“Cultivating Our Scars” by Mark W. Harris
First Parish of Watertown – April 1, 2012
Call to Worship – from Percy Shelley
The great secret of morals is Love; or a going out of our own nature, and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action or person. A woman or a man to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; she must put herself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasures of her species must become her own.
Sermon Title was originally – “A Fool’s Errand”
Some years ago I visited a parishioner in the hospital, who offered a confession and swore me to secrecy as to her identity. I have forgotten now the primary reason for her initial hospitalization, but while she was there, she decided to have another procedure. It was this procedure that she wanted to keep secret, I think because it seemed frivolous or self indulgent. It turned out that this procedure was a tummy tuck, a bit of cosmetic surgery to remove excess skin and fat. I think the idea of sculpting the body to make it more attractive so that we can feel better about ourselves was something she saw as antithetical to UU values. She believed UUs always preferred natural methods for trimming down, and not plastic surgery. This person is no longer here, nor would I ever reveal her identity, but I thought it an interesting personal story because despite our liberal inclination not to emulate Joan Rivers, who seems to have had every inch of her face and body recast somehow, it does bear saying that even we liberals struggle with how we look. Many of us feel ashamed of size and shape just as much as those who go under the knife.
This story came to mind after reading an article in a recent New Yorker on scars. This article was basically a personal history about injuries the writer had suffered during his youth and beyond. Over the years, he said his body had become a kind of historical document, in which certain dramatic moments were memorialized in scar tissue. This made we think about the times our family had discussed who had broken bones, with my son Dana being the only one who has not had one. What’s more the actual event usually becomes a milestone in remembering the unfolding of our lives. For me it may reflect my lifelong devotion and love for the church when I recall breaking my hand while sledding with a youth group. Who knew there was a giant rock under that drift of snow? Or it may be the would be athlete trying to play college football, and breaking ribs when a pulling guard flattened me while the running back rushed by headed for touchdown land, while I lay flat on my back gasping for breath. Or perhaps my love for the ocean is reflected in the grandest accident of them all when I was hit by an ocean wave, and swept out to sea, breaking more than one bone. Each accident or surgery or trauma we have is a kind of purple heart of life’s milestones of how we endure pain and turmoil, how we heal and recover, and then how we come back to try again, determined that we will not be prevented from doing the things we love, for as long as we are able.
When I initially thought about today’s sermon, the only thing I knew would be mentioned is the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic in April 1912. This tragic event is a prime example of the human fascination with disasters. Why do we want to know about the fire at the Coconut Grove, or more recently the Station? There is a thirst for details of what happened to people, an empathy towards them wondering how they endured and survived such events as quick striking tornadoes in nearby Monson, or the devastating tsunami in faraway Japan. The Titanic has always been at the summit of this list of tragic disasters. It was the largest ship ever built when it was finished in 1912, and was declared unsinkable with its watertight compartments and huge size. Questions about how it went down, and what kind of experience it was like for those who were killed, and those who survived have fascinated readers and scientists and movie goers for the last century. Modern technology has allowed people to visit the site of the wreck in the North Atlantic. Some years ago Levi and I attended an exhibit in London of Titanic artifacts that one of these expeditions had recovered. We were even able to touch a piece of the steel hull which had been split by the iceberg.
The Titanic disaster is a prime example of human hubris or pride that we think we can build the perfect vessel that is impermeable to any natural feature of the landscape or human decision making error that might deter it from completing its journey. This was partly based on size alone, but buttressed with the idea that the latest technology was flawless, and that safety features made it unsinkable, or so the designer Thomas Andrews, thought. Now for the 100th anniversary you are going to be able to see the iceberg in 3D, when they re-release the movie. It will be, so they say, as if you were there. The obvious lesson was that the ship was not invulnerable, as scientists have discovered serious design and material flaws. But other errors of communication and judgment occurred, too. For instance there was space for a second row of lifeboats, but it was removed so that the deck was more aesthetically pleasing. As you might guess, in the wake of the disaster, changes in communication and safety were made, as well as regulations for the number of lifeboats. One can find in the Titanic an apt human example of the Biblical metaphor of the building of the Tower of Babel, when the tallest, best tower of them all will in concept make us like Gods, but it falls and fails and exhibits our frailties, our capacity for error, and our brokenness, and in the scattering of the people who henceforth all speak different languages, we see a graphic illustration of differences and our inability to use our imaginations and capacity for love to build strong human connections.
