Food: We were advised not to drink water, or anything not from a bottle, not to eat raw vegetables,especially lettuce, not to eat fruit unless it has a peel you can throw away.
Sorojchi: altitude sickness. This is for real. Fatigue, shortness of breath, vivid dreams, trouble sleeping, nosebleeds, loss of appetite, headache, dizziness. I had each and every symptom.
Medicine: specifically what you take to ward off altitude sickness. Nauseated me. As did the typhoid oral vaccine. Worse than that is malarone, the malaria preventative. The symptoms are severe and include persistent vomiting. Malaria seems preferable.
Peru is not for the faint of heart.
During the Buddha’s lifetime, more than 2500 years ago, Hindus prayed that after death they would go to heaven to dwell eternally with Brahma, the universal god. Brahma was understood to be the source of love and in order to dwell with this god, Hindus had to practice the Brahma abodes, or the Four Immeasurable Minds: love, compassion, joy and equanimity. These are the abodes of true love and if one practiced them, it was believed that they would grow in the practitioner until they embraced the whole world. These Four Immeasurable Minds came into Buddhism as well, though not for the purpose of dwelling with god, but as the best way to realize the Buddha’s spirit. I’ve been thinking about each of these and I want to explore them with you because they have great relevance for our world today.
The second of the four immeasurable minds is compassion. It’s a word much in use but not so clearly defined. What do you think it means? Forgiveness? Understanding? Loving? Mercy? Pity? Kisa Gotami, a young woman, married a man who loved her very much. In time, she gave birth to a son. She and her husband were exquisitely joyful and lived together quite happily. Sadly, two years after their son was born, the child became quite ill and died very quickly. Kisa Gotami was devastated; her heart was broken. She was so stricken with grief that she refused to admit that her son had died. She carried his small corpse around, asking everyone she met for medicine to make her boy well again. Kisa Gotami went to the Buddha and asked him if he could please cure her son. The Buddha looked at Kisa Gotami with deep love. He said, ‘Yes, I will help you, but first I need a handful of mustard seed.’ When the mother in her joy promised to collect the seed immediately, the Buddha added, ‘But the mustard seed must be taken from a house in which no one has lost a child, husband, wife, parent or friend. Each seed must come from a house that has not known death.’
Kisa Gotami went from house to house asking for the mustard seed, and always the response was the same: ‘Yes, we will gladly give you some mustard seed. But alas, the living are few and the dead are many.’ Each had lost a father or mother, husband or wife, son or daughter. She visited one home after another, and every home told the same story. By the time she got to the end of the village, her eyes were opened, and she saw the universality of sorrow, Everyone had experienced some great loss, each had felt tremendous grief. Kisa Gotami realized she was not alone in her suffering; her sorrow had given birth to a compassion for the larger human family. Thus, Kisa Gotami was finally able to grieve the death of her son and bury him, and she returned to the Buddha to thank him and receive his teachings.
Compassion isn’t sympathy and compassion isn’t empathy. Although all three words stem from the same Greek root, pathos, which means one’s experience, particularly what one has suffered, their different prefixes give them different meanings. Empathy has the prefix en, which means in, so combined with pathos empathy means to have an inner state of emotion, to suffer within. Empathy is knowing another’s suffering inside yourself, maybe because you’ve been there before. Empathy both validates and understands our suffering. This is one reason why specialized support groups are so effective. There’s often something healing in being with people who were, or are, in the same boat. A person who has mourned the loss of a love can usually understand our broken heart and offer empathy. A cancer survivor can offer empathetic courage to one newly diagnosed. Those who have shared painful circumstances know about these circumstances in a way that an “outsider” never can. That shared knowledge and feeling makes empathy possible. Its understanding of the pain is so powerful.
Sympathy is the prefix sun, which means along with, in company with. Symphony, for instance, is the coming together of sound. Sympathy is coming together, standing beside someone in their suffering. Not necessarily sharing it, but coming together because of it. We offer people our sympathy. It’s a way of saying I’m sorry you’re in pain. Let my caring about you comfort you. Sympathy is healing because when others reach out to us we don’t feel so alone in our sorrow. We may not always feel empathy because our life experiences differ. We may, though, extend our sympathy even if we haven’t a clue about what it feels like in another person’s shoes. Sympathy recognizes suffering with kindness. It recognizes it, acknowledges it, and offers goodwill. That is powerful.
Compassion is the Latin prefix cum plus pathos. Cum also means, like sun, in company with, but contains a shade of difference. A companion, is one who shares bread with you, cum plus panos, bread. Compassion is to share suffering. What would it mean to share suffering? Think of yourself carrying a heavy load. You arms ache, your legs ache, you think you cannot go another step. The person feeling sympathy will feel sorry that you are struggling so. The one who feels empathy will know what it feels like to struggle. The person who feels compassion will step forward and shoulder a part of the burden. In bearing some weight, they make it easier for you, even though you still carry the larger part. Compassion, the second of the four immeasurable minds, is the intention and the capacity to relieve and transform suffering. Compassion is the intention and the capacity to relieve suffering, and in the relieving, transform it. It does this by sharing suffering. Sharing suffering means to lighten its load. When we care about one another’s suffering and take steps to lessen it, we are doing the work of peace and justice. Compassion is far more than simply feeling good. When we help to carry one another’s burdens, we get to understand them and our view widens. Such understanding, coupled with caring and generosity of spirit, motivates us to an ethic of justice.
Many of us have known suffering. We’ve had hard lives or we have experienced tragedy, loss, betrayal, violence. Perhaps we’ve participated in these also. The tragedies of our lives help to define us, both who we are now and who we were then. Even tragedy that affects whole groups serves to define those groups. Most of us can remember where we were on September 11, 2001. We know the effect of that tragedy on our self-identity as a people and our subsequent behavior in the world. Personal tragedy marks our lives the way a bookmark holds the page of a book. When I was five years old my mother contracted tuberculosis and went away to live in a sanitarium for eighteen months or more. I was five and I didn’t understand where she was going, or why. Or if she’d ever come back. I was in kindergarten when my mother left and finishing second grade when she returned. A defining time of suffering in my life? Absolutely. In a painful way tragedies touch our deepest parts and we are forever changed.
So when we talk about compassion as an intention and a capacity to relieve and transform suffering we have to recognize that it can be very hard to want to let go of our suffering because on an important level, our suffering is our individuality, or so we think. It’s ours. Who would we be without it? What would it mean for me to want to let go of that childhood tragedy of losing a mother for almost two years? Who would I be without it? Letting go of that suffering does not mean I forget it. It does not mean I pretend it didn’t affect me. An intention to relieve and transform my own suffering means, for me, that I don’t want to live in the grip of it. I don’t want to remain caught up in those painful feelings. Maybe most important, I don’t want to think of myself as a victim of my mother’s tuberculosis. I don’t want to present myself to others as a victim, but rather as a strong and resilient person who came through a difficult time. It will always be a part of my history but I want to know, and to show, the fear, sorrow and helplessness of that little five year old has transformed into courage and competence. The intention to relieve suffering means we have to intend to let go of it and view our own stories through a different lens.
Compassion, though, is not only the intention but also the capacity to relieve suffering. We may very well think it good to lessen the amount of suffering in the world, but can we do it? What would it take? How do we relieve another’s troubles? How do we relieve our own? In three main ways. The three building blocks of compassion: acceptance, empathy, understanding.
