Lightly Child, Lightly

In the morning, I sit with a cup of coffee and organize myself for the day. I watch the sunrise over the lake by my home, and I listen to the sounds of the sparrows and wrens. Orioles come and go from our grape jelly feeder, and each one makes me smile. I breathe deeply for 10 breaths to ground myself in my body. I remind myself of my many blessings and set my attitude to positive. My old calico, Glessie, sits by my side. Even though I am ragged with grief at the news of the world, I am ready to face whatever happens next.

Over the decades, I’ve acquired skills for building a good day. Especially in the summer, when I can swim, work in my garden, attend outdoor concerts and read in my hammock, life is fun. I have work I enjoy — sponsoring an Afghan family, participating in an environmental group and writing.

Of course, I am leading a double life. Underneath my ordinary good life, I am in despair for the world. Some days, the news is such that I need all my inner strength to avoid exhaustion, anxiety and depression. I rarely discuss this despair. My friends don’t, either. We all feel the same. We don’t know what to say that is positive. So we keep our conversations to our gardens, our families, books and movies and our work on local projects. We don’t want to make one another feel hopeless and helpless.

Many of us feel we are walking through sludge. This strange inertia comes from the continuing pandemic, a world at war and the mass shootings of shoppers, worshipers and schoolchildren. In addition, our country and our planet are rapidly changing in ways that are profoundly disturbing. We live in a time of groundlessness when we can reasonably predict no further than dinnertime. The pandemic was a crash course in that lesson.

As we are pummeled with daily traumatic information, more and more of us shut down emotionally. I can hear the flatness in the newscasters’ voices, see the stress in my friends’ faces and sense it in the tension of the workers at my sister’s nursing home. We are not apathetic; we are overwhelmed. Our symptoms resemble those of combat fatigue.

The most informed and compassionate among us are the most vulnerable to despair. We understand the brokenness and the sorrow in our own and faraway communities. We are also fully aware of all the things we cannot change. Staying focused on the light in the world is hard work.

Of course, America isn’t eastern Ukraine, Afghanistan or Yemen, but nonetheless, we are a lonely, frightened people who have lost hope in the future. Any psychologist knows that is a dangerous place to be. We risk losing our ability to think clearly or experience life completely. We lose our vitality and sense of direction. We cannot help others. We cannot fix anything.

In times like these, we need world-class coping skills just to stay fully awake, enjoy our lives and be of service to others. My life lessons come from many places, but I’ll focus on three sources — my maternal grandmother, the study of psychology and the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh.

My grandmother raised five children on a ranch in eastern Colorado during the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. She was an educated woman, but she lived a life of poverty and hard work. When she and my grandfather were in their 60s, they sold their small ranch and moved into a small stucco house in town. They planted a big garden, gooseberry bushes and a peach orchard. They rarely left town, and my grandmother died a widow with less than a thousand dollars to her name. Her life was simple, but her mind was not.

She was my first mentor for building inner resources and developing integrity. She urged me to “be the person you want to live with every day of your life.”

As Grandmother and I stemmed green beans or did dishes, we would discuss the moral questions of the day, and with my grandmother, there were always moral questions. I loved these deep conversations with her, and not surprisingly, I adopted many of her ways of thinking.

She was a model of forbearance, always cheerful and curious. Even on her deathbed, she asked about my high school classes and the books I was reading. And the last time I saw her, she told me her life goal had been “to leave the world a better place.”

Psychology teaches that the best way to cope with suffering is to face it. We must feel it in our bodies, explore its meaning and then muster our inner resources to move forward. We find ways to balance our despair with joy. We reach out to our friends and family. We find a way to help another person. Action is always an antidote to despair.

Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk and Zen master, witnessed great suffering in Vietnam during both the French and the American wars. To help himself and his followers deal with their anger, fear and heartbreak, he developed mindfulness practices. He taught his followers to breathe deeply and slowly and to anchor themselves in the present moment. As Thich Nhat Hanh would say: “Present moment. Beautiful moment.”

Yet even as he emphasized meditation, he created the Youth for Social Service to help his war-torn country. At great risk, his group helped the homeless, set up medical units and rebuilt schools. For this, he was banished from Vietnam. He founded a school of Buddhism called engaged Buddhism, and from his home in Plum Village, France, he worked for peace and a sustainable planet. His deepest teaching concerned our interconnection with all of life. We all share the same consciousness as the frightened schoolchild; the hungry, homeless refugee; the polar bears; and the ravaged forests.

Most of us cannot be great heroes. However, we all have the capacity to be ordinary heroes. We may not be able to stop the global use of plastics, but we can work with local environmental groups. We cannot eliminate prejudice or nuclear weapons. However, we can deliver Meals on Wheels or repair bikes for giveaway programs.

Only with heightened coping skills will we be able to rise above our shell shock and be who we want to be. All of us have the capacity to do this, and when we do, we will increase our own happiness and be of greater service to those around us. Lao-Tse expresses this point in his poem that begins, “If there is to be peace in the world/There must be peace in the nations,” and ends with “If there is to be peace in the home/There must be peace in the heart.”

