Today I took a long walk on Race Point Beach in Provincetown and by the time I had turned to retrace my footsteps, the ocean had already erased them.
That’s the way, isn’t it?
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.
The Easter story has been called the greatest story ever told. It is being read, sung and talked about on this day by millions of people all over the world. It’s a strange story–incredible really–and some people don’t believe a word of it, at least literally. But its theme of death and resurrection rings true, symbolically if not always literally. Look around you. Green shoots take their place in the garden. Yellow shines through the forsythia bushes. Cats and dogs leave their hair around your house as their bodies adjust to the warmer weather. This is resurrection. This is Easter. Life begins again. Life does not stay buried, it rises again. Metaphorically, this is what the death and resurrection of Jesus are about. We need reminders of the miracle that is life. We need reminders to help us live in a way that honors the miracle, or the natural fact, of life cycles.
Unitarian Universalist Max Coots writes, “We need a celebration that speaks the Spring-inspired word about life and death, about us as we live and die, through all the cycling seasons, days and years. We need the sense of deity to crack our own hard, brown December husks and push life out of inner tombs and outer pain. Unless we move the seasons of the self, and Spring can come for us, the winter will go on and on. And Easter will remain a myth, and life will never come again, despite the fact of Spring.”
Today is Easter Sunday – a day of hope, or resurrection: literal and metaphorical, of triumph over death, a celebration of fertility, of new life, of warmth, of light, of growth in spring. Lo the winter is past, it really is over. It’s all good, right? But this year as I thought about this story what stood out for me was the prevalence of betrayal in it. Not just one betrayal, not just two, but three or four depending on how you look at it. What’s that about? Virtually all of Jesus’ friends left him in one way or another. Deserted him. Sold him out. Ran away in fear. What does it mean that this holy day of rebirth and profound hope is rooted in betrayal? What’s the message for us as we go about living our lives?
Let me tell you the story. I will use, for the most part, the version in the gospel of Mark because this is considered the oldest of the gospels, written about 50 years after Jesus’ death. As the oldest, many consider it the most accurate account of Jesus’ life and death. Jesus, by his challenges of the established laws and values of his religion and society, had made powerful enemies. Some feared he would start a revolution; others feared he would stir up the people and undermine their own religious authority. Those in power wanted to get rid of him. Jesus and his disciples had made their way to Jerusalem for Passover. “Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve (disciples), went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them. And when they heard it they were glad, and promised to give him money. And he sought an opportunity to betray him…. And as they were at table eating, Jesus said, Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me, one who was eating with me. They began to be sorrowful, and to say to him one after another, Is it I? He said to them, It is one of the twelve, one who is dipping bread into the dish with me….. (This is the moment depicted by Leonardo daVinci in his painting The Last Supper.) And they went to a place which was called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, sit here, while I pray…. And he took with him Peter and James and John and began to be greatly distressed and troubled. . And he said to them my soul is very sorrowful, even unto death; remain here and watch.” Jesus went off to pray by himself and three times he returned to his disciples, only to find them asleep, not watching, each time. “And immediately, while he was still speaking, Judas came, one of the twelve, and with him a crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and scribes and the elders. Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, the one I shall kiss is the man; seize him and lead him away under guard. . . .and the rest of the disciples all forsook him and fled. . . . And as Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the maids of the high priest came.” She recognized Peter as a follower of Jesus but when she said that to him, he denied it. He moved away to the gate and the maid found him and said again that he was one of them. Again Peter denied it. Then the bystanders started on Peter, identifying him as a Galilean. For the third time Peter denied knowing Jesus. (Mark 14:10-72)
Then, two days after the crucifixion, on what is now Easter Sunday, at the very crack of dawn two women, both called Mary, who had been good friends and disciples of Jesus and had not fled the city, went to the tomb with spices or balsam that they hoped they could rub on his body in the Jewish tradition. But they were uncertain how they could do this. They’d seen the huge stone that had been rolled in front of the tomb. So as they made their way in the early dawn before the city had awakened, they wondered who they could get to help roll that stone away as they knew it was too heavy for them to move by themselves.
