Posts Tagged boundaries
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 11/19/17 as part of our annual Hunger Communion service reflecting on the reality of hunger in our world. This sermon reflects on my own journey of dealing with 40 days of pain from migraines.
I’m generally not too prone to headaches. But earlier this week I had to endure a day and half long migraine, that had moments where it receded, but I went to sleep in pain, and woke up in pain. I made a comment about it on Facebook, and those who follow me there began sharing their own stories of enduring long periods of pain. Sadly, some of us live with this reality off and on for years at a time. And we slog on, often with the people one step outside of our immediate circle never knowing it’s going on.
Fortunately, I haven’t had a migraine in years. But my last one, about 7 or 8 years ago, was a true nightmare. It lasted for exactly 40 days straight. It was debilitating. I couldn’t really go out. I couldn’t manage night meetings, a staple of ministry these days. I would dose up on ibuprofen, or the like, and do my best. Short meetings; short ventures into email; ear-buds in my ears while navigating the loud subways. People were largely respectful – almost all of us have had a bad headache, but after a week or two of them, you start to see it in the person’s eyes, and folks go gentler around you.
I saw my doctor and had tests after a week of it going on. Blood-work, then a specialist, then cat scans or ct scans, I think I even had an EKG done at one point. Medications would shift between visits. Can’t even recall what they put me on these 7 or so years later. As one week, turned into three and then 5 weeks, I was very much at my wits end. Everyone in my life had recommendations that would make things better: From sleep (which was hard when the head felt like a nail was behind your eye), to exercise (even though I was an avid walker who back then did 3-9 miles a day,) to herbal remedies, and on and on. Nothing worked.
My third visit to a neurologist had her scratching her head wondering what it could be. Thankfully, all the very serious matters, like cancer, were ruled out. Desperate, and what felt like on-a-whim by her (though I’m sure it wasn’t a whim to this top speciliast), she said, “let’s try this one other thing. Not sure that it’s going to do anything, but it won’t hurt and we’re running out of next options.” She hooked me up to an IV and for the next ten minutes, gave my blood an infusion of magnesium. …The pain ceased immediately…. It was quite literally on day 40, that my wandering through the medical world with a largely incapacitating condition, found a way out.
I was immensely grateful. I could think again. The inner new Yorker in me, wondering why we couldn’t have started with that simple remedy 40 days sooner, but I wasn’t going to complain. It was over.
Earlier this month, Greta spoke about Sabbath as a counter cultural spiritual practice that’s not only healthy for us, but empowers us as citizens to remain engaged and to have the energy not to be complacent. Being exhausted makes us vulnerable to so many other things in life. In the ministry, we’re trained with buzz words like, self-care, and healthy boundaries. Like most of us these days, it’s quite easy to slip into perpetual exhaustion mode and become vulnerable to illness, or emotional fatigue, or migraines. Especially when the world around us seems to be spiraling further and further into corruption.
But rest, and healthy boundaries are not always enough. During my 40 days of wandering with a migraine from doctor to doctor, I was getting rest, I was exercising more than my average neighbor – at least by what I could still do with the pain – walking. I did take days off, like a normal human being. But my body was missing something, a nutrient. That’s on my mind today as we celebrate our annual Hunger Communion service. Rest, good work, and healthy life habits only go so far, if you’re missing basic nutrients.
As a twenty-year vegetarian, before adding a small amount of fish into my diet somewhere around three years ago, I often had people worry for my health. How can you ever get enough protein? Oddly enough, for most of us vegetarians, protein isn’t the thing we’re likely to be missing. We need a lot less than American Steakhouses would like you to think. I wound up adding a small amount of fish to my diet, not for protein, but to help with good cholestrol. But we have to be intentional around getting all the vitamins and minerals found in meat too. That was the problem with my migraines.
We live in relative privilege in this area – at least compared to our global neighbors. And I say that with the caveat that too many Long Islanders are living paycheck to paycheck, and on food stamps, as we spoke of earlier in the service. We have food pantries right here in Huntington for the people of Huntington. It’s not a distant problem. We don’t all have it even vaguely easy. But I’m grateful that even when I started in my career, I had access to a range of specialists, even if it took 40 days for a resolution. That’s not a given for all of us, and in every part of the world.
Our ritual earlier draws this to our attention. Our congregation this month is taking up collections on the related crisis of access to water to support our global ministries in this effort – and as we spoke of earlier, access to water in some parts of the world, means access to education. It’s all interconnected. And many of us help grow food for our neighbors during the warm weather months. That is what we can do. That is what we can do to stave off hunger, as we prepare for our annual celebration of gratitude over a shared meal that many of us will stuff our stomachs and our faces to capacity with family or with friends, or if we’re very lucky, family who are also our friends. That’s not always a given. And if you’re available this evening, at 7:30pm at the First Presbyterian Church of Greenlawn, I’ll be taking part again in the 46th annual Huntington Community Thanksgiving Service. The church is at 497 Pulaski Rd, in Greenlawn. In this world with seemingly increasing division and discord, it’s a beautiful opportunity to worship with many different religious communities. The collection will go toward the local food bank.
