Rev. Dr. Sandra Fees, Feb. 16, 2020
Reading by Pema Chodron, Welcoming the Unwelcome
Things seem like they’re spinning out of control. We can respond to this state of affairs with fear, aggression, and selfishness, or we can respond out of trust in our vast, open, basically good mind, which is timelessly aware, yet empty of imputed meanings. How we respond will determine the way the world will go. As citizens of our world, we can help things go in the direction of wisdom, caring, and compassion.
Joan Didion, the writer, gives an account of how life changes quickly and dramatically. Her 39-year old daughter was in the hospital in a coma. Didion and her husband had just returned home from being with her. They sat down at the table for a late dinner. Didion was making a salad. Her husband was having a Scotch. They were engaged in conversation. And then her husband wasn’t talking anymore.
He died. Right there at the table. In her book, Didion writes, “Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.”
This experience of Didion’s seemed to come out of nowhere, so unexpected. Many of us have experienced similar abrupt moments when things seemed to fall apart right in front of us out of the blue. Actually Didion’s husband had a heart condition, and they both knew that it could prove fatal. But even so, it was not the way Didion ever imagined her husband’s life would end.
Didion imagined that her husband’s end would come while swimming in a cave they used to go to together. She had a fantasy that the water would rise and they would drown together. A lot of the time, we too move through our lives believing that we know and can predict what will happen.
Didion says that was “the kind of conclusion I anticipated. I did not anticipate cardiac arrest at the dinner table.” So when things don’t go the way we imagined they would, we can be disoriented and shocked. (from Welcoming the Unwelcome, Pema Chodron, and The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion)
For Tibetan Buddhist nun Pema Chodron, life fell apart amid a rather mundane moment. She was sitting in front of her house in New Mexico. Chodron heard a car door slam. Her husband walked around the corner and told her he was having an affair. He wanted a divorce. She says, “wham!—life as I knew it had ended.” (Welcoming the Unwelcome, Pema Chodron)
Wham! Life falls apart in front of us, around us. Life as we know it ends. Personal events like Didion’s and Chodron’s can come seemingly out of blue to unmoor our lives. World events can have the same kind of impact. September 11, 2001 changed life as we know it in this nation. And of course, some people’s personal lives were tragically altered.
The 2016 and current elections have left many of us feeling unmoored. So too have racist policies and practices in this country, the encroachments on LGBTQ rights, locking asylum-seeking and immigrant babies and women up in cages, the pervasive attacks on reproductive freedom and justice, and the devastations to our environment, which continue to worsen with rollbacks of long-time protections. Every day it feels like there is another bubble being burst, another way the world as we long for it to be is falling further apart.
In fact, some days our own happiness and the world’s well-being don’t seem salvageable to us. We become doubtful and fearful. So much seems unfixable. Pema Chodron poses this important question: “How do we not let ourselves spiral downward into a mindset of increasing hopelessness and negativity? Or, if we’re already finding ourselves going downhill, how do we pull ourselves up?” In other words, how can we avoid losing heart?
We can grow our resilience. Growing resilience can enable us to have heart and hope. As Chodron says, “As we individuals grow in our resilience—as we become better at staying conscious and not losing heart—we will be able to remain strong in challenging conditions for the long haul. This is within the capacity of all of us.” (Welcoming the Unwelcome)
So what is resilience—and what isn’t it? Let’s begin with what it isn’t. Resilience doesn’t mean avoiding pain, tragedy, or difficult circumstances. That’s impossible.
So what is resilience? It has to do with having the ability to rebound in the midst of difficult circumstances.
It is true that some people are lucky to have learned the skills of being resilience as children from a wise adult. And it is also true that some people are subjected to more trauma and tragedy than others. Yet everyone has the capacity to remain strong for the long haul and to build resiliency. As Lena Horne says, “It’s not the load that breaks you down, it’s the way you carry it.”
The great theologian Howard Thurman says, “[Resilience] is to watch a gathering darkness until all light is swallowed up completely without the power to interfere or bring a halt. Then in that darkness, to continue one’s journey with one’s footsteps guided by the illumination of remembered radiance.”
Resilience has to do with staying the course in the midst of pain guided by a “remembered radiance.” It has to do with remembering what was good and beautiful, and holding that memory in the heart while moving forward into the future.
