“At the Edge of Hope” – sermon by Rev. Kevin Tarsa
UU Community of the Mountains
Grass Valley, CA
January 13, 2019
You’ve been telling me, many of you, that hope is in short supply these days, a rare and precious commodity, what with the climate crisis and scientists’ dire warnings of immanent danger, the current manufactured political emergency rooted in values antithetical to so many of our own values, increasingly intractable division in the nation, the dismantling of so many protections, and, on top of it all, the day to day challenges in our lives, close to home and close to heart.
So I’ve been thinking about hope – yours, mine and ours – in the context of these times.
In my office I have a deck of cards with meaningful quotes on them, a gift from a friend. Periodically I pull out a new card, and the CARD that came up this very week offered the words of Napoleon Bonaparte, who claimed that “A leader is a dealer in hope.”
A leader is a dealer in hope.
Psst. Wanna buy some hope? Top quality hope? I know you do!
I don’t actually have hope to sell you, I’m afraid, but I may try to sell you on hope.
FAITH IN POSSIBILITY
Years ago, a congregant stopped me in the middle of the aisle after a service one Sunday, to ask, “Where do you find hope?” She knew that I was navigating the painful sadness of an unexpected divorce, leaving behind the house and so much else that we had shared, and that my family had spent the previous year and a half caring for my mother through her journey with cancer and death. When that congregation member stopped me to ask about hope, I stopped for a moment too, listened internally, and responded uncharacteristically quickly. “I have faith in possibility,” I said, listening for truth in the words even as they were coming out of my mouth. “The future is not yet determined, and my life experience leads me to believe that many things, if not exactly all things, are possible.”
It was an intuitive response rather than carefully formulated response. Enough events in my life that I was certain would be fabulous, had fallen flat or outright bombed, and enough of the occasions I was sure would crash in disaster had succeeded wildly, that at some level I had become prepared to be surprised. Life had taught me that you just never know, no matter how certain something seems.
I’ve named here many times that this is a foundational perspective for Unitarian Universalists: You just never know, and so we remind each other to hold open a space for uncertainty. It’s Allan Watts’ “wisdom of insecurity” of which I spoke in December.
This is, to be sure, a double-edged uncertainty: It allows that what we think of as “good” is always possible, no matter how things look. And it allows that what we think of as undesirable or “bad” is also always possible, no matter how things look.
That flip side is a particular downer if we have anchored ourselves in optimism rather than hope.
OPTIMISM vs HOPE
Many wise persons make a distinction between optimism and hope, and do so in a variety of ways. Lately I’m contemplating Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s take on it.
In his conversations with the Dalai Lama, captured in The Book of Joy, Archbishop Tutu said that optimism “depends on feelings more than the actual reality. We feel optimistic, or we feel pessimistic.” Optimism is not a very solid foundation, he suggests. It is too subject to the mercurial nature of our feelings and our changing circumstances.
In an online article in Medium, Sharon Ackman relays the story of Jim Collins’ interview with Commander James Stockdale (in Good to Great):
“…during the Vietnam War several thousand American servicemen were captured by the North Vietnamese, and taken as prisoners of war. They were held in tiny cells where they were tortured, beaten and starved. Some were kept for years in solitary confinement. At the end of the war, only 591 returned home.”
. . . Medal of Honor recipient Commander Stockdale was later asked who had not made it out of the camps. “That’s easy,” he said. “It was the optimists.”
He continued, “…they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again.”
“It sent those POWs on a wild rollercoaster of false hope and delusion, only to come crashing down,” writes Ackman. “It shattered their endurance and ultimately their will to live. As Stockdale [recalled], ‘they died of a broken heart.’”
Ackman concludes that it was pessimism that had helped the survivors to survive. I would suggest that it was realism and hope that allowed them to survive, rather than pessimism. Either way, optimism did not serve them well.