But when they got to the place they looked, and lo and behold, the stone had already been rolled back. They became frightened and worried. Had someone stolen Jesus’ body to mutilate and destroy it? Trembling they crawled into the hole to see whether Jesus’ body was still there and they were amazed to discover an unknown young man in a white robe sitting inside the tomb. The young man, seeing the women confused and terrified, said to them “Don’t be troubled. You’re looking for Jesus. As you can see, he is not here, look–the place where they laid his body. He is risen. Go–tell his friends that he has gone on to Galilee and he’ll meet you all there.” Stunned, the two Marys crawled out of the tomb and fled, trembling and afraid. They didn’t say a word to anyone. The oldest and possibly the most authentic Easter story ends just this way. They were afraid and said not a word to anyone.
Other gospel writers added elements to the story as they told it over the years. They tell about Jesus physically appearing to the two Marys, and then actually joining his surprised and delighted friends in Galilee. They have Jesus scolding his friends for not believing him when he said that he would never leave them and that he and they would live forever with God. Paul, one of the earliest Christian theologians, drew a meaning from the story which has become the defining meaning for Christians: through the love of God for humanity, there is hope for overcoming our destiny of eternal death to find eternal life with God — provided by Jesus’ death and resurrection.
But the story is rooted in fear and betrayal. What’s up with that?
On a small scale, Jesus’ story is our story. Betrayed, deserted and denied by his friends Jesus died and, as the story goes, came back three days later. What did he do? Except for Judas, who hung himself, Jesus returned to the very friends who ran away from him. They might have abandoned him but he returned to them.
Now betrayal and abandonment are big words but I would hazard a guess that quite a few of us might have felt betrayed and/or abandoned in our lives. And there are the little abandonments and betrayals, perhaps better called disappointments. Our friends don’t call when they say they will; our boss makes decisions that directly impact us without any input from us; our partner doesn’t tell us about those scary symptoms he or she has been having; our children don’t want to spend any time with us. And it goes both ways. Sometimes we are the ones who don’t call or make decisions unilaterally, or hide the state of our health. These are mini ways we let each other down. Whenever this happens we step away from each other, we add to our sense of aloneness. What happens then? In our efforts to cope with the isolation we find someone to blame or we sink deeper into our aloneness or we decide it’s all for the best anyway. How many of us actually practice resurrection? How many of us can return, even distantly, to the friends and loved ones who let us down, or worse, betrayed us? I know that sometimes we can’t. I do know that. I believe that sometimes we can. That’s why Jesus’ returning into relationship with the friends that abandoned him is so powerful. The resurrection of relationship is the resurrection.
When I got married, to another woman, I invited my cousins and their children. It was a coming out because some of them did not know I was lesbian. Some were happy for me, others not so much. The member of my family I feel closest to, my only first cousin, would not come to the wedding. She’s Catholic and thinks it’s a sin to marry someone of the same sex. Her absence hurt me. It felt like she abandoned me. A couple of years have gone by and although we have had sporadic contact we have not seen each other in that interval. Now her husband is very ill and he could die and she reached out to me for a shoulder to cry on. I decided to practice resurrection. I decided to return to relationship. I have known her all my life and our relationship is more than her opinion of my marriage. Don’t get me wrong, the wound was made and the memory of the hurt is there. It’s just not all there is in my soul regarding her. So we resurrected. For me, it beats holding onto the blame or deciding it’s for the best that she’s not in my life anymore.
Judas has gone down for all time as the ultimate betrayer. You might be aware that the National Geographic Society has published the Gospel of Judas. According to this gospel, Judas’ betrayal of Jesus was part of the plan. Judas was the only disciple strong enough to play that role of betrayer. To quote the gospel, Jesus said to Judas, “Step away from the others and I shall tell you the mysteries of the kingdom. It is possible for you to reach it, but you will grieve a great deal. For someone else will replace you, in order that the twelve may again come to completion with their God.” The idea would be then, that Judas offered himself as a sacrificial victim in order for Jesus’ sacrifice to be accomplished. Judas was not to be blamed as the ultimate symbol of betrayal, but rather Judas was Jesus’ friend. The Gospel of Judas.
Whether friend or foe, I think if we take Judas’ betrayal story literally we diminish its important meaning. For if we believe it literally we are compelled to ask: Why did Jesus need to be betrayed in the first place? People knew who Jesus was. The gospels relate that he came into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday amid much hoopla. Why did he need to be identified to the soldiers and the high priests by Judas’ kiss? Lots of people knew who he was. And then one must ask of this story, what kind of God is being portrayed here? Why did betrayal need to be a part of plan? Why does this God need to create so much suffering in the name of love? What purpose does the betrayal and subsequent suffering of Judas’ serve? This is similar to the question that many have at Passover time: why did God have to kill the firstborn of all the Egyptians just to convince one man– Pharaoh– to let Moses’ people go? What God works in this manner?
