Reflection – Kent Mayfield – February 17, 2019
- Kent Mayfield
Unitarian-Universalist Fellowship of Dubuque
February 17, 2019
From David Richo: Five Things We Cannot Change (2005)
In the face of life’s givens, we might take refuge of safety we devise to protect us ourselves from what we believe is a scary, unpredictable or even punitive world. This is magical thinking: using our wishes or fears to explain what is happening.
[but] Here are five unavoidable givens:
- Everything changes and ends.
- Things do not always go according to plan.
- Life is not always fair.
- Pain is part of life.
- People are not loving and loyal all the time.
From Naomi Shihab Nye: “Enthusiasm in Two Parts”
Maybe a wasp will sting my throat again
so the high bouillon surge of joy
sweetens the day.
Shall I blink or wave?
Simply stand below the vine?
Since the stinger first pierced my throat
and a long-held note of gloom suddenly lifted, I considered poisons
with surprise applications. Happy venom. Staring differently
at bees, spiders, centipedes, snakes.
We’re more elastic than we thought.
Morning’s pouf of good will
shrinks to afternoon’s tight nod.
We deliver cake
to aged ladies who live alone,
just to keep some hope afloat.
Those who are known, rightly or wrongly,
as optimists, have a heavier boat than most.
If we pause, or simply look away,
they say, What’s wrong?
They don’t let us throw anything overboard
even for a minute.
But that’s the only way we get it back.
From Nancy Shaeffer: “Starting Over – Saving Hope”
Because we spill not only milk
Knocking it over with an elbow
When we reach to wipe a small face
But also spill seed on soil we thought was fertile but isn’t,
And also spill whole lives, and only later see in fading light
How much is gone and we hadn’t intended it
Because we tear not only cloth
Thinking to find a true edge and instead making only a hole
But also tear friendships when we grow
And whole mountainsides because we are so many
And we want to live right where black oaks lived,
Once very quietly and still
Because we forget not only what we are doing in the kitchen
And have to go back to the room we were in before,
Remember why it was we left
But also forget entire lexicons of joy
And how we lost ourselves for hours
Yet all that time were clearly found and held
And also forget the hungry not at our table
Because we weep not only at jade plants caught in freeze
And precious papers left in rain
But also at legs that no longer walk
Or never did, although from the outside they look like most others
And also weep at words said once as though
They might be rearranged but which
Once loose, refuse to return and we are helpless
Because we are imperfect and love so
Deeply we will never have enough days,
We need the gift of starting over, beginning
Again: just this constant good, this
As one for whom (many say) the proverbial glass is not only half empty by almost certain to contain some foul-tasting, potentially lethal liquid, I am not perhaps the most appropriate fellow to speak of hope. There are books aplenty on the topic: Half Full: Forty Inspiring Stories of Optimis, Hope and Faith; A Little Faith, Hope and Hilarity; and (my personal favorite from some years back) The Years of Hope: Cambridge, Colonial Administration in the South Seas and Cricket. Not to mention several biographies of Bob Hope. It is a subject that seems to attract every dewy-eyed moralist and spiritual cheerleader on the planet, so there may room, then, for a reflection on the topic from one like myself who has a background neither in cricket nor in administration in the British colonies in the South Pacific, but who is interested in the implications of the idea.
Just after college, before I went to seminary, I found work as a child-care worker for children with a variety of serious mental conditions. They lived together in a residential treatment center. It was work I enjoyed. One day as I was driving on East Van Buren in Phoenix, heading to my afternoon shift on a hot summer day, two yellow jackets flew into my open window while I was stopped for a traffic light. They hummed around my head, then landed on my neck, and for no particular reason I could discern stung me…just like that. Then they flew out the window. I was startled, but didn’t feel dizzy or anything, so when the light changed, I proceeded to work.
By the time I got there, however, my neck was swollen as if I had a goiter, and the head nurse, visibly alarmed, gave me some medication to reduce the swelling and sent me home. At first, I was just plain annoyed that the whole thing had happened. My neck hurt. I was dizzy. And then I realized that I had driven down Van Buren dozens of times and that this had only happened once in my whole life. I realized that random suffering strikes most everyone’s life, the powerful and the disenfranchised both. I was glad to be alive, glad that suffering was random and, for me, unhitched from any theology implying a vengeful God or a flippant Devil, behind it all. The suffering…alright, it was just a wasp sting…not a diagnosis of crushing magnitude or the cruel course of cancer but such as it was, the suffering suddenly opened up onto hope and gratitude, and for some reason, those two have been linked in my head and heart in the years since.
The suffering was real, but so was my hope and gratitude.
