February 9: “To Be Living Now” with Rev. Kendyl Gibbons
Click here to start at the sermon.
It is so hard to get comfortable any more! The middle class American Boomer consumer bubble has been burst, and it is not coming back. Just like the western European Enlightenment Victorian colonialist bubble before it. We can’t unknow what we know now. We can’t unhear Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testifying about sexual assault as high school party entertainment. We can’t unsee Michael Brown’s body lying dead in the street. We can’t unfeel the urgency of teenager Greta Thunberg’s accusations about the destruction of the climate that she is going to have to live in after you and I are gone. It will require opioids to put us back to sleep now, and that way too lies destruction. What we know now is that the comfort we once thought we had – the comfort that I grew up in, and took for granted – was false. It was stolen. It was artificial. It wasn’t earned, like we thought – like we were told. It was built by the forced labor of slaves, maintained by the exploitation of nature and the planet, ensured by the suppression of any voices calling to re-balance the distribution of power.
It’s not that comfort in itself is a bad thing – it’s the artificial comfort that is a problem. Comfort that is enjoyed at the cost of someone else having less, or being less – that is a poisonous thing, an addiction, which destroys our spirits and our will and our ideals, just as surely as other addictions destroy our bodies and minds. Some people say, in their analysis of our culture’s dysfunction, that those who are in the dominant positions are trying to protect our power, or our privilege. I’m inclined to think it’s actually our comfort that we are so reluctant to give up. My own intuitive, unreflective perception is that I don’t actually have all that much power, and to the extent that I understand the privilege I enjoy, I feel that I would happily give it up if I could, to even the score for others. I would be overjoyed if every person on the planet could read – my literacy is a privilege, I understand, but it is not one I seek to defend. Let everyone read. Let everyone be protected and served by the police, as I am. Let everyone get mortgages and loans from the banks; I have no desire to be special. But. My comfort? Do NOT mess with my comfort. Do not make me sad. Or angry, or guilty. Do not inconvenience me. Don’t tell me I can’t have plastic straws. Or dry cleaning, or bug spray, or pineapples.
Now I get that when I become irritable about maintaining my comfort, I am by implication asserting my white straight cis credentialed citizenship privilege and power. I don’t think those things come apart. I’m just saying that I see the tension in my own life much more clearly when I consider how readily I rise to defend the choices and beliefs that make me comfortable, than I do when I try to think about power, or even privilege. It is comfort, more than anything, that the events of the past two weeks and the current administration in Washington have deprived me of. I am no longer able to rest in the pious hope that we are doing the best we can, in dealing with the various crises that confront our nation and our world. I have to believe that we could do much, much better if those in office chose to. Moreover, I am to some extent being denied the comfort of assuming that most people agree with me; that I am a typical, reasonable, humane, right-thinking, ordinary sort of chap, with values that more or less everybody shares. The world seems much more hospitable from that perception; it is stressful to think that my deepest convictions are outliers, that place me on the far edge of the human bell curve.
What it comes down to is that I am grieving that more or less center of the universe position that I used to take for granted that I occupied. Rather like a former believer in an earth-centered system who finally gets that ours is just one of a number of planets in orbit around something else entirely, it’s disorienting. It’s a loss – I’m going to need a moment.
The Buddhists are right, of course; our suffering is a function of what we cling to. I don’t totally buy that the solution is therefore not to get attached to anything, but there is a wisdom in this tradition that perhaps behooves us to pay attention to in times like these. The new year meditation bells remind us of the ways in which we construct the sources of our own distress – of our discomfort – by desiring things we don’t have, and holding what we do have in distaste. Not just right now, but in the imaginary realms of the past and the future as well. We recall with regret and trauma things that happened in the past that were harmful, and undesired; we grieve and yearn for desirable events that ended, and beloved people that we have lost. It’s the same with the future; we imagine with dread sufferings that might come, and experience them as if they were happening; we also dream of delightful possibilities, and then suffer from the awareness that they are not real, and might never be. In fact, we waste a significant part of here and now on a there and then that exists only in our minds.
In his modern telling of the Christian nativity story, the poet WH Auden pictures the three wise men following the star in the east as personal representatives of classic intellectual thought problems. The second wise man wrestles with the philosophical riddle of time, saying:
My faith that in time’s constant flow lay real assurance
Broke down on this analysis:
At any given instant, all solids dissolve,
No wheels revolve,
And facts have no endurance.
And who knows whether it is by design or inadvertence
That the present destroys its inherited self-importance?
With envy, terror, rage, regret, we anticipate or remember, but never are.
To discover how
To be living now
Is the reason I follow this star.
