PART 1 -
I titled this service, “Life’s a bitch and then you die.” Of course, that’s a milder version of what I actually had in mind, but as a minister there’s a certain requirment for at least a bit of decorum and dignity.
Most of us have been told at one time or another to “cheer up”, to “count our blessings”, or to remember that “many people have it worse than you.” Did that help? Not for me. It only made me feel worse because now, in addition to being miserable, I had to feel guilty about feeling miserable. Excellent…
And maybe worse, I learned that you have to pretend to be happy even when you weren’t - that somehow feeling unhappy is shameful and unacceptable.
Sometimes though, the path to happiness is through sorrow. We can’t emerge from the tunnel of woe if we can’t honestly admit we’re in that dark place. Denying sorrow tends to drive it underground where it eats away at our possibilities for true joy.
So let’s be completely honest. The story of our lives includes this: We’re born, we age, we get sick, we die. And along the way, there are terrible disappointments and losses. If we don’t feel sad enough for ourselves, we can look at the horrors that happen to others.
Life is tough. It throws us terribly off-course. There are times when we don’t need to cheer up. We need to bawl our heads off, weep until our pillows are soaked and our faces ache.
And at times like that, we need people to lend us their strength. We need places where we know we can be honest with our sorrow and find comfort. We need each other.
And we also need to remember that suffering changes us - sometimes for ill but sometimes in wonderful and expansive ways.
We need to know that suffering can bring depth too - to be grateful for all that comes.
I want to share one of my favourite poems - even though some of you have certainly heard it before. It’s The Guest House by Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks. Actually, I don’t think this is one that you can hear too many times. Its message is too important to miss.
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.
Rumi was a Sufi mystic writing some 800 years ago. This is not the message about suffering that we hear in parts of the Christian tradition - where pain is to be sought and even self-inflicted. Rumi’s message is not to seek suffering, but he assures us that it will come and when it does, we should lean into it. Fighting suffering - pushing it away - makes us brittle. Opening ourselves to it allows us to grow.
What has given you the strengths you have today? What has given you your most precious depths? Was it your delights or your pains?
When I was young - in my pre-teen and early teen years - I was something of a social outcast. I was bullied. I felt I didn’t belong and it hurt me deeply.
If I were able to go back and change those times so I’d be popular and strong, I would do it without hesitation. But I also would not be the person I am if I did not have those experiences. I would not be so dedicated to inclusion and to acceptance as I am today - and these are some of the aspects of myself that I value the most.
Suffering gave me painful but ultimately valuable gifts.
There is a story that physician Rachel Naomi Remen tells in her amazing book, “Kitchen Table Wisdom”
Remen had treated a young man - an athlete - with bone cancer whose leg was removed at the hip to save his life. He was 24 years old when she began working with him and he was filled with bitterness about the loss of his leg.
Remen used painting and psychotherapy to help him deal with his grief and rage. It was a long, slow process, but after two years she observed a shift in him. He began to visit others who had suffered severe physical losses.
Once he visited a young woman who was his age. It was a very hot day and he was in shorts so his artificial leg was obvious when he entered her hospital room. This young woman was so depressed about the loss of both her breasts that she would not even look at him. However, the nurses had left her radio playing. So the young man, desperate to get her attention, unstrapped his leg and began dancing around the room on his one good leg, snapping his fingers to the music.She looked at him in disbelief, and then burst out laughing and said, "Man, if you can dance, I can sing."
A year later, he sat down again with Dr. Remen. As they were reviewing their work together, she opened his file and found several drawings he had made in his first few months. She handed them to him. He shuffled through them and said, "Oh, look at this. He held up one of his earliest drawings.
She had suggested that he draw a picture of his body. He had drawn a picture of a vase, and running through the vase was a deep black crack. This was the image he had of his body. She remembered that when he drew it, he was grinding his teeth. It was a very painful time for him because he felt as if the vase could never function as a vase again.
Now, two years later, he looked at the picture and said, "This one isn't finished."
She passed a box of crayons to him and said, "Why don't you finish it?"
He chose a yellow crayon and drew bright lines around the black line he had previously drawn across the vase. And then, putting his finger on that representation of the brokenness of his own body, he said, "You see, here where it is broken? This is where the light comes out.”
Our suffering calls for comfort and strength and healing in connection with loving others. And our suffering can - if we allow it - develop within us our greatest strengths.
Part 2 -
How do you make sense of people who seem to be happy despite horrible circumstances? You’ve probably seen pictures like I have - of AIDS orphans in Africa. They are bare-footed, are dressed in rags. They have no family, no possessions and barely enough to eat. And there they are in the picture, beaming with glee, laughing freely.
Of course, the photographers chose those particular moments to capture and share with us. Even so, how can it be? We think of ourselves in their situation and can’t begin to imagine finding the joy to generate a smile.
But, as we have all seen from ourselves and the people around us, terrible situations do not have to mean persistent sorrow.
We see people who are crushed by small disappointments and others who seem to find ways to feel joy even in the face of major life disasters.
The German poet Rainer Maria Rilke said this:
“Right in the difficult we must have our joys, our happiness, our dreams: there against the depth of this background, they stand out, there for the first time we see how beautiful they are.”
The lives we lead are never entirely joyful, nor are they entirely miserable. The dark and light stand side-by-side, contrasting, showing each other with greater clarity. And we have choice in what we focus upon.
Jill Bolte Taylor is a neurobiologist who, in 1996, suffered a massive stroke. As that was happening and throughout her rehabilitation, she took a remarkably scientific and analytic stance. She looked at herself and she learned from the great experiment that had been accidentally performed on her.
She has many insights to share and you can find them in her TED talk and in her book, titled “My Stroke of Insight.”
What did she learn? She says this:
“I learned that I have much more say about what goes on between my ears than I was ever taught and I believe that this is true for all of us. I used to understand that I had the ability to stop thinking about one thing by consciously choosing to preoccupy my mind with thinking about something else. But I had no idea that it only took 90 seconds for me to have an emotional circuit triggered, flush a physiological response through my body and then flush completely out of me. We can all learn that we can take full responsibility for what thoughts we are thinking and what emotional circuitry we are feeling. Knowing this and acting on this can lead us into feeling a wonderful sense of well-being and peacefulness.”
90 seconds. After that, a reaction to anything is gone unless we actively use our thoughts to sustain that reaction! The Buddha would be delighted to hear this. In his ancient teaching, life is suffering but it is suffering only if we allow our responses to persist in perpetuating our suffering. The Buddha was not saying we can change the reality of the world around us and what happens to us, but we can change our responses.
“Count your blessings”, they told us, and we might have felt guilty for being upset.
But, had we listened and taken that advice, we might have felt an enormous wave of satisfaction and joy come over us. We might have changed our focus from the disappointment to the joy, from the ugliness to the beautiful, from the bitter to the sweet.
If you love the small things in life, you will always have something that brings you joy.
Our world presents us with an astonishing mixture of extremes. We have the choice to see a terrible world or a wonderful one. What will you choose?