How do we comprehend this thing we call life?
How do we wrap our minds around it?
Make peace with it, in our hearts?
Sometimes, comedy provides the answer.
Many of you may know the great comedian Jerry Seinfeld, and here’s something he once had to say on this topic. “Life,” he says,” is truly a roller coaster ride. As you make each passage from youth to adulthood to maturity, sometimes you put your arms up and scream, sometimes you just hang on to the bar in front of you. But the ride is the thing. I think the most you can hope for at the end of life is that your hair is messed, that you’re out of breath and that you didn’t throw up.”
Life is indeed a roller coaster ride. It’s an apt metaphor, especially for these up-and-down, gut wrenching, exhausting days of Covid.
But consider an alternate metaphor, equally provocative. I was reminded of this one during my two weeks abroad, 6000 miles away in the small village of Bagyon, in the Transylvania region of Romania. I was there with Cil Knutsen (who was leading our small group) together with Barbara Albritton-Walker and Rachel Kuhn, my girlfriend. We just got back three days ago–early Thursday morning at an ungodly time. We were there visiting our partner church, led by the amazing Rev. Bela Fekete. On a trip like this one, I am not kidding you when I say that most of the blessings that came to me (and there were so many!) came to me in a manner that was completely unsought after. I didn’t know I needed them until the moment they came into my life.
Now, part of what we West Shore folks do when we visit our partner church is to help with its summer church camp. This year it was 20+ children and youth, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.
The theme was our Interconnected Web of All Existence, and over the course of two days there was singing and storytelling, there was crafts and glitter and face painting, there were all sorts of things. And then, as our way of concluding each day’s events, we would all gather in a big circle, amid the flowers and the bees, in sight of the beautiful Transylvania hills, and we would sing and dance the Hokey Pokey:
You put your right foot in,
You put your right foot out;
You put your right foot in,
And you shake it all about.
You do the Hokey-Pokey,
And you turn yourself around.
That’s what it’s all about!
Maybe you know how this goes. After the right foot, it’s the left foot; then it’s the right hand and then the left hand; then it’s the right side and then the left side; then it’s your nose; then it’s your backside; then it’s your head; and then the last verse:
You put your whole self in,
You put your whole self out;
You put your whole self in,
And you shake it all about.
You do the Hokey-Pokey,
And you turn yourself around.
That’s what it’s all about.
The Hokey Pokey. A song written in the late 1940s for the ski crowd in Sun Valley, Idaho, which since then has spread far and wide and has become, for some, a prime metaphor for life. It certainly became that for me, 6000+ miles away from home. It spoke to me. It reminded me: Life engages all of us: feet, hands, sides, nose, backside, head. Your whole self, busy with doing in the world; and before you know it the dance is done. Maybe at the end of the day, the whys and wherefores will still remain unclear. But one thing is for certain: no one is alone in their dancing; we are dancing the Hokey Pokey all together. And yes, at times things can feel so serious. Serious things happen in life indeed. But let us not lose sight of the playfulness and the silliness of the whole thing too.
That’s what it’s all about.
Now, a moment ago we heard Brian reflect on gardening as yet another metaphor for life, and that was wonderful. All these profound ways of looking at the meaning of our days: life as a garden, life as a rollercoaster ride, life as the Hokey Pokey. But we are not done yet. There are yet other ways of looking at life which I want to dive more deeply into with you this morning, and these ones happen to come from a particular book of great profundity entitled The Alchemist, by Paolo Coehlo. Some of you–perhaps many–may know of it. This widely translated international bestseller is an allegorical novel which tells the story of a young Andalusian shepherd named Santiago in his journey to the pyramids of Egypt, a journey provoked by a dream he keeps on having, over and over again, about finding treasure.
Of course, the ones who find the treasure are we the readers, for the insights about life we encounter in Coehlo’s book are priceless, especially where they touch on the life ideal of balance. Often, when people talk about living more meaningfully, they talk about balance. Coehlo’s book provides major insights into what the ideal of balance actually involves.
To begin with, when we talk about balance, what are the extremes being balanced? What specifically are the two ends of the pole? The book explores this through a story that the young shepherd Santiago is told, while on his way to Egypt. It’s a story within the story. The story Santiago is told is about a shopkeeper who, one day, sent his son to learn the secret of happiness from the wisest man in the world. So the shopkeeper’s son goes—eventually to find the wise man in a beautiful castle in the desert. Upon meeting him, the wise man gives him a task: to wander around his castle and witness all its wonders. Yet while he does this, he must also carry with him a spoon filled with drops of oil, and he must not spill any.
