Life is What Happens to Us While We Are Busy Making Other Plans

Lisa Nickerson

Delivered on July 9, 2017
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Harford County

Opening Words

What is Real? asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?
Real isn't how you are made, said the Skin Horse. It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but really loves you, then you become Real.
Does it hurt? asked the Rabbit.
Sometimes, said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. When you are Real you don't mind being hurt.
Does it happen all at once, like being wound up, he asked, or bit by bit?
It doesn't happen all at once, said the Skin Horse. You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand.
– from The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams


My mom was 39 and my dad was 50 when I was born.

Mom had been struck by a car when she was a child. She was dragged by her coat for several blocks in the snow as she was coming home from church in the tiny Pennsylvania farm town where she grew up, Jonestown, PA. Doctors had told my grandmother (and later my mom) that she would likely never been able to have children because of the internal injuries she suffered.

Fast forward 30 years. My folks were more than a little surprised when they learned I was on the way. They’d been married for more than eight years and had settled into a routine that didn’t include babies. My father already had a daughter, my half sister, from his first marriage. She was 20 years old. They’d always tell the story about how thrilled they were to have me but as I grew into adulthood I realized what a huge lifestyle change my arrival must have been for them.

Could I please have a show of hands of all of those here today whose lives have gone, absolutely and completely according to your plan? Oh, come on, there has to be someone out there who set out to have exactly the life you are living now? No? Really? Well, maybe that’s just a UU thing!

Today I’d like to talk about what we do when things don’t go according to our plans, dreams, hopes or expectations.

There’s a saying in the rooms of alcoholics anonymous that describes expectations as: Expectations are down payments on resentments. And while I’m not personally in recovery from an addiction, I know and respect many who are and I understand the rationale behind this statement and its implied advice. We can’t control others or the universe so if we expect things to go the way we want them to; there’s a very high likelihood we could be disappointed. Especially if our expectations involve other human beings who have their own free will and plans. We can’t control others, or many circumstances, so perhaps it’s best to focus on being prepared for the inevitable curveballs, potholes, gifts and surprises.

The title of today’s sermon is part of the lyrics from today’s opening song (thank you Brenna and crew!) by John Lennon about his son… his advice to his son in the song Beautiful Boy is that Life is what happens to you while you are busy making other plans…it was a reflection he was making about his son being born after he and Yoko Ono had given up on being able to conceive and had moved on to fill their lives with other things.

So, just how to do we balance our aspirations—plans, hopes, dreams and goals—with the surprises—both welcome and unwelcome—that come our way? Should we just abandon aspirations altogether and choose a life of mediocrity because there’s a chance at any moment that our plans will be detoured or derailed?

As I was preparing this sermon, I started to think back to my childhood and young adulthood and how I handled disappointments… things that happened that caused grief, and also the unexpected joys and gifts—in hopes of recognizing a pattern that perhaps has carried through into my adulthood.

Here’s a list I made. I’m betting that each of you could put together a list like this for yourselves. You may find this exercise to be useful, as I did. Just remember that you need to chronicle the disappointments and the joys.

Many of these events are what psychologists and therapists call Big T Trauma. And we’re learning that how we handle change—both good and bad—is partially genetic—how we’re wired—and partially experience—how those around us have programmed us to handle change. But the really good news is that resilience—how we adjust to change—can be learned. It’s like a muscle that can be built up or a sport or skill that, with practice, we can master.

We all know someone whose life is always in turmoil, seemingly often self-created. A neighbor or family member or a work colleague. We also know others who have had tremendous adversity—often not of their own making—and they always seem to bounce back…sometimes event stronger.

Where are you on this spectrum?

Where would you like to be?

Are UUs more likely to be one way or the other?

The science says that humans typically fall into a 25%–50%–25% bell curve.

25% of people experiencing significant, unexpected change suffer ongoing negative consequences from it. They never really recover from it and they become defined by that trauma.