Some years ago, and still, we Unitarian Universalists have sometimes used our more famous ancestors as advertising gimmicks to try to attract people to the faith. The premise is that famous people like Emerson and John Adams and Susan B. Anthony were UUs. They were reform minded, or literary geniuses, amazing people all, and you can be one of them by joining their faith, too. It is sort of like those radio commercials where Ben Franklin is extolled for seizing greatness and being a mason, and the implication is that if you joined the masons, you, too, would be great! All this hero worship is balanced by a sort of rogues gallery of UUs. For instance Thomas Andrews, the designer of the Titanic was a Unitarian. So, too was Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister who has been accused of selling out to Hitler, and US President Millard Fillmore, who did something right once, but we can’t remember what it was. These people had their own successes, too, but we have not always been kind to them in retrospect. I use this to mention Mary Shelley, who is most famous for giving the novel Frankenstein to the world. She was the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, perhaps the world’s first feminist, and a Unitarian, who was celebrated in her time for her publication of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, but reviled for her personal life. She died giving birth to Mary. Mary grew up to become the wife of the famous poet Shelley, and like her mother, had her own personal scandals.
Frankenstein brings us back to scars. If your memory is like mine you picture this green skinned, eight foot tall monster, that has highly visible scars on his face, some kind of steel bolt through his neck, and legs and arms that just don’t seem to bend when he moves. You know, Herman Munster, without the smile. Yet the mythic story behind Frankenstein is why it endures in our minds, and the pain we see in the monster, is the pain that was very real to Mary Shelley. Judged by her family because she was not married to Shelley yet, she saw herself as alone and isolated from them. Moreover, like her creature, she was judged for how appearances made her seem, and not for who she was. She was not wicked because she was not married, any more than the creature was evil because of his unnatural birth or odd appearance.
Even the name Frankenstein causes confusion between who is the doctor and who is the creation. Frankenstein was actually the doctor’s name, but we associate it with the creature. This very problem reflects our own confusion over who we are. How is appearance tied into our perception of ourselves? Certainly this story tells us that if we define life by appearance then we may be condemned to a solitary life of wandering like the creature. Of course the story also reminds us that altering nature or scientific experimentation can also lead to tragedy. The doctor tried to create the ideal, but in doing so, he creates a monster. He loses his family because of his obsession with creating this perfect creature, but yet it is love and connection with family that the monster wants, but he ends up rejected, uncertain of who he is. The monster appears the morally superior creature because he knows love is more important than appearance. He says, “Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous.” We might ask what happens to goodness in the soul when it is constantly maltreated and judged? The monster becomes a victim of injustice, and commits terrible acts. Yet all he wants to fulfill is that secret of morals that Shelley spoke of in the call to worship – the compassion to put yourself in the place of another.
For those who watched the PBS series Downton Abbey, you may recall that it began with the death of the heir to the estate on the Titanic. This event leads to chaos as to who the rightful heir is, and who he will marry. The story then proceeds to be a soap opera of appearances, class struggle, and control. Yet the very events precipitated by conniving and manipulative people, illness and death show that life cannot be controlled. Pain and loss witnessed through the scars we inflict upon ourselves by the choices we make and those that come from others or from illness, make us more vulnerable, but ultimately more open to understanding others. Knowing the scars of pain helps us understand others, and creates tolerance for others, so that we understand loss and fear. Rather than criticizing someone for being weak or helpless or ugly or stupid or fat, we know those feelings in ourselves, and recognize them when someone else expresses them. Frankenstein could have reached out to his creation rather than reject it. I had a similar experience once with a father I knew who literally rejected his daughter because she was not the beauty he felt she should be, and she carried that pain throughout her life.
