Below are the speeches from some of UUCA’s youth at the February 16 Youth Sunday services.
As humans, and, perhaps more relevantly, as humans living through an age blossoming with industrial science and exploration, we are continuously taught the values of comparison. My generation, born to become accustomed to the mundane normalities of an unprecedented age of technology, have been bombarded, over time, to look first at our surroundings before coming back to congratulate ourselves on matters both pressing and insignificant. Since I was an underclassman of elementary school, teachers, mentors, and other role models have encouraged me to measure my sense of success upon the successes of others. Vices to promote comparison–even healthy comparison–surround us on an hourly basis. It’s impossible not to compare ourselves and our accomplishments to those of others when we live in a time where the tools to find almost all of the information that we could possibly ask for are as accessible as couple clicks on our smartphones to grasp and internalize.
Paralleled with the growing importance our society is continuing to place upon self-love and the growing awareness we have for the consequences that develop due to a lack of it, the reality of just how much comparing we really do between ourselves and others is confusing and overwhelming. In the end, however, like most problems we have to solve, the answers ultimately lie within us. Finding personal satisfaction is so difficult in a society that measures each individual success in a quota or a goal, but when we learn to accept ourselves, both for our strengths and for our shortcomings, we can begin to own the truth that it is not up to others to determine the things that make each of us beautiful, unique, and valuable.
May we light this chalice today as a reminder to strive towards satisfaction with the little things that make each of us special without the nagging voice of a comparison.
Way back on the other side of this winter, amidst warm days and back-to-school fervor, before the words “Youth Sunday” had ever left any of our cynically crinkled mouths, I was presented with a challenge that required more insight than I had time for; My governor’s school essay endowed me with significant power: specifically, I was to identify a problem that plagued society, and detail how I would go about correcting it.
The essay was quite open-ended, leaving the array of applicants an opportunity for political rant, contemplative spiritual discussion, or intense analysis of human nature. While I try to allocate a specific slice of my effort towards considering the needs of others, I admit that I can be quite selfish at times. This state of mind can be forgivable, since it is the default setting of being; that is, the only thoughts and feelings you are acutely aware of are your own. Still I am slightly ashamed to admit that I bypassed the most obvious and the most rampant plagues on the population and selected one from the very short list of problems that I am, in my excessively comfortable lifestyle, familiar with.
One snowy morning, I was absent-mindedly flipping through my psychology textbook when I came across an interesting paradox. According to numerous surveys, those who valued happiness tended to be less happy than those who didn’t view it to be important. Though the finding was presented as one of the science’s many conclusions that contradict common sense, as a person who is practically living the concept described, I can’t say I was even remotely surprised. Just flip the words around a bit and I think you’ll see: Those who are the most unhappy, the most dissatisfied with their lives, view the trait they lack as being the most crucial to their actualization. In the end it’s just another vicious cycle of wanting what you don’t have.
The night before it was due, and not without excessive use of the backspace button, I constructed an essay that I hoped would be taken as original rather than trivial. It detailed a looming dissatisfaction that I have noticed not only in myself but in others as well, fueled by a society in which worth is measured by letters on a report card or digits on a paycheck. The feeling of inadequacy that results from such assessment has a way of eating you from the inside out, making you question what not too long ago you thought to be happiness.
To those of you who are still wondering how I proposed to solve this persistent problem: It was really quite simple, and reading back through, I hope not too naive. I am not arrogant enough to assert experience where there is none, and I have been sparing, at best, with the phrase “I understand.” Yet I believe sympathy can be a worthwhile substitute for empathy, and thus the essence of my solution could be summarized in one word: Listen.
I encourage you to listen to the reflections today, intended to address a concern that is common despite its ugliness. General unhappiness is an intricate phenomenon, yet one that can often be at least slightly alleviated not with grandiose or material musings but with genuine connections to oneself, others, or a higher power. I miss the days when smiles would frequent the faces of those close to me, and perhaps it is my discontentedness that actually fuels my capacity for hope, but I am not willing to accept the notion that those days are behind us.