We relieve suffering by accepting one another exactly where we are. Your friend, your spouse, your child, your parent comes to you afraid, worried, angry, down. You let them know that you accept them where they are. You say something like, “I see that you’re feeling really bad right now.” No saying, “What are you so upset about that for?” No saying, “What! You should be over this by now.” No pretending it isn’t there. No saying, “It’s your own fault.” Just acceptance and recognition, without judgment. And for those of us who, out of the goodness of our hearts, want to fix the problem, give advice, make the person feel better, simply accepting him/her is very very hard to do. But we also know that we don’t hear advice we’re not ready to take and we can’t feel better on cue because someone else tells us to and we are not broken and so need no fixing. Once my wallet was stolen out of my backpack. That was upsetting and I felt a little violated. I went home and told someone in my family about it and she said, “Well, why do you go around with your wallet in a backpack? You should put it in your pocket instead.” Great advice, but I wasn’t ready to hear it and it did not relieve my suffering. Actually, it added to it because now I also felt like an idiot. I needed to get past my initial feelings of upset before I could recognize the sensibility of moving my wallet out of the backpack. Maybe if she had said, “yeah, that is upsetting” it would have helped me. Just experiencing someone accepting us wherever we are in the moment can be the impetus for finding our own ways out.
Secondly, we relieve suffering with empathy. In other words we try to gauge what it feels like to walk in the other person’s shoes. Maybe we don’t know what it’s like to have a wallet stolen, but we might know the feelings involved with losing something valuable. Empathy begins with careful listening, taking note of what is said and focusing upon the other person. No outdoing one another in troubles. “You think you had a heart attack? I had a heart attack and required bypass surgery. Want to see my scar?” “Your dog died? Well, my dog got this rare disease and . . . ” You know how someone ostensibly wants to comfort you and ends up dominating the conversation with his/her own troubles? Can you think of a time when you sensed that another person really understood what you were going through? When I have experienced that kind of empathy I have felt my own load lightened, my burden eased.
Finally, we relieve suffering with understanding. We don’t have to agree in order to understand. We don’t have to approve. But if we can see where the other person might be coming from and offer them some indication that we “get” them, it makes a difference. The night before I got married my mother and I had a huge fight. It seemed as if she was criticizing every choice I had made. Right in front of the whole family. Very unusual for us. We were just going around and around and then suddenly I thought I understood what was really going on. I’m an only child and I thought my mother was afraid she was losing me. So I said to her, or yelled really, “I’m not abandoning you. I’ll always be your daughter.” And that was the end of the fight. I had understood and she had no more need to criticize me.
Why does compassion relieve suffering? Because, as you probably know yourself, when we give each other the gift of acceptance, we start to feel better. Things don’t seem quite so out of control. When we give each other the gift of empathy, we feel that we have been truly heard and seen. We can release feelings and thoughts and it is okay. When we give each other the gift of understanding, we don’t feel quite so alone. We start to calm down. Compassion breaks our isolation, soothes our pain, provides support, and in doing all of that it gives help. Acceptance, empathy and understanding, offered by another to us helps us to to better accept ourselves with empathy and to better understand ourselves. It’s the beginning and it opens up something in us, enabling us to figure out the next steps, to unstick ourselves. How amazing the world is when people want to relieve one another’s suffering and have the skills and the capacity to do so.
Remember though, compassion is the intention and the capacity to relieve suffering. Not to end suffering, but to lessen it. We can accept, we can listen with empathy, we can understand; our very presence in that way is healing. But we can’t take it away. We learn not to expect that we will make suffering go away. Not the suffering of anyone else, not our own. We learn not to expect that we will fix it once and for all, or make it better. If we think we can eliminate our own suffering forever, we’re only fooling ourselves. Life contains suffering. I don’t know why it is so, but it is. If we think that our role is to take responsibility for everyone else’s suffering, we will undermine our compassion and find failure and frustration over and over again because we cannot fix one another’s pain. We can help to make it less but we cannot take it away. Relieving suffering means helping to carry the load, not shouldering the whole thing ourselves. This is a hard lesson – to care without being tied to a good outcome. Compassion means to be with suffering, not to expect that we can make it disappear. Can we do that?
Willingness to let go of our suffering. Acceptance, empathy, understanding — the building blocks of compassion. They are powerful. Their presence moves us to do what we need to do. It frees us to make choices. Compassion is a practice that flows back and forth, within the self and beyond the self. Understanding, empathy, acceptance are what we can give to ourselves and to others, and they are enough. Compassion is a way of being not easily achieved, but worth the attempts we make at it. Like Kisa Gotami, when bad things happen we do not want to experience them. But when we come to learn that others also feel grief, or anger, or sadness the way we do; when we can allow ourselves to acknowledge our suffering; when we can begin to gain some kind of insight into ourselves and our experiences, then compassion grows inside and compassion grows outside. May compassion fill our lives. May it be so.
Peruvians are Catholic, but a strong current of the Inca spirituality remains. We attended an Offering to the Earth ceremony and by accident came upon a Blessing of Waters ceremony.
A shaman (male or female) prepares a bundle of coca leaves and other materials, on which people have prayed their blessings and wishes, chants, and burns the bundle. Ceremonies can take many hours. Lots of music.
Crisis Chaplaincy Program Graduation
April 13, 2013
The Reverend Dr Linda Anderson
I want to tell you that it is my pleasure and my honor to be here. I’ve been in ministry for twenty five years, serving congregations and more recently serving as a chaplain and educating others to be chaplains. It’s a special calling. First, let me offer my congratulations to you upon your completion of the Crisis Chaplaincy program. For the past ten weeks or so you have learned, not only about the role of a chaplain, but also about yourselves and what you are capable of. Now you will go out into the world, as volunteers, to respond to the spiritual and emotional needs of people in crisis. That is no easy task, as anyone who serves as a chaplain knows. So secondly, I want to offer my gratitude to you. For every day and every night that you are called to an emergency and you stop what you are doing or you get out of bed or up from the dinner table, or you turn off the TV after an already long and tiring day, and go out into the unknown to help a stranger, I thank you. We all thank you.
As you embark on your chaplaincy, I have three things to ask of you. Number one: don’t ever forget that you make a difference. When things seem completely awful, devastated and broken beyond repair, when it looks like the wounds are too severe for any healing to take place, when too many people have too many needs to attend to, don’t forget that you make a difference. Don’t lose faith in the value and the goodness of what you are doing. I tell you this because sometimes crisis feels overwhelming and you are just one person and you can’t possibly do everything. Don’t forget that what you do matters to someone.
Have you ever heard the story of the Starfish? Star fish live in the sea and instead of blood they have water circulating in their bodies. They come in many colors and some of them have more than five points to their star shapes. They are not fish, despite their name. On their undersides they have feet, which allow them to walk along the bottom of the water and hold onto rocks and the like. So the story goes that a young girl was walking along a beach upon which thousands of starfish had been washed up during a terrible storm. When she came to each starfish, she would pick it up, and throw it back into the ocean. People watched her with amusement. She had been doing this for some time when a man approached her and said, “Little girl, why are you doing this? Look at this beach! You can’t save all these starfish. You can’t begin to make a difference!” The girl seemed crushed, suddenly deflated. But after a few moments, she bent down, picked up another starfish, and hurled it as far as she could into the ocean. Then she looked up at the man and replied, “Well, I made a difference to that one!” (adapted from the Star Thrower by Loren C. Eiseley)
We make a difference to someone. And even though we wish we could do it all and even though we stand helpless in the face of disaster and crisis, our efforts make a difference. Don’t lose faith in the goodness of what you do, even when, and especially when, it never seems like enough.