A tragedy in a family, an accident or illness, or a childhood memory of rejection, are all examples of scars we carry. We either cover those scars with the plastic surgery of control or forgetfulness or anger or fear, and make those scars our tool of rejection or silence towards others OR we accept those scars that make up the history of our lives, and can open us to others who we can love and accept, and together we will relieve the loneliness. This is the loneliness that is present in both Frankenstein, and in his creation – one lonely because he tries to create perfection, and the other lonely because he is rejected for being different and ugly. In his book Broken Vessels, Andre Dubus tells us that in the wake of his terrible accident that confined him to a wheelchair: “living in the world as a cripple allows you to see more clearly the crippled hearts of some people whose bodies are whole and sound.” Let us not forget that not all those scars we carry are the ones from physical injuries or accidents or illnesses, but rather are the scars inside. All of us, Dubus reminds us, from time to time, suffer this crippling. Then he goes on to say, that while all of us feel love and compassion in our hearts, we cannot bring ourselves to see or will not see the wounds of another. So we don’t write a note, or pick up the phone, or even make a little gesture to say I know you are hurting. But we are the only ones who can give that. And that is why we gather in this community – to open our hearts to the realization that we all have scars, and by recognizing them, we recognize the common struggles we share. We know them in our own lives and in our own families. Acknowledging our own scars or failures, or pains, we see that another is wounded and carries scars, too. Could we give them an hour, a minute, a gesture? We feel alone because we carry the scars of our wounds, and want to lay them on an altar of love and compassion. When we lay down the shield of scars we defend with, and share that burden with another, we say to each other, you are not alone.
In the novel, The Bluest Eye. The little African American girl Pecola struggles with herself and with her place in a culture that affirms beauty in a blonde white girl. She talks in our reading of her understanding that she should not fear that girl who is seen as beautiful , but that she should fear the thing that makes her beautiful in the eyes of the culture and of others. Each of us may remember the scars we carry, and the story of our life that they tell – all the struggles to become ourselves, the beautiful, compassionate human beings we long to be. How much of a struggle was it for us to be comfortable in our own skins, and how do we stay as whole as we can, as scars mount, even as we age? Do we look beyond the scars outside us, on our skin, that make us judge ourselves and others, and see our coming grounding in love? Palm Sunday traditionally marks the beginning of holy week, where Jesus comes to Jerusalem, and is crucified. Much is made of this in theology as an act that he makes for us – this is my body which is broken for you in a sacrifice. But I think we might look upon this suffering and death as a common metaphor of human life. We each bleed from the scars of life, and we look for healing in community, and in caring.
A few weeks ago there was a meeting of the New England Piano Teachers at church one Monday morning. Out side in the hallway, two women had left the meeting and were sharing some of the trials of their lives. One of them remarked, “We take what comes, don’t we?” And so we do. We take falling out teeth, and cancer diagnoses. We look at scars and tragedies. No one is immune. We deal with them all the best we can, searching for others who will hear us, and not reject us, but instead will give us a gesture, even a minute to show they care, to let us know we are not alone. This week, as with all weeks, the news reveals a broken world with broken bodies in it. Scars are made inside and out. One such scar was opened in Florida, where a young man named Trayvon Martin was tragically killed, apparently for the crime of being black. We can hate that fear that still lives in our culture. But we can also call ourselves, and others to something greater. There is a little boy, maybe not so different from Pecola, who does that very thing in this story from Robert Coles in The Spiritual Life of Children, Coles tells the boy’s story, “I was all alone, and those people were screaming, and suddenly, I saw God smiling and I smiled. A woman was standing there, near the school door, and she shouted at me, “Hey you little niggar, what you smiling at?” I looked right at her face and I said, “At God.” Then she looked up at the sky and then she looked at me, and she didn’t call me any more names.” Many experiences in life injure our skin, some even fatally. Mostly though, we survive those experiences, but how we survive is dependent upon how well we join together to see beauty in one another, grounded in an acceptance of the scars we all bear, and not from a fear of those scars. And so we begin here by telling each other, I know you have scars, but you do not have to carry those scars of subjugation, or humiliation or fear. Together we know we are not alone, and together we heal the scars with our compassion, and recognize the worth and beauty of one another. Once we embrace that brokenness, then we have power in community, and in that power we have what that boy called God, or what Shelley might have called the imagination to experience and give love.
Closing Words – from Theodore Roosevelt
It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes short again and again, who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause, who at best knows achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly. . . .