The Sound of One Voice

by BC

Our reading from this Sunday was titled “You Reading This, Be Ready,” by the poet William Stafford. This sermon also drew heavily on “10 Ways to Build Resilience” from the American Psychological Association.

I remember my first evening as a chaplain – it feels like it was a very long time ago.  There is no way I could ever forget it.  When you study to become a Unitarian Universalist minister, you are required to serve as a chaplain in a hospital for a semester, a summer, or sometimes even a year.

It is often a mix of emotional boot camp with the normal duties of a chaplain – visiting patients, talking with families and doctors and nurses, being there in times of great joy, and more often than not, being there in moments of complete and utter sadness. Trauma, despair, confusion, death, and the breadth of human sadness with bits of bittersweet mixed in.  The particular hospital I was serving at was the very same hospital I as born in, a fact that somehow terrified me even more in the work that waited me as I began my first overnight shift on the floor with my supervisor. As we left the chaplain’s office she said, “Let’s go hang out in the emergency room.  It hasn’t been too busy today.”  Famous last words.  Before I knew it it was nearly five in the morning.

Several traumas later, including pediatric traumas, with many deaths, a packed emergency room, and my mind racing with images of things I thought I would never have to see in my life, we finally started walking back to the chaplain offices to get a little rest before the shift ended. And then the pager went off one more time.  And there we found ourselves witnessing the passing of one more person that night and tending to the grief of her family.  It was that one final thing that pushed me over my limit. For those of you in the medical profession you might remember a similar moment in your own training.  After fighting to keep it together those final couple hours in the hospital, I packed my very green seminarian self into my car and began to drive home.  I was tired, I was numb, I was doubting what on earth I was doing.

I remember driving along a road that passes along O’Hare airport and just as I thought I had a handle on the seemingly endless evening of trauma and death in the hospital that night, I found myself pulling over the car and without warning, just started bawling – planes flying overhead and the morning traffic continuing on its way.

The next evening I sat down with my supervisor and told her what happened.  She nodded.  She asked some uncomfortable questions – that was her job – and she poked and prodded at me trying to get to the heart of the grief I had witnessed and how that affected me. She interrupted me midsentence and said rather flatly, “We need to work on your resilience.  And I don’t mean so that you can be a good minister, we’ll get to that.  But so that you can be whole and honest for yourself.”   I, of course, scoffed a bit. What do you mean I’m not resilient?  I’m here!  To be honest though, I kind of feared my chaplain supervisor, so I eventually gave in and played along with her spiritual prescription of working on resilience.  I can’t say that I have it all figured out, but I do know that I am on my way, and this was years ago.

Resilience is a funny thing. It benefits us no matter what is befalling us, it is something we need to get through life, and yet it doesn’t feel like it is something we learn easily. Last week we talked about how to resist.  How to find simple ways that anyone could accomplish to withstand a political climate that betrays the call of this faith to love our neighbors without question, and be active allies to the suffering – among or beyond us.

But let me tell you, any work for justice, any engagement, any resistance, requires us to be resilient.  It calls upon us to build an inner well of strength that we can draw upon, a well that will not run dry. I don’t know much about digging wells, but it is so much easier to despair and give myself over to hopelessness and anger.  The better way is always the one that sounds simple but causes us to tumble time and time again.

So how do we cultivate lives of resilience?  How do we make sure that we have it within us to weather the storm and press on?  I ask these question and I want to just say forget it – and go live in a cabin in the woods until I get the all clear.  But resilience is a practice that we should foster. I would call it a spiritual practice, but I look to the trials and tribulations of populations in ages past and in this moment that have only survived because of their culture of resilience.  Some of these trials are small, some are centuries old, some come and go, and yet others would break your heart.

But still there are people that endure to tell the tale, at least in many stories that we hear and tell one another.  How do we practice resilience?  There are people with many theories, of course, from the American Psychological Association to the sociologist Brene Brown to spiritual gurus and assorted clergy, thinkers, and fill in the blanks.

I’ve found in my own work in trying to become a resilient and wholehearted human being some commonalities across the disciplines, some tips for resiliency that are repeated a hundred different ways.  When you come across any to-do list, whether it’s in peacefully resisting, staying engaged, becoming wholehearted, or staying resilient. They always look so easy.  They always make you go, well of course!  And yet we have to keep telling each other about them.  We have to visit them again and again.

I wonder if this is indicative of our culture keeping us distracted, always pushing us to the next thing and not fostering communities of malleable strength, or perhaps the reason we need to repeat ourselves is that resiliency is not something you learn instinctually, but something you practice in community. I prefer that explanation.  We can go on and on about the pitfalls of our culture.  But I truly believe that resistance, engagement, and resilience are tightly knit together by the coming together of community. I need only look at where people turn when the world is on fire:  they turn to their friends, their families, their faith, and countless other communities that provide space for circling the wagons, but also for pressing on into the wilderness.

Resilience is a communal act in many ways.  I want us to be wholehearted, I want us to be right with ourselves, I want us to cultivate personal practices of endurance.  And I want our communities to be just as resilient as our inner selves.  So how do we cultivate that?  Where do we begin with these simple but demanding practices?

