“My Heart Went Crazy” – Mark W. Harris
First Parish of Watertown – September 18, 2016
Call to Worship – from Martha Nussbaum
To be a good human being is to have a kind of openness to the world, an ability to trust uncertain things beyond your own control, that can lead you to be shattered in very extreme circumstances for which you were not to blame. That says something very important about the human condition: that it is based on a trust in the uncertain and on a willingness to be exposed; it is based on being more like a plant than like a jewel, something rather fragile, but whose very particular beauty is inseparable from its fragility.
First Reading – from Lost On a Mountain in Maine by Donn Fendler
Second Reading – “In View of the Fact” by A. R. Ammons
The people of my time are passing away: my
wife is baking for a funeral, a 60-year-old who
died suddenly, when the phone rings, and it’s
Ruth we care so much about in intensive care:
it was once weddings that came so thick and
fast, and then, first babies, such a hullabaloo:
now, it’s this that and the other and somebody
else gone or on the brink: well, we never
thought we would live forever (although we did)
and now it looks like we won’t: some of us
are losing a leg to diabetes, some don’t know
what they went downstairs for, some know that
a hired watchful person is around, some like
to touch the cane tip into something steady,
so nice: we have already lost so many,
brushed the loss of ourselves ourselves: our
address books for so long a slow scramble now
are palimpsests, scribbles and scratches: our
index cards for Christmases, birthdays,
Halloweens drop clean away into sympathies:
at the same time we are getting used to so
many leaving, we are hanging on with a grip
to the ones left: we are not giving up on the
congestive heart failure or brain tumors, on
the nice old men left in empty houses or on
the widows who decide to travel a lot: we
think the sun may shine someday when we’ll
drink wine together and think of what used to
be: until we die we will remember every
single thing, recall every word, love every
loss: then we will, as we must, leave it to
others to love, love that can grow brighter
and deeper till the very end, gaining strength
and getting more precious all the way. . . .
In July 1939 a twelve year old boy, along with his father and others started to climb Mt. Kathadin in Maine, the northern terminus of the Appalachian trail, and reputedly its most rugged mountain. The group was neither experienced nor prepared for the climb, and had little idea of what lay before them. The boy, Donn Fendler, ran ahead of the group, but the sunny skies soon turned grey. It started to pour. Donn became scared, and ran back down the mountain to find his father. Within a few minutes he lost the trail, and then nothing he encountered looked familiar. He stumbled over huge boulders, but remained convinced he would run into his father and be safe once again.
In July 2016, a sixty-four year old man, along with two of his sons and a friend started to climb Mt. Kathadin. The group was neither experienced nor prepared for the climb, and had little idea of what lay before them. The day was scorching hot, and their water supplies dwindled quickly. Despite some moments when the man feared he would lose his balance and fall backwards, and other occasions when the younger climbers needed to assist him in ascending over impossible rock formations, they finally made it to the top of the mountain, only to realize they had to descend on a trail that was nearly as steep as the one they just climbed. It took the man so long to get down the mountain, he wondered in places if he had lost the trail. With the help of many, the journey up and down Kathadin was complete.
Donn Fendler was not so lucky. He didn’t find his father, but remained lost for nine days in the Maine wilderness, while hundreds of volunteers looked for him. He lost twenty pounds, most of his clothes, and was nearly eaten alive by every insect in the lexicography of bugs. He suffered from frostbite, had severe cuts and experienced hallucinations, but he never gave up hope. It was an amazing story of survival and the will to live. To this day, he continues to speak before groups about his adventure, telling young people and others to keep the faith and never give up until you reach your goal. While the Harris family climbers were also eaten alive by bugs, and the father had cuts and bruises, their ordeal was not harrowing. Yet all climbers on Kathadin are viscerally reminded that life presents us with difficult challenges where human vulnerability to serious injury, illness and general life perils are ever present.
The other night Andrea and I walked over to the Belmont Cinema to see the movie “Sully.” It is the true story of the so-called “Miracle on the Hudson,” when Chesley Sullenberger, a veteran of nearly forty years of commercial airline piloting landed a jet on the river and saved the lives of 155 people in 2009. Until I saw the movie, I assumed that Sully, played by Tom Hanks, was a universally acclaimed hero. While the media and the public lauded his actions, the National Transportation Safety Board apparently had other ideas, and launched an investigation of what they termed a crash, and Sully called a “forced water landing.” Sully said that both engines failed after a collision with a flock of geese, but the NTSB records showed otherwise. Sully said the landing on the water was necessary, but the NTSB said simulations showed he could have made it to a nearby airport.
What became clear according to this version of the story is that the NTSB was doing everything in its power to incriminate him and prove that he was wrong, so that they had a person they could blame. Even once he proved himself, the board was never able to admit it was sorry for taking him to task, and questioning his judgment and ability. They seemed to come from the Trump school of never admitting you are wrong, and never apologizing. A pilot who was dedicated to always doing his job, began to question his abilities and actions once he was brought before a panel that wanted to find fault with him. We live with him as he dreams of tragedies that could have occurred, such as crashing into buildings. He became gripped with fear and self-doubt because of their accusations.
