Instructions for Life

Several years ago I was asked to deliver the Baccalaureate address for my school. I was honored of course but what do you say to young people that they’ll actually hear and put to use? “Hang on tight” came to mind, and “check the label”, and of course “Broken hearts mend”. But something happened as I wrote and I realized I was writing for me. I was writing instruction, yes, but they were for me. For every time I feel broken, or pressured, or unloved. Because we all feel that way sometimes, and wouldn’t it be great to have an instruction manual for comin’back, gettin up, and walkin’ around? Yeah, I got you.

I hope I will be forgiven for what I am about to say but while I love words, I don’t usually like poetry without music. It is perhaps that I am too simple-minded; that I need to be hit over the head and often poetry simply isn’t direct enough. That said, I have been moved and I think spiritually directed lately by an excerpt from the great American poet Mary Oliver’s work Sometimes. In the fourth stanza she gives us quite the gift…:

Instructions for living a life:

Pay attention.

Be astonished.

Tell about it.

See now, right off I’m in, as I had no idea there was an instruction manual for living a life! Had I known this a long time ago things might have gone a little differently. I find I know so very little. In my 20’s I thought I knew everything, and in my 30’s I realized I didn’t know everything but somehow still valued the goal, and now in my 40’s I am perfectly content to know next to nothing…but these three things…pay attention…be astonished…tell about it…I know these to be true.

So what does it mean to pay attention? Scripture tells us “We must pay the most careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away.” You all know how to pay attention. But I know many of you, and I know your version of paying attention and Mary Oliver’s version are often at odds with one another. You are barraged in your daily lives with demands for attention. Your significant others, your parents, brothers, sisters, friends, teachers, professors, pets, television shows, sporting events, homework, deciding what to have for dinner, and then breakfast, and then lunch and of course dinner again (my fave so I said it twice…deal with it)…

But where and when do you begin to draw lines? How do you know how to prioritize? Simple…pay attention. Simple yes…but not easy. And it takes practice. Is your heart full when you are with him? Do you feel safe and relaxed when you are with her? Are you balanced? Are you laughing? Pay attention. Feelings are not facts but they are, I believe, God’s traffic lights. They direct us perfectly and yet we ignore them. Pay attention to your feelings. Sadness, for example, is a part of life and a signpost directing us to feel, to allow, and to be simply human. Peace and joy are God’s gifts to us and we pay attention when we accept them. Pay attention to the cries of others, the laughter of children, the wind, the trees, the sun, the rush of accomplishment and the devastation of mistakes. Pay attention to the world around you and the suffering of those in need. Take the time and pay attention. And while we are called to simply pay attention, we must choose to be astonished.

I want to let you in on a secret that used to embarrass me but not any longer. I have in my house several objects that I believe to be imbued with magical powers. Two specifically are boxes in which I place dirty things, I push all these strange and mysterious buttons, and soon thereafter, the dirty things are clean. I know not how this happens. But I choose to believe it is magic. I choose this because it makes the world a more welcoming, exciting place. I choose to be astonished. It is a choice after all to find the world and all its trappings astonishing. The morning sun on our faces, clean dishes in the dishwasher, anesthesia, fried chicken, antibiotics, a friends hand in ours, warm chocolate chip cookies, mountains, the way our dog’s fur feels after a bath…choose to be astonished and the world is a place of never-ending wonder.

Now, when Mary Oliver says to tell about it I am certain she means to share our truth. So often we hide our pain, our suffering, our fears. We hide our joy, we hide our laughter. Share your truth! Tell about it. My truth is that 18 years ago as I lay in a hospital bed and the priest came to give me my last rites, I said no to leaving the fight. And I said no two years later and a year after that. And with God’s help and a slew of angels in the guise of doctors, nurses, friends, therapists, teachers, professors…I was able to survive to tell about it. I had been given the gift of immediacy…knowing that paying attention, being astonished and telling about it are what we have. Tell your story to others because it is in the living, in the sharing that you allow for a community to truly be built around you and there is nothing that will make you happier than being an integral part of a community.

Pay attention to your better angels and don’t allow your inner demons to shout them down. Be astonished because I promise you every day there is something to be astonished about. And tell about it because there’s nothing more powerful than sharing your truth.

Have a beautiful and blessed Sunday my friends.
–Andrew Troi blogs at

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