated on. The best thing about the twenty minutes was lying in the sun, imagining the lives of the fishermen and construction workers, listening and watching the leaves rustle, and feeling pointy, alive grass beneath me. The worst thing about the twenty minutes was the uncomfortable self-awareness (or self-centeredness) I had as I lay in the grass alone. I wondered what every person thought as they saw me alone, what their impression was, what they thought I was doing or thinking. It frustrates me that I worry that someone might think it’s odd that I lay in a park by myself seemingly doing nothing.
Managing my thoughts was not a successful mission. I guided my thoughts and tried to encourage my mind when it entered dark places, but I couldn’t steer myself away entirely from anger or sadness, spite or frustration. I found many benefits in this assignment. I’m going to do it every week, maybe a few times a week. It gave me sanctioned time to truly relax, to be stimulated only by the reality of God’s creation. I was able to think about things which are important and must be thoughtful and to imagine and praise God for His workmanship. My heart was gifted quietude (excepting the hip hop from the boyfriend’s phone). After doing this assignment, I know that I must give myself more time to think away from technology and people. I must do things simply for the act of doing them; live in the moment for the moment alone and all the life it holds.


Somebody Vs. Nobody

A paper I wrote for my sophomore English class in the second semester:
If you’re reading any media aimed at teenagers, what is one piece of advice that is sure to be squished in somewhere? “Be yourself.” This seems like pretty solid advice, but the problem is that at this age of maturity, nobody knows what being his or herself even is. I certainly don’t. We have slivers of ideas of what ourselves are, some contradicting themselves, some short-lived, some spot-on. How is “be yourself” good advice?
Certainly “be yourself” assumes that I am somebody.
As people, we have a natural sense to be known by others, to be “somebody” to others. People think that doing something will get them something in return, sometimes, an identity. We are known for what we do: a teacher teaches, a mathematician does math, a writer writes, an artist makes art, a liar lies, a cheater cheats, a murderer murders. If you do nothing, then you must be a nobody. By valuing our actions above all else, we place ourselves into the very labels and stereotypes we struggle with every day.
So we are known for what we do, but as members of Western culture we also experience pressure from society to be individual in personality and actions. Being individual is one of biggest pressures I have ever experienced. I have such a fear of being cliché, and so many others in our American world do as well. How many times has matching prom dresses been the conflict of the plotline of a made-for-TV teen drama? The dread to be the same as anyone else, even through such a superficial thing as a prom dress, is evident through our media and conversations.
Individuality seems to have become a god in our culture; it represents perfection and true identity. Being unique is the way that one can become a person. I am not condemning the message that everyone is unique in his or her own way, but to call attention to the value and priority that this “uniqueness” has gained in our society. The question must be asked, if everyone is striving to show off his or her own individuality, doesn’t that mean everyone is doing the same thing and therefore not as individual as they think?
In the past two months, I read J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, a book which explores the struggle against humanity’s egotistical behavior as a confused and overwhelmed young adult through spirituality. The book focuses on the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.” The purpose of the Jesus Prayer is to reach, through repetition, a point where even as your heart beats, it recites the prayer. Your being is supposed to be consumed by the mercy Christ offers, similar to the nirvana described in Buddhism. It is a “nothingness” within an “everythingness” in some ways.
As Franny endures the struggle of finding her identity, she says to her beau, “I’m sick of not having the courage to be an absolute nobody.” The most striking part of this statement is the word “courage.” When has doing nothing or being nobody ever been courageous? Being nobody is doing nothing or being notoriously unknown: it’s lazy, unmotivated, not standing out, going nowhere…there is nothing courageous about that. But I think, in this, Franny is talking about a different kind of nobody, an honorable one.
Maybe being a nobody isn’t just doing nothing; maybe being nobody is not boasting of doing something great.
Imagine being in some hoity-toity college for theater like Franny, surrounded by people seeking success, fame, and unique expression: seeking the outstanding. This environment pushes, and pushes, and pushes for one to be somebody. How terribly exhausting, how frightening. Seeking attention is unsatisfying and overwhelming because true assurance and stability can’t come from any audience or peer.
Franny makes being “an absolute nobody” a courageous deed. She’s tired of the egotistical behavior of people, the vying for attention, the insecurity in the very places we put ourselves with our definitive identities through actions. She is tired of being known for the superficial things she doesn’t believe are worth her identity; she is exhausted with not feeling free enough to let go of the things that don’t matter. She feels that she needs to uphold a mask of “somebody,” even though it means nothing. This is why freeing herself of unimportant matters is courage.
Maybe being an absolute nobody is actually an act of humility. After all, God asks us to be unknown in our prayer and service to others (Matthew 6:3,6). He says we should not be known by these actions, but known through Him and through our love for others inspired by Him (John 13:35). When we become Christians, we’re supposed to “set aside all earthly cares that we may receive the King of all,” as sung in the Orthodox Christian liturgy. We’re to receive God and represent Him to others, letting His Holy Spirit fill us.
We’re asked to be an absolute nobody, an honorable, holy, courageous nobody.