Whether we speak of some historic event such as this near tragedy on the Hudson, or our own trials including accidents and failures such as encounters with ocean waves, dismissals from jobs we love, or failed relationships, we are all rendered more vulnerable by news that threatens our health, our livelihood, and / or our families. We want to avoid dealing with these painful, vulnerable moments in life, and so we are often schooled in denying them or defending ourselves against them. The philosopher Martha Nussbaum believes that recognizing one’s vulnerability is a precondition for living an ethical life. “To be a good human being,” she says, “is to have a kind of openness to the world, the ability to trust uncertain things beyond your own control that can lead you to be shattered.”
We tend to run away from the difficult or complicated parts of our lives, or we deny them, or defend ourselves from feeling them. Growing up, I learned that emotions could destroy me, and so if I expressed anger or sorrow, I believed things would fall apart. We learn that having moral character means we are in control at all times, and certainly don’t share anything about our “complicated, messy humanity” with others. Members of my congregation in Milton feared the introduction of joys and sorrows into our worship service, because as some of them said, “we don’t share feelings in church.”
Nussbaum says that each person’s life is a complex narrative of human effort in a world full of obstacles. We each have a lifetime of Mt Kathadin’s where we bleed, take wrong turns, get lost, need markers pointing the way, and need help from others literally lifting us over places where we might otherwise fall. In a sense we each create a book of life, but we sometimes fail to realize that life is not predictable, and we are not in control. I had a book of life that said my family’s history of disease and illness always centered around cancer. After all, both of my parents had fallen victim to cancer. No one ever had any issues with their heart. In fact our hearts were strong and steady and healthy. That was my book of predictability about my life. Then my heart went crazy. A routine visit to the doctors ended up with the detection of a heart rate that was beating at an excessive rate, and was out of rhythm. I have had lots of tests, one procedure, am taking medication, and in early November will have another procedure. Is this another instance of a minister using all of life’s experiences as sermon fodder? After I was hit by an ocean wave more than twenty years ago, my sermonic responses were dubbed, “Mark on the Rocks.”
Do you live by a book of life that you have created? Have you invented what illness you will get or how long you will live? Did you invent how accomplished your children would be? Issues or problems our children develop are often difficult things to accept, and so it is much less hurtful, to finely develop an inability to look at our own vulnerability when we silently tell ourselves this isn’t happening, or it is someone else’s fault. A sudden illness reminds us how vulnerable we all are. There is no real predictability as to when we will fall victim to illness or disease. This illness of mine was not particularly age related. We can pursue our own responsible behavior of eating right and exercising, but there are also elements of chance and luck in any of life’s endeavors. An episode like this makes you realize how vulnerable and scared you can feel when your life is threatened or challenged in any way.
It is terribly scary to truly recognize that life can threaten us in a remarkable variety of ways, from getting sick and becoming incapacitated to losing a way of life that is both necessary and precious. Yet recognizing these emotions will lead us to living an authentic way of life. There are a few myths about vulnerability that are worth recognizing, because we will see how exploring our own vulnerability will help us become more morally developed people. First, most of us learned that showing vulnerability is a sign of weakness. We are emotional beings who wish not to be emotional, and withhold acknowledgments of neediness, as being needy is thought of as bad. So we learn, Martha Nussbaum says, to design for ourselves a life in which these acknowledgments have no place. We are the only animals for whom neediness is a source of shame, and we take pride in ourselves to the extent to which we have gotten clear of vulnerability. So young adults think they are invincible. When I was young I often said, I never get sick. I never use health insurance. Why do I even have it?
While we think we will remain healthy for a long time if we just live right, we also think that we won’t be subject to job loss or broken relationships if we just remain the responsible person we are. I recall when a doctor with whom I was friendly in my former congregation was summarily fired because a new administration was hired at a certain Boston hospital. His firing had nothing to do with skills or ability, it was simply that the new administration wanted their own person. What a shock it was to me to learn that someone so skilled could lose his job so easily. The second myth about vulnerability is that some of us don’t experience it. We think vulnerability is for those weak people, not the strong ones of us, who are not emotional, but treat every challenge with a rational response. They are the Stoics who think showing emotion means we are out of control. In fact, we all experience vulnerability. This happens when we give love, and are rejected, or like Sully when we do our job and others still question everything we do. Remember his nightmare about crashing into buildings. Finally, we think expressing our vulnerability means spilling our deepest, darkest secrets. It is like the paranoia the congregation felt about expressing emotions. What it means is that you are being real with others and not fake. If we have to be right, and if we have to be in control, then we will never expose our vulnerability to another human being, and thus fail to connect with them.