Look around and wonder, and conserve the drops of oil in the spoon. Do both at the same time.
What do you think happens?
What happens is that the poor boy ends up so anxious about making a mistake and spilling oil that he misses out on all the castle’s wonders. He misses out on the big picture, completely.
Can you relate?
So he goes back to the wise man, and the wise man puts a few more drops in his spoon and sends him out again with the same charge. Eventually the boy returns, and this time, oh, the wonders he has seen! But where are the drops of oil? They’re gone.
If it’s not one extreme, it’s the other.
This is when the wisest man in all the world says to the shopkeeper’s son, “The secret of happiness is to see all the marvels of the world, and never to forget the drops of oil on the spoon.”
Let’s unpack this. Balance, according to the wise man, is to do one’s duty to the each of the opposite poles of human existence. One the one hand, there’s the drops of oil. One way we can interpret this is to talk about the details of life. Some say God is in the details; others say that that’s where the Devil is. What’s for sure is that in the details we find a complexity and richness that transcends theories and stereotypes. Imagine, for example, that you are at a museum, and you are seven feet away from a painting. From that distance, what you will probably see is a recognizable shape. But now, imagine yourself closing the distance, and now you are three inches away, so close you can see the brushstrokes, so close you can see small bits of color that you couldn’t see at all from from seven feet away. This up close, the experience of the painting is far different than before. This is one aspect of the “drops of oil” idea, of living in the details.
But details also bring something else to mind: responsibility: the things we must do to maintain our households and lives. The nitty gritty of vacuuming the floor, washing clothes, washing dishes, paying bills, taking care of the kids, working, emails, and on and on ad infinitum. Someone once said, “Creation is heaven, maintenance hell.” Maybe. But without nitty gritty maintenance there is no solid foundation upon which to work and to be ongoingly creative.
So pay attention to the details. Engage the nitty gritty. There is no good life without nitty gritty. But this is only one pole of human existence; don’t get stuck there. Don’t get so stuck in the details that you’re not able to grasp the big picture too, the larger shape that the small details are reaching towards. And don’t allow the daily grind to take up all the room in your mind and heart. Do that, and your fears become paralyzing. Do that, and your attention to detail becomes perfectionistic. Do any of that, and life grows joyless and dull. Balance it. Balance it by finding time for rest and retreat. Balance it by making room for wonder, beauty, philosophy, theology, faith. Come to Sunday services here at West Shore. Step back and see your life from the perspective of history. Stop and smell the roses. Eat ice cream before dinner. Do a random act of kindness, expecting nothing in return. At night when you arrive home, don’t just go straight into the house—pause and look at the stars and feel awe at your existence.
Go to Transylvania and allow your mind to be blown.
The art of living requires alternation between these two poles of human existence: the “drops of oil on the spoon,” and “the wonders of the castle.” “The wonders of the castle” help to balance out the “drops of oil on the spoon.” But too much fixation on wonders, I need to say, is equally bad. It leads to its own kind of suffering. One version is the Peter Pan syndrome of flitting from one idealistic passion to another, without ever reaching commitment and settling down. The problem with Peter Pan is that he rejects the nitty gritty entirely and all he wants to do is play–and this is no recipe for a life well lived.
But there can be another version of fixating on the “wonders of the castle” pole of human existence. This is when people give themselves to a theory or philosophy so completely and rigorously, that what results is a fundamentalistic approach to living which essentially runs people over and flattens the complexities and bumps that come with real life. Fundamentalists of all kinds–religious fundamentalists, political fundamentalists, and so on–see only what their favored theory wants them to see, and they ignore or explain away anything that might go contrary to that. Or, these days especially, they tune into their favorite news source which both reinforces their faith and demonizes others who are different. Any and all of us must be asking ourselves how we are doing with this, whether we are fundamentalists in some way. But these days, some of the most egregious examples of fundamentalism in action, as I see it, are people denying that Biden won the presidential election fairly; or people denying that there was in fact an insurrection on Jan 6 of this year; or people denying the efficacy of mask wearing and vaccinations in dealing with COVID-19.
We’re just in trouble, if we’re caught in this extreme, or in the other. We must engage both poles of human existence at the same time: the drops of oil which we carefully carry, and the exceeding wonders of the wise man’s castle.
It is a question of balance. The art of living.