Now, hope,” Archbishop Tutu says, “is different in that it is based not on the ephemerality of feelings, but on the firm ground of conviction.” Commander Stockdale, of his own surviving said, “I never lost faith in the end of the story, I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life.”
One can feel happy, one can feel optimistic, but one doesn’t feel hope, so much as have hope. “I believe with steadfast faith that there can never be a situation that is utterly, totally hopeless,” said Tutu.
I.e. there is always a possibility for good, for benefit. You just never know.
“Hope is deeper [than optimism,]: Tutu said, “and very, very close to unshakeable. It’s in the pit of your tummy. It’s not in your head. It’s all here,” [(pointing to abdomen). At the gut level] – a “dogged, inextinguishable hope.”
NOT THE EASY PATH
These days, when people tell me they are looking for hope, when I’m wanting to find hope, I’m aware that what we are saying, most of the time, is that we want to feel better. We don’t want to feel the discomfort or pain of despair.
Many of us have been telling each other stories about how we’ve been numbing ourselves in response to national and world events – binge watching television, overeating, drinking, over-working, over-functioning, staying in bed, distracting ourselves in any number of ways …
Archbishop Tutu offers a helpful insight. He points out that despair and cynicism and resignation are, in essence, self-soothing postures in their own right. They form an easy, self-serving, soothing path, as much as we might complain about them. They don’t merely lead to numbing, they are themselves forms of numbing.
We complain about them, but feelings of despair, resignation and cynicism ease (things) by letting us off the hook, in that they do not require what Tutu calls “the raw vulnerability and tragic risk of hope.” We draw on despair to protect ourselves from the real vulnerability and risk of hope.
Tutu says that, “To choose hope is to step firmly forward into the howling wind, baring one’s [skin] to the elements, knowing that, in time, the storm will pass.”
The good news (well, it’s all good news, I just wanted something easier for once), the good news, the saving news, is that we are not alone.
ANNE LAMOTT STORY Part 1
In her recent book, Almost Everything: Notes on Hope, Anne Lamott writes of her lifelong obsession with the thought of jumping when she is in high places from which jumping might be possible. She does not see this as suicidal, but the thought has energy. Anne made an agreement with her psychiatrist that whenever she had the thought of jumping, she would tell whoever she was with
“As you might expect,” writes Lamott, “this admission tended to throw off my companions, who saw it as a buzzkill”
When she dutifully tells [the people she is with,] they “usually want to have little talks about the preciousness of life, [and] permanent solutions to temporary problems.”
“Blah blah.”, she writes.
“Only three words spoken to [her] at these times have ever helped.”
ANNE LAMOTT STORY Part 2
Anne was invited to offer a lecture and a sermon in Cairo, Egypt. Her host in Cairo, a Coptic minister drove her up Mokattam Mountain to spot overlooking the area where tens of thousands of garbage collectors sort the city’s garbage
Anne and the minister walked to within a few yards of the cliff’s edge. She thought about jumping, of course. “How could I not?” she writes.
So she cleared her throat and said shyly to the minister: “I have to tell you something sort of embarrassing. I promised my psychiatrist I would tell whomever I was with when I was in any high place that since childhood, whenever I’m very, very high up, I think about jumping.”
“He didn’t miss a beat,” she writes. With a wave of his hand he said, “Oh, who doesn’t?”
And the energy of the thought of jumping lifted.
THE LIMITS OF HOPE
There are all kinds of ways to learn that we are not alone, one of the ways we anchor hope here (gut), rather than here (head). Sometimes it’s as simple as that Coptic minister’s variation on “me too,” awareness that other people feel or think in similar ways, or when someone really sees us or listens to us.
In the most challenging times in our lives, it’s a deeper need and realization – to know that no matter how tragic and painful and hopeless our circumstance seems, someone else, somewhere has experienced the same thing, or much, much worse, …and has survived in body and/or in spirit, and been able to find meaning, connection, and even joy beyond that experience.
In that light, I do want to acknowledge the limits of hope, in a way that points us forward.
