I was taken a couple of weeks ago as I was standing with about 70 or 80 people in the basement of First Congregational Church downtown after one of the “We Do” actions by the Campaign for Southern Equality at Buncombe County’s Register of Deeds office. Seven same-sex couples, one after another, had just gone to the counter, asked for marriage licenses and been politely denied. It had been a carefully choreographed moment, as each of these has been, framed to bring attention to an injustice written into this state’s laws, their refusal to recognize the sanctity of commitments between people of the same gender, by the very people who seek that right.
For several of the participants, this was a return trip, only the most recent occasion when they had taken part in such an action. As we stood in the church hall, they were each given an opportunity to speak about the experience. What caught my attention was that in their reflections these women focused their remarks not so much on the moment of being turned back in the registrar’s office, but on the cheers that came from the dozens of people who awaited them outside.
No matter how often she does it, one woman told the group, she’s amazed every time by the warmth she feels in that moment. “The emotion doesn’t abate” were her words. It brought me back to what had been going through my own mind only a short time before.
As I loitered on the grass outside that nondescript office building in downtown Asheville, shifting my weight from foot to foot as these couples offered themselves to the unavailing machinery of bureaucracy I found myself reflecting for a moment on whether I was clear why I was doing this?
The action had come in the middle of a busy day and as time dragged on I had begun nervously eyeing my watch, thinking about the rest of the day, the commitments piled on my calendar. It wasn’t until the couples emerged from the building and smiled shyly as the dozens of us there hooted and cheered. It wasn’t until I heard the choke in their voices in their thanks to those gathered that it dawned on me again – oh, yes, that’s right: standing on the side of love.
In this congregation we argue that there are three dimensions in the religious life – within, the interior reflections that we each engage in to clarify for ourselves the source of our spirituality and what it demands of us; among, the ways we gather with each other to learn and grow, to share our lives and support each other; and beyond, the ways that we carry our own learning and reflections into our larger lives and in service to justice.
We tend to get the within piece, the individual search for meaning, pretty quickly. It is, after all, what got us in the door. We needed a religious community where there was room for us, where we weren’t going to get squeezed in a box or guilt-tripped, a place that was safe and accepted us fully so that we could explore our spiritual sides.
And the among piece comes with being a part of a community, finding our niche, people we can connect with, activities that engage us. This part comes easier for some than for others. More socially oriented people usually gather their clan or find their comfort spot pretty quickly, while some shyer folks can feel overwhelmed or marginalized. It’s a place where we as a community stumble at times and people can fall away. So, we work at building systems that help us all connect with each other and stay in touch.
The beyond piece is interesting. It’s not uncommon that people arrive at our congregation with a history of their own engagement with justice work. So, they don’t need to be persuaded that there’s a connection between their inner work and their work in the world.
And yet it has always seemed to me that we are less than clear about the nature of that connection, what creates that bridge. So, today let me be plain: the connection is love.
There. That was easy. Are we done? No, hardly.
Let’s step back a moment. I want to acknowledge that the word love can be and often is thrown around pretty freely. “I only did that/said that because I love you.” “We only hurt the ones we love.” Yadda, Yadda, right?
I’m reminded of the ambivalence I’ve experienced at times over the years among some people in our movement when we get started talking about love.
I remember years ago when I was still in seminary getting push-back from a long-time member at my home congregation after a service that I led. She said she objected to my using the word “love” to describe how we in the congregation sought to regard each other. “I would really describe it more as ‘respect’,” she told me.
And I remember some years ago us gathering in this sanctuary to talk through the key concepts that we wanted included in the mission statement for this congregation. Individual search for meaning, freedom, justice – all these came quickly. Love took a while to emerge.
So, what’s that about? Well, part of it, I think, has to do with what is often rightful skepticism. We’ve heard talk of love in other religious settings, and it can feel pretty squishy and even inauthentic, bound up, as it often is, with a theology we just don’t buy.
You remember the Peanuts cartoon: Lucy is taunting her younger brother, Linus, for his dreams of being a doctor. “You could never be a doctor,” she says. “You know why? Because you don’t love mankind. That’s why.” And Linus replies, “I love mankind. It’s people I can’t stand.”