On significant levels, the story does not work. If Judas is the evil enemy who betrayed Jesus, he becomes a scapegoat for us to blame when things fall apart. Scapegoats relieve the rest of us from suffering and responsibility, but ultimately do we really want to be relieved from that? Is it in our best interest? There’s a certain loss of power, a certain loss of justice, that come with scapegoating. On the other hand, if Judas was a friend who participated in a grand plan, he becomes a way of explaining that everything happens for the best. There’s an unreality in that stance because there’s no room in it for grief and pain. Do not stop at death–proceed straight to heaven. Neither position is satisfactory, psychologically or spiritually.
What meaning other than a literal one might then exist in this story of betrayal? And how does betrayal tie in to resurrection? The connection is this. Things fall apart. We all are betrayed. Our friends betray us; our lovers betray us; our parents betray us; our society betrays us; our bodies betray us; our hearts betray us. Things fall apart. Some, perhaps many, of us are not only betrayed but betrayers as well. Things fall apart. And mostly when they do, we run away from them, or we try to. Just like the disciples. We don’t want to stand with the brokenness. We don’t want to feel what we fear we might feel. We distract ourselves, we deny and/or minimize, we anesthetize ourselves with some substance. And that is understandable. Who wants to feel the pain of things falling apart? Who wants to embrace betrayal? I’m afraid of that. Are you?
Willingly or unwillingly, betrayal propels us into changes and changes offer us choices. That’s the paradox of betrayal. Change might involve loss, but it also involves opportunity if we can allow ourselves to remain open to that possibility. Jesus’ story is that resurrection is possible in many relationships. Disappointment and betrayal move us off the status quo. They shake us up; they shake us out. They bring a chance to chart a new course. To make different choices. To learn something. A chance to grow. A chance to transform. It’s not easy and it cannot be taken lightly, but there is often resurrection in the muck of betrayal.
One of my favorite Buddhist writers, Pema Chodron, speaks of this when she says: “Life is a good teacher and a good friend. Things are always in transition. . . Nothing ever sums itself up in the way we like to dream about. The off-center, in-between state is . . . a situation in which . . .we can open our hearts and minds beyond limit. . . . To stay with that shakiness–to stay with a broken heart, with a rumbling stomach, with a feeling of hopelessness and wanting to get revenge–that is the path of true awakening.”
Judas’ treachery, the disciples’ falling asleep, Peter’s denials, the silence of the Marys, all carry the metaphorical message that things fall apart and when they do we often feel as though we have been betrayed. But if we don’t place all of the blame on a scapegoat and if we don’t treat it superficially by saying it’s all for the best, or it’s all part of a plan over which we have no control, betrayal may have something important to give us. Betrayal itself moves us, forces us to change and offers us an opportunity to grow, if just a small part of us can remain open to it. If just a small part of us will dare to look into the distance, beyond the outrage of betrayal. Herein lies the resurrection. We die to the old and arise to the new.
A Tomb is No Place to Stay by Richard Gilbert.
A tomb is no place to stay,
Be it a cave in the Judean hills
Or the dark cavern of the spirit.
A tomb is no place to stay
When fresh grass rolls away the stone of winter cold
And valiant flowers burst their way to warmth and light.
A tomb is no place to stay
When each morning announces our reprieve,
And we know we are granted yet another day of living.
A tomb is no place to stay
When life laughs a welcome
To hearts that have been away too long.
This Easter, may whatever betrayals you have experienced help you find your way to rebirth. Whatever tombs your betrayals have closed you up in, may you break free of them. May the doors of our hearts and minds remain open enough to remind us how strong we really are. We can weather the betrayal and survive its devastation. We can die to the old; even if we have to spend some time in hell, but one day we rise again as betrayal helps us to move the seasons of ourselves. In the tatters of betrayal there may be a possibility of resurrection. If it be there for us, if there be anything that may be born anew in our shredded relationships, may we have the courage to practice resurrection. May it be so.
