Joy In Times of Adversity

Joy in Times of Adversity.jpg

Chalice lighting

There are days when all seems lost
There are days when hope can not be grasped
There are days when nothing at all seems worth the effort
There are days when living itself feels too hard
Let this glowing flame be for days like these
May there be the light of possibility in all of our lives
And the warmth of an inner peace
That is strong enough to vanquish despair.

Reading: Try to Praise the Mutilated World, by Adam Zagajewski, Polish poet

Remember June’s long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of wine, the dew.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
You watched the stylish yachts and ships;
one of them had a long trip ahead of it,
while salty oblivion awaited others.
You’ve seen the refugees heading nowhere,
you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth’s scars.
Praise the mutilated world
and the gray feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns.

Talk by Adam Slate (US-based Unitarian Universalist and current president of Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church in Charlottesville Virginia)

Good morning. What a treat it is to be here with you this morning. I’m so grateful to you all for having me, and for giving my daughter Oie a wonderful church home while she’s studying so far from Virginia. It’s appropriate to this morning’s topic that her decision to come to the UK has led both to me missing her so much, and also taking pleasure in seeing the life she’s discovering here, this congregation included. One way I stay connected with her is by tuning into your weekly live stream, and I've been excited to meet you in person. I’ve by now heard a number of Andy’s insightful talks, and I’ve been moved by the beautiful music and Tom’s stories for all ages. So thank you for sharing your church with the world, and thank you again for allowing me to be part of today’s service.

I know from your website that you refer to yourselves as a non-religious church, and so I’d like to challenge you a bit by starting with a story from the book of Genesis in the Hebrew Bible. It’s the first story in there. I’m sure you know it: A man and a woman lived in an idyllic garden, and in this garden they had everything they wanted. This perfect home was filled with animals, and beautiful plants, and fruit trees, and the couple had free reign to live their days and nights as they wished. The only requirement was that they not eat from the tree at the centre of the garden, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Well, eventually they did eat from the tree. And in doing so, they became wise with the knowledge of what was good and bad in the world, and they were expelled from the garden. So they went out into a world of hard work, one that was dangerous, and where bad things happen.

That world is our world, the poet Adam Zagajewski’s “mutilated world,” where we experience catastrophes all around us and across our planet. Cities and countries ravaged by natural disasters and human-made disasters. Wars. Famine. Poverty. It’s a world in which we might lose our job tomorrow. A world where partners tell us they’ve fallen out of love with us. Where doctors give us bad news about test results. Where our family and friends disappoint us. Where the phone can ring in the middle of the night to tell us something we don’t want to hear. A world where we work hard to pay our bills. We struggle to maintain friendships. We live with loneliness, addiction, and depression. We suffer abuse in our personal relationships. Some of us live with constant challenges as a result of how poorly society treats people of our race, religion, gender, ethnicity, or sexual identity.

A mutilated world indeed. A beautiful, mutilated world. One in which Zagajewski’s “refugees heading nowhere” and “executioners singing joyfully” live side by side with “wild strawberries”, “the concert where the music flared”, and “June’s long days.” The poet says we should praise this world. But how can we when there is so much to try us, and deflate us, and sadden us?

It turns out that the word “praise” comes from a Latin word meaning “price,” or to assign value. So when we praise our broken world, we’re acknowledging that it means something us. That it’s full of things that matter. That same world where the people we love eventually die, or can commit ruthless betrayals, is also where someone can look at us as if we’re the only thing on earth that matters to them. The same world where one church can be a place of judgement or abuse is also where another can be a place of support, salvation, and comfort. Understanding this balance is at the heart of what it means to be joyful. We can’t ignore all the terrible things we experience, and we can’t ignore the wonderful things. We must find a way to reconcile these opposing realities. Our authentic selves, our well-being, and sometimes even our survival depend on our ability to live where joy and adversity overlap.

So how do we get to that place where we’re in touch with the hardships and challenges of the world, but also keep ourselves open to joy? The good news is that happiness is much more correlated to our actions than our external circumstances. Happiness isn’t something that happens to us. It’s something that we do. For example, it’s been shown to be much less correlated to things like how much money we have, or how attractive people find us, than to the ties we create with our family and friends.

Even traumatic events have only a limited impact on our happiness because of humankind’s remarkable capacity to adapt. In his book The Happiness Hypothesis, author Jonathan Haidt asks the reader to decide if they’d be happier winning the lottery or becoming permanently paralysed. While it’s clear that nobody would wish to be paralysed, research has shown that people experiencing either of these events return most of the way to their default happiness level within a year. This has staggering implications in terms of our ability to continue experiencing joy regardless of where our lives take us.

Last year, a friend posted a story on Facebook about a commitment she made to her late spouse, and she’s given me permission to share it with you. She wrote: 'Twenty-six years ago on November 1, my husband Chris died. For more than two decades, I have been rising to greet the sunrise on November 1. I do this in his memory. Chris had leukaemia, and we knew for a while that he was not going to survive his illness. Before he died, he told me that he wanted me to live my life fully, fall in love again, have children, and have no regrets. I promised him that I would, as best I could. Each year on November 1, as I watch the sun turn the sky first red and purple, then fiery orange, and finally blue, I think back on the past year and the ways that I fulfil this promise. This year’s sunrise was particularly spectacular. I am grateful every day--beyond words--for my life, my beloved friends, and my dear family.'