And that’s the rub, isn’t it? Love, Love, Love. Yeah, great when we’re singing along with the Beatles, but less easy or obvious when we’re confronted with people acting in ugly or disrespectful ways.
In a recent article, the philosopher Stephen Asma writes that as nice as the idea of universalized love may seem, it’s not really how the world works. Empathy, he says, is not something that we can just conjure up by willing it so. Instead, in his words, it’s “a natural biological event – an activity, a process.”
“The feeling of care,” he writes, “is triggered by a perception or internal awareness and soon swells, flooding the brain and body with subjective feelings and behaviors (and oxytocin and opioids). Care is like sprint racing. It takes time – duration, energy, systemic warm-up and cool-down, practice and a strange mixture of pleasure and pain (attraction and repulsion). Like sprinting, it’s not the kind of thing you can do all the time. You will literally break the system in short order, if you ramp-up the care system every time you see someone in need. The nightly news would render you literally exhausted.”
Sure, our heart strings vibrate a bit in response to the suffering of others, but that’s nothing like what he calls “the kinds of active preferential devotions that we marshal for members of our respective tribes,” in others words, family and our circle of closest friends.
Now, there is certainly truth in what he says. We have special bonds to those closest to us that set our hearts racing. And to suggest that we can live in such a way as to raise our feelings about everyone we know – heck, everyone on earth – to that level is pretty foolish. But, really, that’s not what we’re talking about here.
Love, after all, has many dimensions. Yes, it applies to those with whom we are most intimate, but it also applies to other relationships as well in different ways. I think the theologian Paul Tillich puts his finger on it when he remarks that, “love is the moving power of life.” It is what drives everything to everything else. It is the way in which we and all that we care about are realized.
Some years ago, the writer Karen Armstrong, won a prize from the TED talks to come up with an idea for making the world a better place. Being a scholar of religion, she chose to investigate ways that religion, the source of so much divisiveness in the world, might help people live together in mutual respect.
The project she chose was to bring together leaders of a half dozen religious traditions to see if, working together, they could create what she called a Charter for Compassion that, in her words, “would restore compassion to the heart of religious and moral life.”
Her book, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, which T.S. read from earlier, lays out a program, distilled from teachings of the world religions, detailing how anyone might learn to cultivate compassion in their daily lives. Her program leads us through disciplines we might anticipate – cultivating empathy, mindfulness, compassion for ourselves, and so on.
But a key element, she said, is the admission of how little we really know about each other, that there is a mystery at the core of each of us that eludes our grasp. This, she noted, is part of what’s expressed in the Hindu greeting, “Namaste,” where, bowing with joined hands, one honors the sacred mystery of another. Too often, Armstrong says, our interactions with each other lack that reverence. Without thinking, we make blithe assumptions about others, often based on our own needs, fears, ambitions or desires.
But on occasion we are shaken out of our ordinary way of thinking. It may be an unexpected encounter, chancing on some natural beauty or coming on a particularly haunting piece of music.
In some way we experience what Armstrong identifies as a moment of what the Greeks call ekstasis, where for a time we step outside our own perspective and see the world from a different vantage.
This is the image that Jane Hirshfield’s poem suggests to me: a state of mind where we can identify with everything around us – the trees shedding golden leaves, the fish in the pond, the water itself – a place of deep appreciation, where for a moment we are given over to life, where our heart is calm and still, refusing nothing.
It is in such a place, I think, that we recognize love as the moving power of life, the power that carries us from our inner work within to our gathering among to our encounter with a larger world beyond us.
And, of course, this circuit continues, as our work beyond informs our work within that inspires our gathering and round we go again. The more practiced we become, the more easily our heart engages.
This, it seems to me, is much of the work we are doing here – inviting each other to engage our hearts at different stages, in different places. It will require risking at times and loosening our grip on old certainties. But in the end it is no great reach to locate ourselves in such a way so that we are standing on the side of love. It is where we want to be anyway.
As you approach Kelly Ingram Park on the outskirts of downtown in Birmingham, Alabama, there is nothing much to distinguish it. Filling a full city block, it’s planted with trees and crossed by meandering paths. It’s not until you enter and catch sight of the sculptures planted along the paths that you get a hint of the tumultuous events that were centered there, now half a century ago.