Number two: don’t lose faith in the goodness of other people. You will be called to emergencies and some of them will have resulted from accidents and some will have resulted from the acts of destruction that we human beings can inflict on one another. We can be cruel and mean, thoughtless, stupid, and the consequences of our actions can do untold harm. As a crisis chaplain you’re going to see the effects of human beings at their worst. But you are also going to see human beings at their best. Shortly after September 11, 2001, Stephen Jay Gould, a professor wrote an editorial in the New York Times and he said, “every spectacular incident of evil will be balanced by 10,000 acts of kindness, too often unnoted and invisible as the ”ordinary” efforts of a vast majority.” 10,000 acts of kindness. I have held onto that saying these past eleven years because I have needed to remember it. The acts of hatred seem big and their effects devastating. I get to thinking that all we are is cruel. It’s easy to overlook the smaller acts of kindness. Half the time we don’t even know the person who did them because they remain anonymous. The person who called 911. The one who waited to make sure the responders arrived. The one who brought coffee to the family in the waiting room of the hospital. Or a blanket. Or a shoulder to cry on. The passers by who said a silent prayer at the scene of the accident. The one who stayed after her or his shift was over, just to help a little more. 10,000 small acts of kindness. When the world seems to be nothing but crisis caused by the carelessness, the ignorance, the violence of other people, look around for the acts of kindness. When life itself seems to be too risky, when bad things happen to good people and you have no answer for the suffering that comes, look around for the acts of kindness. Look for the helpers. You will find them. They are always there. You are not alone. Let the kindnesses you find lift you and inspire you in your work. Don’t lose faith in the goodness of people.
Some people say the starfish story does not end where I ended it. They say that when the man heard what the little girl said, he came up beside her and started picking up the starfish himself and throwing them back into the sea. Soon other people on the beach joined them and lots of starfish were saved.
Finally, number 3: don’t lose faith in the necessity of taking care of yourself. It can be exciting and deeply gratifying to serve as a chaplain, to help people in times of crisis. It’s what we are called to do. Caregivers are terrible at taking care of ourselves. In our great desire to serve and to help we can forget about ourselves. We can forget that we need to take a break and rest. We need to be cared for. We need someone to tell our stories to. We need to spend time with our families and our friends. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you are indispensable or that nobody else can do it as good as you can or that you cannot stop because there’s so much to do. The beach is always going to be full of starfish washed up on the sand. You make a difference to the ones you throw back in the water. But you can’t do it alone and if you try you will do harm to yourself and the people who love you. Others will come and stand beside you and throw the starfish back into the water as well. It is not selfish to respect and honor yourself. Don’t lose faith in the necessity of taking care of yourself.
I want to end with a poem by a minister in my tradition. Choose to Bless the World by Rebecca Parker
Your gifts—whatever you discover them to be—
can be used to bless or curse the world.
The mind’s power,
The strength of the hands,
The reaches of the heart,
The gift of speaking, listening, imagining, seeing, waiting
Any of these can serve to feed the hungry,
Bind up wounds,
Welcome the stranger,
Praise what is sacred,
Do the work of justice
Or offer love.
Any of these can draw down the prison door,
Abandon the poor,
Obscure what is holy,
Comply with injustice
Or withhold love.
You must answer this question:
What will you do with your gifts?
Choose to bless the world.
The choice to bless the world is more than an act of will,
A moving forward into the world
With the Intention to do good.
It is an act of recognition, a confession of surprise, a grateful acknowledgment
That in the midst of a broken world
Unspeakable beauty, grace and mystery abide.
There is an embrace of kindness that encompasses all life, even yours.
And while there is injustice, anesthetization, or evil
A holy disturbance,
A benevolent rage,
A revolutionary love,
Protesting, urging, insisting
That which is sacred will not be defiled.
Those who bless the world live their life as a gesture of thanks
For this beauty
And this rage.
The choice to bless the world can take you into solitude
To search for the sources of power and grace;
Native wisdom, healing, and liberation.
More, the choice will draw you into community,
The endeavor shared,
The heritage passed on,
The companionship of struggle,
The importance of keeping faith,
The life of ritual and praise,
The comfort of human friendship,
The company of earth
The chorus of life welcoming you.
None of us alone can save the world.
Together—that is another possibility waiting.
May you not lose faith in the goodness of what you do; may you not lose faith in the goodness of other people. May you not lose faith in the importance of taking care of you. As you have chosen to bless the world with the gifts of your chaplaincy, may you in turn be blessed. This is the prayer of my heart.
Thank you for listening to my words this afternoon.
North Fork Unitarian Universalist Fellowship
Jamesport Meeting House
April 7, 2013
The Reverend Dr. Linda Anderson
Welcome and Announcements
Prelude Donna Demian
Lighting the Chalice and Opening Words (#515 We Lift Up Our Hearts in Thanks)
Hymn #38 Morning Has Broken
Sharing of Joys and Sorrows
Spirit of Life Hymn #123
Message for Children
Offering/Offertory Donna Demian
Meditation (from Luke)
Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time? Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but not notice the log in your own eye? What does it profit anyone to gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves? Silence
Morning Message: Less is More The Rev Dr Linda Anderson
“What I want should not be confused with total inactivity. (Life is what it is about, I want no truck with death.) If we were not so single-minded about keeping our lives moving, and for once could do nothing, perhaps a huge silence could interrupt this sadness of never understanding ourselves and of threatening ourselves with death. Perhaps the earth can teach us as when everything seems dead and later proves to be alive. . . .” That is one of my favorite quotes from Pablo Neruda and to me it means less is more.
Less is more. Less is more? Think about it. We are taught by our culture, by our economy, by our history that more is better. When asked how much is enough, Donald Trump said “Just a little more.” Supersize it. Onward and upward; bigger and better; you can’t have too much of a good thing. If our civilization isn’t progressing, we are in decline. If a company doesn’t expand, it shrinks. If a person doesn’t make more and more money, he or she has less and less money. Even some religions teach that more is better. Religiously speaking, everyone boasts of the god with the most. The most power, the most knowledge, the most judgement, the most love, the most truth. My god is the best. My god knows all, sees all, controls all. My god is the only god. You’ve seen the bumper sticker “My god can beat up your god?” One draws the conclusion, then, that if more is better, less is worse. Less is inferior; less is unworthy. Who wants to have less under those conditions? Who wants to be less?
The picture on the order of service is from the Amazon region of Peru. There are only two seasons there: high water and low water. This, obviously, is high water time and the family who lives in this house was about to be flooded. We boated up to them and they told us something of their life. They had two rooms with only a table for furniture. At least seven people lived there, sleeping on the floor and using the river for all their water needs. There was no electricity and no running water or indoor plumbing. They fished and grew some crops like potatoes, which they sold. Our guide assured us of their happiness with the simplicity of their lives. I really can’t speak to that. I suspect he was not telling us the whole story, though I don’t know what the whole story is. To me life seemed poor and hard, but then of course it would, given where I come from. Is their less really more? Or is it truly less? I thought of me and Margie. We had come to Peru with two huge suitcases, which we were lugging around everywhere. You just never knew when you were going to need that extra pair of shoes or the fleece jacket in the Amazon, where it is always between 80-90 degrees. So why not take almost 90 pounds of luggage to Peru? In our case maybe the river people could teach us something about less is more.
Why do we cling to the notion that more is better? To strive for always more, always better defies our experience of the nature of life. To paraphrase poet Wendell Berry, we dance the circles of life, the cycles of the years. We can see the cyclical nature of life as day becomes night becomes day; as fall becomes winter becomes spring; as the young are born and the old die. We can experience the changes of our own maturity, of our own aging. In some ways we become less, in some ways we become more. Life seems to hold more and less in some kind of ever-shifting balance. We are both more and less at the very same time.