But to return from this important aside, rest, and healthy boundaries are not always enough. Rest, good work, and healthy life habits only go so far, if you’re missing basic nutrients. We’ve focused this service on practical or earthly nutrients. But amidst all the stress and strain of our political landscape, there are other kinds of nutrients we seem to be missing. And it’s causing us all a lot of pain. I’m thinking of role models, first and foremost. It seems that almost no one in the public eye is safe from scandal, abuse, or perjury any more. We’ve increasingly fixated on the Television, the paper, the big screen, and now-a-days social media – to see images of people to look up to. Some role models are still safely around, but this distant form of consumption is often hollow. We need real people, with real connections, in our immediate lives. That’s what religious community is about. That’s why so many of us volunteer for our Long Island UU children and youth summer camp – Fahs. We can disconnect from the frantic pace of the ten thousand things, and connect back into real healthy human relationship. I’m not knocking social media – it’s kept me connected in real ways with a lot of people. But when we project onto the wider genre of media all our needs – or our most important needs – I’m concerned we’re missing some essential spiritual vitamins and minerals.
If you’re exhausted, and frayed, and pulled in 10 different directions – so you can’t find time for a spiritual practice – you’re going to be missing some essential spiritual vitamins and minerals. There’s a famous quip from a Rabbi that said he prayed every day for an hour – except for when he didn’t have the time – on those days, he prayed for two hours. Our calendars are spiritual documents. Take a look at your calendar some time today – whether it’s on your phone or on your kitchen wall. Does it look like a work document, or a document for your own life? Variety, human connection, work, family, giving back to your community – those are all part of balanced living. It’s not just about setting healthy boundaries – it’s also about getting more of what your heart, and your head, and your soul need in this one precious life.
What are you missing in your life right now? Think back to a time, or a hobby, or a practice, that fed you. It probably wasn’t an achievement, or a thing to further your career – but maybe for you it was that too. Definitely not an obligation or a chore. I think by now you all know that I’m a big ol’ gamer geek. I love science and fantasy, and all things mythic. For years, I had a regular weekly gaming group I played with – and by years, I mean starting from the age of 12 and it only really stopped about 5 or 6 years ago. It had no productive value. Pure creativity and fun, plus I got to hang out with friends doing something we all enjoyed. Well, work demands, and living further from those friends, finally put and end to a hobby that I loved for 24 years. Driving from Brooklyn or Long Island to Northern NJ through rush hour on a weeknight, was not for the faint of heart, or for the busy schedule.
But, after attending more and more long-distance denominational meetings via video conferencing, (and I’m seeing some of our commitees choosing to meet via video call to better manage everyone’s dense schedules) I thought “If I can host a 17 person meeting on this platform, I surely can get together with 4 or 5 friends.” A few months ago, I decided to carve out Wednesday nights, and my old gaming group welcomed me back – albeit remotely. I thoroughly swear we accomplish nothing of note. But we are very creative; we laugh a lot; and it’s 3.5 hours every week where I devote to something that’s only purpose is to feed my heart, and deepen human connection.
There’s something deeply human about creating space for being with an activity you love that serves no other person’s purpose. What is that activity for you? Hiking, boating, knitting, sports, comic con? Our life’s diet needs to be diverse, and activities we love are part of that diet. It makes everything else we do and accomplish more meaningful; but we’re not just our doings and accomplishments.
Let us close with the words of the poet Levertov’s, we heard earlier in our service, echoing in our memory, “Don’t say, don’t say there is no water to solace the dryness at our hearts. I have seen the fountain springing out of the rock wall and you drinking there.” … “Don’t say, don’t say there is no water. That fountain is there among its scalloped green and gray stones, it is still there and always there with its quiet song and strange power to spring in us, up and out through the rock.“
This sermon was first preached at the UU Fellowship in Huntington talking about how we often live our lives from the script in our head and not what’s going on right here and now.
We recently adopted a 3 month old puppy. She’s a boxer/bull terrier mix. Super cute. Super sweet. We brought her home the day she was spayed from the vet’s office. She was so nervous she was shivering in her bed. When it was finally time for her to go outside, she would have none of it. We’d get her to the door, try putting on a leash, and she would pull and pull. We had to pick her up to bring her out for the first week or so. Maybe it was the snow. Maybe it was the cone of shame around her neck. Maybe it was the snow being scooped up by her cone of shame that fell into her face. But all of that would come later. When she got to the door, she didn’t know what she was looking at and she was afraid to go out.
