Tabloid Tragedies

Reading 1

 

A Return to Love, by Marianne Williamson

 

"Our worst fear is not that we are inadequate, our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, 'Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous?' Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God; your playing small doesn't serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God within us. It is not just in some of us, it is in everyone, and as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others."

 

 

Reading 2

 

For What Binds Us 

 

There are names for what binds us:

strong forces, weak forces.

Look around, you can see them:

the skin that forms in a half-empty cup,

nails rusting into the places they join,

joints dovetailed on their own weight.

The way things stay so solidly wherever they've been set down --

and gravity, scientists say, is weak. 

 

And see how the flesh grows back across a wound, 

with a great vehemence, more strong than the simple, 

untested surface before.

There's a name for it on horses, 

when it comes back darker and raised: proud flesh,

 

as all flesh is proud of its wounds, 

wears them as honors given out after battle,

small triumphs pinned to the chest -- 

And when two people have loved each other 

see how it is like a scar between their bodies,

stronger, darker, and proud;

how the black cord makes of them a single fabric

that nothing can tear or mend.

 

 ~ Jane Hirschfield ~

 

Sermon

 

I’d like to start off with an excerpt from one of my favourite stories of all time. It is the story of a boy named Harold who has the power to create his world just by drawing it with his magic purple crayon:

 

One evening, after thinking it over for some time, Harold decided to go for a walk in the moonlight.

There wasn't any moon, and Harold needed a moon for a walk in the moonlight.

And he needed something to walk on.

He made a long straight path so he wouldn't get lost.

And he set off on his walk, taking his big purple crayon with him.

But he didn't seem to be getting anywhere on the long straight path.

So he left the path for a short cut across a field. And the moon went with him.

The short cut led right to where Harold thought a forest ought to be.

He didn't want to get lost in the woods. So he made a very small forest, with just one tree in it.

It turned out to be an apple tree.

 

 

Now, let’s put Harold aside for a moment and turn our attention to some other characters.

 

Will you please raise your hand if you know who Amy Winehouse is?

Lily Allen?

Britney Spears?

Pete Doherty?

Paris Hilton?

Peaches Geldof?

 

I know that you aren’t actually interested in any of these celebrities…  Right?  You don’t actually seek out news about them. You learn about them by accident, right?

 

To be fair, it is hard to avoid knowing about them – particularly if you read any of the free newspapers that are thrust upon you when you’re near a tube station. One or more of their faces and names usually appears on the cover of these papers. 

 

Of course, the stories about Amy and Britney and Pete and others are not on the cover the newspapers because they are actually important news. They haven’t just brokered a peace deal in the Middle East or invaded some former soviet republic.  They’re on those covers because newspapers publish what people want to read, and the truth is that we, as a people – except us, of course – are fascinated with celebrities.

 

We like to hear about celebrity successes. We like to know who is in love with who this week, we like to know about the outrageously expensive home they just bought, the famous and powerful people they know…  They seem to be on top of the world sometimes. We they seem to be able to write their own ticket - it is almost as if they have the power to create their own worlds.

 

But stories of celebrity happiness and success are not half as appealing as the ever-present stories of celebrity self-destruction. Britney losing custody of her kids. Amy’s drug abuse. Paris’s time in prison. Pete’s recurring run-ins with the law… Something about these stories both attracts and repels us. Like a wreck by the side of the highway, it is hard to avert our gaze from the gradual, inexorable, disintegration of the lives of the talented and famous.

 

The apples would be very tasty, Harold thought, when they got red.

So he put a frightening dragon under the tree to guard the apples.

It was a terribly frightening dragon.

It even frightened Harold. He backed away.

His hand holding the purple crayon shook.

Suddenly he realized what was happening.

But by then Harold was over his head in an ocean.

 

It’s interesting when celebrities succeed, but it’s irresistible when they fall. Nothing makes for a better headline than when a powerful person is suddenly brought down to earth.

 

Why is this kind of story so compelling? What draws people to learn about the misfortune of the celebrated? 

 

There is nothing new in the appeal of this kind of story. The stories that have fascinated human beings for ages have often been about the tragic flaws of the mighty that bring them crashing down.  Aristotle taught in his work, Poetics, about the tragic hero - the character whose success turns to failure because of a fatal failing.

 

Will you forgive me if I mention Pete Doherty and Macbeth in the same breath? Today, with less attention turned to classic tragic heroes such as Macbeth, Oedipus, Achilles, or Othello, perhaps our self-destructive tabloid celebrities fill an important place in our emotional landscapes. 

