Last week, we thought about grief together. And I mentioned that among the things we might find ourselves grieving these days are climate change and our current political situation.
And it’s not just grief that we feel, it’s also anxiety and disorientation.
Life feels hard to many of us right now, particularly challenging, as some of the things that we’ve taken for granted for many years, some of us for most of our lives, things we thought would always be, are being eroded, swept away. Glaciers. Species. Weather patterns. Human rights. Checks and balances. Basic human kindness and compassion in political discourse.
And for those less privileged than many of us in this room – for those who living in and at the edge of poverty, for people of color, for immigrants, for transgender people, and others – let me name that all of this is even harder, every single day.
There is so much anxiety in our larger culture right now and we are all swimming in it. People are more on edge, more reactive. I’m noticing more conflict, more polarization, more “us” vs. “them” thinking. I’m noticing it online. I’m noticing it among my colleagues. I’m noticing it in our larger UU movement.
We may not always be terribly conscious of it or how it affects us, but I think it does affect most of us. I think many of us are feeling more generalized anxiety. Many of us are feeling more fatigued, having a harder time focusing, feeling more overwhelmed. Many of us are more often more irritable, we have shorter fuses, we may be more emotional in general.
Does that check out for you? Are you feeling some of that yourself or noticing in those around you? Here’s a reality check for any of you who need to hear it this morning: it’s not a sign of personal weakness or shortcoming that you’re feeling this way. It’s the result of living in a pressure cooker. And I meant what I said earlier this morning: I’m glad that you are here!
Last week we were talking about grief, but depression and anxiety share many of the same symptoms.
And this larger context of anxiety and disorientation, the fact that we are swimming all the time in these cultural waters, makes it even harder to deal with all the other smaller challenges that we face in the contexts of our everyday, in the context of work and school and family and in our own individual lives
So, the question this week is how do we cope with all of this?
It is tempting to look outside of ourselves for that answer. If only we had the right x, y, or z, we’d be able to better manage.
My underlying assumption for this week is that we all have within us wells of wisdom and strength that we can tap into, inner resources that we can draw on…but that we sometimes forget are even there.
You have them and so does the person next to you, and so do the people all around you. Which means this whole sanctuary is filled with an abundance of inner resources, that the inner strength and wisdom contained in this room is amazing.
Our task then is to remember them, to uncover them, to rediscover them.
In the Gospel of Thomas, it is written:
If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you fail to bring forth what is within you, what you fail to bring forth will destroy you.
Our task is to bring them forth.
So this morning, I want to have us reflect on the sources of our strength, that which we already have within us that can help us cope. I want to have us look at those inner resources that can help us deal with our grief, our anxiety, our disorientation
If you were to Google the search terms “inner strength,” as I happened to do this week, you would discover a vast depository of articles and essays with titles such as…
5 Secrets of People with Incredible Inner Strength
6 Sources of Inner Strength
7 Ways to Cultivate Your Inner Strength
8 Simple Things You Can Do to Build Your Inner Strength
The 9 Key Secrets to Inner Strength
And…Yes, You Can: 10 Ways to Build Inner Strength
Which says to me that there’s a real market for this information, for ideas and inspiration on this topic. Many, many people are looking for answers, struggling to figure out how to cope with challenge, change, and adversity.
What is “inner strength,” exactly?
You know it when you see it. And if you’re lucky, you know it when you feel it.
Words like “resilience, perseverance, and tenacity” come to mind to describe it.
Someone with inner strength is calm in the face of calamity, kind in the face of cruelty, strong and confident and self-assured. That person has the courage to do what is right and what is necessary. They are thoughtful and measured, responding rather than reacting. They have the “courage of patience” as Richard Gilbert has said. They can cope with difficult situations and emotions, while keeping an even keel.
As one writer, Undre Griggs, puts it:
“Think of your inner strength as your ability to handle whatever life throws at you in a compassionate and thoughtful way.”
Psychologist and author, Rick Hanson, puts it this way:
“We all have issues – including demands upon us, stresses, illnesses, losses, vulnerabilities, and pain.”
“Some issues are out there in the world, such as financial concerns, an aging parent with dementia, a baby with colic, a tough quarter at work (or in college), a combative neighbor, or conflicts in an intimate relationship.”
“Some issues are in the body, such as an illness, injury, or vulnerability to dysregulated hormones.”
“And some issues are in the mind, like anxiety, depressed mood, low self-worth, trauma, lingering pain from childhood, learning disability, fear of public speaking, or grief over a loss.”
“To deal with issues, we need resources.”
“Resources can be found out in the world, in your body, and in your mind.”
What Hanson calls “resources in your mind” are what we could also call “inner strengths.”
As he delineates these resources, they include:
Capabilities: such as mindfulness, emotional intelligence, and resilience
Positive Emotions: such as gratitude, love, and self-compassion
Attitudes: such as openness, confidence, and determination
And virtues: such as generosity, courage, and wisdom
So, the question becomes, which of those resources do we each hold in our inner reserve? We don’t all have all of them. Which strengths are ours? How can we access those resources? How can we get in touch with the sources of our inner strength?
One of the tools that I have used over my nearly 20 years of ministry, which I and others have often found helpful is to ask people who are facing current challenges to look back and recall times in the past when they have faced similar challenges. What happened them? How did you cope in that situation? What helped? What internal strengths did you discover then that might still serve you well now?
