ESSENTIAL WISDOM - Charles Stephen
E. B. White once wrote of his difficult dog, Fred:
without him would be heaven, but I'm afraid it is not what I
That seems to me to be a piece of essential wisdom that
should never be lost. It is broad, as essential wisdom ought
to be, and touches more than E. B. White's mangy dog, Fred.
Life without a lot of the Freds of our lives would be heaven,
or so at least it appears at first light. A lingering
Nebraska winter is a kind of Fred, but life without winter is
not really what I want. Life without conflict or unhappiness
has certain appeals, but ever since we were expelled from
Eden it has been thus, and who can imagine a worthwhile life
Live without the pain of loss would be heaven, but I'm
afraid it is not what any of us would take. I think we
really don't want heaven. What we want is full and
worthwhile life, outlned as it is by its limitations. What
we want is not life without sorrow, but a fullness of
experience that absorbs sorrow and joy, Nebraska winters and
springs, living and dying.
To Endeavor in the Face of the Impossible
a sermon by the
Rev. Glenn H. Turner
Well, why not begin with a cheery bit of fluff which I quite
enjoy, always enjoyed playing to my children, from the
Limelighters. These lyrics are from their album:
Stay on the sunny side,
Always on the sunny side,
Stay on the sunny side of life.
You'll feel no pain as we drive you insane,
If you'll stay on the sunny side of life.
One reason to begin with that is because it's our fervent
hope: to stay on the sunny side, to be happy, to succeed in
the pursuit of happiness. One reason not to begin with it
is that it doesn't always square with our reality. In fact,
happiness may not be the most meaningful goal in our lives.
What's reality? What's your life like? What's mine?
What's happening with our friends? What's happening in
Gaza, in the Gulf, Afghanistan.
When Caroline and I gather in our small group in Auburn,
there are so many hugs and so much laughter. And then we
tell our stories: a recent divorce, deaths of spouses, severe
diabetes, our children's job losses, grandchildren in
trouble. The measure of it is in how we endeavor in the face
of the impossible.
It's less than a couple of years since we returned from a
wonderful trip to Norway and within two days learned of the
death of a son-in-law - car accident. My daughter and her
three children now live near us. It had not been a great
marriage but they had tried together to manage their three
children: the two boys (10 and 12) have Asperger's, the
daughter (8) fell a few years ago, shattering her arm. It is
not healing well. Life for my daughter is a daily round of
doctor and school appointments. Her sister helps her. But,
her sister has a son who is struggling as well. Somehow,
they smile and laugh, almost to the sunny side. But, the
deeper engagement is not in self-fulfillment, or having a
good time, but nose to the grindstone - addressing the needs
of each child in their families.
My older sister is usually pretty buoyant. But, she's
eighty. I did the eulogy for her husband in September.
She's very gregarious and has many friends her age, and they
are dying, some have Alzheimer's, and are all are engaged in
looking in on each other. This is more than a rough patch.
I've only mentioned a few of the folks we care about. All
of you have similar stories you could tell. We wear our
cheery smiles, like the buttons, but something deeper,
something more soulful is happening under the surface.
In the midst of our trials, there's a part of us which wants
to be happy, which may even see the pursuit of happiness as
the chief end in life. Pascal, the French philosopher, once
Man wishes to be happy and exists only to be
happy. And, I could pursue that premise and show how some
of us legitimately express, or live out, that philosophy. It
would be a sad world if there weren't people around who
valued happiness, if there were not a part of us that could
look for and find happiness.
The philosopher E. F. Schumacher raised the ante on our
concept of happiness by saying that our happiness was
move higher, to develop (our) highest faculties, to gain
knowledge of the highest things and, if possible, to `see
God.' And, by higher, Schumacher meant
more intimate. He cited
Thomas Aquinas who believed that (and here I'm
Since we are called to reach a higher good than our failings
seem to allow, it's necessary for our minds to be focused on
a higher state of being than we can attain in this present
life. We need to endeavor to move toward something
surpassing the whole state of our present lives. That is why
philosophers attempt to wean us from sensible pleasures to
virtue - to show that there are greater goods than those
which appeal to the senses.
