Why do you act like a chicken?
No, I’m not calling you a coward, but few of us ever manage to bring out the fullness of the possibilities within. We continue to scratch for grain on the ground when, perhaps, just maybe, we could soar with eagles.
Could we really? Do we have so much greatness within us just trapped by our own attitudes and beliefs? Could we truly each show the astounding courage of a Gandhi or the resolute strength of a Mandela? Could we inspire millions to change minds and change nations like a Martin Luther King, Jr.?
Greatness need not mean fame. It need not be legendary or even noticed. It is simply a quality of living and acting beyond ourselves – beyond our own understanding of our limitations.
Buddhism says we each have Buddha nature – we just don’t know it until we are awakened. Hinduism tells us that the divine is within us. Mystical Judaism speaks of fragments of divinity in everyone. Humanism extols human power to make and remake our lives and our world.
Ordinary people under extraordinary circumstances have in many times and places found a strength that they did not imagine they had – average normal people have lifted cars off of children, rescued Jews or Tutsis from genocidal murders, written words of courage as their executioners’ footsteps rang down the hallway… They have worked days without sleep to treat the wounded, risked their own lives to rescue people trapped in burning buildings, and found the words somewhere, somehow, to change history.
When the urgency and the agony came upon them, a strength emerged – given birth through pain – revealing a beauty and splendor that seemed truly superhuman. But then we forget what being human can truly mean – and what we can truly be.
Greatness has probably emerged from your own centre – maybe it was just once or twice – and you surprised yourself, wondering where that came from! There was the time you found yourself helping someone you couldn’t imagine even talking to, or when you gave more generously than you thought possible, or when you took a chance of doing that crazy bold thing even though you were certain you would fail.
Faced with a cliff and the rising sun, you found your wings for just a moment.
Marianne Williamson says we are afraid to be powerful and fabulous. She says that we play small – that we shrink ourselves down to avoid making others feel insignificant.
Have you been there? I learned early in life not to act too smart. It makes you a very unpopular boy on the playground. Before long, that strength became fully hidden – not only from others – but from myself as well. In what ways do you diminish yourself to avoid making others feel small?
Very often, we don’t know and can’t begin to imagine our true potential. Why would we possibly think that we were capable of great things? Why, having been told all our lives that we are chickens, would we suddenly suspect that we are eagles and dare to take to the air?
I dream that this community can be a place where we learn to expect miracles. I pray that, in this place among these people, we naturally begin to expand our definitions of the possible – where we attempt the impractical – the seemingly impossible - without fear because we have seen wonders, because we know we will be loved whether or not we succeed, because we know that we draw upon reservoirs of strength too vast to measure or be contained.
There are so many reasons to be afraid – such good justifications to keep our heads down on the ground searching for seed. Which versions of “I can’t” are you carrying around today?
And besides fear, comfort is the other mortal enemy of greatness. Power emerges not with the ease of light shining from a flame, but with the pain that always comes of bringing something wonderful to life. Oh, we want to believe that finding our strength comes with an easy naturalness – an effortless bringing forth. This is a deeply limiting illusion.
The playwright August Wilson advised “Confront the dark parts of yourself, and work to banish them with illumination and forgiveness. Your willingness to wrestle with your demons will cause your angels to sing. Use the pain as fuel, as a reminder of your strength.”
It is far easier to hide from demons than to do battle with them – far easier to go on with eyes on the ground than to dream of the sky.
Pain as fuel? When I feel weak, it is not pain to which I want to turn to build up my confidence and energy. I want nurture and reassurance, comfort and support.
The Sufi mystic Hafiz offered a very different balm for the pain of weakness:
“What is the key to untie the knot of your mind's suffering?
What is the esoteric secret to slay the crazed one whom each of us did wed
And who can ruin our heart's and eye's exquisite tender landscape?
Hafiz has found two emerald words that restored me that I now cling to as I would sacred tresses of my beloved's hair:
My dear, always act great.”
To translate into modern advertising speak, Hafiz says “just do it.” He says that acting will make it so – that counter-intuitively – leaping from the cliff edge will bring us the power to spread our wings and soar.
I doubt that anyone who has done something great has entered into action without the gravest of doubts – it is in the putting of fears and worries – that we succeed. It is in having the faith to go on despite the demons that nip at our heels and whisper in our ears – “you can’t. You can’t.”
Or we say to ourselves: “wait… I’m not ready yet”, – “just let me gather my strength some more and then I’ll be ready to give.”
It is not in the receiving that we strengthen, but in the daring and the giving.
Lao Tzu, the presumptive author of Taoism’s great scripture tells us: “Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage.”
In the receiving, he says, comes a building of strength, but it is in the giving that we come to know our true power, that we come to know what we can achieve, and that lets us dare to dream.
Dear friends – I hope you have not come here to be comfortable. I hope you have not come here only to receive. If you have, you will be disappointed.
Let this be a place for dreaming – a place where strength is found, where demons and fears are wrestled to the ground, a place where we find the strength for greatness within each heart, and the courage to step to the edge – to leap – and to soar.
May it be so.