More than once, over the past five months, I’ve stepped into my shower at 5:45am and said to myself, “Calm down. Take a breath. Be thankful.”
It was sometime in November—supposedly the hardest month of a new teacher’s year—that I began praying for strength just for the next moment. Not for the next day, or the next week, or to get me through until Christmas break—no. I found myself needing to make it bite-sized, in order to be able to swallow it. Strength just for the next moment.
And now I am here, on Christmas break, having survived the first semester, and I realize that I have been learning not just to focus on the next moment during difficult tasks, but also to focus on the next moment of joy. That, I have found, is even harder than the former.
I started realizing the necessity of this early in the semester. Overwhelmed by my students and all the tasks I had to complete, I found myself spending weekends with the anxiety of the coming week looming over me. It was difficult to enjoy my time off because I was worrying about when I would be back in school, anxious that I wasn’t prepared, even though I’d done my work. By October I knew it had to stop. I had to find a way to compartmentalize, or I would let anxiety overtake me.
So I started asking myself a simple question. How are you right now? I asked myself on a Saturday morning, sipping coffee. The answer was obvious: Pretty good. Warm, relaxed, content. Over the next months I continued asking myself that question, forcing myself to take the days moment by moment, focusing on either what I needed to do right then and there, or being thankful that nothing was required of me.
And then the question crept into more stressful moments. How are you right now? I’d ask myself as I got into the car to drive to school. The answer still came back the same: Pretty good. What was required of me in that moment was simply to drive to school, nothing else. How are you now? I’d ask myself on my lunch break at school—one of my most anxious times. Pretty good. Taking a much needed breath. And then, even, How are you now? as I stood before a classroom full of students. Pretty good. Keeping the students’ attention or not, having to discipline or praise them, the answer always came back the same. There was strength enough for every moment.
As I have an extended chance to catch my breath, during these two weeks, I am taking a deep dive into thankfulness as I remember what last Christmas was like. I had just graduated from my masters program, and I had absolutely no job prospects. Leaving to go back to NYC after Christmas took a whole different kind of courage, and I will always keep those cold winter months with me—months of waiting, and scraping by, and being poor and thankful. My thankfulness was at an inverse to the money in my pocket; the more God provided when it didn’t seem possible, the more I felt paper-thin in his abounding grace.
That prayer was answered, but the distinctive thing about God is that he doesn’t stop teaching, ever. He took me out of the frying pan of unemployment and cast me into the fire of this high pressure job. He bent me double in learning to trust his provision, and in the same year he has slowed my heart to the steady pace of moment-by-moment. And through it all, he is fixing my eyes on the promise of just enough strength for the next task.
It’s a lesson worth learning. Even when this job is over, and I move into something that is (hopefully) a little less intense, this way of living is life-giving. I don’t need strength for next year, or next week, or even the next hour. I am not there yet. I need it only for the next moment. I pray that as I enter this new year I will continue to move slow—my emotions and prayers washing through me—as I continue to learn how to calm down, take a breath, and be thankful.
A Long Obedience in the Same Direction
Eugene H. Peterson
The Devil in the White City
Peter A. Pitzele