Why do we cling to the notion that more is better? On the large level, I think, we cling to more is better because our life is finite. Our time has an end. And we know it. Oh yes, we live as if it didn’t; as if we weren’t going to die. We deny the face of death, banish it to the corners of hospitals and nursing homes where most of us never have to see it at all. We wage war against time, defying its limited nature and longing for an unlimited supply. We stay young as long as possible so we don’t have to be old; we learn to do three things at once, racing from here to there, so that we can have more time. But deep down we know: we know that we can’t have more time. There are 24 hours in each day, no more, no less. But believing that more is better, and living that way, and accumulating more and more: more knowledge, more things, more people, more space, more wealth, more health, is one way to cope with, and at the same time deny, the finite nature of our lives. Having more provides some measure of illusory security. After all, life is risky. Nothing is guaranteed, we know that too. We could lose it all in a second. But if we have more, maybe it will protect us against the vagaries of existence.
All of which feeds a sense of scarcity, of not having enough. That’s why I had a suitcase almost as tall as I am. We brought three containers of bug spray for five days in the jungle. How many legions of mosquitos did I think I was going to encounter? It embarrasses me to tell you this, but fear of the unknown, fear of the uncertainty of the trip took hold. I didn’t know what I would find so I tried to anticipate every possibility so I could feel secure. And believe me, we were not the only ones with giant suitcases. More is better because we fear we won’t have enough. Less is worse because we fear we won’t have enough. Scarcity makes us hold onto that which we have all the more tightly, even as we want more, for scarcity breeds scarcity and if we come from a scarcity mind, then we will never have enough, no matter how much more we have. Scarcity breeds scarcity.
On the other hand, if we come from abundant mind, a way is found for there to be enough. Once upon a time a farmer died and left her land to her son and daughter. The son married and had seven children. The daughter remained unmarried. During a particularly hard and long winter, the daughter got to thinking of her brother next door and all of his kids and she decided to give him six sheaves of wheat from her storehouse, anonymously. So in the dark of night she filled her wheelbarrow and deposited the wheat beside his barn. Unbeknownst to her, her brother was thinking of her at the same time and wondering how she was doing alone. He decided to give her six sheaves of wheat from his storehouse, anonymously, and while the woman was carrying wheat to her brother, he was carrying wheat to her. Imagine each one’s surprise to find six sheaves of wheat beside their barns the next morning. Well, the winter went on. It got even colder. The brother carried twelve sheaves of wheat over to his sister’s and the sister carried twelve sheaves of wheat over to her brother’s. Then fifteen. Then twenty. Then, at last, on a moonlit night, while carrying twenty four sheaves of wheat, the paths of the brother and sister crossed. They realized the identities of those anonymous givers of wheat. They laughed and embraced and the next day made a feast together. Abundant mind brings enough.
If we can begin to believe that we already have enough, then we can share our resources more readily and most of us really will have enough. If we can courageously face our limited time and all the unknowns and uncertainties of our lives, and let go of some of our desires for absolute security, then more will no longer be automatically better; less will no longer be automatically worse. We will be satisfied with less, having put away the unconsidered, anxious craving for more. Less will be enough. Enough will be abundance. Less will be more. This is what I mean.
Years ago, as I began to pack for a wonderful 2 month sabbatical in Europe, my carefully crafted plan had been to bring all bags onto the plane with me. First because I didn’t want the airline to lose my luggage and second because I had to be able to move around easily from place to place. However, I am a packer, as you have learned. I always carry all I need, times two. It’s a kind of a security thing, stemming from scarcity mind and all that, but this time I wanted to travel light: for the reasons I just named and as a spiritual exercise in less is more. My plan was, alas, foiled before I left home when, after skillfully packing my cheerful blue carry-on with wheels and after stuffing my red backpack almost to bursting, I looked at my bed and saw a pile of stuff that still had to go somewhere. I looked at the suitcases, I looked at the stuff. I looked at the suitcases, I looked at the stuff. Very, very reluctantly I concluded that it was too much to disregard. Everything I had already packed was essential. Everything on the bed was essential. I would need another bag. A little disappointed I filled my small black duffel and began to prepare myself psychologically to check the blue case. All “essentials” were removed and put in the black bag. All non-essential essentials were put in the blue bag.
So, we arrived at the airport, where I learned to my dismay that both the blue bag and the red backpack were too heavy to carry on the plane. Oh no. That required some hasty re-packing at the airport. More essential essentials and non-essential essentials were moved around. I took a deep breath. I was ready to check in. The Dudley Moore look-alike at the British Airways counter, upon entering me in the computer, asked a colleague what to do when a person was going to miss her connection. Would that be me? He disappeared behind a screen, emerging some moments later to assure me that, although my flight was delayed, headwinds were auspicious and I should arrive in London at the same time I would have if the flight was on time. But, he said ominously, my luggage probably would not make the connection to Paris. What else was there to do but check it anyway? My friend Linda, who had driven me to the airport, tried to bargain with him. Alas, no, I could not take it all on board. But yes, I could choose to take one–blue or red. I chose red: it had more essential essentials in it. I waved goodbye to blue as it slowly bumped away on the conveyer belt. How prophetic that goodbye would turn out to be.
I did miss the Paris connection in London, but was booked on the very next two hours later flight. I thought the event would give my luggage enough time to catch up with me. When we arrived in Paris and I found my way to the baggage area, I learned that the baggage handlers at Charles de Gaulle airport were on strike and that there was only one person per plane to unload luggage. They were so sorry for the delay. Okay, no real problem, I had already missed my train to Bordeaux in the south of France. I heard my name called. In London they had said that someone would meet me in Paris and I thought it was my greeter. How nice. But noooo. It was an apologetic British Airways employee who said that my darling blue bag didn’t make it out of London. What? Not to worry; it would be on the next flight. They would deliver it to me, even in Plum Village, the Buddhist monastery hundreds of miles from Paris in which I would spend my sabbatical.
So much for promises. It did not arrive the next day, Saturday. It did not arrive Sunday. It did not arrive Monday, as promised when we called on Saturday. I missed my blue bag. I missed the sweaters and shirts inside of it. I missed my favorite clock and flashlight. I missed my new ll bean vest, my hand woven pink shirt, my other pair of black pants. I had with me only 3 shirts to wear for 48 days. I had only one warm jacket. I wished for my other clothes, yet . . .yet, I was learning to travel lighter. I was learning to let go of the clothes I loved and the notions of cleanliness I carried around. You realize that I had to wear all clothing for at least two days before washing because it took three days for anything to dry in the cold dampness of a southern French winter. I grew very tired of my blue jacket and I was chilled mightily. The nuns took pity on me and loaned me an old brown sweater, which I wore every day. My roommates and much of the community knew of my lost luggage and all offered their sympathy. A few offered their clothes. I was holding up. I felt sad at the loss of all my favorite and warm clothes, but as my roommate Lana said, despite the loss, I still looked like I had everything I needed. And I guess I did. Slowly it dawned on me. I really did have everything I needed.
Then one day my blue bag appeared. Just like that. Triumphantly I wheeled it back to my little room. Members of the community gathered around in celebration. I carefully steered it around the other three beds and tenderly parked it beside my corner. Then I left it there, unopened for the rest of my time in Plum Village. Cherished but unopened. You see, I really did have all I needed: one borrowed sweater, three shirts, socks, etc. In my abundance of clothing, I had enough. I learned that less is truly more. And then I forgot it again.
Less can be more, materially and spiritually, when we find what is enough, what is important and pay attention to it and take satisfaction in it. Less can be more when we move our spirits from scarcity to abundance, from fear to trust, from grasping to giving. Less can be more and less can be more justice, more generosity, more caring, more peace, more freedom from the scarcity in our souls. May we find the simplicity we need. May we find the abundance that is enough and then may we share it with all who come into contact with us. May it be so.
