It was Nobel prize-winning writer Elie Wiesel who once wrote, “The true challenge of life is not just in beginning, but in beginning again.” Life continually opens up new doors for us–the new year of 2022 is one such door–but the question then becomes: can we actually step through?
What if we can’t, because we’re so weary?
Some of you might be feeling like this just from the wear and tear of the holidays. But I’m really talking about a more enduring sense of languishing. How events in our private lives can wear us down over time in so many ways. News like the death of Betty White. And then, of course, how we have all just gone through two years of a world pandemic. Six months ago it looked like Covid was petering out, but then came the Delta surge, and then just a couple of weeks before Christmas, Omicron arrived.
Meanwhile, crises of historic proportions are upon us: American democracy in upheaval, reproductive rights on the ropes, climate change on overdrive, structural oppressions like racism that can be so challenging to address.
A recent article in the New York Times, talking about a high school in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, captures the impact of all this on high schoolers. Says the article, “Kids are feeling like — after witnessing Trump, political unrest, what happened in the streets with Black Lives Matter, now the pandemic — the world’s out of control. So they’re like, ‘Why should I be in control?’” Students move through the hallways sluggishly, looking at their phones or straight ahead, as if still staring at computer screens. “Life during the pandemic is when you feel emptiness, but the emptiness is really heavy.”
The new year of 2022 beckons, but I can feel the apathy within me. I can feel a certain deflation in me, like I am a beach ball that’s gone flat.
Can you feel that too?
Positive psychologist Martin Seligman offers us a phrase that might help us understand what’s happening. The phrase is “learned helplessness.” Years ago in his laboratory he demonstrated what it looks like, and I want to acknowledge up front that these days, his experiment would be considered cruel and unethical. Dogs were exposed to electric shocks, and they were not allowed to do as nature impelled them to do in the moment, which was to fight, or to flee. They simply could not fight the thing they faced, and there was nowhere to flee. The result to those poor dogs was trauma. The helplessness they learned went so deep that, when they were again exposed to electric shocks but were allowed to escape, they did not escape. They just sat down on the electrified floor. Sat there and suffered. Couldn’t imagine anything else possible for themselves.
Thus we loop back to what Elie Wiesel once said, that “The true challenge of life is not just in beginning, but in beginning again.” Elie Wiesel knows what he is talking about. He was a Holocaust survivor. That’s what he was challenged to begin again from.
So we are talking about this today. Facing our present moment with open eyes. Feeling the full challenge of it.
And today, our sacred text is the holiday movie classic It’s A Wonderful Life. Many of us, I trust, have seen the movie, and so we are not fooled by the cheerfulness of the title. It’s a gripping portrayal of a man named George Bailey, whose regrets almost killed him. And then something happened that saved him.
Let’s take a few pointers from George Bailey this morning, as we look to our own new beginnings in 2022.
We start, unsurprisingly, with the theme of loss, and with unwelcome troubles.
In George Bailey’s case, we’re talking about the loss of youthful hopes. At 12 years old, he’s already enthused about exotic locations he wants to explore: Tahiti and its coconuts, the unforgettable color of the Emerald Sea. All so far away from the boring town of his birth, Bedford Falls.
As he grows older, his hopes only grow clearer. When he’s 21, we see him buying luggage for his trip to Europe. He’s got his life all figured out. First he’ll go to Europe, and then he’ll go to college, and then he’s going to build things: skyscrapers hundreds of feet high, bridges a mile long.
He’s going to be a millionaire.
It’s around this time that his father asks him if he’d be interested in returning home after college to run the family business, the Bailey Brothers Building and Loan Company. Hearing this, George feels diminished. Right before, he was laughing and joking with everyone in the house, but when his father asked him this question point blank, George got real quiet, said, “I couldn’t face being cooped up for the rest of my life in a stuffy little office. I want to do something big, something important with my life!”
Right now, think back to a time when you were like George and caught up in hopes of any kind, but then you came face to face with practical demands and you had to let the hopes go.
You might not have to think back too far. How many of you had important events canceled because of COVID-19?