This reading comes from Aldous Huxley’s book Brave New World. In this scene, the “Savage” refers to John, who by birth is considered an outsider to both the utopian world of technology and the Reservation where so-called primitive people live. He is having a debate with Mustapha Mond, the Resident World Controller of Western Europe, about his disillusionment with utopian society. He argues that its technological wonders and soulless consumerism are no substitute for individual freedom, human dignity, and personal integrity. Reading follows but cannot be published on our website due to copyright laws.
“Life isn’t measured by the breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.” When I first heard this quote, it stuck in my mind. Why is life not measured like this in the first place? Why had it taken me 16 years to realize it? So I promptly went home, searched Pinterest for a crafty idea, and painted a sign that is now hanging above my bed. It’s the first thing I see in the morning and the last thing I see at night, and I swear, in the few months that I’ve had it hanging, it has certainly changed my thinking about my life.
Earlier this year, in our YRUU class, we watched a TED talk entitled “Before I die, I want to…” In it, a New Orleans woman turned an abandoned building in her neighborhood into a chalkboard wall, where people would write their dreams and goals for their lives. This poignant video got us thinking, and the next week, when we walked into class, one of the walls in our Jefferson house classroom was turned into a “Before I die…” board. Over time it filled up with dreams large and small, as a tangible reminder of what we should strive for in life.
But while the wall was supposed to be a positive reminder of our life’s ambitions, it quickly began to have a very different connotation to me. Instead of making me feel encouraged about where my life was headed, it made me feel like none of my dreams were attainable. I couldn’t just hop on a plane and travel the world; I was no closer to moving into a perfect house in a big city, or getting a job that I love and starting a family. I began to realize that though my dreams were big, and always will be big, they might not be accessible at this moment.
So then, what do I strive for? Where does my life go now?
I don’t think that we should give up our big dreams because they won’t happen tomorrow. But, I do think smaller, more manageable goals are the way to go. Each day, I try to do three things- make someone laugh, help someone in need, and do something fun for myself. Maybe I’ll talk to a friend that I don’t see any more, or I’ll invite a girl in my class who just moved to America to sit with me at lunch. Some days I succeed, and others I don’t, but I’m constantly trying, and that’s what matters.
I also began to notice the little things that made me happy during the day—the simple, mundane, everyday activities that make me smile. When my favorite song comes on the radio; laughing hysterically with my friends. Acing a test at school when I had been convinced I was going to fail or cooking dinner with my mom. I began to see that while I wasn’t going to drive off in a new Ferrari anytime soon, my life was pretty great.
We live in a materialistic world that equates happiness with success. The bigger your paycheck, the larger your house, the more people think that you have it all. But that’s not necessarily the case. I think that personal happiness comes when you yourself are satisfied with your life, not what other people think is the ideal lifestyle. By appreciating what occurs in my life, I’ve begun to see that while my life may not be perfect, it’s what I’ve got, and I should make it count. I’m grateful for the positives, and I know that the trials I face are only going to make me stronger. I say thank you more, I frown less, and I understand that while it’s not always going to be a walk in the park, I’m going to make sure that I embrace whatever happens with open arms and gratitude. Because life isn’t measured by the breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.
Do you feel like something’s missing from your life? Do you feel sad, blue, or unhappy? Do you feel trapped or caught? Are you dissatisfied with your life? Well, chances are popping a Prozac is not the answer. Instead, I’m here to tell you about the wonderful new discovery that is human interaction. Now while this may seem a little odd coming from a 16 year old that uses Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Vine, Ask fm, Snapchat, Path, and Tumblr, I’m here to give a speech on human interaction. Lol.
Before I begin, I want to dismiss one major idea. As we proceed through life, we become increasingly self-sufficient. This can eventually lead to the idea of “rugged individualism”, which roughly means you think you can go through life and be totally satisfied without the help of others. I’ve come to the conclusion that this idea is #bogus.