Hymn #90 From All the Fret and Fever of the Day
Closing words (#681, adapted from Gaelic Runes) and Extinguishing the Chalice
Postlude Donna Demian
Unitarian Universalism and Buddhism: Friends on the Path
Stony Brook, February 17, 2013
The Reverend Dr. Linda Anderson
Casey Stengel, the great baseball player and Yankee manager said, “Good pitching will always stop good hitting, and vice versa.” For me, Unitarian Universalism and Buddhism are good pitching and good hitting. If pitted against each other, neither clearly comes out on top. When they are on the same team, they don’t stop each other at all. You win the World Series. You’ve heard this morning how Unitarianism and Buddhism have walked some parallel paths since the time of Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Transcendentalists. What is it about Buddhism that fits so well for a good number of Unitarian Universalists? How is it that this almost three thousand year old religion from India informs this western religion which has been on these shores not even three hundred years?
First, a disclaimer. Buddhism has different traditions and schools. I cannot claim to speak for any Buddhism but the version I have learned from Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk who has formed his own order here in the west. I began to practice Buddhism through meditation. I liked the peace and calm it brought me. I first encountered Thich Nhat Hanh and his teachings when I was in seminary studying for the Unitarian Universalist ministry. It was a tumultuous time. My mother had recently died and I was in a process of coming out as lesbian, which meant I was leaving a marriage to a man I still consider my family.
UU’ism and Thich Nhat Hanh’s Buddhism start from a similar place. They both regard religion as a product of human activity rather than divine intervention. Both regard the essence of religion as experiential and pragmatic. Both are practical in nature, focusing on how to live in this world in ways that make it better for all of us. Religion, like any other art form, is a human creation whose greatest function lay in healing the splits within the human personality and in human society at large. I needed that. I needed my own splits attended to and accepted, my own experience of life to be valued. In both traditions authority for religious faith and philosophy resides in the individual. Unitarian Universalists claim the right and responsibility to fashion our own faith structures. The Buddha’s final teaching was for people to be a light unto themselves; to experience the teachings for themselves and not simply to believe them because someone told them to. “Somebody showed it to me, and I found it by myself.” (Lew Welch) Our UU principles assert that each and every person has inherent worth and dignity and that we are on a free, responsible search for meaning and truth, supporting and encouraging each other’s spiritual growth along the way. Because both think of religion in the same way and place trust in the individual and in the meaning the individual finds in his/her experience, many Unitarian Universalists are comfortable with Buddhism.
And here’s a difference. Thich Nhat Hanh, and Buddhism in general, understands community, or sangha, to be crucial to the practice of the religion. The Buddha, (the teacher), the dharma, (the teaching), and the sangha, (the community), comprise the three jewels of Buddhism. Unitarian Universalism does not rely so strongly on such cornerstones. Partly this is a difference in religious authority, partly it is cultural and historical. Buddhism arose in India in the sixth century before the common era and spread to China, Japan and southeast Asia. It came to the west at least as early as the 19th century and although Buddhism has a remarkable ability to adapt to the culture it finds itself in, nevertheless its roots are Asian and one can see that plainly if one spends time with it. Customs differ. Buddhists stand when a teacher enters and leaves the hall; they bow to that teacher; many Vietnamese prostrate themselves before Thich Nhat Hanh. The Buddhist community often takes precedence over the individual Buddhist. In UU’ism, western in origin and fully a product of our own culture, the individual UU often takes precedence over the community. When I was ordained into Thich Nhat Hanh’s Order of Interbeing, I was asked to drink alcohol no longer. I love red wine and I love tequila, but I stopped because I trust Thay, which means teacher in Vietnamese and is what we call Thich Nhat Hanh. I didn’t even completely agree with the reasons, but I trusted his wisdom. It was my choice. I cannot imagine anyone in our Unitarian Universalist Association making such a request, much less anyone else paying attention to it. So, similar in seeing religion as a human endeavor and trusting the individual’s experience over a doctrine that must be adhered to. Different in the authority given to the teacher, the teaching, and the community.
Buddhism and UU’ism share a very important core principle, namely that all of life is interconnected. We call it the interdependent web of all existence. Thich Nhat Hanh calls it interbeing. Call it by whatever names you will, this interbeing, this unity at the foundation shows itself in the world as diversity but keeps us joined through inter-connection. This answers a very real need that I have, and many of us have, to be connected and at the same time to be free and uniquely ourselves. Unity in diversity. To have both roots and wings.
Listen to Mary Oliver’s poem The Turtle
breaks from the blue-black
skin of the water, dragging her shell
with its mossy scutes
across the shallows and through the rushes
and over the mudflats, to the uprise,
to the yellow sand,
to dig with her ungainly feet
a nest, and hunker there spewing
her white eggs down
into the darkness, and you think
of her patience, her fortitude,
her determination to complete
what she was born to do –
and then you realize a greater thing –
she doesn’t consider
what she was born to do.
She’s only filled
with an old blind wish.
It isn’t even hers but came to her
in the rain or the soft wind,
which is a gate through which her life keeps walking.
She can’t see
herself apart from the rest of the world
or the world from what she must do
Crawling up the high hill,
luminous under the sand that has packed against her skin.
she doesn’t dream
she is a part of the pond she lives in,
the tall trees are her children,
the birds that swim above her
are tied to her by an unbreakable string.
That unbreakable string tells us we belong here. In all of our uniqueness, we are part of the larger whole. When you visit Thich Nhat Hanh’s monastery in Plum Village, France, you are greeted by signs that say “You have arrived. You are home.” We belong here, right now, in this very moment. The present moment in this present world is all we have. It’s our job to be here now, to be awake, to live mindfully so that we truly are present in the present.
Unitarian Universalism and Buddhism understand the nature of life in some similar ways. Interdependence and interconnection are fundamental, which means that there is nothing that is not in relationship with something else. “. . . We do not exist outside of our relationships. We become who we are only in relation . . .” (Catherine Keller) These relationships flow in dynamic and changing processes. Things are always moving and changing. Thay calls that impermanence. Cause and effect interplay and we have freedom of choice and action. Thay calls that karma. Our actions are the ground upon which we stand. Because there is freedom, all possibilities exist. A Japanese Buddhist, Issa, said “Where there are humans, you’ll find flies, and Buddhas.”
Think of a tennis game. You don’t play tennis by yourself. The players are in relationship through the balls they encounter coming to and fro over the net. Each is free to choose her or his shot, and the choice is also influenced by the shot he or she has received from the other. Cause brings on effect, effect brings on cause. Anything might happen in the game, and if you have ever watched Serena Williams play, you know what I mean. Reality, just like the tennis ball, doesn’t stand still. Reality is a being-becoming rather than a static being. I am here, now in this moment. But even as I say this, the moment is passing and I am becoming into the next moment. In order to be fully alive, I need to be mindful.
Both Buddhists and Unitarian Universalists assert that the essence of life is inter-connection and through that inter-dependence our ethics arise. If it is so that we are connected, then it must be so that we act in ways that recognize and respect those connections. Thus Unitarian Universalists prize justice, equity and compassion in human relations, cherishing the web of life, and peace and a democratic process. Buddha says that when we forget our connections, when we think that we are isolated, separate, alone, we suffer and we can behave in ways that make others suffer. Thus Thich Nhat Hanh stresses compassion and understanding, reverence for life, loving speech and careful listening, generosity, relational responsibility, and mindful consumption. Taking the ethical implications into their lives, Unitarian Universalist and Buddhists in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh have a long tradition of social justice work.