Autumn is a time of regret. Even as the humidity goes away, the temperature drops and we gladly put on those sweaters for chilly mornings, even as the trees start to blaze with color, the apples taste crisp and sweet, and pumpkins greet us with their toothy grins, we know, as Carl Sandburg reminded us in the opening words, that no beautiful thing lasts. Winter is coming, with all of its challenges. So we hold onto the sweet beauty of Autumn, even as we regret it’s passing.
Autumn is the time of the Jewish High Holy Days, which also make plenty of room for regret. Last week Rosh Hashanah, which means head of the year, began. Rabbi Arthur Waskow explains that “Rosh Hashanah is the new year for renewal. It is the time to focus our attention on the ultimate spiritual truth. . . . The ten days from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur are known as the Days of Awe. The traditional metaphor was that during this time God might rewrite a name, taking it from the ledger of death into the Book of Life, depending on how we act–whether we return to the path of decency, or not. So the . . . days that lie between the two holy days are turned into a spiritual bridge from one to the other by several special practices in ceremony as well as in daily life. . . . For a (large) section of the Jewish community, the Rosh Hashanah period provides a strong stimulus for . . . re-examination and correction of one’s own behavior. . . .” Thus the responsive reading we read, On Turning by Jack Riemer.
For we Unitarian Universalists these days, this season, might also remind us of the brief nature of human life, of human ageing. These days might remind us to cultivate humility and responsibility. To remember that we are not perfect. We make mistakes, we do not always act with consideration, or with good intentions. We do not always think beyond ourselves. And for that we need each other’s forgiveness and goodwill. Human relations always run the risk of going awry. What we do, how we behave, is just as important as how we feel and what we think. We may or may not love each other, we may or may not like each other. Regardless–it matters how we treat each other. It matters. These days, this season, remind us of our own vulnerability, our own mortality. If we live with our doors open, we risk being hurt, we risk being criticized, we risk being treated unjustly, we risk treating others in those ways. But what is the alternative? Have you ever heard the phrase “Love is never having to say you’re sorry.” It comes from the novel Love Story by Erich Segal. I wonder about “Love is never having to say you’re sorry.” Love is always having to say you’re sorry.
Regret. Who among us has not felt its dull heaviness, or its sharp cuts? Like corn kernels over a flame, when one regret pops open, a whole host follows. Regret is a feeling of disappointment, distress or sorrow over the wish that something we did or did not do, something we said or did not say in the past could have been different. It often comes with a kind of helplessness because we cannot change the past and do not know what to do with the dissatisfaction we feel about it in the present. Regret’s favorite words are “What if?” and “If only.” Regret is not an easy feeling to experience. Which may be part of the appeal in the lyrics of the song we just heard — No, I regret nothing. Made famous by the French singer Edith Piaf it essentially says, I made my choices, I did what I did and the chips fell where they may. So what? I have no regrets. It’s Frank Sinatra defiantly singing I Did It My Way.
Claiming that we regret nothing, thumbing our nose at the world so to speak, appeals because I think most of us do have regrets. I cannot imagine anyone living for very long and not finding him/herself wishing that something in the past had turned out differently. In that sense regret seems almost inevitable. It can paralyze us and trap us. Regret can also make us stronger and point the way toward a different future. “Maybe all one can do is hope to end up with the right regrets,” said playwright Arthur Miller.
Our regrets emerge from the choices we make, conscious and unconscious. Conscious choices require us to think in terms of future what-if’s in order to try to discern what we really want, what is really possible, and what will serve us the best. Yet all choice involves a loss, a risk, the unknown. What school will I attend? What work will I choose? When will I retire? Where will I live? What will I have for dinner? What to wear today? Sometimes we play with alternative choices and re-write history as a way to make sense of our lives. What if I had not met you? What if I had moved to the west coast? What if I had stayed in that teaching job? The sting of regret might signal a less than optimal choice, or a restlessness in a current situation, or some unfinished business.
It happens that the more choices we have, the less satisfied we are with the results. When faced with too many choices, some of us opt out of making any choice at all, which itself becomes a source of regret. When I stand in front of a shelf full of vitamins and various supplements and see all the different stuff I could buy, I feel overwhelmed and sometimes leave the store with nothing. From Neal Roese, professor of psychology at Northwestern University, “Regret is not something that’s just a curse or a nuisance to our daily living. It’s an indicator of our brains trying their best to guide us through complicated social environments.” Henry David Thoreau said it more poetically: “Make the most of your regrets. To regret deeply is to live afresh.”
