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To Endeavor in the Face of the Impossible


ESSENTIAL WISDOM - Charles Stephen

E. B. White once wrote of his difficult dog, Fred: Life without him would be heaven, but I'm afraid it is not what I want.

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 without them?

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: Through Children's Eyes.

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 said: 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 to 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 inner, more interior, deeper, more intimate. He cited Thomas Aquinas who believed that (and here I'm paraphrasing):

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 surpasses 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 explanation: 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 self-interest.

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 Drabble's reply:

Yes, happiness is a byproduct and it's a momentary byproduct. In The Needle's Eye they do have moments of profound happiness ...... But they don't see that that's what they ought to be seeking.

I think the idea that you're here in order to enjoy yourself is very wrong. You're here in order to do the right thing and to seek the depths in yourself which aren't necessarily very happy. It's more important to be in touch with the depths than to be happy. And you can be happy on a superficial level while you're estranging yourself from the most important things in life. And that presumably makes you unhappy in the long run. So, in a way, if you seek and persevere, then you're more likely to be happy, but 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. The 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 Drabble said:

...I think there are very few people who make the moral effort. I think everybody could make it because everybody is given the spirit to try, but a lot of people give up. They don't continue to strive. They make wrong choices and then they don't fight back 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. I need to do it myself, he told me. I'm going to be picking myself up a lot.

Margaret Drabble writes: in a world of chance, there's no doubting that. The duty of the human will is to seek to make sense of it and to resist being swamped by the arbitrary and saying because it's arbitrary there's 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 be happy. If you have a defective child or if you are crushed by an appalling illness, then you just say, Well, life is supposed to be happy, so I've got to turn this into happiness. That's a very simplistic view, 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 characters go 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 Drabble that 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 significant level.

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 deeper meaning.

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 firsthand.

Let us be gentle with each other.