One depicts two children, life size, on one side of the path, looking stolidly through bars representing a jail on the other side of the path. Another depicts a water cannon on a tripod aimed at two children against a wall, one crouched over, the other facing the wall with her arms held in front of her, her back turned to the cannon.
The most arresting may be the sculpture that appears on the cover of your order of service depicting guard dogs leaping aggressively from walls on each side of the path with barely enough space for a person to walk between.
Last fall this park was the first stop on the Living Legacy Tour of Civil Rights sites of the South that I took part in. As one for whom most of the Civil Rights struggles of the 60s were mostly snatches of news clips reaching my pre-teen eyes or ears, it was a good place to start. Fifty years after those formative times we have lost many of the concrete reminders of what was going on and what was at stake then. But Kelly Ingram Park remains a place where history in its most graphic form is in our faces demanding to be known.
So, in this month of beginning when we also celebrate the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. I wanted to focus our reflection on Birmingham, a place where the Civil Rights struggle was reborn into a movement that transformed our nation and continues to challenge us today.
Protests against racial discrimination had their beginning in Birmingham in the early 50s, when a petition seeking the hiring of blacks as police officers was denied. In 1956, a newly formed Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, headed by Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, following up on the successful Montgomery bus boycott launched an action to integrate city buses there. It got nowhere, though. The leaders were arrested, and the powerful council headed by Bull Conner ruled that continued segregation was necessary to prevent “friction” between the races.
A high profile racial killing and repeated Klan cross burnings made many wary of going further. Over the next six years 17 black homes or churches were bombed with no arrests made, giving the city the nickname of “Bombingham.”
It wasn’t until January 1963, the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, that national civil rights groups came together to build a coordinated strategy for dealing with segregation in Birmingham. Most actions up until then had taken place in small towns. Birmingham was a complex and vibrant city, a center of the steel industry, and, despite small town ways, more cosmopolitan. Birmingham also posed a challenge in logistics – the recruiting and directing of many people – and enlisting allies. The local black clergy association, for one, was deeply suspicious of the group.
But the issue was heating up. The arrival of Freedom Riders in May 1961 brought renewed attention to segregation, and in May 1962 college students conducted a voter registration drive and “selective buying” campaign that severely reduced black purchases. Determined to move forward, a gathering that King chaired in Savannah, Georgia launched what became known as Project C, for Confrontation – a campaign of boycotts, marches and nonviolent resistance to start in Birmingham that spring.
Birmingham itself, though, was in transition. The city’s three-member council was being replaced by a nine-member council and mayor. Many moderate whites and their black allies saw this as a moment to end the Bull Conner era.
In the March election, just as the desegregation actions were beginning, Conner and his opponent, Albert Boutwell, were tied in the election for mayor. The moderates urged King to delay any actions, fearing a blow-up that would work to Conner’s favor. In the April run-off, Conner was defeated, but incredibly he and the other two commissioners refused to step down, leaving a divided government and Conner still in charge of the police.
The protests began the next day with lunch counter sit-ins, but most of the counters just closed down. Protests in subsequent days sputtered as well. Little was reported about them in the news media, and Boutwell, the new mayor, urged people of both races to, in his words, “calmly ignore what is not being attempted in Birmingham.”
Still, King was determined to go through with his plans. So, on April 12, Good Friday, he joined a protest march, violating a city injunction prohibiting him from leading demonstrations, and was arrested and jailed. In jail, he learned in a phone call to his wife, Coretta, that President Kennedy had called to ask her about him. But he was discouraged to find himself criticized in much of the national media as a radical, with Birmingham’s Mayor Boutwell, of all people, being quoted as calling for “mutual respect and understanding.”
But what really irked him was a letter published on the front page of the Birmingham newspaper from what are described as eight “leading Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish clerics” attacking the protests as “untimely”, saying they would “incite hatred and violence” and that such “extreme measures” were not justified.
