Rev. Scott W. Alexander
An irreverent wag once put together a list entitled "Ten things NOT to say to the minister as you pass through the reception line after church." The list includes the following: "I know how busy you've been with other things this week"..."I hope there were no visitors here this morning"..." I can't remember what it was, but something you said this morning was very profound" ; ...and then this...my personal favorite: "I enjoyed your sermon this morning Reverend...just like I do every time you preach it."
This morning consider yourself forewarned. While this is, in fact, a totally new sermon I wrote over recent days (written because I have been both challenged and disturbed by the flow of recent events through my life as your minister), I will this morning return to spiritual themes that those of you who attend services here regularly will recognize as "Pure Alexander." As the minister who regularly fills this pulpit, I take comfort in believing that life's most important spiritual ideas bear regular repeating. Indeed much of religion (I believe) is the process of routinely reminding ourselves of spiritual realities and truths that (when we pause think about them) are obviously right, and helpful and true -- so that we might live our lives with more wisdom, equilibrium, and perspective. This morning, what I think I'm doing is reminding you of something I trust you already instinctively know deep to your hearts, but tend to forget - in part because this is not the easiest of truths to live with.
All right, let's get to it this morning, shall we?
Somehow, at a relatively early age, most of us get the (largely unconscious) idea that if we're reasonably good and decent persons, and live by the fundamental rules, that life is basically going to be fair and kind to us. Let me repeat that. Somehow, at a relatively early age, most of us get the (largely unconscious) idea that if we're good persons, and live by the fundamental rules, that life is basically going to be fair and kind to us. It is easy to understand how children come to embrace and rely on this idea. When we are young, we are (logically) instructed (both at home and at school...through children's stories and outright instruction by parents and teachers) to live by the rules and be good, because (it is fiercely implied if not outright stated) that good things will then in turn happen to us. We will be "protected" from bad things (if you will) by our routine goodness and obedience to what is expected. The fact that adults portray the world as a fair, just and logical place to children is not (in and of itself) cruel or inappropriate, for it provides kids with a feeling of safety, order and predictability that is a comfort through the inevitable ups and down of their early years.
But as we get older, we inevitably get new, tougher information about how life really works, don't we? As we mature, we pretty quickly bump up against the truth that life is often not (at its core) fair, just or reasonable. We learn that being good and living by the rules categorically does NOT protect one from tragedy, pain, sorrow and death. By the time we reach adulthood, everyone (but those in airtight, existential denial) knows that the wicked certainly do prosper (though wickedness certainly does almost always carry a price for its perpetrators)...and we also learn that bad things (to quote the good Rabbi Kuschner) certainly DO happen to good people...and that very few people are lucky enough to get through an entire lifetime without something really tragic, unfair or painful happening to them. Though I suppose it would be spiritually terrific if it were so, life is not, at its essence, fair or reasonable...and most of us are (sooner or later) dealt some really lousy hand we do not deserve. You'd have to go to some other universe (far less mortal, capricious, random and chaotic than ours) to find a life where there would be a routine correlation between: 1) how righteously and proper one lived, and 2) life's ease, comfort, predictability and joy. You all know this is true.
But most of us - unconsciously at least - nonetheless cling to some degree or another in our adulthood to this childhood spiritual idea. We tend to trust (at some deep, primordial place) that (for us personally at least) life will be reasonably fair...if we just live by the rules, eat the right diet and manage to be basically good and kind persons. Whether we are theists (and believe there some powerful spirit overbrooding and ordering all life) or whether we are humanists or atheists (and believe that humanity is indeed existentially "on its own" in a pretty random universe) we still tend to instinctively bargain in this way with life. Come on...you know it's true...most of us unconsciously say to ourselves, "Well, I'm basically a good person, I'm living the best I can, I try to do things right, so I deserve to get through life OK." Maybe I should pause here just speak for myself. When I think about it, I know that this is the overarching, unconscious script I have written for my own life (in spite of the fact that as a minister who has for 26 years been with countless good people as they go through undeserved tragedy, loss, upheaval and pain -- and am therefore perfectly spiritually aware of how many perfectly respectable people get dealt really lousy hands in the cosmic card game that is life) I still -- at some deep, primordial level -- personally cling to the underlying illusion that I'll probably float through life reasonably unscathed if I play by the rules and work really hard at being good.
