When Life Is Messy

A Miami Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship sermon

Rev. Amy Russell (MVUUF Minister 2007-2013) – January 13, 2008

(Title taken from Richard Gilbert’s poem by the same name)

My Christmas this year wasn’t so great. I think I warned you all that Christmas often isn’t what we expect. Not that any of you needed to be told that. Even when families like mine are viewed by others as sort of like the Waltons–big, noisy, seemingly close families–they can easily get “messy” when problems face them. This Christmas was no exception.

It started out like most of our family Christmases with too much food, too much drink, and way too many gifts. We were really enjoying a rousing game of Apples to Apples. That’s a game where you try to match nouns to adjectives and try to psych out how the MC would match them up. There’s mostly a lot of laughing and boastful efforts on some people’s part to sell their own effort as the best. But then sometime during the evening, there was some familial tension that erupted into conflict as there sometimes is during family holidays when many people are jammed into one house and everyone starts trying to enjoy the holiday in their own way.

But as we move into the new year, I see more clearly the reality of the “messiness” in my family as the phone calls between family members continue. The reality is that we really love one another deeply, despite our myriad problems. That is the best blessing that any family could have.

But when you’re in the middle of conflict within a family or any group, it sometimes seems insolvable and sometimes it really might be insolvable. There are personality differences that may not ever be solved or understood. But that doesn’t mean we have failed. Solving difficulties in relationships is probably the most common problem that any of us face.

When I first became a Buddhist, I was told that I could pray or meditate about any problem and it would get solved. I thought this was a wonderful magic trick and didn’t believe it. But I tried it. When I began having problems in my marriage as everyone inevitably does, I tried to meditate my problems away. However, I soon learned that it matters what kind of attitude you have when you are meditating. At first, I was praying that my husband would change and that would solve my problems. When this didn’t work, I went back for advice and was told that in Buddhism, you are responsible for your own happiness. So, if you have a problem, you need to examine what you are doing that could be causing the problem. So, my blaming the problem on my husband didn’t work. When I began to see my own part in the problem, things got much easier.

Even when you take responsibility for your own problems – life still isn’t easy. I think when I get overcome with feeling the difficulties are those times when I didn’t see it coming. So often, I feel that life is so joyful and beautiful–and it is to me so much of the time–that when a difficulty comes along, I’m not prepared. I don’t expect to have these problems, so when they come, I’m thrown off balance.

Just like the plane in our reading today whose computers know that it’s off course and make the correction – but often humans don’t want to admit that we’re off course and need to make a correction. The reading said that planes are off-course 99% of the time – humans are probably off-course at least 50% of the time – but we don’t always want to realize that we have natural difficulties that take some of our attention to get back on track.

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, the well-known author of Death and Dying, writes in a new book Life Lessons, “Happiness depends not on what happens, but on how we handle what happens. Our happiness is determined by how we interpret, perceive, and integrate what happens into our state of mind. And how we perceive things is determined by our commitment. This is where balance comes, in learning our lessons and remembering the truth about each other.”

Our attitude toward a problem in our life is key, I think, to changing our lives from a series of endless difficulties that seem insurmountable to a balance of natural problems balanced with the joys that come to us as well. When I was a Buddhist there was a favorite saying we used to have, “Do not be sorry that you are not leading a peaceful life.” In this double negative phrase, it tells us that it’s okay that our lives are not more peaceful. This sounds strange coming from Buddhist philosophy, doesn’t it? Isn’t the goal of Buddhism to be peaceful and serene in the face of anything? But that’s just it – Buddhism recognizes that life is suffering and that one’s attitude toward that suffering is what determines whether one will experience life as peaceful or as chaotic.

Buddhist philosophy teaches us that the problems in life–the obstacles that we face–are the way that we learn to grow into peaceful and happy people. Buddhism says that life is filled inevitably with suffering – sickness, growing old, and death is basically the pattern of all life. So, if we expect that and learn to live with it gracefully, embracing life’s problems as a means to grow – then we don’t spend our lives angry and resentful that we aren’t in a more serene existence.

I think our consumerist society sets up expectations for us that we can somehow obtain or purchase our happiness just by fulfilling our desires. We often look toward the next milestone in our lives as the possible fulfillment of our happiness. Kubler-Ross says, “We live and travel in the Land of When, telling ourselves that we will be happy when certain things happen; when I start the new job, when I find the right mate, when the kids are grown. We’re usually greatly disappointed to find that getting the things we were waiting for doesn’t make us happy, so we choose a new set of “whens”. Getting our whens never pleases us for long. We must choose happiness over when. When is now. Happiness is just as possible with this set of circumstances as it is with the next.”

A woman who had ALS, Lou Gehring’s disease, decided to host a big benefit event soon after she was diagnosed with the disease. Everything was a disaster; people’s egos got in the way, there were all kinds of disagreements among the committee, and things just never seemed to fall into place right. Ten years later, Audrey decided to host the benefit event again thinking that it would be much easier this time because she was much older and wiser. But a few weeks into the planning, everything started going wrong again just like they had the first time. At first, Audrey was very frustrated and angry at herself that she let all these problems happen. Then she realized that the problems weren’t going to disappear on their own, but that she could handle them this time. She stopped trying to control events but just handled the problems as they happened and she enjoyed the whole process. She learned that she could be happy despite the problems. How we perceive something that is happening to us makes the difference between our happiness and ability to deal with a problem and our frustration and unhappiness. How we can view a situation can turn it around and make a difficult problem a learning event.

But a lot of times it takes some help from other people to help us through a bad time. Anne Lamott, one of my favorite authors, talks about realizing at twenty that she was an alcoholic. She says that one week she decided to try to start controlling her drinking. So she decided that she would only have two beers that night, instead of her usual drinking herself into a stupor. So she went to the grocery and bought two sixteen-ounce “Rainier Ales” which is apparently a beer fortified with raw alcohol. So she managed that night to only have those two beers, a couple of valiums, and some marijuana. And she told herself that she was doing well. The next night that became three of those strong beers, washed down with some other drugs, and a fifth of whisky. It took her another year of this kind of fooling herself to realize that she could no longer control her drinking.

She started going to AA meetings. This is what she says about that experience:

I let a bunch of sober alcoholics teach me how to get sober, and stay sober.

God, they were such a pain in the ass.

Let me put it this way, I didn’t love sobriety at first. I thought maybe I could find a few loopholes in the basic premise of abstinence. Maybe, I thought, after a few months of sobriety, you could successfully smoke marijuana again, or maybe every anniversary you got to have one glass of a perfectly chilled California Chardonnay. It turned out there were not going to be any loopholes. The people who seemed to find loopholes were showing signs of failure; for instance, they were shooting themselves in the head. Over time, two of my best sober friends, thinking they’d found loopholes, shot themselves in the head and died. This got my attention.

…I was angry for a long time. I didn’t know why these annoying people wanted to help me or why they seemed to love me even though I was whiny and arrogant and defeated all at once, the classic egomaniac with an inferiority complex. I finally figured it out, although I could not have put it as well as Sam did last night. He was watching King Kong, the remake with Jessica Lange, and toward the end, he said, ‘She loves him because she can see that he’s lonely.'”

-Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies, p.188.

Anne Lamott finally realized what many of us in our messiness forget. That there are people out there to help. People who care and will be there for us. There are people like that right here in this church. People who call you or e-mail you when you’re ill or going through a bad time and offer to help. They don’t know what they can do to help. But they just want to be there to help. But when we’re in the middle of the messiness, we’re often ashamed and in denial. We say, “Oh, we’re fine.” And we go on being lonely and hurting. Not that asking for help is going to be the solution. But it might start to make the pain of what we’re going through a little less difficult. Having someone who cares whom you could call when you need to talk, or talk a walk, or have a meal together. Sometimes that helps enough to make us start caring about ourselves again to decide we’re going to make it.

Taking responsibility for our lives, changing our attitudes towards a situation, and asking for help. To some of you this sounds trite–like taking lemons and making lemonade–is that what I’m talking about? Not really – because not all situations lend themselves to being kind and cheerful in the face of difficulty. There are many situations in which we have to struggle to make sense of why we have found ourselves in this place in life. And having to stop and look at that – that alone is a kind of gift – if we can stop and ask ourselves some questions. So when I do there are several things I ask myself. What got me into this situation in the first place? What pieces of this do I own as my problem? What pieces of this do I not own and have no control over? What do I need to just accept and live with? What can I change? This reminds me of the serenity prayer, “Lord, grant me the courage to face the things in life I need to change and accept those things I can’t change and the wisdom to know the difference.”

I had a very interesting conversation over lunch this week with one of you and we were talking about choice. What in life is under our control – is in fact our choice, either consciously or unconsciously, and what is given to us as blessings or as obstacles from which we learn, and what is merely happenstance?

Many of you would tell me that in your life there are things that have happened that are completely beyond your control. And I admit that is certainly the way much of life feels – completely uncontrollable. If we were given the conscious choice to have the problems we have today – we certainly wouldn’t have chosen these things. However, when I ask people about problems that they had in the past – if they could have lived life differently without those problems so that they would essentially be different people – some people say no, they wouldn’t want to be different than they are. Some people say that the problems they have had in life made them who they are today, so, they recognize the important role these problems had in shaping their current lives, even if they don’t believe that these were situations of their own making.

Buddhist philosophy tells us that the life situation we find ourselves in is the result of the causes we have made. Does this mean that when we have problems in life that means we deserve these problems? Does this mean that we have made an unconscious choice to have these problems for some psychological reason? That is not what this philosophy is saying. There is no guilt or blame in Buddhism. The philosophy is saying that unconsciously we make choices we are not aware of, and that causes we have made in this life might have pointed us in the direction of this life situation. The life situation we find ourselves in teaches us more about life. We can accept that this is the life we have chosen and then make different choices to change it. That is the Buddhist philosophy of karma. And it’s one of the most difficult of the Buddhist philosophies to understand.

Wherever I am in life, and ask myself, why did I end up here? What choices did I make that brought me here? And what can I learn about myself from the current life situation so that I can make different choices next time – either choices or intentions, or prayers. That’s the way that I use this philosophy – to help me in my intentions about life. Being intentional about the life that I lead means being very aware of what causes I make with my thoughts, intentions, and actions and what can do to change the causes I make that bring me unhappiness.

So, in trying to help my family through our difficult time right now, I’ve been trying to focus on several things. That everyone in my family has made his/her own choice in life. I can’t control or change those decisions. I try to be open spiritually to what the universe is bringing us. I try to use my love for my family to help them – by loving them unconditionally but being open to new ways that I can be in my relationship to them that might be more helpful.

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross writes, “Going through hardship is like being a rock in a tumbler. You’re tossed to and fro and get bruised, but you come out more polished and valuable than ever. You are now prepared for even bigger lessons, bigger challenges, and a bigger life. All the nightmares are turned into blessings that become part of living. If we had shielded the Grand Canyon from the windstorms that created it, we would not see the beauty of its carvings. That may be why so many patients have told us that if they could magically go back to the point right before they got their cancer or other life-challenging disease and erase what was to come, they would not.”

Life is messy. Let us learn to accept the blessings of loss and pain that shape us and make us who we are as much as our blessings of love and joy do.