Make It a Real Wow

Originally published at

I have been thinking about what it means to live wholeheartedly, to give my full attention to each moment without distraction or holding back. One of my customary ways of dodging the present moment is to get too busy. I remember one evening years ago when I was standing at the stove, making supper, a spatula in one hand and a cell phone in the other. I was reviewing the day’s events with a friend, tossing the vegetable stir-fry, checking on the pressure cooker, pausing to wipe the counter, jotting down hasty notes on my To Do list, hauling forks out of the drawer, and generally reaching an apex of distraction.

In walked my then ten-year-old son, holding up his latest drawing for me to see.

“Wow,” I said briskly, barely looking up.

Crestfallen, Sam put his drawing down. “That wasn’t a real Wow,” he said.

The disappointment that I heard in his voice still rings in my ears more than a decade later. What better gift can we give each other than the gift of our full attention? Standing in the kitchen in that swirl of steam, caught inside the racing whirlwind of my thoughts and tending to too many things at once, I had nothing to give my son except the facsimile of a wow. I was faking it, and he knew it.

I have no beef with trying to be efficient and to accomplish lots of things – heaven knows the world needs people who can get things done. In a bustling household, someone needs to make supper. But the pressures of modern society can send us skittering like motorboats across the surface of our lives, so that we take on too many things at once and become scattered and self-absorbed, unable to give each moment – or each person – our full attention.

Perverse as it may sound, under stress some of us volunteer for even more tasks, yielding to what May Sarton once called ‘the demon of internal pressure.’ We may trick ourselves into imagining that the frantic pace of our lives is coming from outside ourselves – that we have to live this way – but in fact it is often we ourselves who set the frantic pace.

I think of Ovid’s rueful observation: “Love yields to business. If you seek a way out of love, be busy; you’ll be safe, then.”

Much as I enjoy being busy and getting lots of things done, my deeper intention is to love as well and wisely as I can. So I’m trying to do what spiritual teachers have long advised: to give each moment my full attention, and, if possible, to do one thing at a time. If I’m cooking, cook. If I’m looking, look. If I’m listening, listen. If I’m talking, talk. My hope is that what comes out of my mouth is going to be wholehearted and true. As the Good Book says, I want to “let [my] ‘Yes’ be yes and [my] ‘No’ be no” (James 4:12). I want my ‘Wow’ to be the real deal, too.

What behaviors or situations tend to pull you away from love?

What practices help you to become more fully present?

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