Let’s start with the assumption that you’re happier when with your friends. Yes this is true, it’s been proven, whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert, you’re probably happier when you’re with other people. Remember this doesn’t mean you have to always be socializing, it’s also ok to occasionally spend a day binge watching breaking bad. It only means you need to occasionally leave your bedroom and share your happiness with other people. It’s often said that happiness is contagious. Well, it just so turns out that the people that said this may have been on to something. On multiple occasions, scientific studies have shown that there is a correlation between your happiness and your friends happiness. One study by Psychologist James H. Fowler even found a correlation between your happiness, and your friends’ friends’ friends’ happiness. So next time somebody gets onto you for having 900 Facebook friends, you now have an answer.
That brings me to my point about technology. [Mira Skit]. Instances like the one Mira just portrayed, are becoming more and more common as we attempt to “modernize” ourselves. I think it’s important to address this, as it seems to be an intergenerational issue. The other day I was scrolling through my twitter feed when I noticed something by a friend of mine from middle school. It said “The day you reach 10,000 messages with someone is pretty special:) we’ve grown so close these past two months. #younglove #forever”. This is just one of many examples of the sad reality of some teenage relationships. Basing any kind of human relationship off of your connections of a social networking site is no substitute for real communication. I mean, if you chatted every day on Facebook with Anna Long from Taiwan, that wouldn’t make you best friends. So cross off creating a twitter account for yourself from your to do list for satisfaction.
As a final point, it’s important to note that family and friends have a lasting impact on your satisfaction with life. Real sciencey people describe this as “hedonic adaptation” : our tendency to quickly adapt to our changing circumstances. This is why people who win the lottery, for instance, usually find themselves at the same level of satisfaction they had before they won. Basically what happens is, you win the money, you buy some stuff with that money, and in a relatively short time, you’re fairly accustomed to your new life style, and your levels of satisfaction return to normal. Close relationships on the other hand, appear to have lasting impacts on levels of satisfaction for years to come. Instead of quickly returning to their previous levels of satisfaction, people engaged in close relationships tend to remain happier for longer periods of time. Now Federal law requires I list the side effects of this new medication for dissatisfaction called human interaction so I’ll list them for you now. “Side effects may include: being content, happiness, and above all satisfaction.
It was one of those cold November days where nobody’s used to the below-freezing chill, or the fact that the sun sets at practically 4 o’clock, and three of my friends sat cuddled before a fire sipping hot cocoa. Yet, somehow amidst the cookies and music, we got to discussing global warming and the ever-impending doom of society. I flicked off every single lamp in the room, and now our little huddle was solely lit by the flickers of the fire.
Our little quartet was made of three UUs and a Southern Baptist—Emma, Kenzie, and her boyfriend Bear. Kenzie leaned back on the couch and said . . .
“Oh, Bear, I’ve been meaning to ask you this—what do you imagine Heaven to be like?”
He leaned back on the couch, taking in the long inhale of a good question. He tasted the air, it was laced with the lingering scent of cookies and wood smoke.
And then he told us about how his heaven would be like Earth but with everyone you never met, but if you had met would have been your best friend. And how everyone you missed would be there, except the people who hadn’t made it there yet, but they would come later, and how there would be plenty of work, because he couldn’t imagine the idea of never having to work—because that would be boring. And I looked at the fire, as it quickly dwindled away; the coal embers wavered like shreds of pastry. I smiled; it was beautiful.
As UUs, I think Emma, Kenzie, and I can all attest that we listened . . . wistfully. We have never had such faith in an afterlife like the one he spoke of. Yet, I know that I also listened with ever-constant skepticism—wondering what work wouldn’t get boring in eternity, and what about all the people he loved who he believed would go to hell.
But, my point is not that he believes some of us may go to hell, or that heaven would get boring, but that this Heaven he spoke of was beautiful and grounding. When he spoke of heaven, he stared off into the fire with a sense of contentment that I have rarely ever seen on Bear’s face. I sipped my hot chocolate, tasting that luminescent happiness of heaven.