Exactly how does one make the most of one’s regrets? That is a message in these Days of Awe, of Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. We are human. We sometimes do what we should not do and we regret it. We sometimes make choices that have intended or unintended harmful consequences and we regret them. We can make the most of our regrets by letting them lead us to a turn, or a re-turn toward each other. For our regrettable actions and choices we can atone; we can make amends; we can seek reconciliation; we can intend to do differently in the future. Atonement means asking forgiveness, it means offering forgiveness to ourselves. I remember when I worked for the Social Security Administration and I had a boss who was an observant Jewish man. He was on the anxious side and frankly, drove us crazy with his frantic demands. One year during Rosh Hashanah he called a meeting and expressed his regret for his manner of speaking to us. He asked our forgiveness. Wow. How often does a boss make atonement like that? How many of us ever do that on a regular level in our lives? As a society, as communities, as nations, as religious groups, we almost never do it. I would suggest that we would be better off if we did. It made a difference when my boss atoned. For a brief time he curbed his impatience, but after a while it came back though never as frantic. The greater difference his atonement made was in us, in the broader understanding with which we received him. Our understanding made us more compassionate and accepting. It also freed us to speak up to him.
Why is it so hard for so many of us to move toward atonement? Why does it seem easier to remain mired in regret, as in quicksand? What assumptions are we operating under? What are we afraid of? Plenty.
For a myriad of reasons it is difficult if not next to impossible for many of us to ask forgiveness. To say I’m sorry. It is uncomfortable to conceive of ourselves as having done something wrong. After all, we have a self-image to maintain. We are good people and good people don’t behave badly. Good people do not treat each other unkindly. We have a strong sense of morality, a high sense of justice, a well articulated set of ethics. Good people don’t behave immorally, unjustly, unethically.
Further, many of us want to be liked, to be loved. We want and seek each other’s approval. Our pride is involved, our ego. Our guilt, our shame. We need to be right. We want to be loved. We remember how it felt as children to be punished for violations of the “good boy, good girl” code. Woe to us when we didn’t share, when we lied or cheated. When I was five years old and in kindergarten, I played after school with Angelo, the boy up the street. One day we had pieces of cardboard and for reasons I can’t recall, I scratched his face in order to grab the last piece. As he cried, and bled, all the way home, my grandmother banished me to my room. While I paced up and down, she talked about feeling mortified and embarrassed by me. I was so upset to have embarrassed her, to have ruined my reputation as a good little girl. I’m still upset about it. What came over me? It must have been Angelo’s fault.
Many of us cover our misdeeds with this kind of moral laziness. We blame them on somebody else. We do it politically and societally. We do it personally. You asked for it. You didn’t say the right thing, do the right thing, work hard enough. You had it coming to you. I didn’t say that, you misunderstood me. It’s your fault, you drove me to it. Or we explain that we didn’t mean it, as if having good intentions totally excuses us from the harm we might have done. As if having good intentions alone should buy us instant forgiveness or understanding. Or we dissociate ourselves from our own misdeeds. What got into me? Something came over me; I wasn’t myself. Who were you then? Did an alien invade your body? We see ourselves as good people, so if we do something harmful, it is not us who could possibly have done it. We cannot or will not believe that good people are complex people; that it is possible to be good and still act in ways that we will later regret. We cannot seem to live with that kind of ambivalent self-image. It is hard to ask forgiveness.
“Make the most of your regrets. To regret deeply is to live afresh.” But regrets come in many layers, some helpful, some harmful. How can we distinguish between them and use our regret as a guide for when we need to make amends or repair relationship or take responsibility or make changes? How can we learn to tame, even let go of, the regret that only bombards us with the tyranny of our internal worlds of “should?” Or the regret that pulls us into the black holes of our insecurities? How can we recognize regret for what it represents? How can we make use of what it has to offer?
We might want to understand the nature of our regret. In what guises does it present itself to us? There are many possibilities. As we uncover the reasons why we feel regret, why we wish something in the past had been different, we learn a lot about what we really think, what we expect, even what we fear. The sources of our regret differentiate helpful from unhelpful regret.