And here’s a difference. While both traditions seek to make life better in the here and now, they come at it from different vantage points. Unitarian Universalism, a product of the Enlightenment, acts as if, through reason, humanity can improve itself. Life is about making a better life, bringing our spiritual values into concrete form, and we believe we have within us the potential to do so. Buddhism began with the observation that life contains a lot of suffering. The suffering has a cause and there’s a way for us to live so that we lessen the amount of suffering. This philosophy is known as the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eight-fold Path. Life is about lessening suffering and we do that through knowing the true nature of life and living in harmony with it. When we accept that life is impermanent and ever changing and when we know that we are inter-connected, and live accordingly, such a state of awakening is called enlightenment. The enlightened one is happy and peaceful, with deep understanding and compassion. We all have the capacity to lessen each other’s suffering. We all have the capacity for enlightenment. So, similar focus on inter-dependence and the necessity of living in ways that respect it. Similar understanding that life is a changing process and relationships are central. Similar faith in the human capacity to choose love and justice. Different in the viewpoint that leads them there.
Different in the importance each places on spiritual practice. Unitarian Universalism, in my opinion, lacks a depth of spiritual practice and I believe it holds us back in the world, as if the well from which we draw strength was capped. Buddhism has a deep spiritual practice of meditation. The art of being quiet, focusing to know one is in the here and now, aware of body, feelings, and mind. Aware of life’s changing nature and the unity within the diversity. No hiding, no denial, all is there. Meditation helps us to slow down and to be present in the moment so that we know we are here and knowing we are here, can glimpse the ultimate, however we understand it. From that, the capability for sustained ethical living arises. Happiness, joy and equanimity arise. Compassion and understanding arise. Annie Dillard wrote, “No, the point is that not only does time fly and do we die, but that in these reckless conditions we live at all, and are vouchsafed, for the duration of certain inexplicable moments, to know it.” Those times of knowing it, for me, are wonderful. I invite you to join our sangha on Saturday mornings at 9am in the green room for meditation and sharing.
Buddhism and Unitarian Universalism are friends along the path. They share important ways of understanding the nature of life and the human being’s place in it. They are not the same. But like good pitching and good hitting, when they are on the same team, they are dynamite together.
Sermon: Staying Awake Through a Great Revolution
On April 3, 1968, the night before he was assassinated, Martin Luther King delivered this sermon, called I See The Promised Land. “. . . Strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty and say, ‘If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the twentieth century, I will be happy.’ Now that’s a strange statement to make, because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble in the land. Confusion all around. That’s a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars. . . . We’ve got to give ourselves to the struggle until the end. . . . Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to have a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. . . .And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any (one). Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
The next day, April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed. So on or about January 15 every year we mark in some fashion the birth and the life of this man. Grounded in his spiritual beliefs and in the power of his intellect, we see how his focus broadened from racism to include poverty and war as evils to be eradicated. King’s themes were consistent. Grounded in Protestant theology and the black church tradition, he preached justice, love and hope, with non-violent action as the means of achieving them. (An interesting aside is that Unitarian Universalism can claim an influence on King in the development of his reliance on non-violence. King attended a service at the Unitarian All Souls Church in Washington, D.C., where he heard about the civil disobedience of Henry David Thoreau. He subsequently read Thoreau and credited Thoreau and Gandhi with his own development of non-violent action.)
Also, King drew upon the American dream of freedom and equality and he looked to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution for grounding. So did Abraham Lincoln. King believed that if he could only reach the consciences of whites, racism would end. Having just seen Steven Spielberg’s film Lincoln, I would say that Lincoln was somewhat more pragmatic about social change. We need both: the idealists and the pragmatists.
In his acceptance speech upon being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, King said, and I have adapted his words for inclusivity of gender, “I refuse to accept the idea that (humanity) is mere flotsam and jetsam in the river of life which surrounds (it). I refuse to accept the view that (humankind) is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood (and sisterhood) can never become a reality. I refuse to accept the cynical notion that nation after nation must spiral down a militaristic stairway into the hell of thermonuclear destruction. I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality” Unarmed truth and unconditional love. Justice, love, and hope. This is the way to the promised land. This is the part of King’s legacy that I wish to explore today and I believe that how we understand justice is the key to creating that beloved community.
King translated human equality, truth, love, justice, and hope into a philosophy of non-violent action. What could that possibly mean in a country as violent as ours? Violence exists, on the personal and the broader communal levels, not just in the ways people hurt one another physically; not just in the ways people hurt one another emotionally, psychologically; not just in the damage we do to one another’s spirits. Violence exists in our institutions and systems. Just one example being our system of incarceration, in which 7.6 million people are enmeshed, either in jails or prisons, on probation, or on parole. The largest number in the industrialized world, in part because the sentences handed out in the United States are harsher and longer in duration. The population in federal prisons increased in 2011 by 3.4% and the federal budget for 2012 posited a ten per cent increase for prison funding. More than half of all prisoners are there for drug offenses. The population in state prisons decreased, in New York partly because we eliminated mandatory prison sentences for some drug convictions. The prison population is disproportionately made up of African Americans, both in terms of population percentages in general and in terms of the percentages of who commits crime. In other words, an African American is more likely to go to prison for committing a crime than a white person is. And once a person convicted of a felony is released from prison, he/she may never sit on a jury, may have trouble voting (and in two states will never vote), and most likely will have trouble finding work and even, in some cases, a place to live. To me, that in itself is a form of institutional violence in that it is punishment that never stops punishing. It is done in the name of justice, yet it seems not completely just. What is justice in this violent world? Is it compatible with truth, love, and hope, as Martin Luther King would tell us?
Two of the strongest factors in our cultural, not necessarily our legal, but our cultural construct of justice are our Jewish and Christian religious heritage and our very human nature. Many people believe that what is just comes from God. Law comes from God. The monotheistic tradition, which is our heritage here in the west, is very clear that God is the source of justice. Jewish and Christian scripture each contain laws, rules and teachings about human behavior. The ten commandments are one notable example. They tell us not to lie, steal, kill, or break our commitments to spouses and parents. Another is the Golden Rule — treat others as we would like to be treated. Perhaps the most notable is “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” found in the books of Exodus (21:22-27), Leviticus (24:17-22), and Deuteronomy (19:15-21). These messages may not all go together, but somehow they do inform what we call justice.
Another customary source of justice is what I want to call, for purposes of this discussion, human reaction. When wronged, humans react in certain ways that include fighting back, inflicting punishment, seeking revenge, demanding restitution. At times our very survival depends upon it. Our concept of law and justice, then, contains both of these streams in it: that which is customary for us to do according to our human reactions and that which some believe God, through scripture, says we should do.