It was a great irony that, in late February and early March of 2020, West Shore introduced its annual pledge drive theme of “It’s a Wonderful Church,” and we asked people to speculate what life would be like if there had never been a West Shore. And then the unthinkable happened the second week of March 2020, when the reality of the pandemic became inescapable: we would have to cancel face-to-face church gatherings and reconstitute ourselves on a purely virtual basis.
No more of the physical experience of togetherness which, as biological beings, we crave. No more laughing together or singing together, no more gatherings in Baker Hall and coffee hour, no more handshakes, no more hugs, no more….
For some of us, the loss of our face-to-face community was tantamount to West Shore no longer existing.
It’s heartbreaking. It really is…..
But let’s get back to the George Bailey story. His father unexpectedly dies and George gives up his trip to Europe so he can settle his father’s business affairs. He does it, and then, just as he’s handing off important papers to the Building and Loan’s Board of Trustees–moments before he’s out the door bursting with excitement on his way to college—the other shoe drops. His father’s arch-enemy, Scrooge-like Henry F. Potter, makes a motion that the Building and Loan dissolve. Potter, who is wealthy beyond measure and could easily afford to give, asks, “Are we running a business or a charity ward?”
Hearing this, something snaps in George. He finds himself saying to Potter: “You’re right when you say my father was no business man. I know that. […] But he did help a few people get out of your slums, Mr. Potter. And what’s wrong with that? […] Doesn’t it make them better citizens? Doesn’t it make them better customers? […] Just remember this, Mr. Potter, that this rabble you’re talking about … they do most of the living and dying in this community. Well, is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath? Anyway, my father didn’t think so. People were human beings to him, but to you, a warped, frustrated old man, they’re cattle. Well, in my book he died a much richer man than you’ll ever be.”
Inspired by this speech, the Building and Loan Board rejects the motion to dissolve but only if George takes over his father’s job as leader. It’s an offer he simply can’t refuse. So he gives his college funds to his younger brother, Harry, and goes to work.
The hopes of youth go away, one by one. George finds himself where he thought he’d never be: working in his Dad’s stuffy little office, stuck in stuffy Bedford Falls. He gets to continue his father’s work of economic justice in the community, and while this is undeniably important, still, his heart is at war with itself. Regret upon regret piles up. He’s just a mess of contradictions. He marries a beautiful caring wife, he has wonderful children, he is loved and respected throughout Bedford Falls, but all the wild wonderful energy and humor of his youth is drained away.
He grows cynical.
He complains, “I want to do what I want to do!” but no one’s listening.
The bounce in his soul is gone. It’s like this with so many people today. The pandemic has only intensified things. Hearts burdened by lost hopes and regrets. “If this had never happened….” “If I had just chosen that instead of this….” People thinking and feeling they are failures even if, from a more objective perspective, they are genuine successes and they are genuinely loved.
George is just like those poor dogs from the psychology experiment. He is so devoured by feelings of failure that, even if the escape route was plainly before him, outlined in blazing lights, he wouldn’t take it.
He just wouldn’t know how to “begin again.”
And then his problems only escalate. Absent-minded Uncle Billy misplaces the $8000 which was supposed to have been deposited in the Building and Loan funds. George faces bankruptcy, scandal, prison. In complete desperation, he sees no alternative but to turn to his enemy Henry F. Potter and do something that is utterly humiliating: ask for help. Ask for a loan. And Potter, who sits in the cat bird’s seat now, says to George, “Look at you. You used to be so cocky. You were going out to conquer the world! You once called me a warped, frustrated, old man. What are you but a warped, frustrated young man? A miserable little clerk, crawling in here on your hands and knees, begging for help.”
It’s horrible. The movie may be called It’s a Wonderful Life, but when it gets down to this part, I’m watching through my fingers, like it’s not a Christmas movie but a horror movie on par with The Exorcist or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Especially when the scene shifts to George going home and basically terrorizing the wife and children who adore him.
He is a very good man who is acting out in some very bad ways.
