I have a quirky, old VCR tape that’s still a favorite, something I plug into the player – yes, we still have one – about once a year. The film’s called “Defending Your Life.” Anyone else know it?
It appeared back in 1991, written, directed and starred in by a young Albert Brooks, together with Meryl Streep and Rip Torn. It’s one of those existential comedies – full of clever lines while at the same time brooding on the quandaries of existence. OK, yes, just the thing for a minister.
Brooks plays a kind of schlemiel – marginally successful, but divorced from an unhappy marriage and unsure what he wants in life – who, after buying a status symbol of a car – a BMW – runs into a bus. He comes to consciousness of sorts being wheeled with dozens of mostly older others into what appears to be a convention hotel in a place that is announced as “Judgment City.”
The group is told that they have just died and have come to have their lives weighed to determine whether they are ready to “move on.” We’re never told exactly what that is, but it’s clearly a good thing – kind of like moving up an escalator of existence.
The alternative is not a trip to hell – good universalists that they are – but, from the film’s standpoint, perhaps as bad: being sent back to Earth for another try. This doesn’t go on forever, though. Brooks’ character, Daniel, learns that after getting sent back a certain number of times, we may just get thrown away. After all, the universe needs some quality control.
Over several days, Daniel undergoes a trial – complete with judges, prosecutor and defense counsel – where his life is examined. What they attend to is what progress he made in at freeing himself of his fears. Fear, he learns, is the central hazard of our earthly existence, something we must rid ourselves of to “move on.” Of course, there are also fun touches like being able to eat anything he wants and never gain weight, and visiting the “Past Lives” pavilion – hosted by Shirley MacLaine – where Daniel sees himself as an African man being chased by a lion.
It’s clear early on that the odds of Daniel “moving on” are slim, while the chances of Streep’s character, Julia, are a seeming sure thing. Yet, somehow they connect and, even in Judgment City, they fall in love. Is this coupling doomed, or could it be saving for them both? I won’t tip my hand, except to say that the film IS a comedy.
It is just a plot device, but still it’s an interesting notion. If our lives truly were judged, wouldn’t it be on how we responded to our fears? When I think of all that I’ve done or not done that got me into trouble or that I most regret, I have to admit that fear was at the heart of it – something that either kept me from action or propelled me into a foolish response.
Look at the world around us. Isn’t fear what lies at the heart of our greatest ills? War, prejudice, neglect, abuse? Fear locks us up and shuts us down. We become reactive – the old response of fight, flight, or freeze – and niceties like reasoned consideration and compassionate response are thrown out the window.
It’s not that we can avoid fear entirely – there are times when there’s good cause to be wary, and faced with immediate threats we need to act. The problem comes when fear becomes a miasma that colors our living. As Daniel puts it in “Defending Your Life,” it’s like a knot in our stomachs that never goes away.
Today I want to suggest one path that might help release us from our fears, and it ties in with our worship and small group theme this month: Imagination. When we engage our imaginations, we relax our dread fear of the circumstances in which we find ourselves and new possibilities emerge.
We remember, after all, that among religious traditions fear is a great spiritual teacher. For example, in the stories of both Jesus and the Buddha encounter with fear is a pivotal moment in the evolution of their ministries.
In the Bible, the moment comes after Jesus is baptized by John, and – we’re told – is led by the Spirit into the wilderness for 40 days. There Satan tempts him in several ways to abandon his calling. Each is an encounter where Jesus’ imaginative response turns his tempter aside.
First, after many days of fasting, Satan appears and says. “Why be hungry? If you were the son of God, you could turn this stone into a loaf of bread.” Jesus deflects the question of his theological status and merely replies, “One does not live by bread alone.”
Then, Satan takes him to the top of a temple and demands, “If you are the son of God, you could throw yourself off and not be hurt, for the angels would catch you.” Again, Jesus deflects and says he will not put God to the test.
Finally, Satan takes him to the top of a high mountain and shows him all the kingdoms of the world and says, “I will make all of this yours if you’ll worship me.” But Jesus won’t be moved: “No. I will serve only God.” Thereafter he begins his teaching in Galilee.
At the time of his enlightenment, Gautama also undergoes a series of tests – three trials – at the hands of Mara, the demon king. His first test is not food but sex. Mara sends his beautiful daughters to seduce Gautama, but he will not be moved from his meditation.
Then, Mara sends an army of horrid demons to attack him with swords, arrows, spears and clubs. But Gautama sees them not as weapons but as flowers, and they fall harmlessly to the ground.
Finally, Mara sends whirlwinds and earthquakes that howl around Gautama and shake the ground beneath him. From the middle of all that Mara calls out: “Prove that you are worthy of enlightenment.” Gautama replies by putting out his hand and touching the earth in front of him. The earth is my witness. And with that he sinks into a meditation of some 40 days from which he emerges as the Buddha, the enlightened one
The parallels in these stories are fascinating in many ways, but for our purposes today I’d like to direct us to a larger message underlying both of them. Before either of these teachers could begin his ministry, he had to confront a few things. They are embodied in fearful demons or accusers, but it’s plain that they reside in themselves, indeed in each of us.
