What does it look like when we’ve found inner peace?
I pondered that question a lot recently, while writing a lay sermon on the topic for church, within the context of Advent. I certainly can’t claim to have a special hold on the topic myself. Admittedly, in the realm of finding inner peace, of not being a mangled train wreck of inner turmoil, I am early in my journey — a novice, really.
So, to come up with an image of inner peace, I had to look outside myself. And the image I landed on was from about 11 years ago, on a particular night with my daughters, when they were about 7 and 4.
It was one of those lovely spring nights we have in Oklahoma, when we find ourselves without power, hunkering in a basement, or storm shelter, or whatever passes for a good place to wait out a tornado.
It wasn’t memorable, thankfully, because of any of the bad outcomes that can befall us on such a night.
What I do remember most from that night, or perhaps all that was worth remembering, was a simple lesson taught to me by my daughters.
Like so many such events, that night’s trip to the basement was at the very least tense for the adult involved (me), while it was a unique adventure in the eyes of the children (played by my daughters).
Settling my girls in the basement, I sought to ease their minds by reading them a couple of selections from Beatrix Potter, by the light of a battery-powered camp lantern.
It did not take long to realize the antics of Benjamin Bunny and Squirrel Nutkin were doing more to calm my mind than my daughters’.
That’s not to say the girls weren’t calm. On the contrary, they embraced the peculiar ability to adapt to and find joy in the situation at hand that seems to only be held by children.
About 30 minutes into the basement adventure, Beatrix Potter lost her allure, and the girls turned to making shadow puppets on the wall in the light of the lantern, leaving me to worry about the weather, the house, the kids, the vehicles and whether or not I had forgotten something about which I should be worrying.
As I sat watching my daughters invent different shadow puppets — discernible only with the beautiful imagination of a child — I envied the freedom of their care-free bliss.
Of course, I dismissed their joy as the by-product of a blessed ignorance.
This patronizing rationale unraveled when my older daughter — then just a second-grader, and now a freshman in college — flatly asked me if a tornado could be strong enough to suck us out of the basement.
Not wanting to lie to my daughters, I replied simply: “Yes, if it is a strong-enough tornado.”
“Would we die if that happened?”
“Yes, dear, we probably would.”
I was about to follow that with one of those unreasonable and untenable parental promises, like “That won’t happen to us.”
But, before I could lay down the required platitudes, my daughter cut me off with an innocent laugh, then stated matter-of-factly: “Wow, that would be a really strong wind.”
Then, casting aside the violent possibilities of the weather outside, she turned back to the shadow puppets and quickly made a lion, which of course promptly ate her sister’s bunny.
What keeps drawing me back to this scene is the following simple question: At what point in our lives do we learn to worry about things that we cannot change with any amount of human effort?
When do we gain the ability to obsess over what might happen, to pre-occupy ourselves with scenarios in which the only certainty is that we are not in control?
When do we lose the ability to find joy, or at least indifferent peace, in the worst of circumstances?
I’m not sure that I have the answers to any of these questions. What I am sure of is this: I have a lot to learn about finding and keeping inner peace, and my best teachers remain my children — especially in my memories of that time before the world got its hands on them.
I’m not suggesting we should abandon all cares and surrender ourselves to the malaise of an unbalanced fatalism. But, just the same, I think we could all learn something from the peace, faith and courage that it takes to make shadow puppets in the face of a tornado.