"What's Happening?"

When we try to manufacture the life we think we want, we neglect the life we have been given.

John and Hank Green are brothers who started the vlogbrothers YouTube channel in 2007. The brothers have their hands in a comically large number of projects. John Green, my personal favorite of the two brothers, is also a New York Times bestselling author a number of times over. John is most commonly known for his novel The Fault in Our Stars and recently authored The Anthropocene Reviewed, in which he rates a few dozen details of the human experience (like wintry mix and Sycamore trees) on a five-star scale. It sounds like a silly book, and at times it is, but it also made me weep.

The whole premise of the vlogbrothers YouTube channel is that every Tuesday John creates a video around four minutes long that serves as a video letter to his brother Hank. And then every Friday, Hank creates his own four minute video letter in response to John. Sometimes the two interact with one another’s previous letters, but often the two are just passing video essays back and forth about subjects of interest to them.

Hank is a great writer in his own right, but no writer has ever moved my heart and halted my mind like John Green. In his most recent video to Hank from last Tuesday, John is uncharacteristically not on camera. He has set the camera up to record the sunset on the western coast of Lake Michigan where he is apparently vacationing (he lives in Indianapolis). Here is the video if you’d like to watch:

John writes (and speaks) about the importance of savoring life in a world that is increasingly hostile toward savoring it. It is a beautiful essay with lines like, “We go on because our lungs were made for this air.”

“What’s happening?”

The most meaningful part of the essay for me was this bit toward the end:

So much of the time I’m obsessed with what’s next and with feeling busy and feeling like I need to be deeply engaged with the quickening pulse of the right now.

Like if you go to Twitter before you write anything in the box, the box says, “What’s happening?” And I’ve long wanted to know what was happening. I’ve wanted, in truth, to be part of what’s happening. But so much of what’s happening isn’t happening fast. It isn’t news or even new. Nobody’s tweeting about it. It’s water rolling in and rolling out. The sun setting and rising. Lives being lived.

I resound so deeply with what John is saying here. As early as high school, my youth pastor and mentor recognized in me a forward-lookingness that, while mature and wise in some respects, bordered on and often veered into an unhealthy spot.

Later in my teen years and certainly all through college I was so concerned with what was happening five years from the present that I would neglect friendships or other important parts of the life I was living in the moment. For instance, I made very few long-lasting friendships in college because I was so focused on getting married and getting set up for “real life” after college that I treated life in college like it wasn’t quite yet “real.”

Like John, I have always wanted to know what’s happening and, until recently, have been interested in being a part of what’s happening. But what I have learned in the last year or two is the profound truth that John points out: most of what is happening isn’t happening fast, isn’t news, isn’t new, and isn’t public.

The life happening all around us at any given time that never makes it to the tumult of Twitter or under the bright lights of Instagram is perhaps the most beautiful and vibrant answer to “What’s happening?” The baby bird that fell out of its nest and was given refuge in a nearby bush. The smell of a new candle. The excited cries of “DADA!” from a daughter eating breakfast. This is all what is happening; no one knows, and that’s OK.

Make Thick Time

One of the few blessings I have enjoyed from enduring the coronavirus pandemic has been a re-evaluation of priorities afforded by the lack of busyness. Given the dozens of stories I’ve read about people leaving jobs, moving across country, or finding faith, I realize that the “Great Reflection” fruit of COVID is widespread and definitely not unique to me. It seems that many people, stuck at home for a year or so, took stock of their lives and said, “I’m not happy with my life, and something needs to change.”

Becoming a parent in the early days of the pandemic and then spending a year at home forced me into what John calls in his essay “thick time,” the sort of time in which we are not busy and have the opportunity to savor and reflect.

The biggest takeaway I gleaned from the reflection afforded by the thick time during the pandemic was that I want to be less busy when life is normal again. I definitely don’t want to be as socially sedentary as I was in 2020, but I also don’t need to accumulate social activities in such a way that I leave no time for quiet reflection.

Now, at least for the moment, we are back to normal again, and the thick time that was ever present in a year without socialization has begun to slip away into the ether as busyness begins to take its familiar root in our calendars and minds. If I have any hope of maintaining the valuable thick time that afforded me quiet reflection as an oasis in the middle of a bustling desert, I’m going to have to be intentional about it. Though it feels a bit ironic to plan a lack of busyness, chunks of thick time may need to be calendared into the week in order to provide reflective space as a guard against the social busyness that will otherwise creep in by default.

Life is about so much more than knowing what’s happening or being what’s happening. Life is quietly happening all around us, and its beauty may stun us to silence if we are willing to slow down and pay attention to it for a moment.

When we try to manufacture the life we think we want, we neglect the life we have been given.