One of my friends once said that Atheists wouldn’t be so bad if they could stop condescending religious people as stupid. I’m pretty sure I slapped him, but his blatant generalization, as most stereotypes are, is rooted in a truth. A truth I find very sad. For, ignoring the many flaws my skeptic-raised brain can nit-pick in every religion including our own, faith as a whole has the power to give so much support, hope, guidance, and community to people. There is a reason humanity has created religion after religion. It is not, and will never be, stupid. With all of our critical thinking prowess, perhaps this human species thinks a bit too much about this universe that we are inexplicably dropped into. Spiritual satisfaction is hard to come by.
When one dies, there are always two sets of three letters – one, being RIP. Rest in Peace: in a world of such tension, turmoil, and dissatisfaction, death if anything seems to deserve rest. With peace goes the other three letters. “He was at peace with GOD.” God.
Please don’t cringe. I know how the occasional Unitarian tends to wince at this word, but we really shouldn’t be too avoidant. The word itself is just three letters, right? And yet, dang, those three letters are undeniably the three most powerful scribbles in human history.
But, when we think “at peace with God,” I think that really means at peace with yourself and your morals: to be satisfied with the way you have spent your life, to forgive yourself for your sins (and I don’t mean Biblical sins as much as the regrets of all poor decisions made), and to accept death.
I find that pretty formidable as a 17-year-old high school student that has not really done much with her 17 years. And honestly, writing this speech feels horribly inadequate when half of my friends suffer from recurring depression, and two of my friends have seriously contemplated suicide. Who am I to profess to you, to this wealth of memories, pain, and wisdom, that I know the secret of satisfaction? The idea of that makes me feel sick. I don’t know if I believe satisfaction is possible, furthermore, I don’t know if I believe it is desirable. For, generally speaking satisfaction breeds complacency, and complacency breeds stagnancy. In such a broken world, being satisfied with everything would either be naive or sociopathic. Rather, I think it is spiritual satisfaction, sanity and survival that I stand here striving for. I have no instructional manual for satisfaction; I think that’s something one has to construct for themselves. But personally, I believe that accepting the dichotomy of joy and pain, understanding the lack of definite answers, and finding peace with what is solid is integral to at least part of that manual on satisfaction.
I laugh when I say my best friends, the mountains, and my favorite books are my spiritual rocks. But to me, the fact that they actually exist in such meager perfection is reassuring and humbling. Someone’s rock may be the promise of heaven, and I think it’s important for all of us to respect it. But as much as we need solid rocks of core beliefs as sources of guidance and satisfaction, finding the beauty in transient, temporary, and even painful things is just as important. Heaven cannot be the only place of perfection, and if we only cling to perfect things, there is a danger in regarding everything else as broken. As beautiful as Bear’s heaven was, that moment by the fire, drifting with wood smoke and oncoming twilight, was just as beautiful.
And I think spiritual acceptance and satisfaction comes from knowing that death may await us, but this broken life right here is full of heavens. The taste of hot cocoa is magic. Crying is a reminder of the infinite capability we have to care. The hand of a friend is Godly perfection. The sunshine that comes through those windows may land on faces lined with wrinkles and precancerous freckles, but that sunshine is heaven. And that ought to, it must, be enough.
One of my favorite childhood memories is of picking violets for my Grandmother. The memory is really just a blur, but it’s a pretty blur; one of purple flowers, green grass, and my mom’s smiling face.
I was happy, and she was happy, and my Grandma was going to be very happy. So why does looking back on this memory make me sad? It could be because I miss having that same “carefree” type of relationship with my mom. It could also be because I miss my Grandmother, who I now know saw this beautiful day as one of her last. But maybe it’s just because I miss looking at this reality, one made up of violets, grass, and smiles; and being able to call that “enough”. Maybe I just miss the satisfaction of being a kid.
Childhood is painful to remember because of our societal knowledge that it is temporary. Despite what “Back to the Future” and other brilliant films have taught us, we cannot go back in time. Our spontaneous acts of throwing bread crumbs to ducks, jumping in leaf piles, and flying kites have come and gone; and are now to be filed away in a drawer we call “remembrance”. Childhood is temporary.
Or is it?
