I feel like I'm on a constant hunt for hope these days. I have to be: every time I look at my phone or open my laptop, I’m overwhelmed by stories of violence, disrespect for life, greed, and selfishness. When I listen to my friends and loved ones or to conversations in coffee shops, it feels like everyone is dispirited and disheartened. And that is dangerous.
The danger of hopelessness is a double danger. First, hopelessness makes us feel it’s useless to take action. It fools us into believing there’s nothing we can do, or that our efforts won’t make a difference. Once we abandon hope, there’s no stopping the momentum of the unscrupulous who are willing to cooperate with evil in order to get ahead.
The other danger of hopelessness is that we can lose each other. In times of hopelessness, it’s easy to get scared of everything and everyone. It’s easy to start believing that your neighbor is the problem and that hoarding is a better strategy than generosity. The problem is that when community starts to break down, we lose the most important source of hope we have: each other.
The message of hope that still blazes bright for me in these hard times is that I am not alone. I don’t have to face the world alone and I don’t have to fix the world alone. When I need hope, I find it on the faces of my people. I find it in their hearts, when we find each other again and stop hiding out, thinking we are the only one. I find it when we come together in community to sing, to bless one another, to mourn, to strategize. All we need is hope… and for that, we have each other.
Laugh, be joyful, though you have considered all the facts. - Wendell Berry
This quote from Wendell Berry is posted by my desk at work as a steady reminder of how I want to approach my life. I don’t know about you, but this past year, especially, I have had a hard time remembering to smile and laugh. As in the reading earlier, I have struggled at times with where to find hope in this troubled world. With the unsettling changes we've all experienced this year at UUFHC, in our nation’s leadership, and in our personal lives, it might sometimes seem easier to just throw in the towel, curl up in a ball in a dark corner and wait out the storm with faint hopes that all will turn out okay eventually. But Berry’s quote suggests another approach.
I think he is reminding us to celebrate the awesome experience of simply being alive in this moment no matter what is happening. Consider this: the fact that each of us is here now, with our unique genetic makeup, our unique life experiences and our unique thoughts is amazing. No one else gets to be you. No one else gets to be me. The very idea of you or me or any of us is unique, once only, never to be replicated. What an incredible, unasked for, ripe with potential, gift we have been given. To see our very life as a gift, ripe with potential, is to come in touch with a deep sense of abiding joy. Brother David Steindl-Rast explains,
Joy is the happiness that does not depend on what happens. It is the grateful response to the opportunity that life offers you at this moment.
That is a hefty message, right? Is it really possible to greet each moment with joy?
I think it begins with letting go of expectations and control, and simply recognizing the gifts of each moment, good or bad. Here is a poem by Ellen Bass which helps to express this idea…
The thing is
To love life, to love it even
When you have no stomach for it,
And everything you’ve held dear
Crumbles like burnt paper in your hands,
Your throat filled with the silt of it…
Then you hold life like a face
Between your palms, a plain face,
No charming smile, no violet eyes,
And you say, yes, I will take you,
I will love you again.
I am reminded of something Mark Nepo wrote:
Authentic joy is not a euphoric state or a feeling of being high. Rather it is a state of appreciation that allows us to participate fully in our lives.
This is all about gratitude. We know that by lifting up what we are grateful for in any moment, we change our experience of that very moment. There are plenty of scientific studies that prove this is true as well. When we focus on gratitude, our brain chemistry actually changes, and we really do experience more joyful feelings.
I’d like to give an example from my own life…
As many of you know, I was diagnosed with breast cancer last September. It all began in late August, when I felt a lump in my breast. After my initial appointment with my regular GYN doctor, I was quickly scheduled to see a breast surgeon by the end of the same week. Red flags began flying in my mind at this point because of the urgency with which the second appointment was scheduled. By the end of that second appointment, I had a new appointment within the following week for an MRI. And the following week another appointment was scheduled for a biopsy to remove some of the suspect tissue for testing. It all seemed to be happening with more and more urgency. So, at that point, I was pretty clear that the doctors knew it was cancer, even though I had not yet been given an official diagnosis.