 

Stories and myths tap into something within us. In ways that a lecture can never do, a story touches us deeply – slipping by the objective thinking self – resonating and perhaps challenging some of our more deep-seated and often hidden beliefs and feelings.

 

Like any good story, the downfall of the successful and powerful affects us at multiple levels…

 

One lesson that has often been drawn from such stories is a warning against hubris - against being too proud, too sure of our own power. The mighty fall because they are too arrogant and fail to recognise their own shortcomings.  Pride goes before a fall - it’s a paraphrase of a verse from Proverbs.

 

There is no question that this is an important observation and a warning that we must all heed. Know your shortcomings.  We have watched leaders like Bush and Blair - so sure of their own views of the world - leading the world into the disaster of the war in Iraq? Time and again, imperfect leaders with great power have sown destruction and misery.

 

 

But I want to ask you how this message affects your own life. You don’t have enormous political, financial, or military power. 

 

Even among those who do have power - those I have initially imagined to be arrogant and dangerously prideful - I have usually been surprised if I have had the chance to get closer.  When I have had the chance to get to know them well - to really understand what motivates them, it has invariably been fear and insecurity rather than an excess of confidence that leads them to act in ways that are harmful and destructive.

 

Marianne Williamson tells us, “Our worst fear is not that we are inadequate, our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.” We may question our right to be smart, to be talented, to be capable. The importance of knowing our flaws does not mean that we should deny our strengths, and I’m afraid that many of us do just that.  We may take a feeling of confidence, of self-assurance, as a warning sign or an indication that we have overstepped. 

 

Have you limited your own possibilities?  Have you avoided the ascent for fear of the fall?  Have you played small?

 

Nelson Mandela quoted Marianne Williamson in his 1994 inaugural speech because to create a better world, each of us must know and use our own power. As Williamson says: “You are a child of God; your playing small doesn't serve the world... We were born to make manifest the glory of God within us. It is not just in some of us, it is in everyone…”

 

[Harold] came up [from the waves] thinking fast.

And in no time he was climbing aboard a trim little boat.

He quickly set sail.

And the moon sailed along with him...

He stepped ashore on the beach, wondering where he was…

And, off he went, looking for a hill to climb, to see where he was.

Harold knew that the higher up he went, the farther he could see. So he decided to make the hill into a mountain.

If he went high enough, he thought, he could see the window of his bedroom.

He was tired and he felt he ought to be getting to bed.

He hoped he could see his bedroom window from the top of the mountain.

But as he looked down over the other side he slipped - 

And there wasn't any other side of the mountain. He was falling, in thin air.

But, luckily, he kept his wits and his purple crayon.

He made a balloon and he grabbed on to it.

And he made a basket under the balloon big enough to stand in.

 

There is another side to the story of the tragic flaw - whether in the classic stories or the modern-day tabloid tragedies.  Each time imperfection is revealed, we recognize something important about the human condition. We learn from these stories that we are all imperfect, fallible creatures. 

 

They remind us, perhaps frighteningly, of how easily life can fall apart. We recognise the suffering and tenderness that we all hold within us.  We see the fragility of life and the preciousness of those things that are lasting - friendship, love, community, faith...

 

Proud flesh - Jane Hirshfield’s poem reminds of this term for the strong scar tissue that grows where a horse’s wound had been. Our wounds - our tenderness and fragility – connect us more closely than our untested flesh ever can. It is this lesson too that the tabloid tragedies bring home to us.

 

[Harold] had a fine view from the balloon but he couldn't see his window. He couldn't even see a house.

So he made a house, with windows.

And he landed the balloon on the grass in the front yard.

None of the windows was his window.

He tried to think where his window ought to be.

He made some more windows.

He made a big building full of windows.

He made lots of buildings full of windows.

He made a whole city full of windows.

But none of the windows was his window.

He couldn't think where it might be…

And he walked along with the moon, wishing he was in his room and in bed.

Then, suddenly, Harold remembered.

He remembered where his bedroom window was, when there was a moon.

It was always right around the moon.

And then Harold made his bed.

He got in it and he drew up the covers.

The purple crayon dropped on the floor. And Harold dropped off to sleep.

 

Our power is not something to be feared and avoided. It can bring us adventure and joy. When we climb mountains, there will always be the risk of a fall, but without the climb, we will never see the lofty view that is available to us at that height. Our power need not send us crashing down - it can truly be the way to find the way home for all.

May it be so.