Life as We Know it
Sermon offered Dec 31, 2017
© Susan A Moran
If you read my column in the recent Newsletter, you will already know that one of my favorite phrases written in answer to the question, “What are you grateful for?” was “Life as We Know it.”
There are times when I have a really hard time with life as we know it. It never stops hurting when people I love leave the path we had been journeying on together. Sometimes people disappear from my life because of a physical relocation, sometimes they die, sometimes relationships ends because of a ridiculous argument that no one can remember, but somehow we cannot get beyond it.
But the fact remains that every day, there are fresh horrors all over, even here in beautiful downtown Rockport. We are given a diagnosis that will permanently alter our lives. Friends move away, or get into trouble; children get into trouble, or break your heart. A recovering alcoholic picks up after many years of being sober, a clean addict decides he can take codeine because it isn’t as bad as heroin, and everything he has gained since putting down the drug is quickly taken away. Again.
It cannot be denied that the world is filled with people who are unlucky, people who are mean and shortsighted and even evil. And yet, we find ourselves having to accept that “Life as We Know it”, is still the best thing going. This may be because we have nothing to compare it to—we cannot know what not living is like.
The world is filled with unspeakable suffering and loss and yet, over and over, amazing and inspiring ordinary people adapt to a changing reality. Empty nesters find new hobbies to connect them now that the children have moved out. Single men and women create a community of friends and family that is as nourishing to them as marriages can be for other folks.
People learn how to use wheelchairs and seeing eye dogs, hearing aids, shower seats, walkers, canes, crutches, and a whole host of other medical aids—life gives us all ample occasions to make any number of adaptations.
How can we emulate those individuals we have met who seem to have adapted so well to their lives, no matter how much suffering and harm has been inflicted? How can we make accepting Life as we Know it easier for ourselves?
I am asking myself these questions at the end of a trying year. But I am also asking myself these questions in the midst of Kwanzaa, which began on Dec 26, and ends tomorrow. Kwanzaa was created in 1966 by a professor named Maulana Karenga. The word Kwanzaa is derived from a Swahili phrase meaning “first fruits”. The celebration is described on the official Kwanzaa website as:
-a time of ingathering of the people to reaffirm the bonds between them;
-a time of special reverence for the creator and creation in thanks and respect for the blessings, bountifulness and beauty of creation;
-a time for commemoration of the past in pursuit of its lessons and in honor of its models of human excellence, our ancestors;
-a time of recommitment to our highest cultural ideals in our ongoing effort to always bring forth the best of African cultural thought and practice; and
-a time for celebration of the Good, the good of life and of existence itself, the good of family, community and culture, the good of the awesome and the ordinary, in a word the good of the divine, natural and social.
The celebration has so many excellent features, from the emphasis on goodness and beauty and the bonds between us, to a remembrance of human excellence and African culture.
What strikes me at the moment is how the emphasis on the positive aspects of life, can put a marvelous spin on any mood. When we are studying or hearing about models of human excellence, it is almost impossible to remain uninspired. I have been reading a series called The Lives they Lived and have been astonished by Dick Gregory, the stand-up comedian and civil rights activist, who died earlier this year.
The author of the essay on Gregory writes “Wiretaps, beatings, jail and a gunshot didn’t stop Gregory — nor did fame and money. He claimed he briefly earned more than Frank Sinatra, entertaining on his terms —not dancing and singing but speaking directly about racism. He was the first African-American stand-up to gain crossover fame, and it didn’t soften his act. (On his first album, in 1961, responding to a heckler, he says, “Trying to get you to shut up is like trying to explain integration to a lynch mob.”) Hugh Hefner booked him at the segregated Playboy Club. An appearance on “The Jack Paar Show” in 1961 was followed by top billing at the best clubs, and then big money poured in. Gregory commented on his new role: “You been reading these local papers, calling me the Negro Mort Sahl. You have to read the Congo papers and see where they’re calling Mort Sahl the white Dick Gregory.” …“Gregory, who was a competitive runner in high school and college, pushed his body onto other front lines: He stopped drinking and smoking. He became a vegetarian, then a vegan, and he fasted against the Vietnam War. He ran marathons and extreme distances — one from New York to Los Angeles, 50 miles a day — to highlight world hunger. He offered himself as the subject for a study of a 70-day fast to understand the process of malnutrition. Concerned with high rates of obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure among African-Americans, he created and marketed a plant-based diet. Muhammad Ali, training for his third heavyweight title, brought him on as his nutritionist.”
Gregory was a man of many talents. He could have made a lot of money as a stand up comedian and kept it at that. But he had a larger purpose.
As he wrote in one of his many books: “The freedom of black folks has always outweighed my life as a comic.” (all quotes from the NYT Magazine The Lives They Lived, posted Dec 29, 2017, by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc).
Perhaps when we have a larger purpose in our lives, it is easier to accept Life as we know it. Of course, the next logical question to ask must be: What is my purpose?
Do you have an overarching context within which to place your life? Are you a grandparent or grandchild? Can you connect yourself through space and time to people who came before you and people who will come after?
Perhaps this thread of DNA called family is what most of us find ultimately important. Not that being a good family member is easy. Family is the other F word for a reason.
Both of my children are home from college and it is hard. It is hard for them, who have been living on their own, to suddenly be back under the roof of an authority. It is hard for them, who want my attention and care, to share me with my work, and my friends.
It is hard for me, who is accustomed to living alone, to share space and time, even with these beloved girls–my heart with legs. Life as we know it keeps giving us occasions to adapt, to adjust, to accommodate. Accepting whatever comes to us is not easy. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t aim for acceptance. Perhaps the loveliest story of acceptance I have come across is called Accommodations of Love, written by a surgeon named Richard Selzer. He writes about an experience with a female patient and her husband:
I stand by the bed where a young woman lies, her face postoperative, her mouth twisted in palsy, clownish. A tiny twig of the facial nerve, the one to the muscles of her mouth, has been severed. She will be thus from now on. The surgeon had followed with religious fervor the curve of her flesh; I promise you that.
Nevertheless, to remove the tumor in her cheek, I had cut the little nerve.
Her young husband is in the room. He stands on the opposite side of the bed, and together they seem to dwell in the evening lamplight, isolated from me, private.
Who are they, I ask myself, he and this wry mouth I have made, who gaze at and touch each other so generously, so greedily? The young woman speaks, “Will my mouth always be like this?” she asks. “Yes,” I say, it will. It is because the nerve was cut.”
She nods and is silent. But the young man smiles. “I like it,” he says. “It’s kind of cute.”
All at once I know who he is. I understand and lower my gaze. One is not bold in an encounter with a god. Unmindful, he bends to kiss her crooked mouth, and I am so close I see how he twists his own lips to accommodate hers, to show that their kiss still works. (source unknown)
Life as we know it gives us ample opportunity to rise above ourselves, to act with greatness and goodness and compassion and integrity. May 2018 bring us opportunities for rising.
Let is be so and let us say Amen.