These were the very people who at some level King had seen as allies, leaders who had objected to Governor George Wallace’s declaration of “segregation, now and forever!” at his inauguration only four months before. For him, it was an awakening, a moment of clarity. As he began scribbling on margin of the newspaper he discovered a new voice, a more universal, prophetic voice. He framed his indignation as personal disappointment, but the point he made was broader. He was zeroing in on the tamed and temporizing church, the one that affirmed high principle, but stepped away when the principle was most clearly at stake. Against the claims of clerics that he was creating tension, he invited them to observe something that from their place of personal privilege they had missed.
Those who were marching, he reminded them, “are not the creators of the tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive.” And leaving no question of how strongly he felt, he turned to a vivid metaphor, comparing racism to a boil that, rather than be ignored, “must be opened with all its pus-flowing ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light before it can be cured.” There was no turning back now. The stakes were too high.
Just how high became clear days after King was released from jail. Other movement leaders had been training high school students in non-violent methods, and when King returned they urged a bold shift in strategy. Rather than seeking to enlist fearful adults, it would be the children who would lead the next wave of marches.
On May 2nd at around 1 p.m. a group of about 50 high school students marched two abreast out of 16th Street Baptist Church singing “We Shall Overcome” as bystanders watched in Kelly Ingram Park across the street. They were promptly arrested by police for violating court injunctions and were loaded into paddy wagons. But no sooner was one group arrested than another group emerged from the church.
And so it continued throughout the day. By nightfall some 600 children were in police custody and the city was running out of places to put them. So, the next day the police strategy shifted from arrest to deterrence. Bull Conner ordered fire hoses brought in and as the children approached he warned them to turn back, “or you might get wet.” They did.
Many of the first group retreated after being soaked, but others just sat on the sidewalk and endured the spray. So, Conner ordered water cannons that forced the spray from two hoses into a single nozzle – devices said to be capable of stripping the bark off trees at 100 feet. Television cameras captured the spray from those hoses propelling children tumbling over and over down the street, as if in a high wind.
Meanwhile, organizers directed other groups of protesting children away from the hoses, outflanking firefighters with hoses. So, Conner ordered K-9 units to rush the demonstrators with dogs. City leaders and pundits criticized march leaders for putting children in danger, but King replied that these people showed no such tender solicitude when it came to the many deprivations these children endured due to segregation.
A couple of days of pandemonium ended with a truce of sorts between the march leaders and the city, but the tide had turned. As the protests continued, white business leaders began meeting secretly to talk about how to end this stand-off, and eventually King was brought quietly into the conversation. After several tense days, a settlement was announced that would integrate Birmingham’s public facilities – rest rooms, water fountains, lunch counters – release prisoners of the movement who remained in jail and set up a biracial committee to hear ongoing concerns.
The agreement left much to be done. Several bombings followed, including the home of King’s brother, A.D., and the motel where King usually stayed, followed by some rioting in response.
But the agreement held, and, what must have been sweet in King’s ears, a month later President Kennedy gave his first address on the subject of civil rights, and his words echoed King’s rhetoric in his Letter from the Birmingham City Jail:
“We preach freedom around the world, and we mean it,” Kennedy said, “And we cherish our freedom here at home. But are we to say to the world – and much more importantly, to each other – that this is the land of the free, except for negroes, that we have no second-class citizens, except for Negroes, that we have no class or caste system, no ghettos, no master race, except with respect for Negroes?” Extemporaneously, he added, “we owe them, and we owe ourselves, a better country.”
In one of the sad ironies of the Civil Rights movement, among those listening in his car radio to Kennedy’s address that night was Medger Evers, a field worker for the NAACP in Jackson, Mississippi. Evers’ wife had let the children stay up late to let them hear what their father thought of the speech. When Evers arrived home, he had barely gotten out of his car before he was shot with a deer rifle; he died shortly afterward.
King went on in August to give his electrifying speech in the March on Washington, but in Birmingham, controversy still surrounded desegregation. In September President Kennedy federalized National Guard troops to protect black students after a federal judge ordered that they be admitted to three public schools.
Only five days later, at 16th Street Baptist Church as preparations were being made for Youth Sunday – “The Love that Forgives” was the topic – a bomb exploded in a stairway of the church leading to the sanctuary and four girls preparing to take part in the service were killed. The city was stunned, and at a service where King spoke remembering the girls, 8,000 people attended, including 800 pastors of both races. A small black marker outside of 16th Street Baptist inscribed with the names of the murdered girls may be the most haunting memorial of the Civil Rights Era in Birmingham today.
