Perseverance

You know the saying, “When the student is ready, the teacher appears?” So lately a teacher has been appearing for me and its name is perseverence. Why this is coming to me now, at this point in my life, remains something of a mystery, but the more I encounter perseverence, the more I realize that it is something I feel unsure about in myself. I mean, do I have enough of it or not? I am an adaptable kind of person who is comfortable going with the flow, meeting whatever the universe sends my way but not especially intent on bending things to my will. The question always exists for me: When is it good to persist and when is it good to let go? And how do you know the difference? I mean, am I the person Henry James speaks of, who doesn’t run far enough on her first wind to ever find out if she has a second? Or am I the person Mary Oliver writes of? “To live in this world you must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it; and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go.”
I believe that we human beings have ambivalent feelings about both perseverance and letting go. Neither comes easy and we might spin our wheels second guessing the choices we made because so often we could go either way. Especially when neither path is clearly and unequivocally right. Our lives are a journey the specific end of which is not fully known. In many ways we live amidst uncertainty and, in the uncertainty of life, perseverance is always a choice. Is perseverance always desirable? How do we know when the choice to persevere will be or has been worth the time and struggle? Rubem Alvez, a Brazilian theologian, wrote “So let us plant dates, even though/we who plant them will never eat them./ We must live by the love of what we will never see./ . . . .”
What comes easier to you: staying the course or giving it up? This summer I have let some significant parts of my life go, namely my work as a chaplain and chaplain educator. Nevertheless, I see that at the same time I also need a good dose of perseverance. Maybe perseverance and letting go act as balances for each other. We persevere in some areas while we let go in others.
The summer was tough in a number of ways. National and world news was (is) ominous and discouraging. Ever growing economic disparity, a job market that undervalues and underpays workers, racial tensions, deadly diseases, germs and viruses, wars in the Middle East and in Ukraine, looming national elections that seem to promise an even more dysfunctional government, if that is possible. Personally, my son was laid off his job at the end of May and spent the summer sending resumes into the void of the Internet. A friend of mine needed brain surgery and had a small stroke during the operation. In light of all that, what was there to persevere in? Or with? That’s when the teachers of perseverance started to appear.
The word perseverance comes from the Latin and means to see things through to the end. The Chinese symbol for perseverance is written as a knife poised over a heart. It is often the same symbol as the one used for patience. Perseverence is not simply a character trait, though, it also has a neuro chemical dimension. Christopher Bergland writes in an article called “The Neuroscience of Perseverance” (Psychology Today, December 26, 2011), “Neuroscientific research shows that higher levels of dopamine might separate the internal drive some people have to persevere while lower dopamine levels cause others to give up. Obviously, there are a wide range of factors that come into play when someone decides to persevere–but dopamine can be harnessed and used as a prime motivating force to help you keep pushing and achieve your goals. . . . Dopamine floods your body and mind with a rush of satisfaction and reward anytime you succeed at achieving something biologically necessary for your survival. . . . We have evolved to have hard work, sweat and perseverance trigger the release of dopamine.” Who knew?
My teachers of perseverence have given me two things in the past month, namely they have taught me the importance of persevering and they have given me the tools to make it happen.
The first teacher I want to talk about was the People’s Climate March. I learned so much from it. The day began with 89 people from the Stony Brook Fellowship taking over a whole Long Island Railroad car as we made our way to Penn Station. The oldest person among us was eighty nine and the youngest a baby in arms. The mood on the train was festive. I made a video on the train to send back to the folks in Stony Brook who had gathered at the Fellowship for the Sunday service and everyone in the film expressed their excitement and high hopes for the day. We seemed to share a belief that we were doing something important. So we got there and made our way to the assigned gathering place where we joined about 1500 other UU’s and people of many faiths. After the Catholics, Unitarian Universalists made up the largest faith contingent. We stood between Quakers, Jews, Muslims and Pagans. The Muslims had an inflatable minaret, the tower from which emanates the call to prayer. Someone brought a full size wooden ark, a la Noah. The UU’s had our giant Standing on the Side of Love banner. We gathered at 11am and we stood there until 2pm before we actually set out on the march. Why? Because the faith contingents were placed toward the back and there were so many people on the march (400,000 is the estimate) that it took two and one half hours for the front of the group to pass and allow us to join. Remarkably, those three hours of waiting and standing, uncomfortable as they were, never saw our spirits flag. When we finally set out, I couldn’t believe the sea of humanity in front of us. It brought tears to my eyes. All of these people, young and old, of all different ethnicities, races, religions, occupations, all came together to demand that world leaders take the necessary steps to keep life sustainable and the planet reasonable healthy. The atmosphere was joyful though the mission was deadly serious. Our group, the faith contingent, marched from 58th Street and Eighth Avenue, around Columbus Circle and along Central Park east to Avenue of the Americas, downtown to 42 Street where we turned west. The march, or the front part of it, ended at 34 Street and 11th Avenue, but for us it ended at 42 Street and Tenth Avenue because the streets were full of marchers and there was no where to go. I ran out of steam at 42 Street and Eighth Avenue and Margie and I set up our camp stools and watched one whole hour of marchers who were behind us. People on stilts, students, scientists, large earth globes, Mother Earth puppets, bands and dancers. One whole hour’s worth of people behind us. It was the largest demonstration of its kind anywhere on earth. Ban Ki-Moon, Secretary General of the United Nations, joined us, as did other elected officials. Our efforts were noticed.
