Psychologists tell us when we encounter danger or trouble, we act out of one of two human impulses: fight or flight. This means we either engage in combat with the danger or we head for the hills. But in his book, Earth Works, Scott Russell Sanders says there is a third impulse out of which we can respond to danger: we can stay put. He writes, “when the power we face is overwhelming and neither fight nor flight will save us, there may be salvation in sitting still.”
By “sitting still” Sanders does not mean paralysis. “I mean something like reverence, respectful waiting, a deep attentiveness to forces greater than our own.” He gives the example of the Miller family he knew as a child growing up in Ohio. They lived on a nice parcel of land, but suffered through three tornadoes! The first one carried away their mobile home. With the insurance money, they built a small house on the same spot. Several years later, tornado #2 took off their roof. The Millers rebuilt again, adding a garage and second floor to the house. A few years later, the third tornado “reduced their upper floor to kindling” and sucked the water out of their pond. Soon after, Sanders moved from Ohio, but the last he heard, the Millers were planning to rebuild yet again.
The Millers’ devotion to their place might seem foolhardy to some. But Sanders notes: “I suspect that most human achievements worth admiring are the result of such devotion.” He asks, if “the shine goes off our marriage, our house, our car, our job, do we immediately trade it for a new one?” He acknowledges there are times we may choose to do so. For someone in a physically or psychologically abusive relationship, for example, the best option is often to “run.” But, says Sanders, there might be other times “for staying put, confronting the powers, learning the ground, going deeper.”
When I read this chapter in Sanders’ book, I immediately thought of St. Benedict, that wise 5th Century monk and the father of Western monasticism. To this day, Benedictines take a vow of “stability.” In short, this means they commit themselves to a particular monastic community for life. Evidently, Benedict had no use for some monks of his day who flitted from monastery to monastery in search of the perfect community into which to put down their roots. Benedict disapproved of this constant movement. As one Benedictine website puts it today: “Contentment and fulfillment do not exist in constant change.”
I have met a number of married couples who, when they encountered a “rough patch” in their marriage, stayed together and worked through their problems–sometimes with the help of a counselor or spiritual guide. Most told me their marriage was better because they BOTH had decided to “stay put” AND to do the HARD JOB of working things out. In the process, they learned invaluable knowledge about themselves, about each other, and about true love. Something similar can happen when individuals enter a particular religious community. At first they may be in awe of the members they meet. Everyone is so kind, so prayerful, so devoted to mission. But, sooner or later, they will see the failings in their fellow sisters or brothers and encounter the shortcomings in the community at large. When a second-year novice had become disillusioned with her community, she went to her novice director and complained about the other novices and vowed members as well as the ways things were being done in the community. Her novice director said jubilantly, “At last you see our shortcomings. Now finally you can begin to love us!”
Sometimes “staying put” can be the right choice when we are confronted with danger or serious trouble. It can be an invitation to go deeper, to gain greater self-knowledge, to grow in patience and compassion, to heighten our awareness of the Divine in our midst, and to channel our love into a life-long commitment to something (or Someone) greater than ourselves.
When you recall some of the difficult situations or serious “rough patches” in your life, did you ever opt for “staying put”? If so, are you better off for doing so? Why or why not?
Did you ever opt for fight or flight? Looking back, was that the best decision for yourself?
How do you prevent “staying put” from morphing into paralysis?
Do you agree or disagree with Sanders’ words that “most human achievements worth admiring” are the result of some form of “staying put”? Can you give any examples?
I’ve chosen a song by Carrie Newcomer, “I’m Learning to Sit Without Knowing.” Some of the words touch upon the themes of this reflection: “sitting without knowing… I cool my heels and start slowing… learning it’s a process… here’s the clear space that I’ve chosen… learning to live with what takes time.”
I invite you to write a comment below sharing your insights and ideas on the reflection itself, the photos, and the song. Thank you!