Stoplights have been the bane of my existence. I seem to have the natural ability to time stoplights just so that I have to stop at nearly every one. And, just so you understand the depth of this ability, not only do I encounter most lights as they are red, no, I come to them just as they are turning red. In this way I have the privilege of waiting through the entire cycle before getting the green light to go. So pronounced is this ability of mine that my wife actually comments whenever I do encounter a light that is green and I move through the intersection without having had to stop.
I actually don’t believe it is an ability at all. Rather, what I really believe is that I am about one second out of phase with the universe. In other words, I feel that if I could somehow jump ahead one second in time then I would get mostly green lights rather than red. Now, you may think this is foolishness, but it is actually a testable hypothesis and, in fact, has been tested. To my own satisfaction I have been proven right.
You see, the keepers of the world’s official time, Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), occasionally add a leap second to keep the clocks on track. This is necessary because of the slight variations in the Earth’s rotational period. The last time a leap second was added was June 30, 2012, roughly six months ago. A funny thing happened…I began to make the green lights. Not just a few; rather, I made nearly every green light. It was most remarkable. I zipped around town with minimal stops and arrived early at every appointment. This lasted for weeks. Gradually, however, I began to encounter more and more red lights. Finally, much to my dismay, I found myself returned to my assigned place in the universe: one second out of phase.
Perhaps it is this opportunity to wait at stop lights that causes me to think so often about “waiting” and the ordinariness of day-to-day life.
So, because of the many hours I spend waiting at stoplights each year, you can imaging what a relief smartphones have been to my waiting. I found that my time at a stoplight was transformed from interminable waiting to an opportunity to stay connected by checking email, texting, or web surfing. At each light I had the ability to distract myself from waiting by being productive or with mindless activity, it seemed to matter little which, as long as I was no longer simply “waiting.” I was living a stoplight life of bliss.
Over time, however, I began to notice the gradual loss of my ability to wait in any situation. Waiting for a computer to boot, waiting on the microwave timer, waiting on another to finish talking, waiting for winter to end…in these and so many other instances I was annoyed at the waiting and longed for distraction. And that is when I began to more fully understand the ancient spiritual discipline of solitude and silence.
I used to understand solitude and silence as a way to gain some psychic distance from the noise of the world and, for Christians, to hear God more clearly. Given my monk-like nature, I liked my extended experiences of solitude and silence, and when back in the noise I found myself longing for the quiet; the noise is often overwhelming to me. Then the stoplights came to mind and the disciple of solitude and silence took on new meaning.
There is no reason, I decided, that I couldn’t have a monastery within. Solitude and silence could be an inner condition bolstered by the occasional actual experience of getting away. If I let them, the experiences of stop lights could also help; by sitting quietly at stop lights, avoiding the temptation of distraction, I find now that I am able to foster a more continual sense of inner solitude and silence resulting in a deeper peace and increased awareness of God. Now, I find that I measure my response at encountering a red light on a peace–frustration scale, and I find that the when my life is harried and out of balance my red light frustration is much higher; the opposite in my life brings peace at red lights.
So, avoiding distraction and “waiting well” has become a way for me to cultivate an inner monastery of solitude and silence in the noise of everyday life; it is a place from which I find I can be more attentive to life itself and, more importantly, more attentive to God.
And attention, as French philosopher Simone Weil asserts, is the only faculty of the soul that gives us access to God.
If true, and I believe it is, then why would I want to live life other than in an attitude of attentiveness.