About six months ago, I watched from the upper deck of Williams-Brice Stadium as the Gamecocks blew a 13-point lead in the fourth quarter against Missouri. As I was leaving the game, I remember being extremely frustrated with coach Spurrier for the poor use of his second half timeouts and for not going for a two-point conversion in the fourth quarter when it made sense to do so. Even after I got home, I was still very upset and didn’t fall asleep for a couple of hours. There was only one way we could have lost from there, and he didn’t even plan for it. How could he have such tunnel vision?
While I still think the Head Ball Coach managed the end of that game poorly, I now understand that I was suffering from some tunnel vision of my own. Why did I care so much about the outcome of something that has essentially no impact on my daily life? Whether South Carolina had won or lost that (or any) game, I would still be fortunate enough to have good health, a home, food, a job, great friends and family, and the beautiful thing that is American freedom. The “worst that could happen” in the game did, and it was nowhere near being a disaster in my life.
“What’s the worst that could happen?”
Usually the answer to this question is “I will have to eat French fries instead of mashed potatoes”, or “I will lose a game of Spades”, or “I won’t get to watch Jeopardy tonight”. Mildly unfortunate outcomes, certainly, but these and many of the other problems or situations that regularly cause us stress and frustration do not threaten the important things I just listed. I believe that we spend far too much time worrying about the things in life that have minimal or even no long-term relevance.
But how do we stop worrying about these things? At one time or another, you have probably heard the advice to “live in the moment”. Sometimes called mindfulness, this is the practice of mentally focusing entirely on the present and the task at hand from moment to moment. This is a good practice to an extent. In part, this is because dwelling on the past can lead to sadness and worrying about the future can cause anxiety. Also, mindfulness is sometimes very practical and even highly necessary, such as during a fire or other emergency.
However, a consequence of always living in the moment is that we can often overly magnify the importance of whatever task we are performing. We limit our awareness solely to one short moment, and upon failing at the task, we often experience negative emotions, such as disappointment and frustration, in disproportionately large amounts relative to their source’s long-term importance or value.
To counteract this, I ask you to consider a different idea: living outside the moment. This approach is like zooming out a camera lens – instead of only seeing a few small and seemingly incongruent details, we are able to view the entire scene and comprehend its overall value, meaning, and beauty. There may be other ways to do this, but the only one I’ve had any success with is to apply a supernatural outlook to life.
As Christians, we have the Holy Spirit to provide us with a divine perspective that enables us to brush aside the flat tires, stubbed toes, dropped phone calls, and other #firstworldproblems that occur in everyday life, and to instead invest our time, emotions, and energy on the things that are truly important. Josemaría Escrivá, Catholic saint and founder of the order Opus Dei (Latin for “Work of God”), defined this shift in perspective as living with a “contemplative spirit”. I’m going to spend the rest of today’s article on three topics: (1) where a contemplative spirit originates, (2) the benefits of living with one, and (3) how to develop and maintain it.
Where does a contemplative spirit come from?
According to Escrivá, a contemplative spirit does not materialize suddenly. Rather, developing a contemplative spirit is a gradual process that involves becoming continually more aware of God’s presence, particularly in our daily work (Friends of God, 67). Without the presence of God, there is no contemplative spirit. And without a contemplative spirit, our earthly endeavors are cheapened, “for vain is the builder’s toil if the house is not of the Lord’s building.” (Christ is Passing By, 8)
Contemplative spirit is closely linked with a concept called divine filiation – the knowledge and awareness that we are children of God. This should generate an underlying sense of optimism and cheerfulness that permeates our lives and makes us want to share with everyone we encounter (The Forge, 740). St. Josemaría says that a contemplative soul is noteworthy in society because instead of focusing on earthly desires and motives, it is driven by the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. In particular, well-placed hope grants us tremendous strength and fortitude (Friends of God, 221).
It is important to not define this sort of hope in the earthly sense, which is wishing for something uncertain to happen (e.g. “I hope the Gamecocks win tonight”). Divinely-inspired hope is about trusting God and relying on the grace of the Holy Spirit to guide us through life’s challenges. Divine hope is not uncertain, but instead is quietly confident, knowing that God is in control and that following Him will ultimately lead to our happiness – even if I have to wait an extra three and a half minutes to get home because I got stuck waiting for a train.