I find that people who have come to me for answers, discover that they have held the answers within them all along!
It’s helpful, too, to remember your good qualities. Stop and think. What are some strengths that you or others have noticed in you before?
And remember those activities that have, in the past, made you feel strong or competent or good about yourself? Do more of those things!
Other practices, too, help us to tap into our inner resources. John Drury, in his article “6 Sources of Inner Strength,” offers these suggestions, which I’ve paraphrased:
• Take good care of yourself physically. We sometimes struggle to remember to eat well, to get enough sleep, to exercise, to take care of our bodies. And yet this is so important because our bodies are connected to our minds, and what affects one affects the other.
• Try to recall what replenishes you emotionally, what “fills your emotional tank and make time for that every week.” “What relaxes you, helps you unwind and leaves you refreshed the next day?” (which he notes, probably excludes alcohol.)
• Remember to pay attention to your spiritual life, to your connections to whatever you call holy. Others might call this creating a sacred place within yourself. Spend time in silence, unplugged from devices, so you can plug into a source far more powerful. Practice prayer or mindfulness or another form of meditation; whatever it is that will help you feel grounded and centered. Breathe deeply.
• “Make sure you have emotional support.” We need family and close friends who can “help us keep perspective and stay focused as to what is really important when we get too stressed and forget sometimes.” They can help remind us of our inner strengths.
• Remember to pay attention to your needs regarding your own energy, remembering that you are not a machine that can keep running endlessly without refueling. Know your limits. Take time off.
• And don’t forget to laugh. Out loud. Often. Science and experience have both proven it to be good medicine.
These are some ways to tap into the inner resources that we already have, but what if we realize we lack something we need. How can we further develop or strengthen our resources/inner strengths?
Rick Hansen suggests this method of growing your inner strengths.
Start by picking an issue, a challenge, something that you’re struggling with right now.
And then ask yourself, “what psychological resource – inner strength – if it were more present in your mind, would really help with this issue?” “What, if you felt or thought it more – would make things better?”
I love those questions.
What do you need more of? Do you need more patience? Do you need more courage? Do you need to be more thoughtful, less reactive? Would it help to be more mindful? Would it help to be more grateful? Or to be more centered?
Once you’ve figured out what inner resource you most need to develop, you can start to work on that, to develop those capabilities or attitudes or virtues that would be most helpful to you now.
When have you experienced them in you before? How can you begin to nurture the seed of that strength that is already within you?
All of this makes me think of the ancient Stoic philosophers, such as Marcus Aurelius, Seneca and Epictetus, who taught their followers to reflect first on what they can and cannot control. We cannot control external circumstances. We can control our responses to them. We cannot control the past or the future, but only how we respond in the present moment. Thus a major goal in life is to develop the inner resources, the inner strengths, the virtues and attitudes that will help us to cope with all sorts of hardship, including, for them, hardships such as living under tyranny, living in exile, sometimes losing everything and everyone they loved.
One of the ways they did this was to practice something they called the “premeditation of adversity,” which one writer (Irvine) “describes as ‘the single most valuable technique in the Stoics’ toolkit.’”
“The Stoics trained themselves to maintain equanimity and freedom from emotional suffering in the face of seeming ‘misfortunes’ by regularly visualizing and preparing to cope with them long in advance.” (Robertson, 145)
They did this because they believed “…people who are able to accept unpleasant thoughts and feelings, without being overwhelmed by them, are more resilient than people who try to distract themselves or avoid such experiences, through strategies such as positive thinking.” And they did this to rehearse their responses in advance, which is another way to remember one’s inner resources.
They also practiced what might be called the “contemplation of exemplars,” (160), which included reflecting on the lives of those who had faced hardship before – whether it was exile, persecution, bereavement, poverty, or death – and considering how they coped. What did they do that was worthy of imitation?
The emulation of those who’ve gone before us in the struggle can still be a wonderful source of strength for us today. As African American activist Brittany Packnett has said, “In times like these, I look to the past. I come from people not meant to survive, and here is our bloodline, stronger than ever.”
As Joy Harjo, poet and author of our reading this morning, might say, remember where you came from. Remember your sources. In her words:
Remember your birth, how your mother struggled
to give you form and breath…
Remember your father. He is your life, also.
Remember the earth whose skin you are…
Remember the plants, trees, animal life who all have their
tribes, their families, their histories, too…
Remember you are all people and all people
Remember you are this universe and this
universe is you.
For those connections – that interconnection – that lineage is also a great source of our strength. You are part of a larger whole. You are not alone in your struggle. You are not alone.
If for the Stoics every obstacle is an opportunity to become more patient, kind, generous, compassionate, courageous…Then climate change and political instability and the corruption of our democracy are also, if nothing else, opportunities for us to practice virtue, trusting that the world will be a better place for our having acted virtuously. For our having done what was right. For our having been more compassionate, more steadfast, more courageous…whatever it is that we need to be.
So finally, let us remember, not only for our own sakes alone, but also for the sake of the world…these words often misattributed to A. A. Milne:
“There is something you must always remember. You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.”
And you are not alone.
Amen. And Blessed be.