This entails being both optimistic and realistic. When people are unrealistic and think that nothing uncomfortable will ever happen, then they are setting themselves up for a downward spiral. It’s also the case that if we are so negative that we think that nothing good will ever happen, we also set ourselves up for a downward spiral.
So there is the need for a fundamental hope for goodness and change, and a realistic perspective of what is possible. And what isn’t. In our social justice work, for example, every month we open our doors to provide food for individuals and families who are experiencing food insecurity. Our work in this area helps to alleviate hunger for many families and individuals. It fills short-term gaps in some people’s lives.
Yet we know that many people are returning month after month, and that their circumstances haven’t significantly changed over time. If we expect our food pantry to solve the entirety of the hunger problem, we will be disappointed, perhaps even discouraged. And if we think it’s not worth doing at all if we can’t eliminate the entire problem, then we may also be discouraged and even give up.
Roshi Bernie Glassman worked with people who were homeless in Yonkers, New York. And he said, “I don’t really believe there’s going to be an end to homelessness, but I go in every day as if it’s possible.” (from Welcoming the Unwelcome) Resilience has to do with going in every day because we know what we do matters.
The other thing about resiliency that we sometimes forget—and is worth remembering—is that we don’t need to go it alone. Sometimes my resiliency well is pretty empty, a bit dry. When that’s the case, I can come into community and be inspired and uplifted by others. Others can remind me, not that their lives are easy, but that what we do matters, that each of us has times when life falls apart, and that it’s possible to be guided by “the illumination of remembered radiance.”
So it’s pretty important that when my well is full, that I also show up, bringing my strength and resilience to inspire and lift others. I can be a reminder, not that my life is easy, but that it’s possible to have heart even in troubled times.
One thing I’ve discovered is that human beings are pretty resilient. Many people are far more resilient than they even realize. They have a memory of that radiance to help guide them.
And most of us already have resiliency practices. We’ve learned all sorts of tricks and strategies to help us take whatever happens –whatever hardships or struggles we face—and continue our journey toward the betterment of ourselves and our world.
So what are some of the resiliency practices that you already know? What can help you be more like the coffee bean than the egg or carrot? (reference to story: “Are you the carrot, egg or coffee bean?” https://www.alanwongs.com/blog/are-you-carrot-egg-or-coffee-bean) What can help to make you better able to journey forward with care and compassion and wisdom? To release flavor and fragrance rather than become hardened or lose strength.
When I think about these questions, I realize that I already have quite a number of resiliency practices and strategies. Here are some of my go-to practices:
· At least 8 hours of sleep
· 30 minutes of yoga every morning (I have missed only one morning in 7 months)
· Healthy meals—which includes avoiding end of evening snacks (that one is a particular challenge for me, perhaps more an aspiration than a practice)
· Daily nasal rinse—I know that’s not very glamorous to talk about but it’s an enormously important part of my wellness routine
· Quality time with my partner Chris
· Limited exposure to Facebook
· Checking my urge to overwork and overfunction
· Continuing education (right now my focus in on trans inclusion and anti-racism)
If you were to name just a few that are top of your list right now, what would they be? What are the one or two that are saving you? I mean, the world is on fire. How are you ensuring that your well is being regularly refilled? What is already working for you?
And is there a practice that you’re being reminded about that you really need to start up again or practice more often? I’m not suggesting you run out and start a whole new activity or regimen. I’m suggesting that you look to what you already know—to be guided by the illumination of remembered radiance. Consider a practice you already know has worked for you that maybe you’ve let slide a little. I encourage you to continue to reflect on these questions some attention in the coming hours and days and to notice which ones are already helping you have heart and hope and which might be restorative.
In our opening words from Rev. Gretchen Haley, she says we need to “claim a life of joy, and justice … for renewal of your own heart.” To do so is “to practice gratitude/for this day, this life/that has been given/this chance to begin again.” (“And Yet You Persist”)
Resilience is a chance to begin again. It is a chance to practice gratitude. It is the persistence to “answer yes to life” … “just as long as [we] have breath.” It is the persistence to “keep on loving though disappointment pierces us through.” (ref. to #6 “Just as Long as I Have Breath”)
May we know that we can go on because “hope awaits us at every turn.” May it be so. Amen. Blessed be. (ref. to #1015 “I Know I Can”)