Giving Up and Starting Over
By Rev. Ellen Quaadgras
Westminster Unitarian Church
February 11, 2018
First Reading by Wendell Berry
There are, it seems, two muses: the Muse of Inspiration, who gives us inarticulate visions and desires, and the Muse of Realization, who returns again and again to say “It is yet more difficult than you thought.” This is the muse of form. It may be then that form serves us best when it works as an obstruction, to baffle us and deflect our intended course. It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work and when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.
Second Reading by Rev Gretchen Haley
Though you have been warned
And given plenty of explanations
Reasons to do otherwise
You have persisted
To claim a life of joy, and justice
To carve out this time
This space for the renewal
Of your own heart
Despite all the reasons, the resistance
Fighting for your attention, luring you towards fear
To practice gratitude
For this day, this life
That has been given
This chance to begin again
And so let us gather
That we might
Offer one another courage, strength
And this promise to
Persist in kindness,
Persevere in compassion
Prevail in a life that is for more than ourselves
It’s a chilly, stark Sunday afternoon. A man hears the doorbell ring. He, gets up and opens it but sees nothing. No one. Nobody to the left, nobody to the right, not even the sound of mischievous children giggling as they dash away around the corner. Just as he’s about to step back inside he spies a small snail on his doorstep and, bemused, picks it up and absentmindedly flings it into the field across the way, and closes the door.
10 years go by. It’s a decade later. The doorbell rings. Man gets up and opens the door. No one’s there. No one to the left, no one to the right, no giggling children running away. The man looks down though and spots that same little snail, now looking rather agitated, who yells at him, angrily: “What the blank did you do that for?!”
Perseverance, as expressed in a small invertebrates that trudges miles (or yards, as the case may be) to make it to its destination, ring that doorbell, deliver its message.
Perseverance. As modeled by a small, persistent, mollusk that magically rings doorbells and talks.
Perseverance, that – Okay, actually, that’s about all the meaning I’m going to wring out of that little snail joke. Except, maybe, that sometimes in’s necessary to persevere 10 years, maybe more, to, gradually, slowly, slide toward the goal we’ve been striving for.
There was a TED talk listed in the theme-based materials this month. It’s from Malcolm Gladwell that talks about the 10,000 hour rule. Basically that it takes roughly 10,000 hours, or about 10 years, to really master a skill.
And I remember hearing Pema Chodron, Buddhist nun, say once that when working with some of our stickiest behavior patterns – it will take consistently practicing mindfulness. And, oh, give it 10 years.
Which, perhaps counterntuitively, gives me hope – it means it is possible to change even the most persistent unhealthy behaviors, and it is possible that some of the things I or any of us want to get good at, just need more time.
Some things just take time: Like raising children, living our vocation, or making a difference in our communities – they all require perseverance.
A perseverance that in real life is not always a steady, even-keeled slide across a field of flowers.
But instead is filled with fits and starts and all manner of pitfalls.
I talked a little bit last week about some the different pieces of perseverance. Like, beginning with a heartfelt intention. Like needing to let go and start over sometimes. Like, remembering we are not alone.
Today I want to go deeper, in particular, with letting go and starting over. With giving up, with failure, getting blindsided, frustrated, discouraged, beaten down, lost, undone. With giving up. Because that, for many of us, is where the real challenge is – how do we work with discouragement and, once we’ve given up – how, or why, even, would we start over? Not just once but, again and again? How do we become a people of perseverance?
Especially when we’re feeling less like the “little engine that could” and more like a Homer Simpson poster I saw recently. It featured a picture of the adorable underfunctioning cartoon father with his head in his hands and the caption: “Trying is [simply] the first step to failure.”
There’s a pithy quote that won’t do much to get you out of bed in the morning.
But perseverance – real perseverance – is not a pollyanna “just do it” attitude, anyway. Real perseverance recognizes that the best stuff in life takes grit and time (frequently lots of both) – requires negotiating difficult feelings, hard moments, unpleasant patches, often with the specter of failure hanging over or around us…. sometimes far away and on the horizon, sometimes so close it feels like it’s inside of us.
It’s part of what gives perseverance its particular quality. It’s je ne sais quoi.
How we relate to that tough stuff – has everything to do with whether we find are able persevere, over time, at all.
I remember years ago, my friend Jamie told me about a friend of hers who had recently died, I’ll call her Sue. Sue had been a prolific artist, I saw some of her work, it was beautiful. Muted, interlocking colors, a little edgy, with an honest aliveness that I find hard to describe. I was impressed. There were many pieces. Many years’ worth of work. All different, but similar. Powerful.
As my friend showed all this to me one day she was telling me about Sue. From what she said I gather she’d been a dynamic person – outspoken, confident, strong. And clearly, talented.
But what I remember most from that conversation, what stands out starkly in my mind, is something my friend only learned after Sue’s death. Apparently, Sue had left some of her diaries behind as well as her art. She was one of those people who journaled nearly every day and on those pages she wrote and wrote and wrote… About her fears about her art, her conviction that it, or she, weren’t good enough, her conviction that this or that piece wouldn’t turn out well, her disappointments when she felt they hadn’t… she wrote and wrote about her nagging self-doubts and persistent fear of failure.
It stunned my friend, who had no idea all this was living there in the heart of her friend.
But it inspired me, when I heard it.
