Pro Infirmis is a Swiss organization for people with disabilities, and as today’s video shows, part of their work is about welcoming difference. Getting it out of the shadows. Expanding social acceptance for it. Supporting the self-acceptance of those who don’t possess the privilege of being what society deems “normal.”
Mannequins tell the story. Usually they possess a certain shape. A straight back. Two arms and two legs. Standing. But in the video, we see the creation of mannequins that more closely reflect the diversity of real life. The scoliosis of a woman. The lost limb of a man. A third in a wheelchair. Reflecting them, special mannequins were made, with care, and they were to be displayed in major department stores on Zurich’s main shopping street, Bahnhofstrasse.
Passers-by were curious, passers-by were intrigued—perhaps they even got the message that there is no one ideal body shape, that all belong to our world, all have their own kind of beauty.
But the part of the video that makes me cry in joy are the moments when, for the first time, the people see their mannequin. Initially the mannequins are hidden under a sheet. Then there is the big reveal. The sheet comes off. The people look upon theirs with shock, astonishment, growing admiration. One touches hers, to see if it can possibly be real. They had no idea. One of them says, “It’s special to see yourself like this, when you usually can’t look at yourself in the mirror.”
I watch this video, and it is instant happiness. I find myself taken to a place where I am rejoicing in another person’s liberation and that joy works upon me too, makes me more open and relaxed, more aware of the positive possibilities of life, and maybe you too. More beauty, more justice, more hope, more pleasure, more laughter, more love, more forgiveness, more energy, more creativity, more connection.
There’s nothing superficial about the instant happiness I’m talking about this morning. The liberating joy.
And the opportunities to go there instantly are endless. One reason why is suggested by the great novelist, Toni Morrison, whose recent passing we mourn. “And I am all the things I have ever loved,” she says; you and I and all of us come into the present moment with memories of what we have loved and thereby have become. Something in the moment happens—we smell a certain unforgettable smell or something tastes a certain way or feels a certain way or looks a certain way or sounds a certain way—and it is love.
The other day I was making a dinner of pork tenderloin, and while it was baking away in the oven, I was preparing a vegetable side dish of mirepoix which is a mixture of chopped celery, carrots, and onions. Mirepoix is often the flavor base for soups and stews and sauces but I like it just in itself. Colorful to look at and very tasty.
I like to start with sautéing the chopped onion, and that’s where the love story takes off. In my frying pan, the little white cubes of onion deliciousness are sizzling away in butter and the heat causes a release of this most amazing aroma. Ohhhh it makes me happy. Instantly. Not just because the aroma tends to lift me several inches above the ground, but also because the smell takes me back to a time long ago. Doesn’t smell do that for us? This most powerful physical sense of ours?
The smell takes me back to memories of my grandmother on my mom’s side. Baba cooking Christmas Eve dinner. She’s like Captain Kirk and her kitchen is the Starship Enterprise. In one scene from memory, I’m just trying to stay out of the way. Baba is calmly issuing commands to her husband (my Dido) and to her daughters (my mother and my aunt). The actual dinner, when the house will be overrun with a horde of hungry people ready to gobble up traditional Ukrainian fare, is just hours away. She’s at the stove and I smell that lovely onion smell. I also see her flabby arms flapping away as she’s agitating whatever’s in the pan, and I am not seeing her through the demanding eyes of a society that will not let women rest unless they have a certain body shape. She is my Baba and I love that her flabby arms flap away as she stirs the pot. She is part of my family. I am part of her family.
The smell of sautéing onions is: I belong.
We’re talking about this today because it opens up the door to what I take to be the essence of any truly meaningful religious way: how it connects us to thoughts and behaviors and people and history and whatever else keeps us hopeful through all the changes and challenges of our lives. This is the direction we want to be going in. Staying curious, because every moment the Mystery unfolds. No matter what, never ceasing to show up with an open, compassionate heart because we don’t want to miss a thing.
Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these broken wings and learn to fly
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to arise.
Wings can be broken. But we can still learn to fly.
Let me tell you another story. It’s about the trench warfare of World War 1. Did you know that the emperors and generals who ordered their men to war in August 1914 thought in terms of weeks, not months, let alone years? “You will be home before the leaves have fallen off the trees,” said the German Kaiser to his troops in early August. But he was so wrong. The leaves would fall from the trees four times before the war would be done. Four times, four long years.