The day of the biopsy, I remember lying on an examination table, waiting for the numbing agent to take effect before the procedure, and feeling very afraid. Tears welled up as I tried to be brave and not worry too much. Definitely not a time to laugh and feel joyful. And then something shifted. One of the nurses asked if I would like to hold her hand during the procedure. I said yes, and held on to her hand for dear life the entire time. Her hand became a lifeline of sorts for me. And I felt held and loved in a way I can’t quite describe. In my belief system, I would say that I experienced a comforting Presence (with a capitol P). Some others might call it God. The words don’t really matter. What I can say is that I believe this kind of deep connection with all living beings, this sense of being held and loved, even in the darkest times, is always available.
I also believe that cultivating gratitude helps to shift our perspective so that we are more open to this deeper connection and abiding love. We can train our minds to open up and welcome in the goodness and opportunity that is ever available in all of life’s experiences.
You have probably heard people talk about the practice of gratitude. It is a simple practice of spending a few moments at the end of each day listing three or four things you are grateful for; and it really does work. What I have found, when I have really been trying to follow this gratitude practice, is that I begin to look for the things I will put on my list at the end of the day, and that, in turn, begins to shift my perspective on everything I encounter. I am not so frustrated with the slow commute home on I-95 because of too much traffic. Rather, I focus on the extra few minutes to gaze out the window or read my book (I take a commuter bus for those of you who just had a flash of horror at the thought of me driving and reading at the same time). I try not to get as upset with long lines at the grocery store when I am already running late for something. Rather, I take the opportunity to chat with the older woman ahead of me, and we joke about the karma of always seeming to be in the slowest lines at the grocery store. We both leave with a little smile on our faces.
In The Book of Joy with His Holiness, the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, we are instructed to even be grateful for the negative things that come into our lives for they become
our spiritual teachers. This is a really hard practice to follow at times. But it is possible. Just this past week, I saw an interview with the mother of Heather Heyer, the young woman who was killed in Charlottesville recently. At one point during the interview, she was able to say that although she would always wish this had never happened, she was grateful for the opportunity to spread Heather’s message of accountability and justice to a larger audience. That is an exquisite example of reframing! Instead of focusing on the horror of her daughter’s death, she was able to see the gift of giving Heather’s voice a wider audience. Finding any
gifts for which to be grateful can sometimes seem almost impossible, but we can choose what to pay attention to in each moment, just as we can choose to cultivate joy in our own beings.
All of this leads me to my final point. How we approach our lives, the intentions we walk out the door with every day, will fundamentally alter the experiences we have. I would offer this last quote, from Brene Brown, on a path to joyful living:
Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity… If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.
I think this means that to be vulnerable is to be open to new ideas and new ways of being, without the usual parameters we try to set up for ourselves. When we offer ourselves wholeheartedly in each moment, and actively seek out the gifts of each moment, we can more easily tap into that deep abiding joy that is always available.
We are fragile creatures… says Archbishop Tutu, in The Book of Joy, as he muses on the potential to discover true joy. It is precisely because of our fragility, he contends, that we can discover the possibility of joy in every moment. He says,
Life is filled with challenges and adversity. Fear is inevitable, as is pain and eventually death. It is by living wholeheartedly through all of our experiences that we can discover joy and happiness in any moment.
To close, I’d like to share a favorite body prayer that a friend once taught me. I think this prayer embodies the ideas I’ve tried to share here today. I may have shared this body prayer with you once before, but it is still a good one. Please stand as you are able so that we may all do this together. (repeat each line and hand motion after me)
Here I am
I offer my gifts to the Universe
I welcome in love
And offer love in return.
NamasteCopyright © 2017 Beth Wood-Roig. All Rights Reserved.