This is not, you can tell, an Epicurean philosophy such as
would tell us to eat, drink, and be merry. Nor is it a comic
philosophy which might advise us to go with the flow.
Aquinas is asking that we reach toward something that
the whole state of (this) present life. Our
limitations are real, but they do not define our limits.
The ability to surpass this life for someting better
presupposes a mind-body split that some people studying
neurobiology suspect is an adaptive illusion. Genetically,
we may be predisposed to believe that we have
out-of-this-world qualities suggests Nicholas Humphrey,
author of Seeing Red. He goes on to say:
What makes human beings, uniquely among living creatures,
so ambitious to succeed, what makes them aim so high for
themselves and their children (so improbably, impossibly
high), what makes them, in short, the amazing piece of work
that humans are - is nothing less than their conviction that
as human souls they have something extre-special to preserve,
even beyond death.
Howard Thurman brings us closer to earth with a psychological
What we crave ... is some impossible demand;
some challenge which leaves (us) exhausted in the
fulfillment. How do we endeavor in the face of the
impossible? From the tragic point of view, we come face to
face with our finitude and give our lives in service, or with
love, to something higher, or dearer than our own
Many years ago, I was impressed by an interview in the
Atlantic magazine by a Canadian literary critic Diana
Cooper-Clark with Margaret Drabble author of the novel The
Needle's Eye. The book had been panned, by some critics, as
defeatist. Cooper-Clark said she didn't agree with the
criticism. She viewed the novel as being about
people in a
state of continual effort, rather than a state of despair;
that happiness (was) not the point. This was Margaret
Yes, happiness is a byproduct and it's a momentary
In The Needle's Eye they do have moments of profound
...... But they don't see that that's what they ought to
I think the idea that you're here in order to enjoy yourself
wrong. You're here in order to do the right thing and to
depths in yourself which aren't necessarily very happy.
important to be in touch with the depths than to be happy.
you can be happy on a superficial level while you're
yourself from the most important things in life. And that
presumably makes you unhappy in the long run. So, in a way,
you seek and persevere, then you're more likely to be happy,
that's not why you're doing it.
The novel that Margaret Drabble wrote...I read it after
reading the article...dealt with a difficult marriage, abuse,
divorce, separation, and the efforts toward reconciliation.
right choices were hard and agonizing. It confronts
us with the possibility, sometimes the wisdom of making the
best of a bad deal...or, to phrase it another way: it
confronts us with seeing the importance of serving something
greater than our own needs. In the interview, Margaret
...I think there are very few people who make the moral
I think everybody could make it because everybody is given
spirit to try, but a lot of people give up. They don't
strive. They make wrong choices and then they don't fight
when they've made the wrong choices.
In her novel, Margaret Drabble's protagonist had worried
about her children. The oldest had known the marriage, and
then the emptiness after the divorce. The other two were
endlessly buffeted, and, curiously resilient. They
quarreled, made-up, were up and down alternately, forgetting
about things after they happened. The oldest son had a
steadiness of purpose, a sensitivity to the tragic loss that
affected them all. And she wondered if it were better for
him not to know, not to have seen and remembered the hurt and
anguish that had split their lives.
As I read about this questioning, I recalled a summer camp
where I had been a counselor. I'd gone there with a friend
to work in the kitchen. We'd been counselors before and
thought this summer we'd just work in the kitchen and enjoy
our time off. This was a camp for children with various
disabilities and we did not want to have to deal with them.
It didn't work out that way. In the first week, a boy died,
and the co-counselors were so shaken they left. Given our
previous counseling experience, we were asked to take over.
Feeling like Jonah, spit out from the whale after fleeing
from responsibility, we took it on for one of the most
difficult and meaningful experiences of our lives. It was
not about our happiness or our
comfort-zone. So much for
being there to enjoy ourselves.
The boys in our cabin all had physical disabilities: due to
polio, epilepsy, cerebral palsy, & early childhood autism.