50 years later, then, we are left wondering what this transformative time, only about eight months at a pivotal moment in American history, has to teach us.
Audre Lorde’s searing poem serves as a reminder of what was and remains at stake for people in such oppressed circumstances. It’s a perspective few of us here have ever glimpsed, of living on a shoreline where the simplest decisions – where to step, whom to talk to – are potentially life threatening, where fear is wielded by those in power as a weapon to silence, fear, even, of the rising and setting of the sun, of full or empty stomachs, fear that those we love will be snatched from us, fear that our voices will put us in danger or be misconstrued, yet knowing that silence perpetuates the soul-killing reality of their lives.
In the end, as Martin Luther King Jr. recognized, as the students pouring from 16th Street Baptist Church understood, it was better to speak, since as far as their oppressors were concerned, they were never meant to survive.
This is the awakening that King experienced while writing his letter from the Birmingham City Jail. The seeming moderation of the white clergy was in the end a repudiation of the black populace and their claim that their very being was at stake in the segregated South. Their call for order in the face of injustice and humiliation made clear where they stood on this crucial question of survival.
Return again, return again, return to the home of your soul.
And what’s remarkable is that facing that existential threat, King elected not to dismiss or demean his critics. Instead, he appealed to them to look to their hearts, to find that vital and hopeful essence within them and then see the same essence in those with standing up to high-power hoses and police dogs, to feel the deep human connection to each of them.
Return to who you are, Return to what you are.
Return to where you are born and reborn again.
By that essential nature – the light of human conscience, he called it – he appealed to them, too, to awaken, to see in these marchers people of dignity and worth, brothers and sisters in a struggle for freedom.
Return again, return again, return to the home of your soul.
Sad to say, it was an imaginative leap too large for most to make. And so, while the genius and moral strength of the Civil Rights movement won many victories for an oppressed people, we are left even today with a kind of spiritual deadness that pervades many conversations around race.
It may be, as Naomi Shihab Nye says, that too few of us have learned the “tender gravity” of kindness. Perhaps it is because we have not experienced or acknowledged the losses and the sorrows that have piled up around us, experiences, she tells us, that teach kindness as the deepest thing inside.
Amid all this tumult, the tragedies that continue to multiply, it may be that it is only kindness that makes sense anymore, kindness that makes no judgment, that simply sees in the other, one like ourselves.
It’s a continuing legacy from the struggles of Birmingham: that we might step beyond our comfort and risk coming to know the larger truth of our oneness as one people.
Even today, many years later, there is something in me that resists going there. It was 1999, with all its cosmological portent – the coming of a new century, a new millennium. But I didn’t attend to much of it, stuck as I was in my own “slough of despond,” as John Bunyan once called it.
After 20 years in newspaper journalism, 15 of them at one newspaper, steadily working my way up in positions of increasing prominence and visibility, I had, without entirely knowing how or why, been bumped out of a job I loved. Oh, I could say it wasn’t my fault, that it was economic pressure, pressures, really, that were affecting the whole industry that forced the cutbacks that my employer undertook.
I wasn’t the only one affected. Some people lost their jobs. At least I was still working. All the same, the position I ended up with didn’t feel like a plum. I had been a reporter with a byline with relatively flexible hours, hunting out and then writing stories in a field I enjoyed. My new assignment had me working second shift, parked in front of a computer for eight hours a day picking over other people’s copy.
To say I was unhappy doesn’t quite tell it. What it really felt like was repudiation, a judgment that I had been weighed and found wanting, that I had not simply failed but that I was, in fact, “a failure.” The metaphor that Bunyan offers in Pilgrim’s Progress is a good one. This place feels like a swamp where you wallow about, bedaubed by dirt, addled, unsure of any way out with this soul-sapping burden on your back, weighing you down.
Anticipating the direction where my life seemed to be taking me, I asked the people organizing worship services at the UU church we attended whether I might address the subject in a worship service. Sure, they said.