You see, Lola (that’s our puppy’s name), Lola was a city girl. She was born in a NYC apartment and was fostered away immediately to friends of friends of ours in another apartment. Lola had never seen the great outdoors. And whatever she had seen was total asphalt, concrete and metal. This wide open space, that allowed her to see beyond 10 feet, was a scary thing.
I can kind of relate. When I had been living in NYC for just about five years, I got used to seeing the world only so far away. I had taken a vacation trip to see friends in Minnesota and we stopped by a Walmart for something on the way to somewhere else. I went inside – and – froze. I began to have a panic attack. They apparently make Walmarts bigger in the midwest than here. While inside I could see further away than most spots in Manhattan. I had to have a friend walk me out.
We can get used to living in a world whose borders lend us comfort, security, stability. And when we cross into a new space it can be really scary. My puppy had a script. Her script said this world looks a certain way. Outside is a scary, strange, noisy, cold and busy place. Her script told her it wasn’t a place she wanted to go.
So we began coaxing her out with treats, and play time with her squeaky ball. We’d leave her alone for 2 minutes at a time and come back inside. At first she would come back to the kitchen glass door and look back in and whine to come inside. But over time, her time alone would get longer and longer (up to 15 minutes now.) We can still see her through the window, and we’re fenced in, so she’s safe. And now, once she’s past her initial lonely wobblies, it’s hard to get her back inside. She’s finding all these new scents; hearing the range of birds calling; and our next door neighbor’s dog who howls like a fire engine. Lola has a new script. “Outside” now means a place of fun, exploration, running around like a silly ball of energy, and cool new things to smell.
How do we all do that in our own lives? When do we react negatively to something because our script tells us that’s how we should respond? I don’t only mean trying the new stuff, or the dangerous stuff. We all have to know our limits. No matter how hard Brian will try to convince me, I will not go parachuting. I appreciate that some part of my Id will go crazy wild over the new sensation. While the rest of it is panicking because I chose to put “down” so very far away. I’m talking about the day to day stuff that we respond to as rote.
When you get on the phone with your parents, or your kids, do you know how the arguments will go before they begin? When you perceive that someone wrongs you in some way – will you hold onto that grudge till your dying day, or till they offer abject abasement before your stalwart ego? If a problem comes up – do you just know how it will play out and how everyone will react to it?
In what ways does your script trap you? I find that when we live from the scripts, we’re not really able to respond to the world before us as it is – as it’s actually happening. We’re reading our lines to a scenario that’s not necessarily happening right now. It can make us unable to deal appropriately with new circumstances. It can also force us to relive painful encounters over and over because we can’t see the newness that’s before us.
Sometimes our scripts are a team sport. I lost a long time friend some years ago to a script. We had gone through a lot of personal and professional challenges together over a ten year span of time. We were close with each other’s families, shared a house together – we became family of a sort. All close friendships have their stressors; we always have ways we drive one another nuts. All that aside, I used to be a lot more uptight in my twenties. When I left my home state and moved to NYC for graduate school and later seminary, I mellowed out. My detail orientated perfectionism began to dissolve; my taking the smallest things so seriously mostly disappeared; and I got out of the habit of arguing with people (marital realities not-withstanding.) Seminary doesn’t always help people become more spiritually mature, but my time there really changed who I was for the better. But when I would go back to visit my dear friend (and other long time friends), I realized that she was interacting with me as if I hadn’t changed at all. We would start having fights about whether we were having a fight. (Ever been there?!) Every sentence was heard through the filter of the script of how I used to act. I’d go back to the City and talk to my local friends about how frustrating the trip home had been. That folks back home only saw me as controlling and argumentative – even though I wasn’t acting that way. My local friends would laugh – they didn’t see me that way at all. My old, dear friend’s script, ended our friendship. It was one of the most frustrating losses in my life. It was frustrating because it wasn’t necessary. My legitimately negative behavior had changed for the better, but it didn’t matter to the friendship if the other couldn’t see it for what it was – a new line, a new direction to the story.
Our theme this month is presence. Presence saves us from these losses. Being present to the person or the situation before us allows us to deal with reality as it is and not bring the ghosts of past pains into this moment. We know we’re not being present when our minds our racing through past hurts. Or when we’re perpetually fixated on what will or what might happen in the future. It’s not to say that we don’t learn from the past or plan for the future. But living most of our lives in the past or the future is not learning from or planning for – it’s missing out on this moment. We cease to live in the world that is, and pretend to live in the world that was or will be. But there is only ever the moment that is – right now. We can’t ever live in the past. We can’t ever live in the future. We can only live in the present, and the more we allow our minds to run wild, to live from the scripts of our fantasies, we cease to fully live.
