How I Learned to Pay Attention to the Small Moments

Last summer, while my brother-in-law lay dying on life support, his daughter Tory set an eagle feather on his chest. I saw the gesture and appreciated its significance. It was time, indeed, for his spirit to take flight.

A little while later, an ICU nurse came in and, noticing the feather, exclaimed, “Why is that here? It is illegal for anyone who is not a Native American to have an eagle feather!”

She continued on for a few minutes, chastising Tory while checking whatever dials and gadgets required her presence and then left.

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It is unlikely that the nurse meant to be unkind or mean—it was more that she was unthinking or blind to what she was witnessing. The nurse wanted to voice her concern, point out an error and be on her way. But her need to do those things stood in stark contrast to what our family needed to do—to support my niece and to grieve an untimely death. The right or wrong of owning an eagle feather was really not the heart of the experience—but it became a part of it.

Kindness would have been better for all.

There are times when unkindness seems to come so easily, when I’d just as soon curse at the driver who cuts me off or rail at some perceived slight. Unkind reactions pop out, like the valve on an inflatable raft, blowing off stress or anxiety until what is left is just a useless shell. No one ever feels better for this.

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I regret the times I operate like that nurse—focused on my own small task or goal, aware of something in the atmosphere or room or relationship and unaware of what they mean. When that happens, I am usually trying to get through my own internal to-do list in the most effective way I can manage.

I’ve begun to pay more attention, to moments when my autopilot brain has me operating more like that nurse—blind to what I see and determined to be right—and less like the person I want to be—open-hearted and loving.

In the last 18 months, I have developed a chronic pain condition. Days when the pain is front and center in my experience, I am more likely to be impatient, anxious, and irritable.

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To counter that, I’ve adapted a mindfulness strategy I read in a friend’s wonderful book, The Last Best Cure, by Donna Jackson Nakazawa. A meditation instructor advises her at one point, when negative emotions overwhelm her, to hold her hand to her heart, take five deep breaths and name—out loud—the emotion or sensation she is experiencing. Although meant to be an exercise in centering and mindfulness, I’ve used it lately to halt my own impatience or worry.

It takes only a few seconds and it takes practice. But the very act of doing it can slow a situation and stop the burbling unkindness before it breaks the surface.

I’ve also begun relying more on my mother-heart. When I was expecting my first child, flooded by hormones and high-emotion, any slight toward any person left me in tears. Hallmark cards made me weep. Everyone was once someone’s child, some new life, with horizons of the possible ahead.

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Lately I find that if I spend a moment imagining or re-imagining that sense in the context of a person with whom I am interacting, I am simply kinder. We each bear our worries, disappointments and struggles, and all move forward, doing the best we can with who we are. Approaching each person with that emotion—and letting go of the desire to be right, to correct others or point out their errors—is my own small movement toward a life that embraces kindness. Without it, what are we?

Image Credit: AntlerNIvory on Etsy


About the Author

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Janice Lynch Schuster is a poet, essayist, and nonfiction writer who lives in Maryland. She often contributes to The Washington Post as well as many websites. She is relieved to have launched five adult children, and delighted by the presence of her sixth, now in middle school. She is the author of the new book, What Are Mothers For?.

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