50% of people have the same experiences and while affected initially, go on to recover and proceed in much the same fashion in their lives as before the traumatic experience.

And the final 25% experience adversity and are strengthened by it, fortified by their survival and go on to be stronger and braver in the face of change than they were before.

So, I hope you don’t expect me to have all the answers about why some are in one group versus the other—this is, after all, a UU service so we don’t guarantee answers here. But I do hope to give you some information to think about.

Many of you know that I now work at Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore. One of our programs is called the Center for Child and Family Traumatic Stress. Essentially, pediatric trauma specialists help kids and their families learn coping techniques to handle the big T traumas they’ve experienced or are experiencing…violence, death of a loved one, abuse, neglect, homelessness, hunger, chronic illness. These experts tell me that how we learn to deal with trauma, stress, fear and anxiety as a child will stay with us the rest of our lives if—and this is an important if—if we don’t process the negative events so we can learn coping mechanisms that build resilence for dealing with the next unexpected event.

There’s a neurochemical called cortisol that our body produces when we are under stress—even from good things like playing in a championship sporting event. That chemical is necessary to help us respond in a way that helps us survive. However, it can also affect many mechanisms in our body. A child or adult living with a continuous flow of added cortisol will suffer negative neurological and health effects.

So, the $50,000 question is: How can you be part of the 25% who thrive or at least be sure to be in the 50% who survive without long term negative affects?

Well, this is where Brene Brown—PhD in social work and author—comes in.

In doing her own research into resilience she’s learned that resilient people are vulnerable and that those who seem less resilient, less able to handle change have traits such as perfectionism and judgementalism, use exhaustion as a status symbol, view productivity as self-worth, care what other people think of them and tend to focus their time in a quest for certainty. Now, it’s pretty easy to just say Be more vulnerable—don’t be scared about what might happen or Stop being a perfectionist but it certainly isn’t that easy if we’ve been preprogrammed in our responses through a series of influences over the course of our lifetimes.

However, I would posit that we’re a smart bunch in this room.

We are all already okay with some level of uncertainty or we what? we wouldn't' be UUs or wouldn't be exploring a UU Fellowship! There are plenty of places down the road who can promise a whole lot more certainty than we can! Once we’re aware of how we instinctively respond to change, we can learn to recognize it and, over time, redirect our thinking. We can ask ourselves the question what about that time that something we thought was bad happened and it actually turned out to be an okay thing or even a great thing. This might turn out that way, too.

In closing, let me bring this back to the personal reflection on my own life’s ups and downs with which I started my remarks today. This sermon has been as much talking to myself as to you.

I wouldn’t be a UU today&^mdash;would not have met all of you wonderful folks who have helped raise my son into a fine adult and helped me through many challenges over the last 20 years—if my daughter didn’t develop cancer when she was ten.

In short, well-meaning folks in Lancaster where we lived at the time, would tell her that God would look after her, that she should pray and God would help her cancer go away. She came home from school asking questions about God, heaven, etc. topics that I certainly couldn’t answer and it added to my overwhelming feelings of inadequacy as her Mom. In my emotional struggle to help her, I remembered there was a UU church in Lancaster that I’d run across when I lived down the street from it when I was in college. I felt my kids needed to be literate about religion and I thought it might provide a level of support for her, for all of us, that I couldn’t.

And that’s how we became UUs and how we ultimately ended up here with all of you.

It was a decision born out of adversity. And yet, it turned out to be a really, really good one.

Life is indeed what happens to us while we are busy making other plans.


Take courage friends. The way is often hard, the path is never clear, and the stakes can be high. Take courage. For deep down, there is another truth: you are not alone.

If you came here seeking God, may God go with you.
If you came here seeking a better way, may a way be found and the courage to take it, step by step.
If you came here seeking a home, may we be your family.


Copyright © 2017 Lisa Nickerson. All Rights Reserved.

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