Only Gary, a five and a half year old with polio, seemed to
sense the implications of a lifetime of being crippled. The
others played on the fringes of awareness. Life for them was
mostly in the moment, happy or sad, as circumstances
permitted. His awareness stood in dark contrast. He faced,
he knew he faced, the impossible in life. The verdict was
almost crushing; his knowledge of it indispensable. He had
moved toward the depths and embraced them. It was better for
him to know. One day he fell off the top of the stairs and I
rushed to help him as he reached for his crutches.
to do it myself, he told me.
I'm going to be picking
myself up a lot.
Margaret Drabble writes:
We...live in a world of chance, there's no doubting that.
of the human will is to seek to make sense of it and to
swamped by the arbitrary and saying because it's arbitrary
nothing you can do. You have to endeavor in the face of the
impossible. That's what we were put on this earth to do: to
endeavor in the face of the impossible.
My memory goes back to my father's cousins in Vermont, each
visit seeing Ruby, who had Down's syndrome, always present,
tenderly cared for - a burden or a blessing? Several houses
from my childhood home, the image of a hydrocephalic girl
lying on the screened porch in summer, a grim reminder of
nature's mistakes. But, more important, Ruby was cared
for. She was part of a family which took tragedy in and met
it head on. I also recall an uncle, living with a mentally
ill wife for years, taking seriously (we never ventured to
say aloud what we'd have done until he had done it), taking
seriously his commitment to her. The divorce was long in
coming and was counted as less a release than as a failure.
Again, Margaret Drabble saying:
...Life isn't fair, life isn't easy, and not everybody can
If you have a defective child or if you are crushed by an
illness, then you just say,
Well, life is supposed to be
I've got to turn this into happiness. That's a very
I think. But I agree with the feminists in that I don't
like people to
give in. I believe in continued effort. I think that my
in for continued effort. Sometimes they're defeated, but
all one can
do is be honorably defeated.
Life is not fair. Life is not easy. But, there are ways to
take in that reality, ways to embrace, not run from life's
confrontations. They are depth experiences. They lead us as
close as we can get to an affirmation that is beyond the good
or bad things which can happen to us or those we love.
Diana Cooper-Clark pointed out in her interview with Margaret
contradictions are part of the whole: the
millstone is both a burden and a salvation; love is both
destructive and nourishing; freedom and bondage go together;
hardship and sorrow can be in themselves a source of great
joy; our possibilities and our limitations both trap us.
Perhaps these contradictions are not so much in opposition as
they are an integral part of the whole. We take each other
for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, in joy
and sorrow - not because it's the only way we can talk
someone into sharing their life with us, but because there
are no other terms upon which we can have each other at a
I shared what I'm wrestling with here with a friend. He
played devil's advocate:
Your sermon is for the hero in
all of us. But, aren't there breaking points where we
might or should cut our losses and opt for happiness? He
referred to the fact that both of us had initiated divorces.
His question was:
How much heroism are we called on to
bear? Years ago, a former father-in-law sympathetically
reassured me saying:
I never thought that marriage should
be an endurance contest. The decisions we confront are not
easily resolved with absolutes.
We all know that in our various lives many of us have fallen
short of the depths. We, the betrayed, have been betrayers,
have lacked faith, commitment, and patience. From this we
learn, not by forgetting, but by searching ourselves,
forgiving ourselves and others, living closer now to the
depths, aspiring to the depths, less sure of ourselves, but
more certain of an imperious calling that bids us to struggle
on with our new knowledge in the face of the impossible.
I am humbled by my daughters, by my uncles, by the famiily
who stood by their hydrocephalic daughter, by each and every
one of you, who in the pursuit of happiness, turn your
efforts to face the difficult challenges which come your
way. Your selfless love is what enriches our world with
Thank you and blessed be.
Our closing words are from Eugene Kennedy:
Life's painful beauty does not reside in waterfalls or in
cloud racks shredding golden against the sunset; rather, it
is in relationships, in the mystery of love's beginning and
growth as we share ourselves and our lives with each other,
in reaching out to each other, hurting and healing each other
in the process - life lies in knowing these things
Let us be gentle with each other.