A contemplative spirit and the hope that stems from it create the shield that protects us from overreacting to being cut off in traffic or lashing out at the person who incorrectly filled our order at the drive-through. Not to say that we should become emotionless robots that never feel angry or indignant about anything, but according to St. Paul, living with divine hope should give us lasting endurance in trials (Romans 8:25). This endurance allows us to dismiss the inclination to act impulsively on frustration or discouragement brought about by common (and even uncommon) difficulties, knowing that spending eternity with God will more than make up for those times when we misplace our sunglasses and waste ten minutes looking for them. But without a contemplative spirit and supernatural perspective, the devil has an easy time “pushing our buttons” and turning the little things that go wrong in everyday life into constant sources of outrage, distress, and irritation that can easily develop into bad habits and vices if we are not vigilant.
What are the benefits of a contemplative spirit?
There are many advantages to living with a contemplative spirit. I have already discussed the most immediate benefit in some detail – the ability to live outside the moment and “not sweat the small stuff”. However, this is just one effect of the primary cause – the ability to distinguish between what is heavenly and what is earthly, what is lasting and what is fleeting. This has many implications and manifests in numerous other ways.
First, a contemplative spirit allows us to develop our consciences. Doing this is critical, not just during childhood, but throughout our lives, as we are told to continually grow in our knowledge of God and of spiritual matters (2 Peter 3:18). Living contemplatively allows us to recognize injustice and to cultivate empathy and compassion. Combined with courage, these qualities drive us to act virtuously regardless of societal pressures, whether this involves making personal sacrifices in family matters, being ethical in our work and business practices, or reaching out to those on the fringes of society.
As I discussed to some extent in the previous section, living contemplatively is important for coping with negative experiences in life, including suffering, anxiety, and disappointment. Today, I’ve mostly been focusing on routine trials, but some trials are very serious in nature and can truly threaten the health, safety, or freedom of ourselves or others. Being able to step outside the moment and dismiss minor inconveniences allows us to focus our prayer on overcoming true difficulties and our reformative efforts on combating actual flaws.
Furthermore, this valuable perspective can help us to manage our time effectively, focusing our attention on worthwhile pursuits and activities. It is also important for choosing friends and a significant other who help us to grow spiritually instead of pulling us away from God. Collectively, these outcomes of living outside the moment help us to continually become better people and strive to “be perfect as [our] Heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). This is the work of a lifetime, but it’s never too late to start.
How do we create and maintain a contemplative spirit?
As I just mentioned, contemplative living requires continual effort and is a lifelong undertaking. I am certainly far from mastering it; like everyone, I have ups and downs in my spiritual journey. However, my ups and downs seem to usually correlate with whether I am living contemplatively, which is why I decided to write this in the first place. With that, here are four key pillars to living contemplatively:
1) Prayer – St. Paul tells us to “pray without ceasing.” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). Without regular prayer, we won’t be aware of God’s presence in our lives and the following pillars are considerably weakened.
2) Community – There are numerous spiritual snags and hiccups that can be difficult to overcome without a good support group. Jesus said that He is present when people gather together in His name (Matthew 18:20). Finding a church and religious community that strengthens and encourages us is a critical part of our individual faith journeys.
3) Service – Once we uncover the lights in our souls, charity demands that we share it with others. Without service, we zoom in too much on ourselves; we lose perspective and our faith becomes dead because it lacks action (James 2:17). Service also instills in us a deeper sense of appreciation for our many blessings.
4) Perseverance – It is important to distinguish having a failure from being a failure. The only lasting failure is giving up. God always forgives us, but repentance is needed to accept His mercy (Acts 3:19). Don’t allow one mistake or regret to define you, but instead keep getting back up and pressing onward.
So today, I invite you to zoom out your camera lens, live outside the moment, and view the amazing world around you with a contemplative spirit. What’s the worst that could happen?