Last night I sat on my porch and watched a storm in the southeastern sky. Bolt after bolt of cloud-to-cloud lightning illuminated the towering thunderheads. An owl flew over en route to his favorite pine tree. Frogs croaked. Dogs barked in the distance. As I watched this scene, I thought: Life is so terrible and beautiful at the same time. Do I have the capacity to hold it all in my heart?

— How I Build a Good Day When I’m Full of Despair at the World” (NY Times, June 28, 2022)

Dr. Pipher is a clinical psychologist and the author, most recently, of “A Life in Light: Meditations on Impermanence. Bloomsbury Publishing, June 28, 2022”)


  • Post Title & Inspiration: Aldous Huxley: “It’s dark because you are trying too hard. Lightly child, lightly. Learn to do everything lightly. Yes, feel lightly even though you’re feeling deeply. Just lightly let things happen and lightly cope with them.”


  1. Anonymous says:

    So very timely, thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is wonderful!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. ‘I breathe deeply for 10 breaths to ground myself in my body. I remind myself of my many blessings’

    We become what we repeatedly do and what we repeatedly focus on in the world. That’s my lived experience. 🤗🧡

    Liked by 2 people

    • Karen, Dave – This is SO true and timely too. I often feel like that. Reminds me strongly of the wonderful Breathing Lessons (just by the title alone which always makes me stop in my tracks when I feel overwhelmed) by Anne Tyler. ALL of her books take a prime place on my bookshelves! This book was made in a film too as Dinner @ the homesick restaurant…..
      I try to control my breathing and it DOES help. But of course, much of the deep seated pain stays, it just gets – maybe through sheer will power – more bearable.
      This is a wonderful post. Thank you so much for ‘changing the running of my day’ (although I really should have gone doing some serious shopping, going to the post office *she who still writes cards and letters, needs stamps*, getting meds at the pharmacy, visiting her 99y old auntie who just had her 2nd serious accident, etc. etc).

      Liked by 3 people

    • Aristotle and Karen’s breathing. I don’t need anything else!

      Liked by 2 people

  4. There are, always going to be the splits of our, personalities, due to how we cope with the varied situations in our lives, and, if we don’t, manage these various parts of our selves that come out at the, individual moments, then, that can, cause, serious, problems for us in our, lives.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. All of these resonates so deeply…the simultaneous despair at the current state of the world and gratitude for all the things I have been blessed with in my life. Trying to stay calm and positive has never been more of a struggle for me, but I keep looking for inspiration and joy. It’s still out there, as the author notes. Ya just have to be mindful about finding it. ❤️

    Liked by 2 people

  6. My sister is in Poland this week, helping to process Ukrainian refugees and assisting in these preliminary steps of their journey. Despite the horror, the extreme conflation of people, heartaches, stress, despair, she is heartened by the presence of people just like her doing the same things she is doing to integrate these displaced people into their countries. A contingent of volunteers from Norway, Sweden, Italy, France, etc…and the Central Kitchen always at the ready to offer sustenance. It was a serendipitous meeting that afforded her this opportunity and she is renewed and revived by the goodness she sees. I think we have to do things that make us feel like we are making something/anything better, or at least not contributing to making them worse. No surprise, I kept this article when I read it too…I’d say ‘great minds’ but yours is the greater one, for sure.

    Liked by 3 people

  7. “be the person you want to live with every day of your life.” – yes

    Liked by 3 people

  8. Beth beat me to it, but I was also impressed by that statement: “be the person you want to live with every day of your life.” Sometimes I see someone behaving in a horrible way, and I could get involved and make my own behaviour just as ugly, but often I walk away and thank God that I don’t have to go home with that person. (And no, I didn’t miss the whole point of your post, but that one sentence stood out for me.)

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Beautifully put! So many of us feel this way -i hope all this feeling and the many individual efforts will come together and make a real difference!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Beautifully written. It helps me “crawl” into my gratitude shell. But, that too shall pass. These times have the “feel” of the late 60s – early 70s. Coincidentally, “bridge over troubled waters” was released this time in 1970. So was “Let it Be”

    Liked by 1 person

  11. “Be the person you want to live with every day of your life.” This will stay with me.
    Thanks for sharing, David!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Christie says:

    the duality of life…the interior life and the exterior…compassion and the despair…so many have lost their mooring…(some in this world have never had a mooring)
    Mary Pipher, said “Last night I sat on my porch and watched a storm in the southeastern sky. Bolt after bolt of cloud-to-cloud lightning illuminated the towering thunderheads” ,” we all have the capacity to be ordinary heroes” I know that a Thunderheads and the Thunder Storm eventually pass though in their wake damage occurs to property and People…a storm,(which shows light & darkness) moves on- each day passes and a new day begins…and hopefully this World Wide Despair will be in the past for some, while others inner life is shattered forever…and I Wonder How Long Before The World and People Will Be Able To Move Forward…and We Can Each Pray For The Abolishment of Evil and For Peace & Healing To Cover This World…and I know that “Each Breath Is A Gift” even though…Some Breaths Are Difficult & Heartbreaking…

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Wow…that’s all, just wow.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. niasunset says:

    Same feeling, same thoughts for me too, dear David, just add my country’s problems too in this all world problems… I try to escape fro daily news… But in the depth I know, we’re going downhill fast like a truck with its brakes off… Thank you, Have a nice day and weekend, Love, nia

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Anjan Roy says:

    Thankyou for this sensitive article

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: