The Power of Commitment

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Chalice lighting

We arrive today amid lives that are filled with distraction
We may feel pulled in many directions at once
Temptations here, pressures there
Tugs on our conscience and obligations stretch us thin
What if we were as concentrated as a flame?
What if our energy was focused toward the few things that matter most?
Where could our committed efforts take us then?

Reading: On Commitment - W. H. Murray, from The Scottish Himalayan Expedition

Until one is committed there is always hesitancy,

the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness.

There is one elementary truth,

the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans:

the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too.

All sorts of things occur to help that would never otherwise have occurred.

A whole stream of events issues from the decision,

raising to one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents, meetings

and material assistance, which no man could have dreamt

would come his way.

"Whatever you can do or dream you can begin it.

Boldness has genius, power and magic in it."

Message, part 1 – by Rev. Andy Pakula

This past week, I was in the flat when the doorbell rang. It was a delivery and the man at the door had a pretty substantial box for me. I didn’t remember ordering something that size but a) I order a lot of things online and b) have a lousy memory.

So, the parcel came as a surprise. When I opened it, I found a brand-new digital pressure cooker! It came without any message, suggesting it was a gift. So I naturally concluded it was a message from – you know – beyond, somehow.

But, it turned out to be a message from my sister-in-law – a gift for our wedding anniversary.

I haven’t done much pressure cooker cooking in my life.  I was slightly intimidated. I like the kind of cooking where you throw a bit of this and that in a skillet, cook for a while, taste, season some more, throw in some other ingredients lurking in the back of the fridge, taste again, and watch for when it’s done. That’s a kind of easy-going cooking. I don’t have to decide exactly what it’s going to be when I start out. I may not know exactly what kind of dish I’m making. “Oh, this is looking wet – ha! – it’s a stew.” Make some rice to go with it and boom, you’re done.

But a pressure cooker… Once you close that lid and turn it on, it’s gonna be what it’s gonna be. When you start, you’re committed.

Our marriage is a lot like this too. 31 years ago we decided to do this. It hasn’t always been bliss. No marriage is. But we committed to staying on the ride until the very end. No turning back.

Of course, it would be stupid to suggest that one should never do anything without commitment. Very often, we start things that we should absolutely stop. You should not stay in an abusive relationship. You should not continue a project that has clearly and irrevocably failed. You should not keep cooking a meal if the food has gone bad. You should not keep driving your car straight ahead when the road leads you to the edge of a cliff.

Experimentation is essential. The question though is whether you’ve taken the experiment to the point of a real conclusion or not. I’ve had lots of experiments fail - in a biochemistry lab, in start-up companies, in my personal life, and at New Unity. Sometimes, I was committed and carried the experiment through until either it was done or I was certain it would not work. Other times – and more often – I hit a bump in the road and got frustrated or lost interest. Those were experiments where I was giving it a try. As Yoda said: "Try not. Do. Or do not. There is no try.”

Had I followed through, I would probably now be able to play guitar, piano, and clarinet, speak two additional languages, code, sight-read music, and have written a book. Perhaps it’s because I set out to do too many things I was trying rather than doing. Do or do not. There is no try. I wasn’t committed.

And indeed, commitment has enormous power.

W. H. Murray – whose words we heard in the first reading – was a Scottish mountaineer. That already says a lot – if you just “try” to climb in the Himalayas, you don’t get very far before you turn back. The cold, the snow, the exhaustion, the altitude sickness… There are more than enough reasons to give up.

Murray was captured in the Second World War and spent three years in a prisoner of war camp. While there, he wrote a book that he titled Mountaineering in Scotland. The prisoners couldn’t get any writing paper, so Murray wrote the full draft of his book the only way he could - on the rough toilet paper the prisoners were allowed. And then, his complete manuscript was found by the guards who promptly destroyed it. Despite the risk and his very poor physical condition, Murray simply started again. The book was published in 1947.

Reading: It Is I Who Must Begin, by Vaclav Havel

It is I who must begin.

Once I begin, once I try --

here and now,

right where I am,

not excusing myself

by saying things would be easier elsewhere,

without grand speeches and ostentatious gestures,

but all the more persistently

-- to live in harmony with the "voice of Being,"

as I understand it within myself

-- as soon as I begin that,

I suddenly discover, to my surprise,

that I am neither the only one, nor the first,

nor the most important one

to have set out upon that road.

Whether all is really lost or not

depends entirely on whether or not I am lost.

Message, part 2 – by Rev. Andy Pakula

A tendency to try rather than do affects us all. We live in a world full of options and distractions. It was easier to commit when there were fewer choices. I don’t mean to say choice is bad, but it is bad if it prevents us from making the commitments that will lead us to our goals.

And so the difficulty we have in committing affects our relationships. If you have an argument with your partner, you can just go online and find someone else – which is fine, unless your real goal is a deep, long-term relationship.

A lack of commitment prevents us from developing expertise. Whether in language, sports, music, or just about anything else, becoming really good at anything means sticking with it through the frustrations and the difficulties. You may remember we mentioned a few weeks ago the claim that it takes something like 10,000 hours of practice to be really good at anything. That is a very big commitment.

We see this lack of commitment here at New Unity in a number of ways. One of them is me – I do have a tendency to try rather than do when it comes to new initiatives.

We see it also in ourselves – in visitors and participants. Like a relationship, deep involvement in a community requires a commitment of time. It takes time to get to know people and connect with them. It takes time to learn the ropes. It also takes commitment to stick with it when something doesn’t go the way you want it to, or someone you encounter is flawed or annoying.

And we see the impact of a lack of commitment too in social justice work. We have a tendency to spread our attention and efforts thinly and not stick with anything for terribly long. It’s not just us either.

The attention of most of us – whether we consider ourselves activists or just supporters – lasts a maximum of about a year.

For a time, there was enormous outrage and a tremendous outpouring of support for Syrian refugees. Clothing was collected, people travelled to the camps where refugees were gathered, there was pressure on politicians to resettle more refugees and especially unaccompanied children.

The Syrian war is not over and the suffering is still massive. But it’s fallen off of the front pages and out of our attention. We move on to another of the many, many worthy issues that demand consideration. Remember Occupy? Remember China’s subjugation of Tibet? The dangers facing trans people? The decimation of the Yazidis by Isis? Persecution of the Rohingya by Myanmar?

Venezuela. Islamophobia. Oppression of the Uyghurs in China. Homelessness. #MeToo. Climate change.

Every single one of these issues and many more are worthy of our outrage and time and effort and protest. There is even a good argument to be made that many of us should in fact shift our attention from one to the other because a critical mass of voices and protests will force our politicians and companies and tyrants to make a change.

But all too often, once the story is off the front page and the public interest has moved on to something else, the progress made gets reversed. This is what has happened with Syrian refugees – even the provision for unaccompanied minors that was so hard-won has been quietly reversed. Big problems require long-term attention and effort. They require commitment.

And when the focus is no longer on an issue, the burden falls back in the hands of those who have the least resources and power. The oppressed – the ones who don’t have the choice to shift their attention to the latest crisis. It falls to refugees to help refugees. It falls to the victims of racism to fight racism. It falls to the poor to fight poverty.

Most of us here are fortunate enough that we are not subject to crushing injustice. We do not have bombs falling on us or our homes being destroyed. We are not put in internment camps. This gives us the freedom to shift our attention and our effort.

The question for us then how much we want to commit to any particular issue and how much we want to follow what is on the front pages at any particular time. Are we willing to spend any of our social justice energy on a single issue for the long term? All of it? None of it? Just some?

Our social justice team will be taking up this question at its next meeting the evening of June 11th. Come along if you’d like to be part of that discussion.

For all of us, the question of commitment is an important one. It is a question of what we aim to do and who we aim to become - whether we will scratch the surface in many directions or dig deep in one or a few.

I hope you can find a way to use your time and energy and attention in a way that brings satisfaction and joy to you and that helps to make a better world for all.

Closing words

You are more powerful than you know
You can do so much more than you imagine
You can create change in yourself and in the world
How will you use your power?
Will you spread it diffusely like a light bulb or focus it in like a laser?
Will you shine a light of hope or burn away oppression?
Both kinds of illumination are needed
Let your light shine for you, for us, and for the world