What’s that ‘one thing necessary’?

“One of the chief obstacles to this perfection of selfless charity is the selfish anxiety to get the most out of everything, to be a brilliant success in our own eyes and in the eyes of other men. We can only get rid of this anxiety by being content to miss something in almost everything we do. We cannot master everything, taste everything, understand everything, drain every experience to its last dregs. But if we have the courage to let almost everything else go, we will probably be able to retain the one thing necessary for us — whatever it may be. If we are too eager to have everything, we will almost certainly miss even the one thing we need.”

Thomas Merton, “No Man Is An Island”

The morning’s chill, the car lights on in the parking lot after soccer’s over — it’s obvious what’s coming. This isn’t another reference to winter; promise. Instead, it’s the revelation, to me, that the world is again rolling into a season of dormancy and single-mindedness. Fall and winter lack flamboyant flowers and busy bugs and birds; there’s less to watch. Soon all we’ll notice are chickadees, titmice, cardinals, and woodpeckers. Soon the dead ash by the sandbox will look like all the other trees in the yard. Nature focuses on survival; I’m focusing on thriving, and how.

A couple friends and I — friends who don’t know each other, so maybe I’m the contagion particle — are in seasons of unrest, of “what next,” and we’re realizing … Does one ever feel settled? I expect many do. I’m not, yet.

A few years ago, one of my best friends and I sat at a Starbucks table with notebooks and our calendars. Snow swirled under parking lot lamps; my winter coat wouldn’t button over my newly postpartum middle. I remember these things, Lord forgive me. We’d just decided to spearhead the first refugee resettlement team in our city since World Relief reopened there. A lightening in my diaphragm for hours, for days; I don’t know how best to describe this very physical feeling I have sometimes, more often now, of movement. Maybe this is how I encounter the Holy Spirit. We were busy, but happy.

“I feel like this is going to change the trajectory of my life,” I said to her. I’d meant only the refugee team would keep going on and on; I didn’t know that phrase’s bigger picture. The tired newspaper editor awakening to a more abundant something: I felt so newly alive. I felt free for the first time, maybe, and it was all Jesus, granting me the imagination to look farther than that day. Truly, my trajectory was changed: I’m free now, first in the sense I’m not that editor anymore, but also because I have rearranged my life to fervently pursue that diaphragm-lightening feeling.

Thank you, Lord: I pursue opportunities that put me in places I couldn’t have imagined then, and I’m still asking “What’s next?” I want more of that. I want to be settled, but before then, I want to … know. I want to know what makes me thrive, and then I want to do it, single-mindedly.

Just in the last few weeks, I’ve been replaying that night. I can no longer see myself working a normal job; I will just write and hang clothes on the line forever, thank you: Luci Shaw says she’s a poet folding socks and I want to be that. I’ll be poor, but I’ll be happy. But I wonder about the rest, or the unrest. What am I trying to drain to the last dregs that I should just let go? What is this pursuit of more, and is it all a bit much?

I read Merton days ago; it won’t let me go. It’s got me doing a lot more wondering than usual. I wonder about what makes me feel alive, and how I patch that together to make something I’ll want to look back on with some peace at the end. I’m wondering about community and keeping it growing; and serving, and my people, especially my young people. I wonder a lot about my little humans, currently sleeping in their beds. I wonder about their wonderment. I wonder … Maybe I can’t be a runner and a homeschooler and a children’s ministry person and a writer and also cook amazing meals and have children who bathe somewhat regularly. Maybe I can’t teach my children how to do math and how to paint and sew and ride a two-wheeled bike. And be a writer. And write long letters by hand to dear friends and family, and read poetry, and have a nature journal, and make meals for others, all at once. I’m an American woman in 2014: there’s a chance I want too much. There’s a chance I can only do one, maybe two things really well.  (The “and be a writer” works its way in often, revealing it’s probably more important to me than the rest. I’m afraid of that.)

A few of those I can cut easily; we have eggs for dinner. That’s fine. I can ask my community to help me accomplish the important pieces I can’t let pass. And then the rest, the one or two things that are mine, I have to run with, and let God complete through me; please, Lord.

“Happiness consists in finding out precisely what the ‘one thing necessary’ may be, in our lives, and in gladly relinquishing the rest. For then, by a divine paradox, we find that everything else is given us together with the one thing we needed.”

Merton finishes.

So, what’s the one thing? Why one? I wonder about that, and why my first answer intimidates me so.

What’s got you wondering?

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