George eventually wanders onto a bridge near Bedford Falls. It’s night and snow falls in large sticky flakes. George’s face is screwed up in pain. Potter’s words ring in his mind—“you’re worth more dead than alive.” Below him—the raging torrent of a river. He looks down at that midnight river.
He’s thinking midnight thoughts.
And he is seconds away from making a major mistake. If he throws his body off of that bridge, he extinguishes himself. But Life, the fundamental dynamic of life, wants him to keep living; it’s just that it wants him to live at a higher level.
Some people say it like this: Life is a cosmic school and the same challenges keep coming our way until we learn the lessons we need to learn. That’s what’s really happening with George.
What do you think? Does this resonate with you?
A quote I am cherishing these days comes from the Sufi mystic Rumi, who lived in the 13th century. Almost 1000 years ago, he wrote, “Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.” In other words, Love is our fundamental reality, but when we are traumatized (again, like those dogs from the psychology experiment) barriers get built up in us. We find ourselves paradoxically cut off from the love that is our birthright and who we fundamentally are.
Good people that we are, we too act out.
Yet there is a dynamism in the Universe that wants to dismantle those barriers, dissolve them, heal them. Some people call it God, others call it the Spirit of Life, the Goddess, Buddha-mind, Jesus, Krishna, Shakti energy. Muhammad from the great tradition of Islam says, “When you take one step towards Allah know that He takes ten steps towards you.”
So here we are in this gracious cosmic school, right there with George Bailey.
And there truly are times when one tough thing happens after another, and we feel shattered, we feel like we can’t go on any longer.
There he is, George Bailey, a man who’s lost the bounce in his soul and it’s so flat, it can’t cope with the loss of $8000. He just can’t take it anymore. He finds himself alone, beaten, standing on a snowy bridge in the night, raging river below. Suicide seems the only way. And then—splash! Someone else takes a dive!
It takes George all of two seconds to grasp the situation, and he jumps right in to save that person who’s drowning.
He risks his life to save another.
It’s incredible. Adversity has broken George down and yet, in the midst of direst weakness, he discovers that strength still remains. And it’s that way for us too. Sometimes we can find ourselves saying, as we contemplate horrible possibilities, “If such-and-such happened, I could never survive it.” Or, “If such-and-so happened, I wouldn’t know what to do.” And yet when the worst happens, and we go numb with shock, we discover a Warrior-like persistence within us simply to take things one step at a time, one moment at a time. Events rush and swirl past us. The broken pieces of life overwhelm, but for a time we let things be. It is enough just to keep moving, and somehow we do. Somehow we just keep going.
This is the inner Warrior. This is the confidence in ourselves that starts to grow, and we learn that, whatever else the future may bring, whatever the next virus variant happens to be, we have stood in the fire before, and we can stand in the fire again.
West Shore, this is who we have been for at least two years now, scrambling to do our best to be the Church in extremely strange times. And we need to keep on keeping on. Communities that pull together and not apart are the ones which survive tough times. We have seen this over and over again throughout human history. The times are indeed tough now, but I believe that if each of us practices patience, commitment, and gratitude, we will rebound from this pandemic period stronger and more vibrant than ever.
Sometimes, it’s only when the worst has happened that we can find our way back to our innate resilience. The road there can take us straight through the valley of the shadow of death. But then there is light. It’s always there, somewhere. At the end of the tunnel.
Light that shines brightest amidst the shadows.
And now comes perhaps the most profound insight from the George Bailey movie: how a resurrection of resilience–a capacity to genuinely begin again–requires a renewal of imagination.
Here’s where the person George saved from “drowning” comes into play: none other than Clarence Oddbody, Angel Second Class. Clarence’s gift to George is in transforming how George imagines his life. George gets to see what Bedford Falls would have become had he never been born.
The fact is, there can be no beginning again, as Elie Wiesel puts it, if our imaginations are stuck in a rut. We must get out of the rut. If we are seeing the world from the viewpoint of a worm, we must change that! We must step back and see things from a wider and larger perspective. We must step out of the daily clamor so as to refocus.
It’s exactly what poet Rainer Maria Rilke was writing about, when he said
Sometimes a man stands up during supper
and walks outdoors, and keeps on walking,
because of a church that stands somewhere in the East.
