Life is difficult. But most of us make it more difficult than it needs to be.

Not all of us. The lives of some would grind any mortal to powder. But, if we’re honest, most of us flail away at things that really don’t matter.

Think about it. We graduate from high school or college. Get a job. Make a few decisions. Next thing you know, we’re getting an invitation to our 20-year high school reunion.

What happened?

You got on the great gerbil wheel of life. You had a two-bedroom house, but you wanted four. Your wife had a Chevy, but she wanted a Volvo. And so it went. The household expenses went up, so you started working more and enjoying it less.

Same for her.

You upgraded your phones, bought your oldest kid a car, put braces on your middle child and enrolled your youngest in ballet.

No wonder you’re drinking more than you used to. Arguing when you should be making love. The American dream has become your American migraine.

Perhaps it’s time to change your life. To do as those great American troubadours Waylon and Willie once taught us and get back to the basics of love.

Is there really anything else? Oh, sure, you’ve got to put food on the table and a roof over your head, but does it need to be prime rib and seven gables?

Jesus had a lot to say about chasing after things that don’t matter. Clothes, money, status. His recipe for the good life is as relevant today as it was 2,000 years ago. But we’ve heard it so many times we don’t really listen anymore to all that talk about the lilies of the field and birds of the air. And, why bother, right? We’re going to heaven anyway.

Bad answer. The abundant life Jesus promised when you finally drop all that unnecessary baggage you’re carrying around doesn’t just happen in the sweet by and by. It happens now.

Our Buddhist friends can help us here. Mindfulness, they call it. Stop all the regretting about the past and fretting about the future. Ease up on the planning and start focusing on the here and now — starting with your own breath. In and out. In and out.

Slow down!

That’s it. And when you stand up and begin to walk, just walk! One step in front of the other, touching the Earth and listening to your own breath. And, tonight, when you eat, don’t read or watch television. Just eat. Enjoy the food. Think about the work that went into it. The sun. The rain. The farmers, truck drivers and grocers who brought it to you. All of creation is in that ear of corn.

If you’re not dining alone, think about the people who are eating with you. Ask them how they’re doing. And really listen instead of thinking about what you’re going to say next. Listening is one of the most basic acts of love. If you’re dining alone, ask yourself. How am I? What might I need to change in order to get off my gerbil wheel and get back to things that really matter? If you’re eating with your family, ask them for their suggestions.

The beginning of a new year is the perfect time to take stock of where you’ve been and where you’re going. COVID has reminded us that our days are numbered. How do you want to spend those precious minutes and hours? Perhaps it’s time to change jobs. Sell your big house and move into something smaller and less expensive. Start giving some things away.

Maybe it’s time to get out of a bad relationship or to double down and do the hard work necessary to save it. Maybe you need to get back in church. Join a hiking club. As my friend Bruce Guillaume likes to say, “Outdoors is medicine.”

2020 was a rough year, but the biggest thing plaguing most Americans is not a virus. It’s the United States of Advertising. A lifestyle that traded our quiet peace and enjoyment for a rat race that, even if we win, still leaves us rats.

The quality of our lives is not determined by the square footage of our houses or size of our stock portfolios. The ballgame is about our primary relationships. Family. Friends. Love.

Play Truth or Dare with yourself. How many friends do you have who would loan you a thousand bucks if you needed it? When did you and your spouse last take a short trip with just the two of you? How many hours last week did you spend in conversation with your child? When was the last time you read a poem or wrote one? When was the last time you hiked in the Smokies or simply took a walk in the woods?

You can change your life. Make it what you want it to be. You did it when you were a kid, remember? When all you needed was a popsicle and a baseball glove. But, first, just breathe. In and out. In and out. Slower.

That’s it.

Buzz Thomas is a retired American Baptist Church minister, attorney, school superintendent and longtime Blount County resident and occasional columnist for The Daily Times.

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