But I also know - deep to my heart...at that quiet place where I face the true chaos and nature of human living - that this is not so...that life will not necessarily be fair (to you or to me). And the sooner I get over this lingering idyllic idea, the sooner I will be able to successfully spiritually face the new realities of my life when-and-if I myself am dealt a "lousy hand." Here is the heart-felt nub of what I spiritually want to say to you this morning. When we are dealt a lousy hand in life, the old illusion of life's fairness and reasonableness evaporates beneath the crush of new (possibly terrible harsh and unwelcome) facts about what our lives are going to be like...and at such moments we have really only one choice: 1) to accept the new facts about what our lives are going to look like and move on into what is still possible, or to 2) resist and refuse the new situation and CLING (in any number of psychological and spiritual ways) to our old, fanciful imaginings that we can still have a world that somehow treats us fairly and kindly...begrudging life for the fact that it is not "just." This is a sermon about not getting stuckin dysfunctional, dispiriting spiritual scripts when life dishes out new, harsh information. For I believe that when life deals us a lousy hand (which, as I have said, it sooner or later will for all but the remarkably lucky amongst us), the path back to spiritual health and wholeness -- the secret door that leads back to sustaining life, purpose and meaning -- can only be discovered after we jettison our old childhood script of life's fairness, and move on to somehow cope with (and adapt to) the new, demanding truth of our lives.
Let me, if I might, share three concrete examples of what I mean here.
First, I want to tell you about a family that was active in one of the congregations I served earlier in my ministry. Everything had been going pretty smoothly for this family until the mother (at the prime of her life, in her late forties) was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer, that was (tragically) to take her life in less than a year. Immediately upon diagnosis, the family (especially the husband) swung into action (like rational, action-orientated Unitarian Universalists are wont to do) meticulously researching the disease and its treatment, and seeing if anyone, anywhere in the country might somehow provide the miraculous medical intervention to beat this thing. Now any family with connections, intelligence and financial resources would have basically done the same thing, no one is to be faulted (of course) for trying to reassert some control when control is so suddenly wrested from us by such a disease or disaster. But eventually, this situation turned tragic...first, of course, there was the tragedy of her sad and untimely death...but this PHYSICAL tragedy was compounded by the SPIRITUAL tragedy (unmistakable to all of us involved) of the husband's absolute refusal to accept the reality of this "lousy hand" his family had been dealt by random circumstance. The husband insisted (up until the very end of his wife's life) that everyone around her, including me, focus (only and intently) on how he and his wife were going to "beat this thing." As she drew nearer to the end of her life, the wife wanted desperately to talk about the limited time she knew she had left...she wanted to process her departure from life with those she loved, focussing all her remaining energies on the relationships and world she would have to surrender. But the husband insisted on using all his (and his wife's) spiritual and emotional energy RESISTING what was so obviously happening. Dealt a lousy, unfair hand, he refused to move with (and adapt to) the insistent new information life was giving him about what was going to be, and what was yet possible...and as a result, he failed (fiercely failed) to be with his wife (spiritually and emotionally) in the enriching and comforting ways that are possible in the face of death. Again, I'm not being personally judgmental here, the husband was (as most in crisis) doing the best he could...but I would observe to you nonetheless that our inability or unwillingness to move with new information when life deals us a lousy hand CAN spiritually immobilize us in some disastrous and life-robbing ways.