Naomi Shihab Nye reveals a similar story in the first part of her poem. In her case, it’s a wasp that stings her throat…and, yet, she says “a long-held note of gloom suddenly lifted” with the sting. She even wonders whimsically if she should stand below the vine where the wasps hover and wave at them, inviting further stings…a strange thought to be sure but clearly meaningful for her. Her bewildering, heart-changing experience like mine, linking random suffering to gratitude and hope.
I experienced my father’s death in that way. I did not weep but I was torn asunder by the immensity of the loss, the desolation, and at the same time experienced the joy of thanksgiving that he was my father and I his son and that I had come to know him so deeply and joyfully…infuriatingly at times, sorrowfully, too, part and parcel of my life weaving together living and dead: The Dead _Ellsworth Snyder gone now 15 years, Barb and Steve and Eliot and Eve with whom Jack and I had laugh-filled dinner on Thursday – the Living. And – John and David dead in the last two years at vastly different ages 39 and 91. All of a piece. All part of my world forever. All part of the love, the giving away of affection and care and praise and thanks, that fills the sails of my hope.
Well, sometimes (from Sheenagh Pugh)
Sometimes things don’t go, after all,
from bad to worse. Some years, muscadel
faces down frost; green thrives; the crops don’t fail;
sometimes a man aims high, and all goes well.
A people sometimes will step back from war;
elect an honest man; decide they care
enough, that they can’t leave some stranger poor.
Some people become what they were born for.
Sometimes our best efforts do not go
amiss; sometimes we do as we meant to.
The sun will sometimes melt a field of sorrow
that seemed hard frozen: may it happen for you.
Nye seems to say so: We deliver cake to aged ladies who live alone, just to keep hope a float, but she then she adds: Those who are known, rightly or wrongly, as optimists have a heavier boat than most. If we pause, or sigh or simply look away, [people] say, “What’s wrong? They don’t let us throw anything overboard even for a minute.”
As if acting as if it were so makes it so. For the sake of a rhyme, the song “High Hopes” juxtaposes the phrase “high hopes” with “high apple pie in the sky hope,” which unwittingly gives the game away since even Orion Space Probe II has been unable to locate any Granny Smith confection in the stratosphere. The mere act of imagining an alternative reality may distance and relativize the present, loosening the grip of what’s right in front of us on our lives, giving heart to the sad-of-heart.
It has been a challenging beginning to a year. Richard Lischer’s son, Adam, died soon after the first of the year. Richard is a professor of divinity at Duke and promised
Adam that he would not let [Adam’s} death ruin his own life. A peculiar promise I thought at first, but after all I remembered it was Adam who had taught all of us with wit and and candor and remarkable grace a “new way to die.”
Then, Samantha, a physical therapist whose longtime companion had walked out before Christmas, was raped in a parking lot in Bayview, after which she discovered she was pregnant and then in short order found that the pregnancy, undesired tho’ it was, was unviable. A triple+ whammy of distress. My next door neighbor, Earl Lillydahl crumpled into Parkinson‘s like Saltines into milk after New Year’s and Nici Teweles youthful brain at 92 went haywire, a coddled Humpty-Dumpty egg of cognitive disarray.
I attended one funeral and a memorial service the first week of February, one for a patrolman shot on duty in South Milwaukee; the other for a black tenor who had stood next to me every week in a community chorale for the last five years…cardiovascular stroke.
People had words of intended comfort, I heard them. Words, too, of explanation for the suffering and pain and loss and death. Some said: It’s part of God’s plan. Some said it was part of a strategy for soul-making, for bringing about moral and spiritual improvement in people. Some, most, I think, admonished us, the grieving, to “look on the sunny side of life.” They said, “things will get better,” “get on with things” “put it behind” “move on” “turn the page” and “for every door that closes another one opens.” Yeah, I had to say to myself, but in the meantime there is HELL in the hallways.
I understand that “there are wounds that heal and those that do not,” as a survivor of the Parkside Massacre said last week.
And, I do not shy away from taking note of the gaping void these caused. Or the fuming ruins of Paradise, California and the persistent presence of hidden rural poverty in Iowa and tainted vaccines for children or tilapia drenched in toxins from China or arsenic in Flintstone Multivitamin. We know it: Things have gone awry in God’s world. I do not understand why. I do not hesitate in voicing lament, but I cannot bring myself to try to figure out what might next happen. I join the Old Testament psalmist in lamenting without explaining.
Because, that’s the only way we get hope back, as Nye might say.
Naomi Shihab Nye is not foolish. Her hope isn’t flighty. She is no Pollyanna. Her feet are on the ground. She’s perfectly ware that suffering exists, some of it random, some small, like a wasp sting; some of it terrible inflicted by people convinced htat their right to do what they do is blessed by patriotism, corporation, nationality or family. Nye is not afraid to throw her sense of bright hope overboard for a while, to grieve deeply, knowing that it’s the only way she get her sense of hope back at all.