OF DEEP LOSS
Between the date I interviewed for an internship in Massachusetts, and the date the position began, a beloved young woman, a member of the congregation I would be serving, was murdered by her boyfriend. It was a tragedy for that entire community, that congregation, and, of course, the family.
At the congregation’s annual auction fundraiser, the mother of that young woman purchased the opportunity to name a sermon to be preached by the minister. “Got hope?” she titled it.
As he often did, the minister sought ideas and wisdom for the sermon from colleagues as well as from staff. I usually need time to consider answers to such queries, but I responded with uncharacteristic speed.” It was not my wisdom, this time, but wisdom I had learned from John Schneider, who mentored me in the ways of grief.
“Sometimes, some rare times, a person simply cannot have hope. Some experiences are so painful, that for a time, holding hope is not possible. In fact, the expectation that a person should have hope only adds to the burden, compounding the pain.” I shared the companion piece of John’s insight. “What is possible in such times, is that others can hold that person’s hope for them, until such time as they can hold it again themself.”
Of all the wisdom and insight that the minister shared with the grieving couple, this is the insight they found most helpful.
Knowing two Unitarian Universalist ministers whose daughters had been murdered, I offered to connect the couple to one of them, so these parents would know that they were not alone. Of course, they knew here (head) that they were not alone, but so they would also know here (heart) and here (gut) that they are not alone.
GETTING PERSPECTIVE & HAVING FAITH
The Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu have each been through tremendously tragic, painful experiences, and both are tremendously hope-filled. They both teach that part of what we need in order to cultivate hope is to keep things in proportion and to find a wider perspective. Understanding that you are not alone in your experience – is one powerful path to gaining perspective.
Archbishop Tutu says we must also have faith ….in something, in, if nothing else, “the very persistence of life to find a way.” I’ll share again Alan Watts definition of “faith as “an unreserved opening of the mind to the truth, whatever it may turn out to be.” In other words, faith in possibility. You just never know.
INTO THE ARMS OF OTHERS
But it’s another observation from Archbishop Tutu’s that I want to leave you with today. “Hope,” he said, is also nurtured by relationship, by community.”
“Despair turns us inward. Hope sends us into the arms of others.”
My experience is that not only does hope send us into the arms of others, being in the “arms” of others – in the hearts, compassion, witness, kindness and care of others – feeds our own sense of hope. Once again, it’s about not perceiving ourselves to be alone. Relationship is both a source of hope and the result of having hope…
In relationship, our capacity for vulnerability and risk, become key, and important for us to cultivate together. (This will be the focus of one of our services in March.)
To choose hope is to choose to reach out to others with whatever hope we do have. And to choose hope is to reach out to others in order to find the hope we are seeking. As Archbishop Tutu points out, “Hope is not generated in solitude.”
THE WHY OF IT…
I’m sorry, I can’t sell you some ready-made hope. But I will do my best to sell you on hope and to point you toward each other, so that you may find and strengthen hope in each other, and so that we will all be ready to hold hope for one another in the really tough times, when one of us cannot hold hope ourselves.
Anne Lamott says that “Love is why we have hope.”
It’s also true, I say, that hope is why we have love.
My hope is that this congregation, this community, becomes ever more a place where people can figure that out and cultivate both love and hope deeply and for the long haul.
You just never know.
May we be so.
SOURCES REFERENCED OR CITED
Ackman, Sharon. “Soldiers with this trait are survivors in life and war.” Medium. August 3, 2018. Online. https://medium.com/@sharonackman/soldiers-with-this-trait-are-survivors-in-war-and-life-2b7c6ad34afb
Bstan-ʼdzin-rgya-mtsho, Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, and Douglas C. Abrams. The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World. 2016. Print.
Collins, James C. Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap … and Others Don’t. New York, NY: HarperBusiness, 2001. Print.
Lamott, Anne. Almost Everything: Notes on Hope. 2018. Print.
Watts, Alan. The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety. New York: Vintage Books, 1951. Print.