Sometimes these streams flow together, sometimes they do not. They both start with the principle that justice demands accountability. Law professor Martha Minow notes that retribution can “motivate punishment out of fairness to those who have been wronged and reflects a belief that wrongdoers deserve blame and punishment in direct proportion to the harm inflicted.” Justice demands accountability. “We are unable to forgive what we cannot punish,” says Hannah Arendt. When someone commits a crime, by and large we think that some sort of punishment should follow. It is in the character of that punishment that we find the two streams diverging. The stream that flows from the human reactive impulse is justice that focuses exclusively upon retribution, or retributive justice. Retribution means paying someone back for what they did, with a little extra so they won’t do it again. This best describes our current justice system, as well as the personal applications of justice for many people. Retribution can take the form of personal vengeance: someone hits you, you hit them back, harder if you can. It can take the form of social vengeance: lock ‘em up and throw away the key. Some argue that the death penalty is a form of social vengeance. The core motive of retribution may be a self-preserving human reaction, and for me, that is totally understandable. When someone hurts me I want to hurt them back. I am particularly attuned to this when someone seems to judge or blame me unfairly. I can become defensive. I can withdraw from that person and withhold myself. That is my way of punishment and it makes me feel powerful again. How do you get revenge when someone hurts you? When justice stops rather than starts, with retribution, the danger “is that precisely the same vengeful motive often leads people to exact more than is necessary, to be maliciously spiteful or dangerously aggressive. . . (retribution) carries with it potential insatiability.” (Martha Minow) Two eyes for an eye; two teeth for a tooth. Too much withholding; too much withdrawal. Such cycles of revenge, however understandable, often do not work. We expect that we will feel better, both as individuals and as a society, with revenge, but we don’t. Instead we become trapped in disconnection, hatred, bitterness and violence, at great cost to ourselves, our families and society at large. It can feel righteous to be the one aggrieved, but where does it end?When justice stops rather than starts, with retribution, justice ceases to fully exist. Have you ever gotten revenge on someone? I have. It felt good, for a moment. Then it felt bad. Our society, and many of us individually, for the most part practice retributive justice. We get even. Sometimes retributive justice is based upon the myth that a type of violent retribution can somehow make people better and society safer. Does it? When we hit our children for hitting other children are we really teaching them that hitting is bad? Is the good guy with a gun the only thing that protects us from the bad guy with a gun? Retribution saves, or so we believe. Theologian Walter Wink asserts that every major social group of the 20th century: socialist, communist, capitalist, democratic, fascist, have enshrined the belief that violence will save; violence will redeem the injustice. And the results of this have been, and are, more violence. Another understanding of justice, which has as its basis some streams of religious and philosophical teaching, argues that justice must be more than punishment, more than retribution. This stream says that justice must also have components of restitution, forgiveness, restoration. What Martin Luther King Jr might call love and hope. It is called restorative justice.
Religious teachings, including our own Unitarian Universalist values, claim that justice rests upon principles of responsibility, forgiveness and reconciliation. Jesus “charged us both to place distinctions between wrongdoers and the virtuous, yet to see ourselves as all in the same camp.” (Jim Consedine, Restorative Justice) Jewish teachings place the focus of justice on community restoration. Jim Consedine, in his book Restorative Justice, writes that “The focus on crime in biblical times was not so much on individuals as on the community. . . . The Scriptures renounced any scapegoating that claimed that crime was only the responsibility of a few evil individuals. . . The test of justice in the biblical view is not whether the right rules are applied in the right way. Justice is tested by outcome. . . . Surely the scriptural quote most abused and taken out of context, ‘ he notes, “has been that of ‘an eye for an eye.’ Public perception of its meaning is usually the opposite of what was intended. . . that you should never claim more than the value of what is damaged. . . . Martin Buber, the famous Jewish scholar, in his German translation of the scriptures translates ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ as ‘as eye for the value of an eye, a tooth for the value of a tooth.’
Responsibility is proportional to the act committed, and at the same time tempered with mercy, with love. Restorative justice, then, incorporates principles of retribution, in its understanding that justice demands accountability. It goes on, though, to recognize that people are capable of change and that offenders must be helped to work toward taking responsibility for their actions and making restitution when applicable. It is an act of hope. It recognizes that the victim needs a meaningful role in this process if forgiveness is to be found. Restorative justice would put a human face upon wrongdoing and ask for a humane response from society and individuals.
Some examples include the parent of one of the children killed in Newtown who talked to the press about forgiveness. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, which promoted a process in which perpetrators heard how they had harmed their victims and took responsibility for their actions. It focused on reparations, restitution, and in some cases amnesty. Restorative justice happens each time we forgive the person who hurts us and with them, work toward rebuilding the damaged bridges between us. For me personally it is always a choice to turn toward re-connecting and turn away from a self-protective seeking of revenge. I think it is the same for us communally, as a society. Restorative justice is always risking our vulnerability for the sake of greater hope and greater love.
In his sermon Staying Awake Through A Great Revolution King said, “Through our scientific and technological genius, we have made of this world a neighborhood , and yet . . . we have not had the ethical commitment to make of it a brotherhood (and sisterhood). But somehow, and in some way, we have got to do this. We must all learn to live together as (siblings). Or we will all perish together as fools. We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the way God’s universe is made; this is the way it is structured.”
It has been almost forty five years since the death of Martin Luther King Jr. Here, in the year 2013, we live in a different time. Yet he still has something to say to us. We are living amidst a great debate about how we will understand and practice justice in our country. Right now it’s focused on gun control. It also focuses on spending cuts, taxation, health care, and the debt ceiling. “And one of the great liabilities of life is that all too many people find themselves living amid a great period of social change and yet they fail to develop the new attitudes, the new mental responses–that the new situation demands. They end up sleeping through a revolution.” Will we choose retribution? We will choose restoration? How will we define justice, in our personal lives and in our life together? Will we stop at getting even or will we reach for more? Do we believe that we will see the promised land? How much love and hope do we have in our hearts? He had a dream of beloved community. Do we? If we do, I believe, I believe, that we can get there. May it be so.
Thanksgiving has passed, as has Black Friday and Cyber Monday. We’re in the middle of Hanukkah and there are sixteen shopping days until Christmas. How are you doing? Do you associate the holidays with Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which celebrates growing and sharing the spirit of peace and goodwill to all? Or do the holidays remind you of another of Dickens’ novels, A Tale of Two Cities? “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was the season of light, it was the season of darkness. . . . It was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”
Do you think most people experience stress around this time of year? A survey showed that 41% found the Christmas-Hanukkah season “somewhat to very” stressful. That compares interestingly with 36% who found job interviews stressful, 43% who were stressed by asking for a raise, 51% who experienced stress when going to the dentist and 65% who get stressed out when getting a speeding ticket! It looks like the holidays are right up there with some of the more pleasant events of life.
What stresses you at this time of year? What do you think the biggest stressors are? Money: 72% of people surveyed reported stress over money sometimes, often or always. 56% said their expectations for the holidays were too high and in trying to make them perfect, they felt stress. Another 56% said they over commit and take on too many responsibilities and feel stress about that. 52% experience family conflicts and 43% said they had stress because they had too much to do. But, despite the stress, 71% said that they did enjoy the holidays anyway. Interesting. This year of course we have the added factor of the hurricane, whose effects many still cope with be they loss or damage to homes, cars, property, loss of work, temporary or permanent, hassle with insurance companies or FEMA, loss of loved ones.
What stresses us during the holidays? What happens to us? It seems to me there are at least five categories of holiday stress which are inter-related. Fantasy is the first and it comes in a variety of guises. The image of the holidays portrayed by the media and in some popular literature is one of cozy love, with all difficulties overcome in pristine white snow and sparkling pine trees. It’s a Wonderful Life. Miracle on 34th Street. A Christmas Carol. They warm our hearts and we want that for ourselves. Advertising and the consumerism that is so strong in our culture plays into this and molds it. Love becomes material. The perfect holiday is a material one. Get her the perfect gift; a diamond from Zales, and she’ll love you forever. Make your father-in-law happy with this perfect chain saw from Home Depot. Bless your grandchildren with their very own iPhones.
