By Elizabeth Flynn Campbell
One morning this past October, I was sitting on my porch, drinking a cup of tea before leaving for work. In all kinds of weather, this tea on the porch ritual is one that I’ve come to cherish because of the peace it tends to bestow on the rest of my day.
This particular fall morning was exquisite: the sun was illuminating the autumn leaves in their full color and the air was as still as could possibly be. It was so still, in fact, that I was puzzled by the sound of leaves falling from the elm tree a few feet to my left. I was mesmerized, watching for several minutes as hundreds of bright yellow leaves just kept falling from the tree, as if precisely released by some mysterious force at just the right moment in time. I was struck with the elegant process that allowed these leaves to accept their fate with such grace and beauty, letting go with no struggle and in the absence of any wind, gently falling into the next phase of their being. And I imagined how wonderful it would be to trust fate the way those leaves seemed to do.
If you think about it for a bit, you’ll probably come to the conclusion that much, if not most, of your unhappiness is caused by trying to control what you cannot or by obsessing about things whose significance is so very fleeting. Most of us spend a good chunk of our days (and thus our lives) ruminating, worrying, and obsessing about things that don’t matter or that are beyond our control. Time spent wondering what people think of you, those nights you lay awake considering all the things that could go drastically wrong (but rarely do), or even more common, the endless insignificant tasks we create to give us a sense of order in a seemingly chaotic world.
These preoccupations, familiar to most of us, diminish our happiness and take us out of the present moment, which is the only place peace and joy reside. If only we could more easily accept how little control we ultimately have and, like those falling elm leaves, give ourselves over to the present moment, trusting, in the words of Julian of Norwich, a 14th-century Christian mystic, that “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”
This kind of trust is the great, transformative value of all mature spirituality. At its best, it allows us to let go and let something larger, mysterious, and profoundly loving work in our lives, in good times and in bad. When Julian of Norwich wrote that all shall be well, she wasn’t being naive. She wrote those words of utter trust amidst the virulent plagues that were rampant in Europe in the 14th century.
Trusting in something larger than ourselves doesn’t mean that hard and even devastating things won’t happen to us. It does mean that the mysterious power that created everything and that gently guided those leaves to their fate is also always present to us, no matter what happens, guiding us to where and who we are meant to be. Cultivating a deeper receptivity to this power is the essential challenge for any spiritual seeker.
“Let us raise a standard to which the wise and honest can repair; the event is in the hand of God.” (George Washington)
Elizabeth Flynn Campbell lives in Shelburne and is a psychoanalyst in private practice in Burlington.