What did I learn? That the kind of change we’re talking about, that which touches political and economic systems and calls for international cooperation, requires perseverance. But this I already knew. You know it too. What I learned is that such perseverance, when practiced in the company of others, is worth it because it is exciting, it is inspiring, it is energizing and it is profoundly optimistic. A lot of people worked long and hard to put this march together and they gathered a hugely diverse group of people and allowed us to experience our unity amid our diversity. What I learned is that if we are to persevere, we need other people standing on common ground with us. We feed each other. You know the story of the man who wanted to learn the difference between heaven and hell. So he’s taken to a room in which there is a large table filled with delicious looking food but all the people at the table are starving. They hold very long spoons and they cannot figure out how to feed themselves with them. This is hell. The man is then taken to a second room, with the same kind of table and full of people with the same kind of over-long spoons. But they are happy and healthy. This is heaven. What’s the difference, asks the man. The answer comes back, “The people in this room have learned to feed each other.”
Perseverance is the way to change and it requires the character traits of generosity and trust. In order to persevere in what we believe and make our beliefs a lived reality, we must cultivate generosity and trust in ourselves so that we can offer them to others. Generosity and trust in turn bring inspiration and energy to sustain us for the long run. They strengthen our connections with one another and bring us joy. The Climate March renewed my faith that we can actually do something to address climate change because we can do it together. The Climate March renewed my faith and my commitment to the power and value of persevering.
A second teacher of perseverance is a book I’m reading, A Larger Memory: A History of Our Diversity with Voices by Ronald Takaki. It is a multi-cultural history of the US in the voices of immigrants, African Americans, and Native Americans. People tell their own stories in their own words. Something the stories have in common is the persistence and perseverance of people. The stories span centuries and they come from Europe, China, Japan, India, Puerto Rico, and Mexico but they have something in common, which is the willingness of people to work long, hard hours because they believed they could make a better life for themselves and their families. Takaki includes the 20th c story of Camelia, from Mexico, who could delay her own gratification and clean other people’s houses for ten years until she had saved up for a home of her own. There is Sadie, a 19th c Jewish immigrant from Poland who worked all day in a sweat shop and for many years went to night school, one course at a time, to learn English. There is Joseph, born an American citizen to Japanese immigrant parents, who served in the U.S. army during World War I only to be placed in an internment camp during World War II. An act which led him to renounce his American citizenship once the war was over. Immigrants built roads and railroads, farmed the land, worked the factories, met with scorn, abuse and discrimination and they kept on. And that probably includes some of our own parents, grandparents, great-grandparents.
What am I learning from these stories? I learn that in order to persevere one must have faith in what one has chosen to do. I learn that if a person has faith, that person will maintain his/her dignity despite what other people say and do. If a person loses faith, he/she loses almost everything. Perseverance requires us to cultivate our imaginations, and a large amount of courage. The value of persevering is that one can realize a dream, or if not fully realize it at least come closer to it. In order to have the strength to persevere, one must keep that dream always in the forefront. It takes patience. A Larger Memory reminds me of the importance of having dreams for myself and maintaining my faith in them. It reminds me of how much my dreams need me to keep up the courage of perseverance. It can take a long time and these stories comfort me by telling me that is okay.
Finally, my third teacher of perseverance is my son Matthew. I can worry, sometimes to the point of despair, about his future. He has a disability and the world can be unkind to those who do not fit into the narrow confines of “normal.” When he lost his job last May and spent all summer in a fruitless search for another, I grieved that he, and we, were drifting. He couldn’t identify anything in particular he wanted to do and it is, as yet, not fully clear what he can do. But then about a month ago he went on an interview for a clerical job with Maryhaven, a part of the Catholic Health Services organization that provides programs and residences for people with developmental disabilities. He didn’t get the job, but they suggested that he apply for a different job, a direct support job in which he would be part of a team of people working with the clients to improve their skills. I’ve never seen him so excited about a job interview. Turns out he likes being part of a team and helping people with special needs is important to him. Alas, he didn’t get that job either. He was very disappointed. He applied for yet another job at Maryhaven, as a transportation aide. He got that one and has been at it for just a couple of weeks. He helps people navigate the bus rides to and from their various day treatment centers. This job asks a lot from Matthew in terms of taking care of others and handling all sorts of behavior. And so far he’s doing it. This is stressful for him but I believe he wants to make this happen because for the first time in a long time my son has found something he wants to persevere with. He still aspires to the direct support position and this transportation aide work should be good experience for that.
What have I learned about perseverance from Matthew? I learned that you have to have hope in order to persevere. And I learned that when you persevere through hope, it breeds more hope. Watching him persevere at this work, hearing him identify what matters to him in the workplace, joining him in imagining a future for himself has given me hope for his future. It is the desire of my heart that it has also given him hope for his future.
This summer, as I have let go of much that has been important to me, I have also found areas in which I mean to persevere. I’m willing to put in the time for the causes and the people I believe in.
Some things are worth our perseverance. Some things are not. In general, it’s often good to persevere for what we believe in and the life we hope to bring about in the future. It’s important to believe in something and someone(s), no matter what our age and life situation. It’s necessary to take action to make our belief a lived reality. In order to persevere, we will do well to cultivate in ourselves the qualities of generosity, trust, faith, courage, imagination, focus, optimism, and the long view. Perseverance brings the reward of accomplishment. It is grounded in hope and in turn it creates more hope. We find meaning and purpose in the places we chose to persevere.
“Look at a stone cutter hammering away at his rock, perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred-and-first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not the last blow that did it, but all that had gone before.” (Jacob A. Riis) May it be so.

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