I don’t want to downplay the depth of grief, loss, and pain that life has the potential to dish out. But we also need to remember that there is always a place within us for joy to take root when the time is right. If happiness is based more on our actions than external circumstances, that means we can train ourselves to be more receptive to happiness. There are a number of strategies and resources that can help us:

Have Perspective. One way to stay positive in the face of adversity is to adopt a long-term view. Particularly with many social issues, problems take time to resolve, and we can sustain our optimism through patience and perspective. The American Unitarian minister and activist Theodore Parker gave wise advice over a century ago when he wrote that “The arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Those of us who have heard this quote tend to focus on the “bending toward justice” part, but we would do well to heed the reminder that the arc is indeed long.

While we are immersed in long-term problems or challenging situations, it helps to accept where we are in order to maintain a healthy perspective. The Buddha tells us that suffering is an unavoidable part of life. Owning our suffering allows us to begin the work of taking control of our inner selves, processing our wounds and our grief, and unshackling our sense of being victims of our external world. By doing so, we can live into the challenges that life presents to us, and derive more meaning from them.

Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl came to understand this from three years imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps. Seeing what gave people the will to survive there, he developed the idea that would become a cornerstone of his professional work: that even the most oppressive conditions cannot keep a person from experiencing joy, and finding beauty and meaning. He wrote that anything can be taken from someone except for one thing: “the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

Love the Journey. Another strategy, if it doesn't come naturally, is to teach yourself to love the journey. Think of times when you have been in the midst of a large endeavour. Something at work. Attending university. Saving for a new car or a home. Finding a job. Paying off debt. When it comes to hard work, or stressful work, or long painful tedious work, learn to appreciate the incremental progress, and your effort and dedication. Be present in the moment, and take time to celebrate along the way.

Be Optimistic. My third recommendation is to remain optimistic. Bishop Desmond Tutu once said that hope is “being able to see that there is light, despite all of the darkness.” Abundance coach Scott Epps described it as “knowing that behind the angry clouds... is a beaming sun.” Optimism is a powerful thing. It correlates to better academic performance for students, and to higher athletic performance. It’s essential for dealing with injury, illness, and ageing. We can use the joy that underpins optimism to rejuvenate ourselves for life’s challenges.

Be Generous. Fourth, there is value in generously sharing ourselves and our feelings with others. Sharing kindness and affection has been shown to lead to more happiness for ourselves. In fact, even sharing negative feelings, like outrage and protest can increase our capacity for joy, as it makes an emotional connection. Often, when trouble comes, our natural tendency is to focus on ourselves and our problems. As a result we develop a survival mentality rather than an overcoming mentality. Generosity of spirit can be the antidote.

Use Each Other. Lastly, I said earlier that people are happier when they nurture their network of friends. Don’t just accept that as a fact; make it a tool. Be there for each other. Make New Unity a place that cares for its members and the large community. It’s what a church is for. It’s the most important work this congregation can do.

The Pale Blue Dot. Since I started this morning talking about religion, I'm going to end with a story from the world of science. It's a story about finding joy in an extremely unlikely place.

Back in 1977, the US space program launched the Voyager 1 spacecraft to explore the outer planets. Voyager is still in operation today, still sends data back to us. It’s the first human-made craft to leave the solar system. The reason it's still in operation is because after it finished its work studying Jupiter and Saturn, we shut down its camera and placed it in a low-power mode. Toward the end of the project, while the team was considering Voyager’s dwindling resources and limited options, and thinking about their next job, one person proposed something utterly joyful and unmistakably human. The late astronomer Carl Sagan suggested that before shutting down the camera, we turn it around and take a photo of Earth, of us.

It was not a reasonable suggestion, scientifically speaking. The resolution would render the planet virtually unrecognisable at less than a pixel, it would use power that they were trying to conserve, and would risk damage to the camera from taking a photo so close to the sun. I would have loved to have been there to hear Dr. Sagan propose his ridiculous idea to a team of practical, efficient scientists: “Hey, let's have one more grand party with this thing. Let flip the camera ‘round and take a selfie from more than six-billion kilometres away.”

It’s called “The Pale Blue Dot.” It’s the furthest picture ever taken of Earth. It's a tribute to Carl Sagan knowing what a joy the picture would be in the midst of all that science. And a testament to joy’s ability to reach out across unfathomable distances, across great stretches of time, and even across the mysterious boundary that separates life from death.

And in spite of its questionable scientific value, this picture has plenty to teach us. Sagan wrote in 1994: 'Look again at that dot... On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilisation, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician,... every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there...'

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance,... are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. It underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the only home we've ever known.

It also underscores that we cannot wait for joy to come and find us. We would do well to search for it everywhere, in everything we do, in every corner of our miraculous, beautiful, broken world. Should we not seek to find it in the sweat of our hard work? In our resolute stand against crushing, devastating injustice? In the hurt that is so maddeningly inseparable from love? It turns out that eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, even metaphorically speaking, gave us everything we need to experience life fully. The question isn’t how can we find joy in a world like this. It’s how can we not.

May you know joy in whatever form it awaits you; now, tomorrow, and always.

Reading: The Guest House, by Jalal ad-Din Rumi, 13th Century Persian poet and Muslim Sufi mystic

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.

Closing Words

There are times in all of our lives when joy seems very far away.
When laughter is but a memory.
And happiness feels out of reach.
For days like these, let us remember the strength that has come from struggle,
And the wisdom that has grown from the ashes of our suffering.
May you carry happiness in your heart -
A flame that is never extinguished by the winds of life’s hardships.