Our ability to cope with our vulnerability has a direct relationship to our ability to trust. We all know we feel most vulnerable when trust is broken. If we are sick, we feel most vulnerable when we wait for the doctor’s call to tell us what the results of the test are. The longer we wait the more vulnerable we feel. All of us want to make real connections with others, and when we think about times we felt most vulnerable, it was usually when trust was broken. We feel most vulnerable in love when the person who was going to call fails to do so. We want to hear from the doctor to say we are all right, or we want to hear from that lover who will tell us they miss us.
We feel vulnerable at church, too. We may want to be part of a dinner group, but the invitation never comes. We may want to find a friend but nothing ever works out. We are vulnerable when the relationship is never broadened to include us. They didn’t make me part of the honors group in college, or my marriage ended in divorce, or the failure of my company or my church to grow is a reflection on me. Many events remind us that we do not feel good enough.
Yet in this vulnerability about perceived failures or weaknesses we see our deepest desires for connection. The sociologist Brene¢ Brown says that people who find these connections through their vulnerability have a couple of things in common. She says that first, they have courage. This is not bravery in battle, but courage going back to the original meaning of the word, which comes from the French word coeur or heart. We tell each other who we are with our whole hearts. We don’t focus on how we have been hurt by being vulnerable, we talk about being vulnerable as being necessary to knowing others. Rather than speaking of our unworthiness, or those exclusive times where our vulnerability was made raw, we believe with our whole hearts that we are worthy to make connections with others. So vulnerability is not only about the place where we feel fear or shame or unworthiness, but it is also the place where we realize we are worthy of being loved, do belong with others, and can live with joy and openness. So rather than rejecting vulnerability, this open heartedness embraces vulnerability as a good thing, as a builder of human connections leading to moral depth and human understanding.
As my heart shows me the vulnerability of flutter and speed, I want to contemplate how I can live with a more open heart; more open to being uncertain, and less inclined to follow the book of control. Brown also reminds us that we live in a vulnerable world for all those reasons of rejection and fear that I have already enumerated. She says we tend to numb vulnerability with spending, eating, or drinking. We might feel that this meeting at work or church makes me question everything I do. So we say, I think I’ll have a drink to absorb the feelings of frustration.. We numb the negative feelings like grief or fear or disappointment. But the problem is, she says, that you cannot selectively block feelings, so if frustration is numbed, so is joy and gratitude and happiness.
The world is made up of one giant Kathadin, that each of us has to climb. I would never have made it without my sons to lift me, and the strangers to give me nourishment. Everyone’s needs are met more effectively through cooperation. We are all vulnerable to life’s trials. When I was in the operating room at Mt. Auburn, and the doctor was about to administer the anesthesia, I noticed a file, and asked her about it. It said H-A-R-M in large letters with a slight gap between the R and the M. I asked her if this was file on how to inflict HARM on patients. I think she missed my joke and explained it was the first three initials of my last name, and my first initial. At least I knew, but my joke was also a way to numb my feelings of fear, as I fumbled to feel trust for those who were there to heal me.
Brown says, we are imperfect, and we are wired for struggle, but nevertheless, we are worthy of love and belonging. But when we exclude or hurt others, we often can’t admit our vulnerability. Instead of seeing each other’s vulnerability, we act to exclude or hurt or reject. Modern philosophers and psychologists tell us that seeing our vulnerability to life’s struggle will help us respect ourselves more, and be more responsive to others as well, This is also an ancient message. We see it in the story of Adam and Eve, when they recognize they are naked before one another. It is a source of shame, but more important, it is a source of knowledge, of greater depth where we can let ourselves be truly seen by one another. In Christian scriptures in Second Corinthians 12 , Paul says,” for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me . . . then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” In our need to be with others who recognize our common vulnerabilities, we also build stronger churches.
A few weeks ago I was wandering around an antiques store in Lowell. I noticed an unusual piece of baseball memorabilia. It was a Russian doll of a famous retired baseball player named Mike Piazza.. A Russian doll is kind of a symbolic representation of vulnerability. There are outer dolls that may protect our feelings of vulnerability, but they are often defenses for the feelings of hurt we harbor. They cover the core of the person, keeping people from knowing and connecting with the real me. Beneath the bigger, more perfect façade we find the real person, in all their integrity. The most solid doll is the one that does not hide inside of itself.
Madeleine L’Engle once wrote:“ When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown-up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability… To be alive is to be vulnerable.” Our readings today are from younger and older people reflecting on life experiences. Donn Fendler symbolically reminds us that there is a rock slide under our feet, and ultimately there are no trails where we are going, but if we keep a good sense of ourselves and our own worth , we will find our way. A.R. Ammons feels a different kind of vulnerability. Suddenly he is aging, and his friends are dying, and he feels the vulnerability of loss, and realizes that our vulnerability, if we embrace it, will ultimately help facilitate a deeper and brighter love. May it be so.
Closing Words – from Brene Brown
Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.