And thus emerged my sermon, “The Art of Failing.” I cringe a bit now looking back at it. I certainly felt very brave standing in front of those folks confessing my misfortune and asserting that there was some “art” to be found in that moment. We’ve all heard the talk – taking lemons and making lemonade, making “beautiful” failures that bring us to some transformative place. In the moment, though, it was hard to see how that happens. Most of what I remember feeling at the time was how hollow the message coming from my mouth felt in my own ears.
Failing isn’t something that we like to dwell on much, and the further on we get in our lives such losses feel less like setbacks and more like existential judgments. It’s said that when you’re in your 20s or early 30s you have this narrative running in your head – “I’m young, I have promise. I have everything going for me.” Setbacks, sure, but you recalibrate, lick your wounds a little and move on.
For me, this sermon came right about the time of my 46th birthday. Whatever narrative I might have thought I was living had faded, and the passing of time was taking on new weight. I was in need of a new story, but where would it come from?
Beginning again – it’s a fact of life. Jobs change, marriages fail, stuff happens. We need to let something go and find a new direction. Where do we start? It’s tempting to begin, as I did, by making our lives as full as possible. I began scrambling for free-lance writing jobs, bearing down on my resume and getting it around. All productive stuff, at one level, but also in many ways it was work to keep my frantic mind occupied. If I was busy, I wouldn’t have to dwell on the fear and sadness I was feeling. But at the same time this busyness kept me from opening to something new.
The Buddhist writer Pema Chodron remarks that fear often arises from a sense of poverty, a feeling that we are lacking something and we need to scramble somehow to find it and fill our gaping need.
We can’t relax with ourselves. Instead, we are preoccupied by this script that runs as if on a loop, repeating over and over, reciting our inadequacies. Wherever we go, it runs like elevator music, below the level of our consciousness, until every once in a while something happens that seems to reinforce this script. Then, the music swells and we’re reminded: there it is again, proof of our inadequacy.
Where’s the way out? I’ve suggested this month that we might think of the process of beginning as a discipline. Oddly enough, in this circumstance, beginning starts with a full stop. Like rebooting a balky hard drive, we need to disrupt the scripts and simply be present to ourselves: unrated, unevaluated, unjudged.
Let the busy mind settle down:
enter into a moment where we are not awaiting,
not hoping, not longing,
just welcoming, accepting.
In that space, Pema Chodron says, in time we experience a pause, as if awakening from a dream. Here we find a moment of what the Buddhist’s call maitri, a complete acceptance, or unconditional friendship with ourselves as we are. It’s not something new that suddenly arises. It’s not a matter of fixing or improving some debility, making up for some lack, but a settled awareness of and appreciation for who we are. It is in essence accepting our inherent worthiness.
Pema Chodron is careful to distinguish this from the phenomenon that she calls “self cherishing.” This is essentially the practice of seeking always to protect and comfort ourselves, seeking to assure that we are always happy and in no distress. To do this, though, we put up walls against potentially disturbing experience and become self-absorbed.
It is, as the Buddhists say, the root of all suffering, and it is the center of our experience of failure. Failure, after all, is the experience of falling short of our expectation. And where does the expectation come from? Well, it is the dream of the ego. We cherish this image that we have constructed of ourselves. We persuade ourselves that it is us, oh marvelous, wonderful us. We may even grow a feeling of entitlement. It’s what we’re due, after all. We’ve put in the time; we’ve hit the marks.
But, no. Sorry, not going to happen. We can rant, we can weep, we can withdraw, and still, there it is: evidence, in the end, not of our unworthiness, but of the unworthy expectations we have created for ourselves.
And here the Buddhists offer an interesting perspective that takes some reflecting to sort through. They say that we need to just sit with ourselves, letting go of the scripts, the expectations, the assignments we give to ourselves. And with all of that cleared out, something appears: something true, something good. And here’s where the twist comes in: Pema Chodron argues that as soon as we begin to know ourselves, we begin to forget ourselves. We no longer need to be so self-involved. From that settled place we not only fully appreciate ourselves, but we also appreciate others and the wider world.
The story is told that early in his career the writer E.B. White wrote a letter to his wife, Katherine Sergeant Angell saying that he felt like a failure and thought he ought to give up working at the New Yorker, where he was one of its treasured writers. Angell wrote back to say that whatever his misgivings, there was no denying that he was a writer, and a good one. “For you to give up now would be like a violinist good enough to perform in one of the four or five leading orchestras in the world giving up fiddling because he couldn’t be Heifetz. It doesn’t seem sensible for such a person to give up music, the thing he most loved in the world, because he can’t be Heifetz.