With envy, terror, rage, regret, we anticipate or remember, but never ARE… That’s exactly it; how can we learn to be living NOW, in the present moment, which is where all real experience is necessarily located? I suspect that if I could get my ego out of the center of the universe of space, and into the center of time’s constant flow, I would have a more authentic and ethical life. I suspect, if I were more committed to be present in the present, I might be less protective of my comfort – comfort which has a lot to do with trying to control what I anticipate and remember. This is how Robin Chancer advises us to stay sane in the crazy-making upheavals of today’s world, when she says:
Both optimism and pessimism require future-oriented thinking. They exist in the hypothetical, the imaginary. Mindfulness involves shifting our attention — repeatedly, resolutely — back to the present moment. We do not know the future. We cannot fully know the impact of any particular action. We must focus on what we can do, right here and right now. Bring the mind back from its runaway worries and future predictions. Focus that energy on concrete action, and the rewards will feed your soul.
Each time you feel hopelessness creep in, focus your attention on the kindness, generosity, and good will around you. Each time the tapes of despair and anger play in your mind, doggedly shift your focus. The mind will wander, again and again. Each time it happens, we notice the anxious thoughts, and shift our focus back. You may object, “But I can’t just forget all the terrible things going on!” You are right. Mindfulness is not about forgetting. It is about shifting focus to what is most immediate and most helpful. We help no one by staying in our anguish for long.
We help no one by staying in our anguish for long. It is tempting to think that our feelings of outrage, or disgust, or grief, or pity for those who are harmed, are somehow useful to the world. But in truth they are what keep us locked at the center of our own moral universe, in thrall to our recollections of the past and our dread for the future, helping no one. There is no avoiding these feelings; we must not numb ourselves, or rush past them in a panic; we need to welcome their wisdom, and then return our energy to the present.
Nicholas Kristof makes the same point from the opposite direction in his end of the year examination of long-term historical trends, in the New York Times. Despite all the very valid reasons for concern about the future of humanity, if we widen the lens from the political and economic concerns of the richest – if not the greatest – nation on the earth, to a global perspective, the following things are also true:
Every single day in recent years, another 325,000 people got their first access to electricity. Each day, more than 200,000 got piped water for the first time. And some 650,000 went online for the first time, every single day.
Perhaps the greatest calamity for anyone is to lose a child. That used to be common: Historically, almost half of all humans died in childhood. As recently as 1950, 27 percent of all children still died by age 15. Now that figure has dropped to about 4 percent. Diseases like polio, leprosy, river blindness and elephantiasis are also on the decline.
As recently as 1981, 42 percent of the planet’s population endured “extreme poverty,” defined by the United Nations as living on less than about $2 a day. [In figures corrected for inflation,] that portion has plunged to less than 10 percent of the world’s population now.
A half century ago, a majority of the world’s people had always been illiterate; now we are approaching 90 percent adult literacy. There have been particularly large gains in girls’ education — and few forces change the world so much as education and the empowerment of women. [In this regard, it is worth noting that women in Bangladesh, for example, now average just 2.1 births in their lifetimes (down from 6.9 in 1973)].
Kristof does not offer any of this information in the service of complacency. If anything, the awareness of what has been accomplished in such a relatively short time ought to energize humanity to tackle the next achievable goals. He quotes Oxford University economist Max Roser, who writes, “Three things are true at the same time: The world is much better, the world is awful, the world can be much better yet.”
This is the time we live in, friends – Dickens was right; the best of times, the worst of times. The one thing it’s not, is comfortable. We can afford neither complacency nor despair; we cannot afford to be captured by our grief for the artificial comforts of an era that must be relegated to the artifacts of history. Neither can we afford to assume that there is progress “onward and upward forever;” that was part of the artificial comfort we are called now to renounce, in the service of making a real difference in the present. The way to stay sane is to carry the sound of those bells, forever calling us back from the impotent past and the illusory future, to bring our minds and hearts to this moment, where all our capacity lies.
Three truths at the same time: Things are awful; very well, what can be done? Keep in mind that things are not awful because you and I are uncomfortable. The things that are awful are mostly the things that have always been the scourges of humankind; illness, hunger, ignorance, violence, the death of children. What can we do to reduce this awfulness?
Three truths: Things are less awful than they have been – remember the admonition of Adrienne Maree Brown, “Things are not getting worse, they are getting uncovered. We must hold each other tight, and continue to pull back the veil.” Very well, how do we hold each other, here and now? How do we continue to pull back the veil, and bring to light the truth that once known, makes us all free to live better lives?
Three truths: Things could be so much better than they are. Very well, let’s be about it; whatever on the list of awfulness calls your name. Grief will come – grief for the comforting illusions swept away, followed by grief for the suffering that so many people must face – but do not dwell in your grief longer than you must; it serves no one. Rage will come, and disgust, for the cruelty and greed of some, that make the suffering of others worse than it might otherwise be – but do not dwell in your rage and disgust; in itself, it serves no one. Dread will come, of all the evils that the future might well hold; learn from your fears, but do not dwell there, either, nor in idle dreams of the future’s lottery. Rather, abide here and now, in mindfulness; with the people you can hold close, with the work that is at hand to be done. Memory and hope can inform that work, but they are no substitute for it, and it is in that work that authentic comfort, the enduring kind that we can trust, will come. Let the bells call you back – to the present, to the possible, to the truth that makes us free, to the time we have together, to the song we share.