Where do we come from
What are we
Where are we going?
Where do we come from
What are we
Where are we going?
Today I am raising a question: the question of one’s heart being open or closed.
Right at the start of a new year, I’m asking it.
I still think of the report issued a couple of years ago by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. This panel, composed of a group of scientists convened by the United Nations to guide world leaders, described a world of worsening food shortages and wildfires, with a mass die-off of coral reefs as soon as 2040—a period well within the lifetime of much of the global population.
Looking forward, it might get that bad, or worse.
And looking backward, there have been so many losses already. The book that we are reading together all year long—Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass—does not shy away from naming this. Monumental losses to the earth and all its nonhuman people—the plants, the animals, the land. Monumental losses to Kimmerer’s indigenous ancestors, which continue to be felt today. And losses, also, to the settlers who took over North America and Canada, the settlers who at one time fervently believed that you’ve got to “kill the Indian to save the man,” the instigators who are our immigrant ancestors–most of whom did not at all live lightly upon the land.
“I need to remember,” says Robin Wall Kimmerer, “that the grief is the settlers’ as well. They too will never walk in a tallgrass prairie where sunflowers dance with goldfinches. Their children have also lost the chance to sing at the Maple Dance. They can’t drink the water either.”
Look even casually into all of this, and you will find them: grief and fear.
Grief and fear. “Together,” says Kimmerer, “they try to hold my heart closed.”
Maybe our hearts as well.
Which results in a feeling of paralysis. A feeling of helplessness. A feeling that, even though the calendar says it’s 2023, suggesting new possibilities in a new year, in reality everything stays old, nothing’s going to change, it’s only going to get worse, it’s just a continuation of the slide to disaster that we’ve been stuck on for generations…..
They—grief and fear—threaten to hold the hearts of all of us closed.
Therefore, the question I am asking as a new year begins: of one’s heart being closed, or open.
As religious people who seek to be responsive to the realities of our day—not just our environmental reality but any reality that is disturbing, such as the political dysfunction we all witnessed this week in Washington’s House of Representatives—one of the most important questions we can ever ask ourselves is: Can we feel the grief and the fear of our world—the pain—and still have an open heart to hope?
How we answer this singular, momentous question matters.
In an important way, it is a question of co-existence. Can the heart stay open to hope, even as it feels the pain? Does it have to be all or nothing? Black or white?
If there is no way for the two to co-exist—if they are like matter and anti-matter and never the twain shall meet—then one of two things happens.
One is that the pain devours hope and sends us tumbling into a midnight of despair and kills action in the present. We are indeed stuck. We are indeed paralyzed. We do nothing as the years count down to 2040 when the predicted food shortages are supposed to happen, or the worsening wildfires, or the mass die-offs of coral reefs.
Perhaps because the storyteller in our head—overwhelmed by all the grief and fear and pain—says, “Nothing I do will make any difference anyhow.”
And we believe it.
Or this happens, if pain and hope can’t co-exist. In this scenario, hope eclipses pain. Our hope becomes disconnected from the common good. It becomes more about the kind of car we aspire to drive, or fashionable clothes, or the best schools for our kids, and other forms of self-centered materialism that just feed business as usual.
This, or our hope floats. It floats like a balloon, high above this world, into some other world, and we cope with the suffering down here by continually projecting ourselves into some future afterlife where God shall wipe away all the tears and make everything all better.
Either hope becomes self-centered, or it becomes about some otherworld—and in either case, it has been falsified. It has become unworthy.
How we answer the question about co-existence matters.
And not just for ourselves, but for our children. I’ve heard Michelle Obama say that our children respond to the pain of the world in the same way they see us responding, and she’s right. Again and again I’ve seen small kids fall down and bump their heads but before they do anything else, they look to the parent to see how they are responding to what’s happening. The parent overreacts and the kid starts screaming. The parent is calm and the kid is calm.