My second example is more global. Have any of you noticed, any more, that when a senseless tragedy occurs involving many victims (like the recent senseless downing of that Egypt Air flight...or the massacre of students and teachers at Columbine High...or the deadly bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City) that a new phenomenon is the almost instant formation of what I shall call "permanent victims groups." These groups, as I read about their pronouncements and activities in the newspaper, seem to almost exclusively focus on the unwillingness of their members to accept the senseless tragedy that has occurred. In the case of the plane crashes, they demand full and immediate retrieval of all wreckage and bodies from the ocean floor (even if that is technically and physically impossible)...they demand full and complete explanations as to how such a thing could happen (even when in a world like ours usually no such answers are possible)...they demand "justice," "retribution," "accountability" and "closure" (when - as we all know - clear and simple justice, retribution, accountability and closure are terribly elusive in the face of senseless tragedies - if not impossible). Maybe I'm being a bit unfair here, but I see the emergence of these "institutionalized victim's groups" (which, like the one which gathered steam after the Lockerbee tragedy of so many years ago now, yet still has a newsletter, regular national meetings, lobbying efforts and a budget) as a rather sad symptom of people's inability and unwillingness to move on spiritually and emotionally when life deals them a lousy hand. It would be my judgement (and please hear me, not a harsh one, but a sad one) that when people gather in such a group for years to come (in addition to obviously doing some positive grief and support work with one another, and positive national lobbying for change) they inevitably ALSO nurse their fury about this terribly unfair thing happening to them -- rather than bravely and creatively moving ahead, adapting to the new reality of their lives ("I am now someone who has lost a loved one in a terrible, irrational and unfair tragedy") and focussing their remaining human energies upon the wondrous and worthy life and the relationships they have yet have to live (with self...with others...and nature). I believe there is a great deal of spiritual death awaiting those who GET STUCK in being angry and unaccepting about the lousy hands they have been dealt.
Look...I am not suggesting that the survivors of these terrible tragedies "buck up" and break into Norman Vincent Peale verse about how we should look on the bright side and see the glass as still half full...but I am suggesting that we all need to be careful about where and how we allocate our spiritual and emotional resources when bad things happen to us. The "quasi-permanent stature" of these groups leads me to believe that many of their members begin to primarily identify themselves in life as "A surviving victim of such-and-such a tragedy," rather than, "a person - wounded for sure...with a sad hole in my life that may not ever be healed - but a person nonetheless with a meaningful, wide-open life yet to live."
My last example (and here is where this sermon hopefully turns the corner) is that of the New York City man - you may have read about him in the newspaper, or seen him on the television news -- who was senselessly pushed off the subway platform a few months back (by a mentally-ill, homeless stranger) and run over by a train, instantly losing both his legs above the knees. I was deeply moved when I saw him in his wheelchair on the evening news, describing how (now that he is out of the hospital and recovering at home) he was working to put his life back together (with the help of many New Yorkers who were also touched by this terribly irrational and unfair tragedy). Prior to this senseless attack, everything had been going just right for this healthy, young Latino husband and father of two - he was happy at home with his wife and kids, loved his physically demanding blue collar job, and imagined (as almost anyone in his position would have) that he had most of his life stretching (long and logically and normal) over the long horizon before him. Who could blame him for not spiritually or emotionally anticipating the systematic daily difficulties of such a massive physical handicap life had suddenly thrust upon him? Who would blame him for wallowing (for months, or years even) in self-pity, depression and anger? But when asked by the news interviewer how he was coping with this lousy hand he had been dealt, this simple, brave and wise man said, "Well, it didn't take me long to realize that I had just two choices: I could either focus on what I have lost...or look ahead to what I still have. " And with that, the man turned in his wheelchair, looked lovingly over his shoulder, and ignoring the famous television correspondent who was interviewing him, smiled broadly, warmly at his children playing obliviously in the corner behind him...and then, turning back to the correspondent said (with strength and confidence in his voice) that he intended to learn to walk and work again, to play with his kids outdoors again, with the artificial legs that were being built for him. I was so struck by the clarity, courage and rightness of this man's spiritual and emotional decision. Once again these words by existentialist Albert Camus (you have heard me quote them before because I find them to be amongst the wisest lines ever penned by the human hand) came to mind:
Yes there are deprivations...there are deprivations which give rise to our deepest sorrows. But what does it truly matter what we have lost, when what we have lost is not yet used up. There are so many things susceptible of being loved that surely no discouragement can be final. To know how to suffer, to know how to love, and when everything collapses, to pick it all up again, simply richer from suffering - happy, almost, in the awareness of our misery.
