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March Madness?

March MadnessIt’s that time of year again; we are on the brink of springtime. It is a time of shortening darkness, lengthening lawns, budding flowers, and increasing activity. It is a time of newness and growth, but it can be easy to forget that when the weather is so fickle and when it’s hard to shake off those winter blues. But into all of this comes that annual festival – a ritual which inspires the devotion of millions: the countdown to the “Final Four.”

I didn’t grow up as a sports fan, so in college when someone asked me if I wanted a “bracket,” I responded with something like “No, that’s O.K., I don’t have any shelves to hang.” I gradually came to see that fans and gamblers spend a lot of time and money trying to forecast which teams will form those narrowing groups, and who will finally win that last game. Their written-out brackets can be works of art – carefully plotted grids of statistical analysis demonstrating the ultimate in fandom.

Human beings are like that. We like to be in control, and we like others to see that we’re in control. Whether we write it down or not, we each have our own “bracket” forecasting how our day, week, year – indeed, our life – will turn out. Time management materials include templates for this. When something doesn’t go as planned, we add to the list, change the calendar, or redraw the chart. We think we can fit it all together somehow, even when circumstances beyond our control may have eliminated us from that particular tournament round. This is the real “madness” – not just in March, but all year long.

There is a remedy. Thomas Merton wrote in 1955 that “we cannot be happy if we expect to live all the time at the highest peak of intensity. Happiness is not a matter of intensity but of balance and order and rhythm and harmony. Music is pleasing not only because of the sound… without the alternation of sound and silence there would be no rhythm.” It is no coincidence that the major world religions have traditions of silence and “stepping away” during the spring and early summer – such as Lent, Passover, and Ramadan. Each of these times includes some kind of quiet (whether of attentive listening or of self-denial) which allows the faithful to recall how God was revealed in a new and powerful way to the holy ones of old. It is also no accident that greater physical, mental, and emotional health can be fostered by these practices. In the case of Lent, the word itself literally refers to “lengthening” – the lengthening of the spring days, but also the believer’s increased awareness of the ultimate purpose of life.

This spring, how can we quiet down enough to experience that kind of awareness? Maybe we will turn off the smart phone for an evening with our spouse. Maybe we will greet our coworkers differently and spend more time addressing their concerns. Perhaps when we receive some unpleasant news, we will refuse to react immediately – taking time instead to discern why and how we want to respond.  Maybe we will stop trying to jam everything into that cluttered calendar and schedule some time doing a favorite activity instead. Or maybe we will just take some brief moments throughout the day for reflection and to be grateful for all that is in our lives — both the planned and the un-plannable. In this way, our ultimate purpose will break through, and our hope will increase with the sunlight. We will leave behind the darkness of winter and turn our madness into gladness.

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