The idea that there was a person willing to walk through that much discomfort, every day, and still keep coming back to it. The idea that the creator of wonderful work doesn’t even always know it’s wonderful, gave me permission to hold my own self-doubts more lightly. It empowered me to imagine I could do more & be more, even if I did not always believe it myself.
I don’t know what particular things, in Sue’s life or her heart, made it difficult for her to see herself and her abilities accurately. But I know she’s not alone in that kind of myopia.
She is not alone in hearing voices of self-doubt, uncertainty. In feeling a resistance, a coefficient of drag, an undertow of negativity, when committing to something that really feels important.
It’s as though some part of us has been meticulously keeping an inventory of every single previous time we’ve been discouraged or failed, given up or given in. And the moment we make a new commitment (or maybe when we hit a big stumbling block) that part of us starts “helpfully” trotting out these snapshots like a well-designed powerpoint presentation. Here’s one now, floating down from the top: it’s too hard, you gave in last time, remember? Right on its heels, flying in from the left: you know you’re not very good at this anyway, your brother always said so. There’s one’s doing a 360 spin as it comes zinging into our awareness: You don’t deserve to succeed at this. Until ultimately the big finale, right before the screen fades to black: It doesn’t matter anyway. And you do not have the time.
Lies, lies, can be so convincing.
[Slowly:] How we relate to that tough stuff – has everything to do with whether we are able to persevere, over time, at all.
Where does that stuff come from?
I don’t know exactly, but I do know: things happen in our lives. Hard things. A moment of humiliation at a time when we were vulnerable. Past failures that have left us gun-shy, hesitant, feeling smaller than we are. Not to mention illness, accident, the pain of a broken heart, loss of a loved one, disability, addiction, divorce.
We go on. But somewhere we still live with those hard spots, broken places.
That impact how we see ourselves, our capacity and our ability. Causing these messages that flit around our minds,
We don’t even always know how our past is still impacting us until we commit to something big and important enough to really persevere with.
And then, like an old ankle injury we don’t notice till we take up jogging – there it is. It hurts, we feel it, if we let it it will stop us from moving forward on our journey. Stop us from having the joy-filled, purposeful life that is our birthright.
How do we relate to the tough stuff, the broken places, in our past?
There is a Japanese artform that is all about the gentle art of handling brokenness. It’s about ceramics, not humans, I want to share it with you anyway. It’s called kintsugi. It is the art of repairing broken pottery. Not repair as in, good as new, can’t tell what happened, no problem now. But repair as in, recognizing the vessel is not the same. It can’t be the same. Repair as in, gently noticing what’s broken and gathering the pieces. Repair as in, mixing lacquer resin with powdered gold in preparation for putting the pieces back together. Repair as in – not hiding the fault lines but highlighting them, leading to a product, now with veins of gold, that many consider even more beautiful than the original.
When we persevere, really persevere, we are likely to surface some hard things, from our past.
But here’s some good news. Every single one of us has what it takes to persevere. We are alive – no one makes it through this life without getting through tough stuff. We’ve all made it through tough stuff. We know how to do this.
And you’re here, you chose to come here, to a community of gentleness and accountability where we not only get to look forward to work on making our biggest, most heartfelt dreams come true, but we have an opportunity to look back, gathering our pieces with tenderness, mixing in gold powder, and transforming our relationship with ourselves, along the way. Moving forward and growing, looking back and healing. A spiritual two-fer. Two-in-one. Buy one, get one free. The past and the future.
We did not choose the stuff we got, but, with support, we just might be able to choose how we relate to it.
The world breaks everyone, Ernest Hemingway writes. And afterwards, some are strong at the broken places.
And, I will add, beautiful at the broken places. A testament to our fragility and tenacity, an inspiration to any who lay eyes on what we’ve done with what we have.
I’m reminded of a story I heard years ago about the world-famous violinist, Itzhak Perlman.
Childhood polio left Itzhak disabled. He can walk only with the assistance of braces on both legs and crutches. When Perlman plays at a concert, the journey from the wings to the center of the stage is long and slow. Yet, when he plays, his talent transcends any thought of physical challenge.
One evening, Perlman was scheduled to play a difficult, challenging violin concerto. In the middle of the performance one of the strings on his violin snapped with a rifle-like popping noise that filled the entire auditorium. The orchestra immediately stopped playing and the audience held its collective breath. The assumption was he would have to put on his braces, pick up his crutches, and leave the stage. Either that or someone would have to come out with another string or replace the violin. After a brief pause, Perlman set his violin under his chin and signaled to the conductor to begin again.
One person in the audience reported what happened: “I know it is impossible to play a violin concerto with only three strings. I know that and so do you, but that night, Itzhak Perlman refused to know it. You could see him modulating, changing, and recomposing in his head. At one point it sounded as if he were re-tuning the strings to get a new sound that had never been heard before. When he finished, there was an awesome silence that filled the room. Then people rose and cheered – echoing through the auditorium. Perlman smiled, wiped his brow, and raised the bow of his violin to quiet them. He spoke, not boastfully, but quietly in a pensive tone, ‘You know, sometimes it is the artist’s task to find out how much music you can still make with what you have left.’”
Friends, may we be courageous in our commitments, gentle with old pain, discerning in what voices we listen to – especially the ones in our own heads.
May we encourage each other and ourselves.
We may all be broken, but we have much music to make with all the magical beauty that we have left.
May it be so. Amen.