We are off to a good start in this room.  I don’t say that so we can just pat ourselves on the back and be done with it.  But making connections with those who are facing the same potential or realized problems is how resilient communities start. Solid relationships with our friends and family and accepting help and support from people we care about and, in turn, care about us, forms the bedrock of resilience.  It boils down to knowing people are there.

I know some of you feel alone right now.  But look around you.  Say hello to someone you don’t know today.  If you are alone in this room, all I can do is look right at you and say that that is not the case.  We are with you, you are with us. Oftentimes, though, our loneliness comes upon us no matter who is around us when faced with what feels like insurmountable odds.  If you’ve been reading the news lately, it may feel that there is just one thing after the other.

And even more baffling is that these things that we are witnessing and being horrified by are things that other people might see as welcome news.  The story of Sisyphus comes to mind.  Here’s the boulder, again, that we are pushing up that hill. We cannot change the fact that stressful times are upon progressives in this country, and, I should remind all of us, stress is not the word our Muslim brothers and sisters would choose right now – trauma might be more appropriate. And the Rev. William Barber, a black minister out of North Carolina that was foundational in the founding of the Moral Monday movement reminds us, “This is not the worst we have seen. To say it is the worst is to disregard the Trail of Tears. Slavery. It is not the first time we have dealt with a racist president….”

No one can change the things that have already happened.  But we can look ahead, we can chart out the ways in which we are seeing progress, or in the very least – ways in which we are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel and realizing it isn’t a train coming at us anymore. But overcoming the overwhelming feeling of anything we face implies that we make peace with the flux of life.  Change is a part of being human, a part of living, a part of our fragile and brief existence. Change means our goals might disappear from sight when something sudden – tragic or not – befalls us.  Change means differentiating between what is within our power to change and that which is not.

Being resilient in the face of change is a practice of setting realistic goals in our lives.  Find something that you can reasonably accomplish.  Something for yourself, for your community, for someone or anything. It is a sad commentary to know that there are people in this world that would tell us we are weak and cannot be resilient – but look to the great sages that have endured hardships we will never know – Gandhi, Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr. They always held within themselves one seemingly small and accomplishable thought, action, or belief that pulled them from the darkness. Ask yourself, what is the one thing I can do today that will take me to where I need to be – mentally, spiritually, physically.

But like with accepting change or facing adversity, we will fail in our goals.  Resilience as an act of resistance is not taken kindly to.  But if we detach ourselves at any hint of trouble and wish the stress would just go away, it’ll just be there waiting for us.

Resilience can be, in many ways, the art of sitting with our discomfort and just being with it.  God that sounds awful.  But I believe it could lead to places of self-discovery.  Knowing ourselves, knowing our struggles, our losses, our fears, sometimes just shutting out the noise and hearing ourselves breathe can lead us to a place of resilience.

It can be frightening at first, it can shine a bright line on how fragile and vulnerable we are, but here is the paradox of resilience as outlined by the sociologist Brene Brown in her book “Rising Strong.”  Making peace with our vulnerabilities leads to a strength that is empowering once the fear has passed.  When was the last time you were quiet enough to hear yourself breathe?  To hear your own heartbeat? What did you hear?  What did you fear?  And if you haven’t done that in some time, find a moment to sit with the rhythm of your existence.  I wonder what you’ll find.  The ancient stoics built into their way of life a regular practice of contemplating their own mortality.

I imagine it was in quiet moments with nothing but their breath and heartbeat, knowing those two tethers were all that anchored them to this life.  For the stoics, this led them to appreciate their lives and nurtured positive attitudes about themselves.  They were vulnerable, they were fragile, they were fearful, but they were alive.  Their mortality put things in perspective and they chose hope over despair.

And with all of these things, making connections, being at peace with change, having realistic goals and accomplishing small acts for ourselves and others, staying engaged, and keeping our lives in perspective – all of these acts of resilience are acts that have sustained people and communities facing any number of odds, severe and fleeting. But throughout it all, first and foremost, these people would take care of themselves and each other.  They would find those moments where they could enjoy life still and they would pay attention to their limits and their needs. And this is not a call to navel gazing – there is a point when self-care become selfish-care, but this is a call to ensure that you are equipped to contribute to the resilience of the wider community.

That’s what it all comes back to for me.  Our own personal resilience strengthens the resilience of this place and of any community where we must engage and resist in the work before us.

We are going to need resilience in order to resist and engage in the days ahead.  I never wanted to be a clergyman that had to comment on the politics of our time, but when the liberty of entire segments of our population is being threatened, my silence and our silence amounts to complicity.

And if I am being too harsh on the new administration, we can just call it alternative praise if that helps.  Resilience will be needed by all of us.  Resilience to get right with ourselves, to build up our community, and to be meaningful allies to those most affected.

This is nothing new, it just has an urgency and a feeling of bracing for impact attached to it in this moment.  Which is why as a community must cultivate those acts, those goals, those practices that will allow us to draw upon that inner well when we need it. In so doing we just might discover our inner voices, that single voice that guides us on our way – no matter where life takes us – and if we’re lucky, we may find that that single voice is joined by the company of others, a community of fellow travelers.

What is our voice not just in times of trial but in the daily comings and goings of life?  What is our collective voice?  Perhaps we will find out.

Practice resilience.  Practice it in the quiet, in the rush, in the in between times that we find.  Practice it and you will start to see what you are capable of, and more importantly, what we are capable of in whatever comes our way.