Sermon from January 13: Beginning Again (text & audio)

Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister–

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.