The present moment rediscovered

It took a domestic accident for me to finally slow down and learn an important lesson

Photo by Maria Marganingsih |
4 min read
Elisabeth Öhlböck

Believing that God is love (1 John 4:16) has always been one of the foundations of my faith. Therefore, I tend to feel a little uneasy when people say, “God sent me this negative incident because he needed to teach me a lesson.” I’ve often wondered how one could marry together a loving God with the belief that God sends terrible events to teach lessons.

I guess it is generally us who are too distracted, busy or noisy to experience his presence or hear what he is saying. It is interesting though that sometimes, mysteriously, negative events more than positive ones stop us in our tracks, and we discover a precious insight that has previously been hidden from us!

One evening this summer, as I was descending the staircase in our house, I misjudged a step and landed on the floor in such pain that I thought I would pass out. I knew immediately why it had happened: walking down the stairs, my hands were folding two paper bags while my mind was worried about a practical detail of the next day.

As I was watching my ankle swell up, I realized that it would take months until I would be able to go for a run again. Agonizing on the floor, the practical wisdom of “doing one thing at a time” and “staying focused on the present” popped into my mind.

At least since the publication in 1997 of Eckhart Tolle’s book The Power of Now, which over the years has sold millions of copies, the concept of staying rooted in the present moment has entered mainstream culture. We all know, at least theoretically, that life unfolds only in the present. I must confess, though, I’ve constantly struggled to put it into practice in my own life.

After my ankle injury this summer, I was literally catapulted into “getting it.” I remembered a talk on this topic given by Focolare founder Chiara Lubich in 2001. It was the year I had finished college, and Chiara, whom I respected as a person with great insight into the meaning of life, visited Austria.

During her talk in Vienna on living the present moment, I listened with great interest. After it, however, life happened. I had my job to start, life choices to sort out and found it rather difficult to put her insights into practice.

It took my ankle injury to make it come alive again. This time, I realize, I am beginning to understand what she was saying then, not cognitively but experientially. Chiara spoke about one of her friends, Luminosa Bavosi, who was diagnosed with terminal cancer. At the time Luminosa asked her advice on how to live the last months of her life.

Chiara responded: “All I was able to say was: ‘Live the present moment.’ Because I’d heard a story about St. Aloysius, that one day he’d been playing and someone had asked him, ‘If you knew that in this moment you were about to die, what would you do?’ And he replied: “I would keep on playing.’ So, I said to Luminosa, ‘That’s what you have to do, Luminosa! Keep on playing!’ Which means: ‘Keep on being interested in what’s happening, keep on living…’

“And for as long as she could, she continued writing, phoning people, talking, and welcoming visitors, everything, everything, right up to the last moment, to the last moment, because she left while she was still very much alive…

“We have to live in the here and now, now. Because, as you know, if you live this particular ‘now,’ then there will be another ‘now,’ and then another, and also at the end of life, there will be a ‘now.’ Just like many dots make up a line, so many present moments make up a lifetime.”

Now, a few weeks after my ankle injury, it is still very clear to me that God didn’t cause it to teach me a lesson. This event though made an important message come alive in me. Since then, putting my foot onto the first step of every staircase is like a gentle reminder-chime that pins me to the here and now, focusing on every step I take. Interestingly, this focus has also spilled over into other areas of my life.

Through these now frequent reminder chimes, I’m enjoying the beauty of being rooted in the present moment. Even though I’m still unable to decompress by going for a run, I realize that staying physically and mentally anchored where I am is a great tool for peacefulness.

When I am present to what is happening, I am discovering that my life-experience deepens in so many moments throughout the day—by not rushing, but savoring the coffee-aroma; by feeling with a friend who tells me about her husband’s illness; by acknowledging and not pushing away an uncomfortable WhatsApp message; by peacefully waiting for the traffic light to turn green; by focusing on chopping the vegetables for a stir-fry; by listening well and not checking my emails during a Zoom meeting, or by appreciating the soft Irish rain on my face as I walk in the woods.

First published in New City, London

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