…I’m about to utter a genuine UU heresy…. I make it a habit to preach something heretical every year, and this is the week for it – (so the folks that made it on time despite Daylight Savings will be well rewarded). Take a deep breadth… Our intellect, our thoughts, our minds – they are not us. We are not our heads. Our scripts, our thinking, our fretting, our worry, our dreams, our plans, our arguments – they are not us. Our intellect is a tool, like our vision, or our hearing. It shapes how we interact, understand, and experience the world. Of course, we’d interact differently if our mental faculties were to change. Mental health aside, we as a people have a tendency to over-identify with our intellect and thinking. We confuse the tool with our identity. And that can be a very painful thing. The worlds we create spin fantasies that we confuse for fact. Our congregational covenant talks about assuming good intentions. This goes beyond giving someone the benefit of the doubt – it’s more about not creating a false person we then inappropriately interact with. Leaping to conclusions, without evidence, is our script showing. Sometimes it tells more about ourselves than others.
When our thinking minds go wild, when they run the show, and create the opinions that will shape how we interact regardless of evidence – we lose who we are at our core. It’s as if we’ve become possessed by our thoughts. Our essence, our soul, takes a back seat and something else is driving the car. I find this to be a helpful metaphor because it describes what we experience. Think of a time when you reacted poorly, or strongly, to some set of events. We all have. When the whole thing was over, did your original thoughts match exactly what was really going on? Were you 100% correct and the others 100% wrong? We’re rarely entirely right. There’s usually another side. If the time you’re thinking of you were totally in the right, think of another time. If you can’t think of another time where you were in the wrong, you have an entirely different challenge to deal with that’s out of the scope of this sermon. Since we’re all usually off-base by some amount in almost all things, what possesses us to defend and live into the fabrications of our mind so readily? It doesn’t practically help us to read from an outdated script, yet we do.
James Baldwin has a related quote, …“I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once the hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with the pain.”… Baldwin’s quote is in reference to hate, though I think it applies to many more aspects of human behavior. We cling stubbornly to any of our habits, because those habits hide something more difficult below the surface. I spoke last week about how hard it was to get back into an exercise routine after a bad car accident – that the most difficult part was facing the fact that I was much weaker – and exercising – though it would help me – was painful because it made me face a new truth that I didn’t want to see. Our thinking minds are one of these habits. If we quiet our chatter – who are we? What’s our core when the mental volume is muted?
Often we over-identify with our thinking patterns. We’ve identified with a tool, not our essence. It’s comforting to stick to what is known. Experiencing the moment for what it is – is not what most people’s habits are. Our thoughts become identified with our ego, and then all things become slings, or darts, or succor for our ego. In some ways our scripts – especially the negative ones – are preferred because they allow our ego to become more solid. Struggle, anger, hate, indignation all contribute to a vibrant ego. Our thinking patterns create those realities. Without the mental script – anger, hate and self-righteousness lose their solidity. There’s no there there. Self-righteousness is not an instinctual or biological response to evolutionary advantage. Self-righteousness is not hormones, it’s not nature. Self-righteousness is a psychological tool used to prop up the ego. If we silence the chatter, if we toss the script, we see that self-righteousness or anger or hate – are not real.
This is not to say those feelings are bad. I’m not suggesting that we feel guilty over them. We shouldn’t judge them. The trick to tossing the script is attending to those feelings when they occur without judgement. If you’re prone to anger, allow yourself to be angry when it arises. Acknowledge it. Look at it inwardly. Don’t react to it, don’t judge it. And don’t live your life from that feeling of anger. Just pause and watch it until the anger goes away. There’s a classic Buddhist teaching in meditation practice – I had a Korean Zen Nun teach this to me when we were sitting together for a four month, 4 day a week practice – the teaching says thoughts or feelings are like a train coming into a station you’re sitting at. When the train arrives, watch it. You can see it without getting on it. So too, with feelings of despair or frustration – we can greet them without going for a ride with them.
German-born American abstract expressionist painter Hans Hoffman once noted, “The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.” When our mental chatter clutters our head space, our world becomes more complicated than it needs to be. It becomes more complicated than it actually is in reality. As we eliminate the unnecessary what remains behind? What can then begin to speak? For this week, I invite you silence your internal chatter for a couple of minutes a day. If that feels too long, try it for a couple of moments a day. Simplify your mind. Put away your scripts. Exorcise your egos. Be present to the feelings and thoughts without riding their train to where they will take you. Listen for what now has room to speak, for what now has room to live.