It’s a feeling that any of us knows. Given the chance, most of us wouldn’t have any trouble naming half a dozen people who perform whatever calling we may have better then we do.
And? None of that changes the truth that we live, how we are called to be who we are. It is ironic that one of the ways we best assure our own suffering is to create extravagant and heroic visions of ourselves – the best, the richest, the smartest, the foxiest, the suavest – images we can only disappoint.
Part of beginning again is correcting our vision, giving ourselves the space to see who we are, how the world is, the abundant reality we inhabit. I think this is what draws me to Wislawa Szymborska’s poem – her picture of life as scattered images, snapshots of seemingly random moments that knit themselves into our experience. The world for each of us is described not by some overarching scheme but by a collection of these moments – getting covered in leaves, stroking the fur of a dog, a nighttime conversation with the light off, stumbling on a stone, following a spark on the wind with our eyes.
They are our context. That doesn’t give them any privileged meaning, but they do locate us. They are the place where we begin. And so, perhaps life is less like the scroll of a heroic journey than a series of improv workshops. And we could hardly want a better guide on this path than Tina Fey.
So, here we are, you and I, entering this scene. One or another of us, or perhaps the leader of this workshop, or someone from the audience tosses a premise into our midst. What do we do? Well, calling the game off or withdrawing into ourselves isn’t an option. We’re in this. The only way forward is through.
So, what does Tiny say? The first rule of improvisation is: agree. Don’t question the premise, don’t dispute the scene. Accept it and then engage willingly with those that you’re thrown in with. Our own ego fades into the background as we give ourselves to the circumstances before us. Start with a “Yes,” Tina says, and see where that takes you.
But don’t stop there. In improvisation, we need to do more than just say “Yes” to the situation. We also need to add something of our own – our own insight, our own compassion, our own genius to the situation. This doesn’t mean pontificating or philosophizing or otherwise commenting on the situation at hand. It means stepping in and helping to advance the action, to move the situation forward.
That’s the second rule of improvisation. Don’t be afraid to contribute. Forget about second-guessing yourself. “Oh, I don’t think it‘s good enough.” Launch into it. Anything that keeps the action moving will keep the scene alive.
And in making your contributions don’t be timid or tentative. The least helpful addition to the scene is the offering of questions. What’s going on? Where are we? Who are you? Your guess is as good as mine. In posing questions, we take ourselves out of the scene and put the onus on others to move it forward. Take ownership of your perspective, your insight, your vision. You may open a wonderful new direction for the scene to take.
And that, of course, leads to what Tina Fey calls “the best rule,” the fundamental assumption underlying all improv work: There are no mistakes, only opportunities!
Really? Oh, gosh I don’t know. I mean, sure, this is fun – life is an improv workshop. I get it. But there are no mistakes? I don’t know about you, but I make all kinds of mistakes, and some of them are real whoppers. Only opportunities? Isn’t that a little Pollyannaish?
Well, OK. Let me tweak that a little. Yeah, we make mistakes. Perhaps a better way to put it is: there are no failures. Failure, remember, implies exhausting our resources, coming to an end. Our mistakes do not bring us to an end: they merely bring us up short.
Like working through an improv scene that gets convoluted and confused, we discover that we need to shift gears and find a different path. It may not be newspaper journalism any more. Perhaps it’s a line of work that not only provides an outlet for writing but also opens up my heart.
So, yes, opportunities: happy accidents, in Tina Fey’s words. We are offered many opportunities in our lives to begin again: to find our callings, to begin new relationships, to let go of unhelpful scripts. And we begin by making friends with ourselves, the jumble of experience, insight and aptitude that we carry into the abundant reality of the world.
In the end, it’s enough. We’re enough. So may it be.
Music was the center of this single service at the year’s end. Together, we sang and learned about some of our favorite hymns, rounds, and chants. All voices were welcomed for this intergenerational service. (Audio of this service cannot be published on the website due to copyright laws.)