The secret of happiness.
But Paolo Coehlo’s book The Alchemist is not done with the issue of balance. There’s more it has to say, as it tells the story of Santiago’s journey to Egypt to fulfill the strange dreams he’s been having. At times, Santiago is best served when he aggressively goes after answers. Other times, what is best is patience and receptivity. The message here is the need to balance two different styles of discovering meaning in life.
This is part of the art of living too.
Take a moment to reflect on patience and receptivity. Perhaps there is no greater articulation of this than what we get from Romantic poet John Keats and what he calls “negative capability.” “Negative capability” is “[when a person] is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” These are Keats’ own words, which are magnificent. Yes, it’s true: without a burning desire to know, we would never risk putting ourselves in the midst of uncertainties and Mysteries and doubts; but to the degree that our reaching is irritable, meaning evades our grasp. Meaning can be like a wild animal, which will flee or fly away instantly if one’s approach is too sudden.
Desire to know, and yet a capacity for patience. It’s yet one more instance of how spirituality is paradoxical.
Go back to the story that Santiago hears about: the shopkeeper’s son who is sent to learn the secret of happiness from the wisest man in the world. The son is resolved to learn. He has fire in his belly. For forty days he finds himself lost in the desert, wandering, but he doesn’t give up. And then, when he finds the castle in the desert and enters in, he is directed by a servant to wait his turn. He waits for two hours! Finally, when the wise man appears, he has the audacity to say that he doesn’t have time just then to explain the secret of happiness—which is when he gives the boy that truly weird assignment of exploring the wonders of the palace while, at the same time, carrying a spoon with drops of oil in it. But the boy is game: he does it. And then he does it again. And we know that in the end, meaning emerges—but only because the boy has been able to unite his great desire to know with a capacity to trust the process.
This sort of balance is especially hard to strike. Especially hard. For example, we all want to know what the schedule is for resuming face-to-face worship. We are all tired of this virtual-only arrangement. I know I am. We want science to give us final answers, but science (as a wise person has said) is not the truth. Science is finding the truth. When science changes its opinion, it didn’t lie to you. It just learned more. In this time of successive Covid-19 strains like the Delta variant, we are learning more. Things are changing all the time.
Curve balls are flying our way.
Stuff happens. And whereas we could be like the boy whose mind is set on learning and yet he allows himself to flow with his circumstances and see where they take him, often we demand far more control. We want the full solution NOW. When our circumstances refuse to explain themselves to us—tell us their rhyme and reason—we pitch a fit.
Or I should say, I pitch a fit. I just struggle with this at times, and maybe you struggle along with me.
Reminds me of a poem by Billy Collins, called “Introduction to Poetry.” The speaker is clearly a frustrated professor talking about his students, but the speaker could also be God, and the poems referred to our own lives……
Here is the poem: “Introduction to Poetry”
I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
How are you interpreting the poem of your life this morning, or, equally, the poem of our collective congregational life? Are you more like the shopkeeper’s boy in the story—in search of meaning, definitely in a strange place, but also able to wait, capable of allowing the meaning to emerge in its own good time?
Or are you more like the students in the Billy Collins poem, beating up your life with a hose, trying to torture a confession out of it?
The spiritual way is a balanced way is a paradoxical way. To desire answers and conclusions with all your heart, and yet not to reach for them irritably. Trusting that they will come. Loving the questions of life, so that someday, we live right into the answers….
There’s an old Italian joke that writer Elizabeth Gilbert tells about a poor man who goes to church everyday and prays before the statue of a great saint, begging, “Dear saint—please, please, please … give me the grace to win the lottery.” This lament goes on for months. Finally the exasperated statue comes to life, looks down at the begging man and says in weary disgust, “My son—please, please, please … buy a ticket.”
What I am saying to all of us today–me too–is that we must buy the ticket. Get on the rollercoaster ride. Do the hokey pokey and put your hands in, your feet, your sides, your nose, your backside, your head, and then your whole beautiful self. Cultivate the garden. Carefully carry the drops of oil in the spoon, but look for the wonders of the castle too. Be passionate, but also be receptive to what comes.
Do what Keats said right now and in this moment: Place yourself in the field of uncertainty, Mystery, and doubt, and do not despair.
Allow the world to surprise you.
Trust the life of this community, and how it is going to stay strong no matter what, and how we’re going to get back to normal somehow.
Trust your own life, too.
Because that’s what it’s all about.