Old Insights Insisting

I’ve been noticing that in middle age, it’s not so much that I have as many new thoughts as that I find myself pondering more fully a thought or insight that caught my attention — if briefly — in the past. I’m reminded of something Joretta Marshall, who teaches pastoral care, said over and over in her classes: that we were taking in a lot of information right now, in our heads, but that over time in ministry it could seep down into our hearts and our hands.

I know that maturity in wisdom is rarely wholly consistent. I know this from my irritable moments and from observing the words that fly out of my mouth at times, the words that reflect an immediate preoccupation about what is often a relatively minor thing. And I know wisdom has some uncultivated soil in me when I see how I initially respond to a new sort of difficult situation I’d not really faced before (of late, the ordinariness of unexpected financial pressures). This is humbling, but not at all a surprise.

If anything is easier thus far in mid-life, it’s finding that there are more resources and habits developed over the years that make it easier to meet new situations (at least after needing some time to catch one’s breath and work through the immediate emotional responses to a new challenge or hardship). Some old insights really have settled into my everyday practices, to the point that I don’t always notice that they’re part of daily rhythms — like the importance of showing up on time, eating regularly, casting the angles of the day into prayer of one form or another.

Other old insights end up in an unused closet, or set out in a place where they’re not catching the light of awareness. For me, one old insight that pops its head up regularly over the years is hard to express in words, but appears in the image of steeping in silence, like tea leaves steeping in boiling hot water for a time before they are ready to express themselves.

Whenever I hear the inner command to “steep in silence,” I’m chastened into remembering that I do not do this so very well. Even though I’m well-fed by hours of solitude while preparing class or grading or reading, I’m also an inveterate intellectual, curious about history and current events and ideas of every sort, avidly reading world news as one of my daily habits, and I want to talk and analyze in a spirit of wonder, strategizing how to generate a better world. I’ve been blessed with enough companions who share this penchant to not feel as alone as I can with those who are less prone to stepping back and noticing structural patterns, beyond the immediacy of their everyday lives. But the spirit of analysis can get a little out of hand, like a horse galloping too fast too far, and that analytical bent starts to get applied to all sorts of things little to big (Why don’t they make tea right even at most coffeeshops? They don’t make coffee in water that’s too cold to brew properly! Why are our civil liberties being eroded? Why don’t my students stop texting in class? Why don’t all students care about working on their grammar? Or coming to class on time? Why does my partner not notice the food left in the drain plug after doing dishes? etc.). That’s when I’m likely to hear that command come sharp and fierce: “Steep in silence like a tea bag!” I’ve heard it now for at least 25 years, and it reminds me always how prone I am still to letting words get ahead of a fuller listening in all directions.

So many of the things little and big that bother us are indeed worthy of note, of attention. But jumping on them like a pit bull with the voice alone doesn’t get one so very far. And we cannot act on all we see that needs doing, in our vocational or household lives, much less in the world at large. So the Benedictine emphasis on listening, on a steady place for silence and not always for speaking, seems like an age old insight well worth continuing to practice, with the nudging of the Spirit Christ sends to us, individually and together.

What old insights have you found yourself chewing on more fully over time? Why did it take so long for them to set deeper roots in your awareness, your ongoing conversion?

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