If, by how we are reacting to the pain, we are teaching our kids paralysis, or entitled selfishness, or otherworldly hope, we are solidifying a vicious cycle in the human race.
We are hurrying up the death of all the values we hold dear.
There must be a way for our full feeling of the world’s pain to co-exist with hope, and therefore with hopeful action!
We need to find that way!
It’s times like these you learn to live again
It’s times like these you give and give again
It’s times like these time and time again
It’s times like these.
The way forward—the way for our full feeling of the world’s pain to co-exist with hope, and therefore with hopeful action—takes us into a face-to-face meeting with a long-standing, Big Voice dominant-culture myth about what it means to be healthy and well-functioning.
The Big Voice myth is echoed by the last line of practically every fairy tale out there. What is it?
“And they lived happily ever after.”
This happiness myth essentially says that to be a healthy and well-functioning human is to be filled with perpetual joy, fun, peace, contentment, HOPE, and other pleasurable emotions. That that is the natural state for all human beings, and not stress or anxiety or frustration or fear or grief. Entire mental health and pharmacological industries are raised up to eradicate all these negativities, these “defects,” so as to bring us back to what should be our natural state.
No wonder it seems that feeling pain for the world and feeling hopeful appear to be like enemies, rather than friends.
And so, from this flows the action plan: to be vigilant in weeding out all our negative thoughts and feelings, and planting positive ones in their place. Taping a permanent smile upon our minds. Telling our kids, “Don’t cry.” “Don’t be gloomy.” “There’s nothing to be afraid of.” Telling ourselves, “Chill out!” “Snap out of it!” “Get over it!”
That’s the action plan, based on the dominant culture Big Voice happiness myth.
But there’s a fly in the ointment.
Let me suggest what it is by asking you to do something. Try it right now. Try not to think about eating your favorite food. Try not to focus on the flavors exploding in your mouth as you savor. Try not to.
Fact is, our minds have a life of their own. Buddhists call this “monkeymind.” Thoughts of all kinds pop in from nowhere, uncalled for by us. We completely overestimate our powers to control this. It is also estimated that 80% of these thoughts have some degree of negative content.
Why is this so? Psychiatrist Russ Harris explains: “Our minds evolved to help us survive in a world fraught with danger. […] The number one priority of the primitive human mind was to look out for anything that might harm you—and avoid it. The primitive human mind was basically a ‘don’t get killed’ device.” In other words, evolution has tuned our minds towards the negative. Saber-tooth tiger threats are long gone, but these days we can be constantly worried about the other shoe dropping in the form of an IRS audit, or the kid bullied at school, or being diagnosed with some disease.
Evolution has also taught us to be wary of exclusion from the group, because group membership means safety. So today we can be constantly worried about doing something that might get us rejected, or of not fitting in, or of making a fool of ourselves. Our minds are busy comparing ourselves with others. Am I too thin? Too fat? Too tall? Not tall enough?
“Evolution,” says psychiatrist Russ Harris, “has shaped our brains so that we are hardwired to suffer psychologically: to compare, to evaluate, and criticize ourselves, to focus on what we’re lacking, to rapidly become dissatisfied with what we have, and to imagine all sorts of frightening scenarios, most of which will never happen.”
And then he says: “No wonder humans find it hard to be happy!”
But the happiness myth that the Big Voice of dominant culture shouts into our ears is so very loud that we press bravely on, and for every unpleasant thought that pops randomly into our minds and depresses us or frightens us, we see it as our duty to chase it down and wrestle with it and replace it with a smile.
And this just makes us even more miserable. In the active pursuit of happiness, we are creating unhappiness! For one thing, wrestling with each of the unpleasant thoughts steals away time and energy that could actually be devoted to doing something positive. For another thing, this ends up hurting our self-esteem because we are constantly failing at preventing the unpleasant thoughts and feelings from being in our minds. Yet a third reason why this actively harms us is because our control strategies often take behavioral forms that cause problems. I’m talking about a practice of denying issues so that they only get worse; or of hiding from the things that scare us; or of numbing what we’re feeling through various kinds of addictions; and so on.