This man (who lost his legs in a senseless, random subway attack) quickly found the suppleness of heart not to resist the clear, new, insistent information about his life, bravely saying to himself "Now and for the rest of my life I am a man without legs". His choice is to spend LITTLE SPIRITUAL CAPITAL BEMOANING THE LOUSY HAND HE HAS BEEN DEALT, INVESTING SPIRITUAL CAPITAL TO ADAPT TO WHAT MUST BE. I believe (with all my heart and soul) that it is HIS ADAPTING...(his choice to focus on what is still good and possible in his life) that has LIBERATED HIM to begin WENDING HIS WAY BACK to a full, meaningful, satisfying life...without his legs to carry him...to be sure...hobbling about, eventually on new titanium sticks that are nowhere near as miraculous or wondrous as the old flesh-and-blood ones...but with an open heart...propelling him into a fine and full future with family and friends...labor, and love...purpose and potential.
Look, again...I am not playing Norman Vincent Peale here. When we are dealt lousy hands by life, positive thinking is often not enough, or at least very hard to come by. I hate the hollow cheerfulness of that life-trivializing aphorism, "When life gives you lemons, make lemonade," Dear God deliver us from all such saccharine psychobabble and shallow, saccharine spirituality. When life deals us a lousy hand, we all inevitably go through at least some period of reeling from and raging at the unfairness and pain of it all. Still, I must spiritually say it. To those who are wise and brave enough to truly face and accept the new reality of their lives, and move on in the heart with the new facts life has imposed, a way slowly appears in the undergrowth that miraculously leads us back to a life worth having.
What I am really describing (and unashamedly urging) here is a kind of PRACTICAL SPIRITUAL STOICISM. Stoicism (you might remember from your school days) is an ancient Greek philosophy that survived for over 500 years as an organized philosophical movement. Perhaps the most central tenet of Stoicism is the assertion that it is humanity's duty to CONFORM to (accept and embrace if you will) the natural laws of the universe (those we find to our liking, and those we do not). Stoicism further calls us to accept our individual destinies, whatever (in the course of natural events) they turn out to be. What I am suggesting this morning is that when life deals you a lousy hand, before you can move on to see and live what life yet positively and purposefully holds for you, you must accept the natural laws of this universe: including its routine unfairness and randomness, which allows painful, tragic and unwanted things to happen to us. This man who lost his legs because of a stranger's mental illness has somehow come (in his heart) to stoically accept the fact (unwelcome though it is) that he lives in a world where such things can happen. This is the first spiritual step back to life...we live in a world that is (eventually) unfair to all. And when it finally proves so for you, if you remain spiritually stuck back in the gooey unfairness of it all, you will not (in the life that is left you) have time or energy or space or soul enough to look for those new pathways that are opening to bring you back to a satisfactory and meaningful life.
Let me end this morning by saying all this one more time...quietly...and kindly... for that is truly where my heart is. Everybody has a hard spiritual go of it when life (inevitably) deals us a lousy hand. No one should be criticized (from this pulpit or anywhere else) for focussing on the unfairness and unreasonableness when such unwanted events occur...it is only human for us to be stuck there for awhile. Yet still, while I don't want to be tough on us, I must say it. If we are - any of us...all of us -- to avoid unnecessarily squandering the rich and unfathomably precious gift of life we have so miraculously been given, we must eventually move on from what we have lost to focus on (howsoever complex or abbreviated) what we yet still possess.
I cannot prove any of this to you. It is simply an article of faith that I have long had on my heart, you must weigh it in your own heart to see if it might be true for you. I believe that after life deals us a lousy hand (cutting us off unfairly from some or all of the normal life we have grown to depend on) sooner or later A WAY IS OPENED...A PATH APPEARS...and while that way is not what we would ever have chosen (quality time with a dying spouse...a loving family life lived from a wheelchair...a life truncated by a debilitating disease)...and often seems unimaginable in its demands and difficulties... nonetheless there it quietly is: rich...unbidden...textured...holy...and satisfying. It's not what we wanted...it's certainly not what we deserve...but it is enough...my friends...IT IS ENOUGH.
My heart is moved by all I cannot save:
So much has been destroyed
I have to cast my lot with those who,
age after age,
with not extraordinary power,
reconstitute the world.