And his children say blessings on him as if he were dead.
And another man, who remains inside his own house,
stays there, inside the dishes and in the glasses,
so that his children have to go far out into the world
toward that same church, which he forgot.
Rilke speaks of people getting stuck inside their house, stuck inside the dishes, stuck inside the glasses, and therefore forgetting sacred things. And It’s A Wonderful Life speaks of people like George getting stuck in their fears of being failures, stuck in their regrets….
But then Clarence Oddbody, Angel Second Class, blows George’s mind. Opens it up. George sees, truly. The world without him turns out to be a hellish place indeed. He comes to know. He was living a wonderful life already. Everything he honestly and truly needed for happiness, he already had. Even with all the bad luck circumstances that seemed, time and again, to prevent him from pursuing his youthful dreams—even though he never became a world traveler, or went to college; even though he never built a skyscraper hundreds of feet high or a bridge a mile long—even so: the worth of his life was diminished not one whit. Worthy dreams can happen, even in a stuffy small office, in boring Bedford Falls. A hero journey, right there in the everyday. Being there for people in need, again and again, even when it put him at risk. Standing up for the little guy against bullies like Henry F. Potter.
The only thing missing is him getting his inner life right. Higher consciousness taking the stage, replacing the lower, which was only ever about judgmentalism and fear.
The vision of Bedford Falls without him does the trick.
He cries out, “Clarence! Clarence! Help me, Clarence. Get me back. Get me back. I don’t care what happens to me. Get me back to my wife and kids. Help me, Clarence, please. Please! I want to live again! I want to live again. I want to live again.”
This is pure Warrior energy, because, as far as he knows, he’s still out $8000. Coming back to life means facing bankruptcy, scandal, prison. But he will move heaven and earth to achieve the life that he’s always wanted, which is the life he’s always been living but only now realizes.
He rushes home. Bank examiners are there to question him. The police are there, ready to take him in. All he wants is to see Mary. “Where is Mary?” “Where is Mary?” There she is, and he looks at her in a way that leaves no doubt in the viewer: he is madly in love. His youthful enthusiasm and humor are back.
He’s not afraid any more.
And that’s the journey of his life. From innocence, to woundedness and brokenness, to rebirth and new life. The whole Phoenix process.
His life, and ours too. Life has a higher plan for us all and Life is pushing us.
From the ashes of fear-based lower consciousness, to consciousness that goes shining with Love.
It is happening to us all. The Phoenix process.
It is happening to this congregation, which (like all congregations everywhere) has been hurt by the trauma of the world pandemic, but our Beloved Community will survive and be better for it, and we need everyone to be a part of that recovery. If West Shore had never existed these past 75 years, yes, you bet, thousands upon thousands of lives would have been far worse off, and Cleveland would have lost critical spiritual and social justice leadership. And now we face our next 75 years, and what’s next is up to us.
I challenge each and every one of us: how can we find ways of helping to repair the frayed fabric of our community? What role can you play?
What might your answer be, if you see this congregation with Clarence Oddbody eyes?
Same question, now, but about our more personal, individual journeys in this new year of 2022….
What’s for sure is that the world we begin again in is the same as in 2021: American democracy in upheaval, reproductive rights on the ropes, climate change on overdrive, structural oppressions like racism that can be so challenging to address. On top of it all: COVID-19 that appears here to stay. This is our version of the bankruptcy, scandal, prison awaiting George. But, also like George, if we can see our basic situation with Oddbody eyes, then we will be reenergized. We too will rush back into the fray with a renewed sense of passion and gratitude and also humor. We too will move heaven and earth to achieve the life that we’ve always wanted, which we have discovered is the life we have already been living. Our life as it is. A meaning-filled life.
A wonderful life.
Wonderful even if we never traveled to that exotic location, or went to that school, or built that mile long bridge.
A hero journey, right here in the everyday.
Being there for people in need, again and again, even when it puts us at risk.
Standing up for the little guy against bullies like Henry F. Potter.
Tap into that “Oddbody” vision, and yes,
even from the worst,
Happy new year!