Ugh! It’s just not sane to try to fight a war against this particular aspect of human nature. We will always lose.
It’s time to find a way to win—one that really is possible, and respects the wholeness of our psyches, and keeps our hearts open!
Winning means throwing out the dominant culture Big Voice myth about what it means to be a healthy and well-functioning human. Winning means getting maladjusted, in a Dr. Martin Luther Jr. King sort of way.
We especially have to throw out the myth, because you know what? All the things that are truly worth fighting for—the things that our Unitarian Universalist Eight Principles talk about—the things that are truly most meaningful in life—bring with them a whole range of feelings, both pleasant and unpleasant.
If you are not feeling grief and fear these days, you are not living deeply and meaningfully enough!
If you are not feeling grief and fear these days, you are not fulfilling the call of your inherent worth and dignity enough!
In particular, you do not comprehend what it truly means to be woven into the Interdependent Web of All Existence, which our Seventh Principle talks about. It means to hear within ourselves the sounds of the earth crying (Thich Nhat Hanh). It means that the grief and fear that Robin Wall Kimmerer is feeling and which we may be feeling simply reflects a deeper sense of connection with something larger than ourselves. That the world’s degradation is not just something out there but that it’s personal.
To be a part of the Interdependent Web of All Existence is not just to feel wonder, or pleasure. It is also to feel pain, and dread, and sorrow.
“Joy and sorrow are woven fine, clothing for the soul divine” (William Blake).
Healthy and well-functioning is NOT about being internally cleansed of painful thoughts and feelings. It’s not an all-or-nothing thing. Healthy and well-functioning is honoring that the internal space of your heart and mind will always be cluttered by all sorts of stuff. Knowing this, and also knowing that you are big enough and strong enough to hold it all. Knowledge which can empower you to choose carefully which thoughts you will simply allow to march around in your head until they inevitably lose steam and fade away–which they will unless you feed them with your attention.
Don’t feed them. Don’t feed the unworthy ones.
You know what the most heart-closing and useless belief there is is? That Nothing I do will make any difference anyhow.
When you hear about what is projected to happen to our planet by 2040 or when you hear about other sorts of injustice, and this is the thought that pops into your mind, tell me, in all fairness, is this a useful thought? Is this the sort of thought you want to invest the precious resource of your attention on?
Just say instead, Ah, monkeymind is at it again. He is a hundred thousand years old, and he’s still scanning the environment for saber tooth tigers. OK, he can think what he thinks. But I’m not going to fight it. He shares the same mental space I do. I’m never going to get rid of him as a roommate. So I’ve got to make peace between us. He’s got his perspective, and I’ve got mine. What I’m going to do is this. I’m going to find a way to help. I’m going to go vote. I’m going to get active some way with my hope.
That monkeymind voice. Nothing I do will make any difference anyhow: They’re just words. Just because these words appear upon the screen of your mind doesn’t mean they’re true. We know we need to be very careful these days about words we read on screens, because of all the misinformation campaigns out there. So why are we so naive about the words that appear on the screen inside our heads? Don’t let these words scare you, steal away your energy to live out your values, close your heart!
To be a well-functioning, healthy spiritual being having a human experience is to bear the weight of a hundred thousand years of conditioning that pops up constantly in a voice speaking words that make you afraid, that make you constantly unsatisfied, that fill you with unpleasantness—to bear this weight, but to bear it lightly, to hold open a space inside yourself that allows un-useful thoughts to pop in, march around like they own the place, and just let them be, let them run out of steam all on their very own, like the wind-up toys that they are.
What you do is keep your eyes on the prize.
What you do is focus on the useful thoughts that guide you into being a difference-maker.
Keep your heart open.
You know you can honor the pain of the world, and you know that you can yet hope.
The two do not cancel each other out.
The two, together, make you into one precious, whole human being. Joy and woe, woven fine.
And this world needs you.