The first is the temptation of sensual pleasure, which in its essence represents the fear of never having enough. It is a craving for sensation that can be addictive. The more we feed it, the more we need, and we are never satisfied.
The second is the fear for our wellbeing. We perceive threats to ourselves that are in fact empty. We give energy to our critics or to those who seek to take from us through passive aggression. Resistance here is simply refusal to engage.
Third, is the fear embodied in the bully’s threat, a puffed up challenge to our ego, the drive to be a player, to impose our will on the world. Remember that high-flying figure from the 1980s – Wall Street’s Masters of the Universe, who the novelist Tom Wolfe lampooned?
Such an inflated image of our own importance is a fanciful delusion that disconnects us from the real world, from who we really are. As in the Buddha’s gesture, we need to be grounded, to embrace with humility our own deepest knowing, something it takes time to find, something we achieve more through listening than speaking, more through compassion than achievement, something to which we might give many names – perhaps one of them, God.
These are the kinds of responses that open to us when we use our imaginations to disconnect from the electric charge that fear sends out. We see that what keeps us from living into who we are is often the fierce clutching of our own hands.
The Quaker writer Parker Palmer takes note of the fact that many spiritual traditions hold out the hope that we can escape the paralysis of fear and come to encounter others and even challenging situations in ways that don’t threaten us but instead serve to enrich our work and our lives.
This hope, he says, is embodied in the phrase “be not afraid.” This phrase is not suggesting that we should not have our fears. Fears are inevitable and even necessary. But, as Palmer puts it, “we do not need to be our fears.”
In his book, The Courage to Teach, Parker Palmer tells the story of a shop teacher in a group he once worked with. The man was an impressive figure – six-feet-six and 240 pounds with an athletic build and deep voice.
For some years, though, he and the school principal had been caught up in an escalating argument. The principal wanted the teacher to attend a training to modernize the shop, but the teacher insisted that all that stuff was just a fad.
One day, Palmer says, the teacher arrived at the group to say that the cycle had been broken. The principle had made his demands, but this time the shop teacher responded differently. “I still don’t want to go to that institute,” he said, “but now I know why. I’m afraid – afraid I won’t understand it, afraid my field has passed me by, afraid I am a has-been as a teacher.”
There was a silence, and then the principal spoke: “I’m afraid, too. Let’s go to the institute together.” They did, Palmer writes, and the experience reclaimed and deepened their friendship and revitalized the shop teacher.
We inhabit a universe where the smallness of our “I” often makes us feel dwarfed against the vastness of the “not I,” where we can feel like isolated atoms bouncing against unyielding walls or though unending emptiness.
It’s a sobering picture, and maybe with the winter settling in and troubling reports of war and prejudice topping the news it can feel all too real. But it is an illusion. The truth behind our fears is one of deep and abiding connection. We can see it when we look for it, but we’re not always inclined to look. As Parker Palmer puts it, the way we move beyond the fear that destroys our connectedness is to reclaim the connectedness that takes away fear. That may sound circular, he says, but that’s the way the spiritual life is. The initiative lies with us.
(Here I tell extemporaneously the story of Nik Wallenda who on November 4 walked on a steel cable connecting Chicago skyscrapers 600 feet above the Chicago River. The lessons I learned from Nik about dealing with fear here is that he practiced precise conditions of the walk for some months before attempting it, that the cables was carefully prepared the day of his walk and that he prepared for failure, so that if he were to be dislodged from the cable he would grasp the cable and wait to be rescued. He practiced holding onto the cable for 30 to 40 minutes at a time.)
So, it’s true. Our fears do not need to lock us in. Indeed, the most formidable locks that hold us in place are of our own devising. Pema Chodron is another wise person who has written about on this. “Although we have the potential to experience the freedom of the butterfly,” she writes, “we mysteriously prefer the small and fearful cocoon of ego.”
Ah, ego again: that fearful, fortified place where we hide, a place that we persuade ourselves is safe, yet that shelters us from what we most want and need – connection. This isn’t just some intellectual construct. It’s something we feel in our guts. Our hearts pine for it, even when we fool ourselves with the pretense of indifference.
But this ache, Pema Chodron insists, is not something that should trouble us. It is, in fact, a blessing, for it directs us where we need to go: outside of ourselves, into communion with others, into a place where we come to know the great unity of all things that we inhabit now and ever will.
From time to time you may be inclined to acquaint yourself with the vast plenitude of being in which we find ourselves. You may, say, head out for a nice walk in the woods, where the glory of these mountains is on display before you. As lovely as it is, though, there are those of our fellow beings out there who may not welcome your company, in whose poor eyesight larger creatures like us appear as threats. Given that, when frightened, they, too, may be threats to us, it is wise to keep your distance.
But rather than walk with dread, fearing each turn in the path, why not bring your imagination to bear, so to speak. Why not enter into an imaginative conversation with this fellow being: nothing fancy, since its understanding is limited.
Perhaps we can imagine ourselves reaching across that seemingly unbridgeable distance between species, beginning with simple awareness, a meeting of respect: