It was a silver plastic toy B-58 Hustler. The actual airplane had been introduced into the U.S. Air Force inventory a few years before. The B-58 was a supersonic 4-engined bomber capable of sustained speeds of over 1,300 miles per hour. It was designed as a high speed, high altitude bomber to penetrate Soviet defenses to deliver a single large thermonuclear bomb that was suspended as a pod underneath the airplane.
It was an unusually bright morning in the small English town where my family lived. The year was 1960. I was flying high and fast over the Suds River. I had checked the final position with the Navigator of my bomber. "Poor guy", I thought, "he doesn't have much of a view from his seat." Within seconds, it was time. I released the bomb slung under the airframe. Direct hit on the Suds River! I watched the bomb float on the river like it was an elongated silver cigar. "Wait a minute!", I said, "Oh no!".
Before I could do anything about it, the bomb vanished down the drain hole where the Suds River terminated from the washing machine inside our house. At four years old I had just had my first experience with the now all too familiar sinking feeling of loss.
You know that feeling. It happens when you drop, then flush, your expensive electronic car key down the toilet, or when you've just wiped out a day's worth of work on your computer, or when you wish to God you hadn't said that final terrible thing that caused the one you love to leave you for good.
The first time I took up the spiritual aspects of this subject of loss and disappointment with this congregation was in 2009. In May of that year I delivered a sermon called “Okay God”. Today I revisit the subject with slightly new eyes, or at least, with eyes that are a few years older.
Disappointment, pain, resentment, frustration, are all natural feelings. We rail against the universe because we want things to be the way we feel they should be. We want people to behave the way we want them to. We want more, but expect less. Most times, we find ourselves in this posture of expectation before we are even aware that the pain we feel comes from that expectation. In fact, I believe many of us live entire lives, but never fully understand that fact. I now consider myself lucky to have learned my ten rules when I did. If I had not come to wrestle, full-time, with the loss of everything I expected my life to include when I was all of 33 years old, I think it would have taken me much longer to gain the insight that now informs and comforts me.
The ten rules I was referring to were what I posted on walls all around my desk during my divorce. This is rule #1: “People will do what they want to do, whether you want them to or not.” Rule # 2: “Things will happen the way they will, whether you want them to or not.” Rule #3: “Do what you can with what you’ve got, when you’ve got it.” Rule # 4: “Things are always much worse than you think they are, you just don’t know it.” The other rules have been lost over time. But the first four — they are most important, and they are what I live by.
Jan Denise writes a weekly newspaper column called “Naked Relationships”, which is represented nationally by Creators Syndicate. Her book, called “Innately Good: Dispelling the Myth that You’re Not”, identifies the ultimate fear of not being "good enough" as what triggers empty pursuit, escape, and addiction, as well as all negative emotion, and then invalidates the fear with the truth of innate goodness, or the love within. She wrote:
“Anytime I am looking to somebody else as my source, I'm coming from scarcity. I am no longer trusting God, or the Universe, for my harvest. It's reasonable for me to have expectations based on what somebody I trust has committed to. And it's natural for me to feel disappointed when that somebody doesn't come through. But when I feel more than disappointment, when I also feel anger, it's because I deviated from my truth. It's because I compromised my truth to get what somebody else promised. Because when I'm really following my truth, I will be at peace with the consequences — whatever they are. I can accept somebody else's truth, but I must live my own truth. And sometimes that means walking away from a relationship.”
Being in relationship, whether with ourselves, or an aspect of ourselves (such as with another person), is sometimes difficult. The relationships don’t always work the way we expect them to. Facing the truth that you don’t really control anything, or anyone is a lesson that needs constant repetition. Even people who really understand this can sometimes forget, and they experience pain, just like the rest of us. The only thing you can control is your attitude towards what happens to, and around, you.
Lately, I’ve had many conversations with people about what I call the “gut check”. It seems we often know, in our guts, that we are about to do something that just is not good for us. We know it won’t turn out right. We know we are going down the wrong path. That person we are just starting a relationship is not the right person. We are going to compromise our integrity or values just a little bit for some short term gain, which can sometimes simply be something that makes us feel good for a few moments. But what happens? We deny our guts. We pretend the feelings are not valid. We do what we know we shouldn’t, and then we are hurt, or disappointed, or even abused. Sometimes we lose someone or something that is important to us because we plowed full speed ahead, leaving our better judgment trailing behind in tatters. Jan Denise said “I compromised my truth to get what somebody else promised. Because when I'm really following my truth, I will be at peace with the consequences — whatever they are.” I beg to differ a little with Denise. When we ignore the gut check we make false promises to ourselves. We are not at peace with the consequences. The most astonishing thing is that we are then surprised, as if somebody else is the cause of our loss or disappointment!
This is one of the most puzzling things about us human beings. The reason why my B-58 lesson was so powerful was that even at 4 years old I knew I could lose my thermonuclear bomb. I thought I could be fast enough to rescue it, but deep down I knew the worst could happen. I suppose you could say that was my first time I can remember having the “gut” experience also. And then, of course, there was the constant reminder every time I looked at my bomber, that it was incomplete... ah, so many lifelong lessons to be gleaned from a 1 pound 5 shilling toy. If my parents only knew the many lessons that toy provided me with!
On a much broader, and spiritual, level the issues of loss, resentment, disappointment, emotional pain, and frustration go to the very heart of the human experience. Indeed, one might argue that these issues... these extremely powerful human emotions... are the very reasons why we human beings invented religion. At the core of all these emotions is a fear of death – either literal or figurative. To lose something or someone is to experience a kind of death. I like to say that when we make a decision we “murder the alternative” because that is the etymology of the word. That is a powerful concept we don’t often appreciate.
Yet, many of us do not really understand how to make a decision. From what I can see, many of us are simply afraid of making decisions. The choice of one thing over another often means we cannot dwell on the possibilities the other choice may have offered. It is painful to make a “final” decision; so many times we vacillate between choices. As you know, that can cause almost exquisite pain. We are often disappointed by decisions, we can come to resent a decision, and the pain of the decision is often more intense than its actual consequences.
Indeed, the big “D” word – death – hangs over the most fundamental religious impulses like the sword of Damocles. Whether describing the little deaths of pain, disappointment, and so on, or an actual, literal death, we human beings cannot help but look into an abyss very few of us feel comfortable with. George Melly, the British jazz musician and humanist, on hearing a young person throw out the remark "Who wants to live till they're 98, anyway?" jokingly answered: "Why, someone of 97, of course!"
Fear – whether of death, or any other kind of loss that brings us into spiritual crisis, is powerful enough to paralyze us. The ability to move beyond that fear takes both practice and a lot of self-forgiveness.
As a great science fiction fan, I am always reminded of the Bene Gesserit’s “Litany Against Fear” in Frank Herbert’s classic book called “Dune”. The Bene Gesserit is an exclusive sisterhood whose members train their bodies and minds through years of physical and mental conditioning to obtain superhuman powers and abilities that can seem magical to outsiders. Their “Litany Against Fear” goes like this:
"I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain."
The relationship between fear and pain, and all the emotions associated with pain, is essential to an understanding of how we can best deal with these powerful forces in our lives. When I last spoke about this subject I was describing what it felt like to be living in a house that was about to be foreclosed. We were also, at the same time, expecting news from investors that might have radically changed our lives. The first sermon, entitled “Okay God”, was an exploration of how expectations about life often do not match actual circumstances. The main point of that sermon was that is where pain lives, and that we must free ourselves from its grasp by recognizing what the space between expectation and reality looks like.
Ekhart Tolle in his book entitled “The Power of Now” describes this schism between the fear of pain and the reality of it in this way:
"The psychological condition of fear is divorced from any concrete and true immediate danger. It comes in many forms: unease, worry, anxiety, nervousness, tension, dread, phobia, and so on. This kind of psychological fear is always of something that might happen, not of something that is happening now. You are in the here and now, while your mind is in the future. This creates an anxiety gap. And if you are identified with your mind and have lost touch with the power and simplicity of the Now, that anxiety gap will be your constant companion. You can always cope with the present moment, but you cannot cope with something that is only a mind projection - you cannot cope with the future."
According to some, pain, death, frustration, and disappointment... all the great drawbacks of the “human condition” have their root cause in our “sinful nature”. I reject the notion of sin, even though I acknowledge its role in shaping and guiding human behavior for millennium. I reject the notion of sin as a determinate factor in our lives because I strongly identify with the humanist perspective that we make decision based on our free will, and that the progressive exercise of that will to our individual advancement helps to advance humanity.
The Happy Human that you see on one of our banners here, is the official symbol of the International Humanist and Ethical Union as well as being regarded as a universally recognized symbol for those who call themselves Humanists. In 2002, the IHEU General Assembly unanimously adopted the Amsterdam Declaration 2002, which represents the official defining statement of World Humanism. The IHEU Minimum Statement on Humanism reads:
“Humanism is a democratic and ethical life stance, which affirms that human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives. It stands for the building of a more humane society through an ethic based on human and other natural values in the spirit of reason and free inquiry through human capabilities. It is not theistic, and it does not accept supernatural views of reality.”
Compare the Unitarian Universalist support for a "free and responsible search for truth and meaning" with the Humanist statement “that human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives”. So, there you have it. The fact is that many of us Unitarian Universalists identify very strongly with Humanism.
As a Unitarian Universalist of a distinctly Humanist flavor, I personally believe the key to my own happiness is a dogged embrace of the concept of the "free and responsible search for truth and meaning". That means I am probably one of the most self-forgiving people you are likely to meet. I make decisions about my life from the standpoint of what is best for both myself and others that will come after me, assuming that others will take equal responsibility for their own actions. That means that, while I am responsible for acting in a manner that holds the highest regard for others, I am not responsible for their feelings about my actions. This goes with the idea that, while I cannot often change the circumstances of my life, I can change my attitude about those circumstances.
This philosophy does not mean that I purposely attempt to avoid or minimize pain, suffering, disappointment, frustration, and so on. Quite to the contrary, I believe it is good to “march directly into disappointment”, as Chogyam Trungpa said. He said, “We must surrender our hopes and expectations, as well as our fears, and march directly into disappointment, work with disappointment, go into it and make it our way of life, which is a very hard thing to do. Disappointment is a good sign of basic intelligence. It cannot be compared to anything else; it is sharp, precise, obvious, and direct. If we can open, then we suddenly begin to see that our expectations are irrelevant compared with the reality of the situations we are facing.”
Tolle, Trungpa, Herbert, and other Humanists are all pointing in a direction for us. They answer the questions of pain, fear, and disappointment with other questions, such as “Why don’t you face your fears? Why do you let them control your life? Why don’t you accept reality for what it is? Why don’t you forgive yourself and others? Why don’t you make better decisions? Why do you hold on to pain? Why don’t you follow your gut? What is stopping you from loving fiercely? Why are you afraid of death in all its guises? Why do you take yourself so seriously?”
These are all good questions. There is no one size fits all to them. They don’t always produce an answer. But to me, I’ll take those questions over answers I get from other religions any day of the week. Now, armed with these questions, I am ready to face whatever the universe brings me. So I’ll end this talk today as I did the first one:
Okay, God, Universe, Higher Power... whatever... I get it. Whatever it is... bring it on. I’ll kick its butt too!
About this blog.
This blog is a place where many of the confluences of my life can be shared. I am, at the core, a creative person. I approach everything from that basis... whether composing symphonies, playing the cello, being a serial entrepreneur, writing sermons and essays, flying airplanes, or creating software apps. I am deeply passionate about creativity, issues of social justice, and spiritual enrichment. These are fundamental to everything I do. Welcome to my journey!