Many people dread the holidays because their inner experience doesn’t match up to all the hype. Barry Schwartz, in his book The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less says, “During the holiday season, we struggle to find the perfect gifts for our family and friends, to be exchanged at the perfect meal, with everyone in a perfect mood. With so much choice available, anything less than perfection feels like failure. And when we do, inevitably, fail to achieve perfection, we have only ourselves to blame.” When we drive ourselves over the brink, trying to make our holidays, or our children’s holidays, perfect, we put them in the category of fantasy and set ourselves up for disappointment. Yet we do it year after year – why? It’s an appealing myth. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if life was simple and everybody was patient and kind? It’s a child’s way of longing. Something about the holidays makes us want to be children again. When I was nine or ten my mother got me a bicycle for Christmas. She had no place to hide it so it sat in the porch, in full view. When she wasn’t around I would go there and sit on my blue bike, dreaming of where it would take me come summer. I’d like to sit and dream again on that blue bicycle.
Fantasy also takes the form of nostalgia. Longing for those great times in the past when everybody was so happy together and everything was so perfect. It’s the way it never was. My Aunt Bea cooked Thanksgiving dinner for at least thirty years and it has become a family myth. Thanksgiving was her holiday. We laugh hysterically as we remember the day she dropped the stuffing on the floor and didn’t tell anybody, but went ahead and picked it up and shoved it into the turkey anyway. (And everybody ate it, except me, who never eats stuffing.) Or the time my young cousins were wrestling and knocked the folding table down and the turkey went sliding off and through the legs of their father? It’s fun to remember now, but at the time these were occasions for a lot of yelling and screaming, not fun at all. It’s good to transform the memories into laughter so that we aren’t slaves to what was, but it is not so good to confuse those embellished memories with what really happened at the time, or to forget that, at the time, it felt anything but delightful. If we do forget the more difficult aspects of the past, we can never own them and we become nostalgic for a past that never was. We compare the present to a myth and the present never measures up.
The second category of holiday stress is, of course, family. It overlaps with fantasy, especially in the nostalgia department. We buy into the Hallmark presentation of mother, father and two blond kids gathered around the hearth, smiling and happy. Maybe a dog lies peacefully at their feet. That the picture doesn’t at all resemble a majority of our family configurations doesn’t seem to faze us. In some part of our heart, that peace and harmony is what we want. Or we hope that if we can only make the holidays perfect, all will be well in the family. Did you see the movie Pieces of April? It’s about a young woman, estranged from her family, trying to prepare a Thanksgiving dinner for them in her lower East Side walk up. It captures the almost desperate wish that some of us have to please our families or gain their approval. Or the anxiety we have about what will happen if we don’t please them. The film captures the ambivalence, the anger we can feel toward our families, the rivalries, the grudges, the quirkiness, and yes, the love as well. Families are complicated groups of imperfect people who have many expectations of one another and share many memories, as well as a past history. Thus we have experiences of disappointment and hurt, as well as joy and laughter. Bad behavior as well as generous and loving behavior. Why do we hope that our families will be different than they are when the holidays come around? What is that expectation about?
Families can be the reason for some sadness around the holidays, and sadness is a cause of stress. We might be missing them and wishing we were together. We might be estranged and not missing them. We might not have living family and feeling some loneliness. We might be remembering those who have died. My aunt died the day before Thanksgiving – her holiday. So many of us, it seems, have lost people we love around a holiday.
A third category of holiday stress is finance. In making our holidays perfect for family and friends, lured by the ads, the Santas, and the sparkle, we might spend too much money. Eight days of Hanukkah meant, for some of my friends, eight nights of presents. My son Matthew, when he was seven, insisted that he was Jewish so that he could have Hanukkah gifts. Any holiday tradition can provide a reason for us to overspend, if we let it.
Poet Brian G. Gilmore writes, in Bow to Allah,
Sometimes our guilt leads us to buy expensive presents to make up for what? Not being around? Not caring the way we think we ought to? Or the way people want us to? Because we equate money with love? Because we need to keep up with everyone else? It would seem relatively easy to get a grip on our money at holiday time. To sit down and figure out what we have to spend. To set limits on gift giving. It would seem easy, but it isn’t. It is the American way to buy and consume. The temptations to do so are very strong. No money? No problem! Buy now and don’t start paying until March. We are told we can have it all. Our children are told they can have it all. We live in consumer heaven, protected by myths of denial about the real state of our finances. How could we not overspend now, the height of the spending season? Why are we so vulnerable to this?
While we’re busy spending money, decorating our homes, cooking and preparing food, hosting guests, attending parties, visiting relatives and friends, and much else, we bump into the fourth holiday stressor-time, or lack of it. Most of us are quite busy to begin with, so we feel particularly stressed when the holidays come around and make extra demands on our precious hours. We feel pressured, overloaded, tense and tired. We could prioritize, let some things go, but we don’t. We think we have to do it all, or that we can. We take time to relax and then feel stressed by the time it took from other things. Some of us cope with this holiday stress by eating, drinking, or using other substances in less than helpful ways. We’re celebrating after all. That becomes its own source of stress — food and drink, the fifth category.
I know that we know what to do about such stress. I know that we know to take care with what we eat and drink, to exercise, to sleep enough. To meditate, do Tai Chi, listen to music, have a massage, or engage in some other stress reducing activity. We know to prioritize our time; we know to pace ourselves. We know about budgeting our finances and finding holiday activities that are free. We know we need to consider the quantity and cost of the gifts we give, as well as the need for them. We know we must set limits on the acquisitiveness of our children, both with our words and through the modeling our actions provide. We know that we should match our expectations more closely with reality. We know. But how many of us successfully to that? What gets in the way?
I think somewhere deep inside us, and even though we know better, we wish the holidays to be like the myths. In this part of the world, in the darkness and cold, we long for those twinkling lights, and the cheer they bring. The yule log that burns all night; the oil that lasts for eight days, the star in the east. The winter solstice truly is a monumental event in the soul of the northern hemisphere. In this risky and unsafe world, we long for safety and protection. We long to be loved and embraced for whoever we are, surrounded by warmth and peace and by the generous gifts of people who adore us. We might even long for Santa Claus who works all year for us and gives us far more than we deserve, all with a smile and a hearty laugh. In these winter holidays comes to rest all our fears of the dark and the destruction it could contain; all our hopes for the light and the life it promises to sustain. In these winter holidays comes to rest that part of us that wants security in this world, even if it comes in the form of a miracle birth, or a miracle victory. In these winter holidays resides the human desire for happiness and freedom, and the human need to laugh and play and celebrate in the very darkest hours of the year. These holidays carry some heavy duty baggage. No wonder we want them to be perfect manifestations of our hopes. No wonder we run ourselves ragged trying not to disappoint. It doesn’t work, though, does it? No matter how hard we try, the holidays aren’t perfect.
But maybe we’re looking for warmth, peace and love in the wrong places. Maybe warmth, peace and love are with us all the time, not only at holidays when we demand their presence. Maybe they exist in small and large moments, all around us, but only glimpsed or briefly sighted. We can’t force them, but we can notice them and allow them to comfort us and speak to our needs. Wonder is all around. Stop, be still. See it, smell it, hear it, taste it, touch it. Intuit its presence in a myriad of daily interactions.
Guided meditation: Imagine the places where you have celebrated these December holidays. . . . Imagine the people you have celebrated them with . . . Let their faces rise up in your memory. . . . What colors come to mind
What sounds come to mind
What smells come to mind
What tastes come to mind
What tactile sensations come to mind
What I’m saying is that we don’t have to turn the holidays into something they cannot be, and become very stressed in the process. We do not have to do this in order to know the love and beauty that are all around us. In order to feel safe and warm and protected and connected. The potential for that is always with us, just waiting to be found. If we believe it is there we will find it there. And then we can celebrate the holidays for what they are and we can more easily accept those parts we wish were not the way they are. There’s a freedom in that. And a real joy.
May it be so.