Author Patrick Rothtfuss once spoke the following words:
“When we are children we seldom think of the future. This innocence leaves us free to enjoy ourselves as few adults can. The day we fret about the future is the day we leave our childhood behind.”
I think what Rothfuss is trying to say through this quote is that maybe, deep down, we’re just all kids who one day decided to be adults. We used to live in the present, -we used to live in the now-, and then one day “the now” was simply not enough. Our futures were hung over our heads like meat being dangled to dogs, and we salivated over their irresistible temptation. School, college, work, family, we had to check them each off our lives as items on a grocery list. Life became a game of chess and we had to contemplate our next move before we even finished the one we were on.
What so many of us fail to realize is that while childhood is temporary, the concept of childhood is not. This philosophy of “spontaneity” has no age limit. We can still throw bread \crumbs to ducks, run through leaf piles, and fly kites in the sky. And yet we can do so much more, because now we have enough coordination to ride our bikes, hike up mountains, and light fires to toast marshmallows in. We have enough patience to sing in the shower, do Sunday morning crossword puzzles, or watch the sunset. We’re loving enough to have relationships, spiritual enough to go to church, and childlike enough to be satisfied with this now that we are so lucky to be given.
Maybe one day Doc will show up in his time machine, (and I’m still counting on that). But until then, it is through spontaneous acts like these that we are truly transported back to that magical realm of violets, grass, smiles, and being a kid.
While fighting horrendous writer’s block for this very composition, I stumbled upon a quote by Ernest Hemingway: “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you’ve ever known.” I liked it so much that I turned it into a sub-par T shirt for my dad, but that’s beside the point. Perhaps it’s the way I was raised, in a church that shied away from definitions, but I don’t appreciate endless clichés or glittering generalities. I believe that writing should be a series of insightful, provocative, and entirely true sentences. And if you leave this service today with anything at all, I don’t want it to be that you need to find more friends or give more money to charity, or even that teenagers really are capable of critical thinking. Instead, when you leave today, I want you to pick up your pen and your paper, physical or metaphorical, and I want you to write your own, true story. Here’s mine:
I don’t have the secret to satisfaction. I don’t even have a hint. I care too much what people think of me, I plan extensively for a future that I often doubt I’ll ever succeed in, and sometimes certain things happen that make me feel as though I’m completely unprepared to deal with the frequently monotonous and occasionally heartbreaking occurrences that make up what we in high school like to refer to as “the real world”. By no means am I asserting that these qualities are unique to just me, or my generation, or churchgoers or the impossibly privileged or anything like that. If I have acquired any knowledge through my humble observations of the human race, it’s that we all, no matter how different, share relatively the same hopes, desires, and fears. Perhaps we all strive for satisfaction, for love and security and day-to-day joy, but it’s our fear of failure, of inadequacy, of that looming panic that surrounds the idea of being on our death beds and running through our waning minds everything we SHOULD have done; perhaps it’s that fear that holds us back in the end.
I may not have the secret to satisfaction, but I know what makes me happy. Long hugs, warm trail runs, late night phone conversations, genuine words between friends, making someone smile who hasn’t in a long time. And maybe I’m being naive, but I can almost convince myself that if I witness or I partake in enough of these small, worthwhile things, I can become content.
I assume most of you are familiar with David Foster Wallace, a brilliant man who, judging by the fact that he committed suicide in 2008, never achieved this rare state of satisfaction. I recognize when my own words are becoming inadequate, so I hope you’ll allow me to quote from his most famous work, “This Is Water”, a commencement speech given to the graduating class of 2005 at Kenyon college.
“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”…
Foster Wallace continues, and then concludes with this: “What it is, as far as I can see, is the capital-T Truth, with a whole lot of rhetorical niceties stripped away. None of this stuff is really about morality or religion or dogma or big fancy questions of life after death. The capital-T Truth is about life BEFORE death. It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over: “This is water. This is water.”
And while it’s hard for me to follow the painfully true words of a genius, I will leave you with this: to all the fish out there, myself included in this somewhat childish comparison: This is water. It may be murky, it may be nothing or it may be exactly like what you expected it to be, but through it all, you are never, ever alone.