Regret can arise as an adjunct to our need for a sense of power and control over ourselves and our lives. This isn’t a bad thing. We need to believe we can do differently in order to do differently. The person who looks back and says, with regret, “Why did I say such a stupid thing? How could I have been such an idiot?” might be a person trying to figure out how to avoid negative consequences next time. We can berate ourselves for past actions as a way to teach ourselves how not to repeat them. To make the most of them and learn from our mistakes.
Regret can accompany our moral consciousness. When we violate our own values, or those of people whose regard matters to us, our regret can help us face up to ourselves and take responsibility for the consequences of our actions, intended or unintended. Our conscience speaks to us in the language of regret. That too is beneficial regret.
There is also non-beneficial regret. Many of us have a place within that I call the land of “should.” It contains all of our rules and expectations, our parents’ instructions, our teachers’ injunctions. All of the ways life “should” be. All of the ways we “should” be. These are neither ethical “shoulds” nor rules for safety or health. Rather they are customs, preferences, the way things are. This place within us can lie dormant for long periods of time, but we become very aware of its existence each time we violate a “should.” Then we enter the land of “should,” and regret often follows. Maybe we feel embarrassed; maybe we feel defensive; maybe we feel rebellious and defiant. All because we internalized what someone told us was the way we, or they, or things, should be. Usually we stop with the sense of regret, all the while maybe feeling like a jerk. But if we can peek underneath our emotions, we might find that our regrets tell us about our internal, unexamined rules and they give us an opportunity to question them. They give us the freedom to ask ourselves whether we find it helpful and healthful to live with so many “shoulds.” Do we need them all? When our regrets speak in “shoulds” they might very well be the non-helpful kind.
Many of us carry around a deep dread that something in us is not quite right, not okay and that one day everybody’s going to find out. We compare ourselves to others and find ourselves lacking. We feel a little uneasy and less than confident about our talents, our intelligence, our families, what we have achieved in life. About who we are fundamentally. We fear that if people really knew us, they would see us for frauds. In our desire and need to be thought well of, to call forth our best selves, to please others, to get ahead, whatever that means to us, we become our own worst enemies. It’s a coping mechanism that doesn’t really help us cope. We try to make ourselves better by scrutinizing everything we say and do. Some of us criticize ourselves far more than we praise ourselves and we have a loud, critical judge within who lets us know everything we do “wrong.” We develop a habit of second guessing ourselves, in the name of improving ourselves. In the name of protecting ourselves from the anticipated scorn of others. We lie awake going over events of the day. “Why did I say I enjoyed that film? Why did I say I watch television? Now everybody thinks I’m an idiot.” “Why did I eat so much? Why didn’t I leave more of a tip?” It goes on and on relentlessly.
Unhelpful regret emerges out of such painful, ongoing critical self-judgment. We want the past to be different because we want ourselves to be different and we blame ourselves when we’re not. We lose the distinction between reflective self-improvement and beating ourselves up. Maybe we feel angry at the way things are, at the way we are. Maybe we feel anxious. Maybe we feel confused. The overly harsh self-critical habit spills over into our relationships with others. All the regrets it brings in its wake take on a life of their own. Regret becomes a way of avoiding ourselves. We didn’t do it “right,” we won’t ever get it “right,” why bother. We become stuck in a black hole of regret. That’s a very painful place.
Regrets can harm us and keep us stuck. Regrets can help us find ways to atone, make intentions to improve and move on. If we can tease out the source of our regret, we can know what to do with the regret we feel. We can glean when to let it go as an unexamined and no longer useful expectation of how things should be. We can understand it as a mirror reflecting back to us our fear and shame and use it perhaps to deal with those issues. We can learn from it. We can build our courage and use it as an opportunity to strengthen ethically.
The Jewish High Holy Days carry a universal message: make atonement as appropriate in the name of peace. Our lives are filled with choices to make. Looking at the past and asking ourselves “what if” may indeed help us to make sense of paths we took. But wanting the past to be different and beating ourselves up over and over again is like a dog chasing its tail. We can’t change the past. We can, however, accept that it happened and use our regret to change ourselves in the present. Autumn is a season that invites us to consider our regrets. May we consider them well, letting the unhelpful ones go by and making the most of the ones that would make us better people. May it be so.
Some doorways are for standing in
looking toward the future
not yet ready to move
Some doorways are for opening
what we seek
Some doorways are for passing through
on our way
to something else
Some doorways keep us out
denying our curiosity
Some doorways are hard to find
and test our will
Which one are you?