The grinding, catastrophic years of World War I.
There they are, the soldiers, in the cold, in the muck, the mud sucking at their boots, miserable in trenches. It’s Christmas Eve, the darkness of night surrounds them. And then suddenly, along various areas of the British-German front, it happens without forethought, without any central planning: love takes human form: Christmas trees go up, a spontaneous upsurge of singing: Silent Night, Oh Christmas Tree, O Come All Ye Faithful. Something other than cruelty and death happening across No Man’s Land. Soldiers leaving the safety of their trenches, to finally meet face to face, to sing together. All this happening independently, mind you, in various zones of the British-German front, as much as two-thirds of it, enemies singing to the other instead of shooting.
The Christmas Truce of 1914. It’s one of the most remarkable incidents of World War I, perhaps in all of military history.
Things like this really do happen.
Now, one hundred years later, trench warfare of a sort is still with us. Today’s headlines scream
Immigration Officials Snatch 9-Year-Old U.S. Citizen Heading To School, Hold Her For 2 Days
Call immigrant detention centers what they really are: concentration camps
Back-to-Back Outbreaks of Gun Violence in El Paso and Dayton Stun Country
We Have a White Nationalist Terrorist Problem
Mr. President, Please Take a Stand Against Racism
This has been such a hard week, and every week is hard with its own sad, painful revelations. What do we do? How do we escape the trenches that divide America and keep us stuck in the same old gun violence, the same old atrocities?
Never mind how we can be stuck in the trenches of our own private, individual wars.
How to bear up the burdens of this world? How to live wisely, generously, and well?
The story of the Christmas Truce of 1914 comes as instant happiness to me, because it suggests that even the most desperate situation can shift. Not in planned ways, nothing that is foreseen. But the possibility is always there. We never stop working towards a solution, for sure: but we also know that the world is a Mystery and it may be that the solution we are so desperately looking for is with equal effort looking for us.
Keep hope alive. I know that nothing in this mere attitude can directly prevent further cruelty. But this does not mean hope is impractical. Show me a leader who is hopeless and I’ll show you a conflict that keeps grinding and grinding away.
Keep hope alive. Whatever helps us stay engaged: give us more of that! Whatever helps us stay in the game.
Sometimes it’s just plain silliness. There is a story told about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the hours before he was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel, after long years of fighting in the trenches of civil rights activism, and all the death threats. Do you know what he was doing? He and his fellow leaders were earnestly engaged in a pillow fight. Civil rights icons like Andrew Young and Ralph Abernathy were diligently smacking each other upside the head. Dr. King was being smacked and he was smacking back as good as he got.
The world must not be allowed to take our silliness away. Save the world, yes, but savor it too. Let your soul be large enough for both. That is our Unitarian Universalist spiritual way.
So go on out there to your favorite social media site and watch some cat videos.
Go on out there and see a movie. Have you heard about the fairly new movie Yesterday? Based on the premise that, except for one person, all the world has forgotten the music of the Beatles? So funny and so sweet.
Maybe you have Indians Fever, or Browns Fever, or Fever for some other sports team. You’re all about Believeland! Go for it! (For myself, don’t get me started about the Fever I have for figure skating! I will announce, by the way, that my new ice dancing partner and I are gearing up to compete at the Adult National Figure Skating Championships next April!)
I got a Fever!
We all need that. All these things, and more: they get us excited, they get us laughing, they get us pumped up, they keep us buoyant in a world that can drag us down….
Consider yet another example of blessed silliness. Here are some foreign words with no direct English equivalent:
- “Kummerspeck”: It means excess weight gained from emotional overeating. Literally, it means “grief bacon.” That’s from Germany.
- And here’s a word from the Georgia that is near Russia: “Shemomedjamo”: When you’re really full, but your meal is just so delicious, you can’t stop eating it. The word literally means, “I accidentally ate the whole thing.”
- And then, from Scotland, we have the word “Tartle”: It points to that panicky hesitation just before you have to introduce someone whose name you can’t quite remember.
