I remember a night, several years ago, when I thought I was alone. It was during a time in my life when I first started to lose myself. Running steps vigorously in the light of a full moon shining down on Washington D.C., the minutes after midnight at Catholic University weren’t spent in the silence of a spring evening.
Rather, they were spent in panic.
The panic of the throbbing, steady drum of a beating heart during vigorous exercise. The loud anguish of Fort Minor’s Bleed it Out flooding into my ears from my IPOD. The intermittent bellows of drunk students stumbling back into dorm room confrontations, only to pass out, as if lifeless, from the repeated fallacy of living for the moment.
I would run those stairs every night, pushing my body to exhaustion, forcing my mind into silence. Consumed by questions, perplexed by paths offered and potential yet to be realized, I put off the anxiety through the only way I knew how. A loud, angry, interior expression of the spirit reverberating through each mental exclamation point, until tired legs and oxygen debt found me incapable of remembering the pain of those thoughts. Again and again. Night after night.
Then one evening, a strange thing happened.
The moon was full, the sky bright. I thought I was alone, at least as alone as one can be at midnight in front of a Philosophy building. But in the exhausted silence after my breathing caught up to my beating heart, I heard a voice, and saw the outstretched arms of a skyward looking man.
After I overcame the initial shock and shook off a few, “what the fucks,” my first thought was to be embarrassed. Most kids aren’t abusing their body with that kind of exercise, much less doing so on a Friday night on a college campus more known for its drinking than anything else. But after I realized this wasn’t some drunk group of coeds intent to point and laugh at “the serious army kid,” I realized I was witnessing a man lost in the quiet peace of God’s gift of a spring night. That man, who I later realized was the President on the college, was praying. And he was praying in thanksgiving.
I was amazed. Not just at the man’s tranquil grace, but in the fault of my own daily ritual. The running, the isolation, the city itself was bringing me nothing but exhaustion, and even while I would momentarily silence my demons with each lonely limp back to bed, I was finding nothing lasting, nothing to be thankful for. I was finding, despite the silence, no quiet.
Since those days in college, I’ve yearned for quiet. Not silence, but quiet. There is a difference; silence, I believe, it the dull, absent state of existence we find ourselves in when were just too damn tired to think. Quiet, on the other hand, is a sort of serenity. A transcendental moment where there is a clarity in purpose. That purpose being a genuine thankfulness to God, Nature, or maybe just the people and places in our lives. Not nearly as rare as we think, quiet is something we have to find, have to seek. God, and nature, can give us nudges, but only we can make that decision to look to the sky and embrace it amidst the empty promises of our daily routine. It was in breaking that daily routine early last week that quiet found me during an early morning sunrise in Annapolis.
I was tired that morning. Too tired to drag myself through the routine of working out at the gym before the sunrise, and too consumed by the stress at work to begin my day by taking that stress on in place of that routine. So I didn’t. I drove into the Academy early, walked down to the Chesapeake Bay, and took a deep breath. My gaze nudged up, I beheld one of life’s simple, quiet pleasures.
There’s something about the way the sun steadily progresses over the clouds that doesn’t just warm the air, but strengthens the spirit. The world, sleeping in the night like the wonder inside of us hides in the way we spend our days, suddenly comes to life in a dynamic move upward. It’s in that moment when the creeping reflection of the sun on the gentle ripples of the bay becomes a rush of warm light that you realize you’ve had it all wrong. In that moment of grace, that feeling of warmth and beauty, calm and serenity, you understand you were neither entitled nor guaranteed this moment. You also realize you didn’t earn it. Not through sweat nor hard work, devotion to duty, God, nor country, and certainly not through daily ritual of patience.
You are given this moment as a gift, and there is nothing you can do to take it away or to earn it, repay it, or assure it. Be thankful for what it is. Marvel in its simplicity and its warmth. What it brings you — the peace, the calm, the meaning in existance itself. And please, do please take the time to breathe slowly, smile slightly, and thank God for all the gifts in our lives. Like a fall morning in Annapolis, when the quiet of nature’s gifts conquers the noises inside our heads.