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Seeing through times that try our souls

It was helpful to be reminded by historian Heather Cox Richardson that Thomas Paine’s American Crisis was first published on December 19, 1776. It begins with the famous first sentence, “These are the times that try men’s souls.” Historian David McCullough has told us again and again that we’ve been through difficult times before.

Many had hoped that 2021 would bring, if not a semblance of normalcy back to our lives, then perhaps something resembling a page turned. But the first week of the year made it clear that we would continue to navigate tumult and upheaval in what are unquestionably liminal times for the world. This past week drove that point home. We are all looking for a way through and beyond the present difficulties. *

As we come upon the winter solstice, Krista Tippett reminded the On Being community of what it takes to navigate such a hard, strange time in the life of the world. In an e-newsletter entitled The fullness of things, she writes that 2021 has not lived up to the vision many of us had for what lay beyond 2020, as we were looking for “at least a page turned, a new chapter opened.” But we find ourselves still in “an in-between time of rupture and searching and unmourned losses and so many callings yet to heed, so much change to absorb and propel.”

The wonderful poet and essayist Jane Hirshfield (brings) her reframing reminder that “our human task” is precisely this: to acknowledge “the fullness of things.” The darkness that cohabits with light, even at the best of times; the beauty that persists even as this world absorbs a magnitude of suffering. 

The winter solstice, with its darkness and chill, also reminds us that a new year is on the way. Many begin thinking of resolutions, perhaps focused on personal ways to respond to our current reality. Since 2013, I have taken a different route. That year I established several rules of how I want to live day-to-day. Rules for the road of life, if you will.

Computer wallpaper with DJB’s life rules

They came as the result of a more intentional focus on life’s journey rather than relying on a changing list of annual resolutions to respond to the challenges of the moment. These personal guidelines are not quite principles but rather serve as reminders of how I want to live over time. And they are especially helpful in times of disruption and turmoil.

I’ve written — in one way or another — about each of my personal rules over the past twelve months. Here are eight of those stories from More to Come, given in the hope that they will help you think about your cardinal or life rules in this new year, and provide you with hope in trying, liminal times.

Rule #1. Be Grateful. Be Thankful. Be Compassionate. Every Day. 

“Gratitude as a discipline involves a conscious choice,” wrote the Dutch priest and theologian Henri J.M. Nouwen, as highlighted in The discipline of gratitude (January 4th). Rule #1 is in that first slot for a reason. It recognizes that gratitude requires intentionality, and it encourages everyday action, not just when things are going well.

I can choose to be grateful even when my emotions and feelings are still steeped in hurt and resentment. It is amazing how many occasions present themselves in which I can choose gratitude instead of a complaint.

Rule #2. Exercise six days a week for the rest of your life. 

With the passage of time, walking has become my favorite way to see the world and to get my exercise. Walking is moving at the speed of life, even when life is hard and strange. In Touch the earth (October 1st), Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh has his own distinctive take on walking.

Walking is a form of touching the earth. We touch the earth with our feet, and we heal the earth, we heal ourselves, and we heal humankind. … With every step it’s possible to bring healing and nourishment to our body and our mind.


Rule #3. Listen more than you talk.

In Kyshona: The music therapist gone rogue (September 25th), singer Kyshona Armstrong speaks about her newest album, entitled Listen.

What I tried to set forth in this album is just: Listen. From every corner that you look at it, we’re all just screaming at each other. Nobody’s really listening. The thing about ‘Listen.’ is that it’s a whole sentence. It’s the most difficult thing to do.

Develop a bucket list focused on time and experiences more than money and possessions

Rule #4. Spend less than you make. 

In some ways, the current climate crisis is a result of a period of consumer-focused, debt-fueled consumption. Having been raised in that time period, I have to teach myself to follow this 4th rule again and again. In Stellar (and short) rules for a good life (May 21st), Ryan Holiday includes the admonition to “Value time more than money and possessions.” Define your rules. Then live by them.

Rule #5. Quit eating crap! Eat less of everything else. 

Being mindful about what we eat supports us in responding, with hope, to those challenges we face. In The practice of breakfast (May 3rd), I show how my father used breakfast as part of a morning practice, well before that term came to mean what it does today. When he walked into the Tennessee Valley Authority office at 7 a.m., he had already centered his soul, stimulated his mind, cheerfully provided for his family, and exercised. We could all do much worse in beginning our days.

Rule #6. Play music. 

This rule may not apply to your life, and it may seem far-fetched to think it can help us navigate times of heartbreak and challenge, but in Happy 100th birthday, my friend (December 18th) I am reminded of a continuum of musicians and the fullness of life each time I pick up my 100-year-old A-4 mandolin.

Helping hands (photo credit: James Chan from Pixabay)

Rule #7. Connect and commit. 

One of the key regrets of the dying, as discussed in Your time is sacred (December 13th), is that “I didn’t stay in touch with my friends.” I firmly believe that one of the reasons we are in such a difficult time as a country is that we have lost our connections and our commitments to each other. Real life connection is the essence of wellbeing.

A child of the drum
A child of the drum: David learns the art of traditional Japanese drumming (photo credit: Melissa Blunt)

Rule #8. Don’t be a Grumpy Old Man. Enjoy life! 

In What if we have it all wrong? Reality and the dislocation of joy (October 4th), I turn to two of my mentors to help me think about joy. Our everyday language would lead an observer to believe that what we see as real is always serious, harsh, and cruel. The words “harsh reality” stand as one idea. Yet, “what if joy, wonder, and peace are what life is really about?” Can the harshness and bitterness that we too often see as reality be a passing phase? “All babies are born with the firm belief that joy, wonder, and peace are the norms of life. … Babies are born with that understanding of life. And slowly, patiently, the elders of the world teach them that their view is wrong.” One day at a time, I’m working on instilling joy into life — even when the world is troubled and unsettled.

Best wishes for a restorative holiday season. And as you welcome the winter solstice and the New Year, remember to be grateful, thankful, and compassionate every day.

More to come…


*Liminal is my new favorite word.

Image: Milky Way from Pixabay


I am David J. Brown (hence the DJB) and I originally created this personal blog more than ten years ago as a way to capture photos and memories from a family vacation. After the trip was over I simply continued writing. Over the years the blog has changed to have a more definite focus aligned with my interest in places that matter, reading well, roots music, and more. My professional background is as a national nonprofit leader with a four-decade record of growing and strengthening organizations at local, state, and national levels. This work has been driven by my passion for connecting people in thriving, sustainable, and vibrant communities.


  1. Jane Feddersen says

    Very nice piece.
    My grandfather had a mandolin in the attic with a butterfly inlaid in mother of pearl. I always wanted it. Don’t know what happened to it.
    I was just going to look up ‘liminal.’😊
    Happy New Year!
    Say “Hi!”to Candace!

    • Jane,

      Thanks for your note. Your grandfather’s time would have been during that “second age” of the popularity of the mandolin. They were played in a lot of homes because they were small and portable – before the guitar took on that role. And if you had several people in the family, you could buy other parts of the mandolin “musical family” – such as a mandola or mandocello – and have a little orchestra!

      I have come to love the concept of “liminal” – that transition time that we seem to be in.

      Happy New Year to you and yours! Candice sends her best.

      Take care,

  2. A long-time friend from Birmingham wrote the following on LinkedIn in response to this post:

    “Suitable for cross-stitch, framing, and hanging on the wall. Thanks for sharing your rules, David. Important reminders all.”

    To which I replied: “Now, if I only knew how to cross-stitch!”

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