Hope is not wishful thinking, you see, any more than forgiveness is telling the person who has injured you, “Oh, that’s OK!” No, “hope, is a suspicion,” Brazilian theologian Rubem Alves insists. It’s not a sunny word. It’s a refusal to let creativity dissolve in immediate experience. It’s planting an apple tree with the deep conviction that our grandchildren will eat of that tree, although we will not.
It is knowing that “hope and suffering live from each other.” (Alves) Too much suffering without hope, Alves says, and you court despair and resentment. Too much hope, without colliding with real suffering, leaves you with illusions and a powerless naivete.
David Richo says much the same. Pain (his word) is part and parcel of life. Loss is inevitable. Our best laid plans sometimes come to nothing. Life is not always fair. People can be trusted sometimes; sometimes not at all. Add to these the presence of a deranged man firing coworkers in Aurora, the finagling of finances and politics all around the world threatening to capsize the whole ship, unpredictable economic faultlines running under our shining cities and weather catastrophes of all sorts.
Some would say only a case for pessimism can be made of it all.
I don’t agree. A confident, cynical pessimism is a bit like David Richo’s (and Joan Didion’s) Magical Thinking: a way of saying “If you don’t expect anything good to happen, then you won’t be disappointed when it doesn’t after all.”
Naomi Shihab Nye’s hope is something that opens and closes on the hinge of real life. Pessimism nails the door shut once and for all.
I still live in hope. That is, I keep myself open to positive change but I’m not waiting for the reign of justice and love or what the Buddhists call the Pure Land or the Socialist’s classless society or a time when America will be “great” again, but for a path that moves us with integrity and honesty to a greater wholeness of life.
I understand why people want relief from pain. I want it when I suffer, be it a broken foot, depression, economic losses, death of a loved one or my beloved Maggie-dog. Magical Thinking (call it hype, if you prefer) is the reduction of hope to instant gratification. Our email accounts are filled with it: Instant love and devotion from Filipino brides or Polish paramours, instant turnarounds for our lagging love-making with pills or herbs, facial perfection with pain-free supplements. Instant cures in a bottle.
Ancient Romans, Egyptians and Greeks sold talisman and herbal potions that could cure anything. Samuel Hartman, over in Ohio, made a fortune selling “ actual snake oil,” Paruna, (largely pure 151 alcohol colored with burnt sugar or caramel coloring and flavored with cubebs, a kind of peppercorn tasting vaguely like cloves.” A few jolts of Paruna and you felt no pain…for a while. He made a fortune by persuading people to believe that their pain was a mistake, just as we can be convinced that our loneliness can be ended by an online FaceBook companionship, or the embarrassment of our “middle-classless ness” fixed by a “free” exotic three-day and two-night trip to Orlando, promised by a chipper call from Mumbai.
But none of the snake oil, ancient or modern, is true.
Most of us are divided between what is palpable but imperfect and what is absent but alluring, between the troubling insistence of the actual and the promise of brimming, renewing future. “If you cannot make sense of it, why not give up?,” you say. Well, I cannot. When I consider the stupendous immensity and astonishing intricacy of the cosmos, and the miracle of human consciousness, intelligence and compassion and cunning, and hear Bach and Beyonce and humming of the spheres, I cannot turn away, not yet.
Many of us assume that it is our job to fill in the gap of understanding, perhaps with inspiring thoughts, diversions, false expectations. But, no matter what may fill the gap, it nevertheless remains something more. Words such as faith, hope, wisdom, imagination, power do not describe. They point. To something like our wisdom; something like our imagination; something like our understanding—yet infinitely beyond. The truth is, we are all creatures of the gap, living out our days between the giddy promises of youth and the inevitability of decline.
What we find there is not resolution but multiple contradictions.
Because we are imperfect and spill not only milk but whole lives, we need, just as do all men and woman, the possibility, the gift of starting over. And Unitarian-Universalists are no more immune to contradictions than anyone else. What we can add, however, changes the experience of life in the gap: We can
Come on up to the house…
[yes] the moon is broken and the sky is cracked
[Come on up to the house]
The only things that you can see is all that you lack
All your crying don’t do no good
Come on up to the house
There’s no light in the tunnel, no irons in the fire
[yes] life seems nasty, brutish and short
Come on up to the house
[You can come up to this house]
The seas are stormy and you can’t find no port
[You can come to this house]
We can live here with contradictions.
We can live here … in companionship with one another
We can live in this house in pain
We can live here in hope.
Come up to the house.
We can do it.
It can be so.