Illustrations by John P. Weiss
There are days when I feel like throwing in the towel. They don’t happen often, but they happen. Frustration, exhaustion and elusive dreams gnaw at my ambitions.
The march of commitments, obligations and appointments don’t let up. Time grows thin. Seems every step forward involves two steps back.
Like the time I wrote an epic blog post, and then inexplicably deleted the whole damn thing.
Or the awesome cartoon I nearly completed. Full of fine lines and subtle watercolor hues. But then, I knocked my bottle of india ink all over it.
There’s so much noise these days. Cable news programs filled with jousting voices. Egos competing to win an argument. Depressing news stories. Tired, partisan positioning. All of it interspersed with loud commercials and relentless marketing.
Hey everybody, look at me!
Escape to social media and you confront more madness. A subtle kind of vainglorious contest. Everyone documenting their lives, projecting the veneer of perfection. Images of altruism. Amazing vacations. Flattering angles and superficial commentary. Plus, they share information you wish they didn’t.
Then there are all the blogs dispensing advice on how to live your life. Usually with those infernal, self-help slogans superimposed over ubiquitous stock photos. I have been guilty of this myself but try now to inspire and not preach.
I sometimes feel like throwing in the towel because I get worn out. I start feeling less hopeful.
An insidious, inner voice whispers defeated thoughts:
“Why are you killing yourself with all this blogging, cartooning and writing? Why do you toil at the easel? There are too many writers and artists. You’ll get nowhere. Hang it up. Get some rest.”
It’s a negative, little voice. I’ll bet you have one, too.
We turn to our heroes and idols for guidance and inspiration. Movie stars, musicians and artists. The ones who seem to have it all. But they’re human, too.
Beyond the fame and money, many of the Hollywood glitterati and dotcom aristocracy are unhappy. Consider all the divorces, drug problems, and suicides that pervade the entertainment and tech-elite industries.
What are we to do?
Everyone is trying to find that something. That feeling or place where life just works. Where everything aligns and fits.
The problem is that we’re all different. What works for you may not work for me. The religious find solace in faith. The agnostic gain reassurance from science. Some just hit the bar, but that usually doesn’t end well.
Exercise and fitness certainly help, to a point. But even top cross-fitters and triathletes have their dark days.
The great philosophers, existentialists, and stoics explored the questions of life. Minds like Marcus Aurelius, C.S. Lewis and Ralph Waldo Emerson. They are helpful companions.
But sometimes, life is just maddening. So, what are we to do?
I know, it sounds like shallow self-help. But there’s something bordering on divinity in stillness. It’s the antidote. The antithesis of noise, voices, competition, vanity, hopelessness, pettiness and defeat.
You have to work at it, but there are moments.
Like the day I sat in my backyard garden and was visited by a small wren. She alighted on the fence and inspected a birdhouse my wife installed below the roof.
It was relatively quiet in the yard. There was a small breeze and the sun’s warmth. I closed my eyes. Listened to the wren chatter. And there it was. Stillness. Peace. A perfect moment.
The mother of all stillness
The answer to the madness is stillness, and the mother of all stillness is nature. Nature seems to have this all figured out. It’s why we stop and stare at the waterfall. Or gaze, speechless, at the immensity of a redwood tree.
Nature is immune from our self-imposed, full catastrophe living. As Donald Miller noted:
“All the trees are losing their leaves, and not one of them is worried.”
Nature doesn’t worry. Nature just exists, through the seasons. Funny that we’re so incompetent of doing the same. Always drawn back to the drama and conflict. Forever jousting with that incessant voice in our head.
The stillness in nature is really a clue. An anecdote to the madness of our harried lives. Ralph Waldo Emerson unpacks the clue succinctly:
“Adopt the pace of nature. Her secret is patience.”
Back to the woods
I’m not really much for camping. I like my creature comforts, hot showers and fine dining. Yet nearly every year, I join some close friends for our annual camping trip.
My buddy, who organizes the trip, does most of the heavy lifting. He supplies all the equipment, propane cooktops, flatware, utensils, and more. All I have to do is show up with some food, beer and my dog.
We camp beneath the coastal redwoods of California. It’s overcast most mornings and the tents get covered in dew. I hate that, because the dew mixes with the dirt on the ground. Everything gets dirty.
A few years back I ditched my tent, and now I just sleep in the hatchback of my car. It’s warmer and I don’t have to decamp when I leave, but my back usually suffers.
The campground’s community showers get muddy. The campfires and smoke, despite their primeval charm, irritate my lungs.
So why do I bother? Because of the stillness. Peace. There’s absolutely no wi-fi there. My iPhone gets locked in the car, only to be used as an occasional flashlight.
When I’m out in nature with my friends, cut off from the digital world, our conversations change. At first, we reach for our phones, to Google questions or share photos. And then we remember. We’re on holiday from the Internet.
We start to listen more attentively. More deeply. We laugh more. We realize that we don’t need our devices to enhance the experience. In fact, we discover how much our devices get in the way of each moment.
Most of all, it’s the stillness. All you hear is the trickle of the stream. The wind through the canopy of trees. And the sigh of your soul.
The peace of nature resuscitates our patience for the indignities of life. We emerge from the woods a bit more at peace. More patient, too.
Coffee and cats help, too
Thankfully, there is stillness to be found in domestic life. Like the stillness on a Saturday morning, sipping coffee with the cat on your lap.
There’s stillness in front of your easel or writing desk, immersed in the blessed flow of creativity.
Mindfulness experts testify to the benefits of meditation. Learning to be present can summon stillness. Wonderful as nature is, there are other ways to conjure stillness in the modern world. A quiet bath will do it. A library. Even parked in your car, away from the office.
Stillness is restorative. It rescues us from less hopeful days. It improves our creativity. It restores our spirit, enabling us to soldier on.
If you are struggling with the madness of modern living, seek a little stillness. Get out in nature. Take a long bath. Spend a little time in a special place, to restore your patience and spirit.
I’ll wager you’ll find solace there. I know I have.
I’m John P. Weiss, fine artist, and writer. Get on my free email list here to receive the latest artwork and writing.