“What a pity if we do not live this short time according to the laws of the long time.” — HD Thoreau
“That’s a problem for future Homer. Man, I don’t envy that guy!” — Homer Simpson
“It isn’t enough to talk about peace. One must believe in it. And it isn’t enough to believe in it. One must work at it with courage.” — Eleanor Roosevelt
“Being deeply loved gives you strength; loving deeply gives you courage.” — Lao Tzu
What makes you mad? I mean really angry?
Try this: Take a minute to complete the phrase, “It makes me so angry when… “
See how many things you come up with.
Now if you’re like a number of people (myself included), you didn’t have too much trouble filling in that blank. A lot of things anger us. Some of them are really big, global issues that, in truth, should anger us — poverty, racial injustice, sexism (most of the “isms”), environmental decline, CoVid-19…. 2020 as a whole! It makes sense to be angered by these global realities. Anger can be a powerful motivator to seek change to do good in the context of such global “bad.”
But there is also an aspect of anger that can be daily, over-taxing our emotional stability, stressing our physical reality, and wearing away at the very fabric of our soul. The little things that REALLY tick us off — like that guy who’s driving so slowly in the left lane, or when we’re a little late and stuck at a red light that clearly has it in for us, or when they’re out of your favorite item at the store (Skinny Cow Caramel Ice Cream Bars — every time).
And there’s the fact that there are only two ways to plug in a jump drive, but it still takes me three tries!!
Anger, frustration, is an insidious fact of life. We’re wired for it so that all it takes is a trigger and we’re off. And therein lies a conundrum. Often, what we get mad about isn’t really the problem but a symptom of something else going on with us. And it doesn’t help that we human beings have been trained, evolved, for this kind of emotional behavior for thousands of years! As scientists have long shown, we have a bias for negativity and short tempers. Something trips our anger or anxiety response and our body is flooded with cortisol and adrenaline. And we’re ready to face the wooly mammoth — or run!
Now thousands of years later, the wooly mammoths are gone; but we’re still banging people over the proverbial head (or our own heads against a wall) when there’s rarely a need to be so reactionary. It’s just that we have a lot of evolutionary history and neurological bias to wean out of our system. We can’t help but see everything as “either-or.”
And some of us are like hammers where everything we meet is a nail (Sidebar: here’s a great children’s book that speaks to this in a very helpful and hilarious way — Mr. Nogginbody Gets a Hammer!)
But maybe life is less about binaries and more about “who knows?”
There’s an old fable about a farmer whose horse broke free from its stable and ran off. Some townspeople came by and said, “This is terrible! Your anger is certainly understood.” But the farmer replied, “Anger? Who knows if this is bad, or if this is good?”
A few days later, when the horse returned with a beautiful stallion, the townspeople heard about it and showed up to congratulate him. “Lucky you! You must really be glad!” To which he again responded, “Who knows if this is good or if this is bad?”
A few weeks later, his son suffered a severe leg injury while training the stallion. The townspeople consoled the farmer, “How unfortunate! Such a terrible injury to your lad!” To which the farmer once again said, “Who knows if this is good or if this is bad?”
Then, a month later, when the government conscripted all the able-bodied young men to go to war, the farmer’s son’s permanent injury kept him at home. And the townspeople addressed him angrily, “I suppose you’re happy things have turned out for you as only they could!” But the farmer humbly answered, “Who knows if this is bad or if this is good?”
It’s a familiar fable with an ancient but timeless message — our temptation is to see things as binaries: good-bad, either-or, yes-no, happy-sad. And again, this makes sense given our 1000’s of years of evolution. Living with “who knows?” doesn’t always calm our anxieties or address our fears. I mean, I get it; we’d certainly hope for a more specific prognosis for a critical health issue, a broken car, a job interview, or a relationship than — “Who knows?!”
But maybe there’s something about courage (open-heartedness) that is willing to let go of some of that binary vision in order to see what else is there, in order to live more fully with the moments that don’t come with clear cut, either-or answers. Admittedly, it takes courage to do that, especially when we’re about to get angry because things aren’t the way we want them or the red lights and jump drives and folks on FB and news media are all out to get us. It takes courage (“open-heartedness”) to change our ways. But opening up to the wider possibilities may be how we clear the path for the very ground of our being to reconnect us with life. It may not be the answer we were looking for, but it may just be the path to peace.
My Uncle Mac was fond of saying to us when we went camping and looking for wildlife (and we’d get impatient), “There’s nothing so hard to see as something you’re looking at too hard.”
That seems just as true with our daily experiences as it was true when looking for deer in a thicket. More often than not, when we’d take a breath, step back, and look for a wider view, we’d see a lot more than just the deer we hadn’t noticed in the first place.
So, this Advent season, we’re reminded once again that our days, our lives, and our world are in disarray, pandemic, and pandemonium, divided, and desperate. And as if that isn’t bad enough, the job isn’t going well. Life at home is stressful. It’s pretty lonely right now. (And those damn jump drives!)
But wait! There’s much more than meets the eye. Something has come. Something birthed at the very ground of our being. Something always present in the changing of the seasons. Something at the heart of stillness and calm that reminds us we are grounded in love. We are rooted, grounded, and empowered in peace: the Imago Dei — God with Us. The Christ of God incarnate in the world. And we are its salt and light and bridge builders.
But that takes courage to see.
Take a breath. Step back. Look for a wider view. Who knows? Perhaps these are but a few of the spiritual practices that can help us clear the path for the holy in our midst.
By the way, this Sunday, December 6, is the second Sunday in Advent. I hope you can join me at 11:11 a.m, as I’ll be talking more about courage as the way of peace. Brad, Charme, and the band have some inspiring music and prayer for the Christmas season. We hope to see you then!
Rev. Tom McDermott
Associate Pastor of eleven:eleven