- And then, from the Inuit we have “Iktsuarpok”: It’s that feeling of anticipation when you’re waiting for someone to show up at your house and you keep going outside to see if they’re there yet.
- And finally, from the Philippines, we have “Gigil”: The urge to pinch or squeeze something that is irresistibly cute.
Do you feel it? Instant happiness!
You know, silly doesn’t need a reason. But there’s still depths there to know. The foreign words name behaviors that come out of our fragility and humanity and remind how none of us are divine beings and that the perfectionism of our cruel inner (and outer) critics completely misses the point of living. To be human: that very word “human” shares the same root with humus, humility, humor. That they all go together fills me with relief, me with all my kummerspeck grief bacon eating and the times I tartle and the moments when I want to gigil something.
It’s happiness. Instant.
Even more instant happiness can come from the ideas we choose to dwell on. Some ideas make us clench up inside, others make us relax. Try an experiment with idea pairs: each idea in the pair may send you in very different directions. Close your eyes and allow the words I am about to say wash over you, and pay close attention to your physical reaction to them.
Ready? Here we go:
Idea number one: The unpleasant situation you are in right now—whatever it might happen to be– will last forever.
What does that make you feel like?
Now redirect your focus to a more realistic idea: This too shall pass.
What a difference a change of thought makes!
But what about another idea pair? Here’s the first: You are completely and utterly alone in what you are experiencing.
And now to redirect: The way you are on has been travelled by many others; you are NOT alone.And they are waiting to surround you with love, if you let them.
Are you feeling this?
Try on one more idea:
When other people hurt me, they know exactly what they are doing. They have it all figured out. The impact of what they’ve done to me was something they actually calculated ahead of time down to the details and they still gave their actions the go-ahead. What they did had everything to do with me and nothing whatsoever to do with their own lack of awareness or issues or problems or whatever.
Now redirect: Other people are doing the best they can, given where they are in life and what they are dealing with. It’s not personal.
Is it not a source of instant happiness to know that the ideas we habitually dwell on are ultimately up to us? That even our mental ruts can, with consistent effort and focus, be reshaped (as the neuroscience of psychoplasticity says they can) to reflect something more realistic and accurate and truthful about the real world we live in?
Several years ago, I attended the memorial service of a child who was just a little over one year old.
She had been born with spinal muscular atrophy and it is a fatal genetic disease. From the moment the diagnosis was made, the parents knew that their child would never grow up. They would never have the “traditional” parenting experience.
Just imagine yourself in their shoes.
Maybe some of you don’t have to imagine, but know this all too well.
Before the actual memorial service started, when picture after picture of the child was being projected onto the screen in the sanctuary, I found myself thinking unworthy thoughts but insistent thoughts nonetheless. What good can come from such a flawed life? What value can there be in such a temporary relationship? In all the pictures, the child is just lying there. She was never able to use her limbs, as far as I know, or even move her head. A big tube snaking out of her nose, down and away.
And then the memorial service began, and I heard some things. I heard her caretaker saying that she had one of the biggest personalities she’s ever known. Personality booming out of wide-open, very intelligent and aware eyes. Red cheeks and huge smiles and squeals of laughter. How she loved being outside. How she had “eyelashes reaching all the way up to heaven.”
This is what her parents had decided to do. They had decided to live life to the fullest while they had her. Her mother regularly painted her fingernails and toenails, always dressed her up beautifully. They took her all sorts of places. They took her to the swimming pool and gave her the delicious experience of being in the water. They took her to the aquarium to see the whales and the sea lions and the sharks. There were pictures from these trips, and some were taken from the child’s perspective, as a way of trying to get into her world and see it how she might be seeing it. They were curious. They cared.
Lots of pictures of cuddling, of holding her close, kissing her.
The parents said that they had never loved more deeply or been loved more deeply, than with this child who lived just a little over a year.
And that was the substance of their nontraditional parenting experience.
I left the memorial service knowing that not everything truly valuable has to last forever, or even for a while.
I left that place knowing that not everything truly valuable has to be without flaws or complications or shortcomings or endings.
I left that place knowing that life despite all is good, and that sweetness is everywhere, if we but have eyes to see it.
Take these broken wings and learn to fly.