Centering Thought: Life is like a motion picture, yet we can turn it into freeze frame photography and get trapped in certain frames.
Celebrant: Steve Rosen, Anchor: Arrhiannon Kirkpatrick
First Service Music: Sara Greenleaf
Second Service Music: UUCS Choir
Share The Plate: Microfinance Project
There I am entering the US Post Office a couple of months ago to drop off a priority mail envelope for my son. There’s another man carrying a heavy box is right behind me so I open the door and offer to let him go ahead, even though I’m feeling a bit time starved – (always striving to be my better self). This very nice man graciously declines the offer saying “I can rest the box on the counter – you were here first – go ahead,” so I do. Even though I don’t succeed in doing my good deed, I think I deserve spiritual credit anyway and give myself a little congratulatory pat on the back – “what a good person you are, trying to bless the world with your little acts of kindness as you calmly glide through life.”
Soon I’m facing the postal clerk who brusquely asks: “do you want this to go overnight express?” I’m confused – I thought all I needed to do was hand her the completed priority mail envelope, pay the postage and leave. Why is she asking me this? I’m just following instructions from home. I try to ask for some clarification but she repeatedly interrupts me with the same question and then suddenly she interrogates me: “what’s in this package you’re mailing.”… “I’m not sure because I’m doing this for my…” “Well, if you don’t know what’s inside I can’t mail this for you.” “Well, I’m sure it’s just some papers ….” Rather than continue to give you a blow by blow account of this interaction, suffice it to say it did not go well. Suddenly I felt like I was a hapless character in some comedy wherein I get arrested by security and sentenced by the judge to take anger management classes. (Note: this was a first for me – every postal worker I’d ever encountered before has served me well). Fortunately, another postal clerk gracefully found a way to take over this transaction and all was well – sort of. Here I had gone into the post office congratulating myself on being spiritually balanced being and staggered out drunk with anger at being pressured into buying an overnight express priority mail envelope, which my wife later told me was totally unnecessary. This clerk really pushed my buttons! Buttons I didn’t even know I had.
Now clearly this whole episode was the fault of the postal worker so today the social justice team is helping me organizing a protest march to the post office – we’ll show that clerk that you don’t mess with me!
But wait! Am I sensing a general lack of interest in taking part in this march against injustice? And am I sensing some of you having thoughts like: “don’t triangle us into your personal conflicts.” “Let it go, dude.” “What’s the postal clerk’s side of the story – what’s going on in her life?” “Rev rick, what’s happened to your sense of perspective? Why does this small personal injustice (if it was one) loom larger than the truly monumental ones in this world?”
OK, maybe you have a point. Let’s put the postal protest rally on hold for now. I guess I forgot to consider a nugget of wisdom I’ve often held up from this pulpit: “You can’t control others, but you can control your own reactions.” Alternately stated: “You can choose to ascend to a loftier plane which enables you to put things in proper perspective.”
What is the proper perspective? How might you gain this?
Recently I was wondering just that as I was listening to a friend who happens to be a devotee of a some popular conspiracy theorist. He’s very cynical about the overall state of society, and he was going on about how big government and big business are using technology to monitor our lives (no denying that) and how corrupt and rigged our system is (point well taken), etc. etc. While much of what he was saying had more than a grain of truth he was broad jumping to some questionable conspiratorial conclusions. Later I stumbled across this quote (from Shannon Alder) that shed more light on this: “Your perspective on life comes from the cage you were held captive in.” Well, my friend is in a literal cage – he’s a prisoner at Oregon State Prison. His early life was rough and I think he’d agree that this experience and other experiences with authorities has imprisoned his spirit and skewed his perspective – he is predisposed to see the dire, dark side of things. From my vantage point I can see that his is just one of many possible perspectives on life, yet it appears to be his basic default perspective.
Even as my friend is physically imprisoned by the state of Oregon he has become mentally self imprisoned by his habitual perspective: again and again, constellations of dire thoughts enter his mind, and he accepts them as gospel truth – again and again these dire thoughts push his emotional buttons, and this skews his perspective on life. Steeping in these cynical thoughts, he becomes more unhappy.
Of course it’s easier to see the bars of someone else’s prison cell – harder to recognize your own. It’s all too easy to become locked in perpetual reaction to buttons that originally got pushed years ago.
It’s especially hard to recognize our perspectival constraints when they are widely shared and collectively reinforced – people repeatedly push one another’s buttons through the media and through countless interactions, over and over – there’s the fear and anxiety button, resentment button, the entitlement and the selective outrage button, the hate button, the despair and hopelessness button, etc., etc. When those buttons are regularly pushed your perspective will become so skewed such that hope or joy or love or sense of peace or fulfillment are no longer even part of the picture. Today there are suh widespread perspectival contagions that are to avoid catching.
The cure is to get some distance. Imagine if you could get on some spiritual space ship and rise above the oppressive, destructive gravitational forces that trap the human spirit. Think of the astronauts who have soared above the earth, orbited and walked on the surface of the moon from where they saw our whole earth from their lofty perspective. Astronaut Jim Lovell noted: “the lunar flights give you a correct perception of our existence.” His colleague Frank Borman chimed in that “the view of the Earth from the Moon fascinated me – a small disk, 240,000 miles away – raging nationalistic interests, famines, wars, pestilence, don’t show from that distance.”
Of course that solution for putting things in perspective isn’t available to me – I’m earth bound – not able to see it all from outer space. But I’ve learned another way – to see things from inner space. I’m not especially advanced in this, but I can and do explore inner space – every day. I simply sit and meditate and center myself, as countless souls on all cultures have learned to do. Paradoxically, it takes effort to let go – again and again. In meditation you let go simply – by focusing on the breathe, or a mantra. There are other ways to let go: through prayer or listening to beautiful music or gazing in wonder at sacred art or beholding the sacred depths of nature – something that frees you from the gravitational pull of destructive emotions that skew one’s perspective.
How many times I have sat down on my cushion when the problems of life loomed so large in my mind’s eye. And how many times have I discovered that a person can let go, again and again, and move away from that gravitational pull such that the problems that loomed large are seen in proper perspective. They haven’t disappeared, but they don’t dominate and obscure your view. You feel much less overwhelmed and oppressed. You can sense the possibility of greater freedom, more peace, more joy in a more spacious realm beyond the imprisoning pull of destructive views.
Then, too, many times I have joined in worship services with others who yearn to behold a high and holy vision – who gaze beyond the oppressive forces and divisions that estrange us from life and from one another. It’s good to regain that perspective and see life whole.
It’s good to know that you don’t need to be imprisoned by a grim perspective on life – because life is to precious. Each day wasted in needless misery is one day less spent living and loving more fully. Sometimes I get a bit distressed and disappointed in myself – how easily my buttons can get pushed and how quickly I can lose my perspective – all it takes in one postal clerk or one dark cloud passing overhead. But then I do discover that this set back is temporary – I can and do find a way to seek a happier and healthier perspective on this precious life.
I think Abraham Lincoln had it right when he noted that “folks are usually about as happy as they make up their minds to be.” The good news is that each day you have a new opportunity to make up your mind to be happy, to love, to give and bless the world with your happy self, knowing that love and joy can also be contagious.