Sacrifice and Ordinary Lives
May 25, 2015
The First Parish of Watertown
The Rev. Andrea Greenwood
Opening Words XLIX Emily Dickinson
They dropped like flakes, they dropped like stars,
Like petals from a rose,
When suddenly across the June
A wind with finger goes.
They perished in the seamless grass, —
No eye could find the place;
But God on his repealless list
Can summon every face.
From Last Call, by Larissa MacFarquhar
This is adapted from an interview on NPR
Japan’s suicide rate is twice that of the U.S., more than 30,000 every year in a population that is only four tenths that of the US. So many people jump in front of trains that when one stops between stations, passengers assume just another suicide. One reason for this is there’s no religious prohibition against suicide in Japan as there is in the West. In Japan you can hide in death. If, say, you are the wage earner of a family and you are in unrecoverable debt, you can commit suicide, and the thought is that that is an honorable way out. You’ve taken responsibility. You’ve admitted it is my fault, and I’m going to punish myself for it.
Into this culture in Japan comes Ittetsu Nemoto. He was just some regular guy. He graduated from high school, took a few correspondence courses in philosophy in university, but he didn’t go to college. He was partying. He just was a regular guy. And then he had a terrible motorcycle accident, and he almost died, and he decided to change his life. His mother saw an advertisement in the newspaper for monks, and she thought this was hilarious. She told him this thinking how ridiculous, but he had a reaction she did not anticipate. He thought, hmm, entry-level monk. I can do that. He started with pet funerals and was just interested enough to enroll, if that’s the correct verb, in a monastery. The regime was extraordinarily strict and brutal. He slept very little, ate very little, was essentially treated like a slave. The monastery is more like basic training in the military than anything else. It is not a place where one pursues serenity or experiences a general sense of calm.
Eventually Nemoto left the monastery and began working in a fast food joint, where he met a lot of very miserable people, and he was always cheerful because the job was so much easier than the monastery. He started informally counseling people who were depressed and because he was good at it, he decided to make helping the suicidal his mission. Buddhism does not say anything about suicide. This monastery does not prescribe working in the world helping people. So this is really just his own sense of purpose and mission.
But it became overwhelming. He started a website and offered workshops, and people would contact him and he was endlessly, perpetually responding. His sense of responsibility had no limits, and he knew he would die if he did not change. So he imposed a rule that if anyone wanted to seek his counsel, they had to come to his temple. In this way, he limited those who were coming to him to people who really were motivated to change the way they thought about suicide.
Now there is a sense that Nemoto and a few other priests are trying to help people rethink this culture, and recognize that even though suffering may be ennobling, suicide is not. Suicide is just an end.
About this time last year, an article appeared in the paper. I no longer have any idea what the purpose of the article was, but I remember the accompanying graphic really well. It was titled The General Misery Index, and there were little colored bars marching across all the years of my life, indicating whether or not they were miserable. I had no idea such a thing existed, or that someone’s job was to tabulate how bad each year was. I thought this was fascinating. According to the graphics, most of my childhood and practically all of my adult working years have been rather grim. The best years, according to the paper, were when I was in college and graduate school. To be fair, that was a lot of years! And they coincided with the years of Reagan’s presidency. At the time, I actually thought that was misery, so my guess is the index is about something other than my values being actualized in the world. Naturally, I had to look up the purpose of this tool, and you won’t be surprised to hear that it is really just a measure of the economy. It parades as neutral and scientific, but of course is linking happiness to wealth in a very basic way, and without necessarily even noticing the equation. But in my experience, although a lack of money is extremely stressful, having money does not have a whole lot to do with whether or not people are miserable. Misery seems more related to existential suffering; an inability to find meaning that leaves you feeling forlorn, left out of the world.
The reading this morning resulted from my having heard about this monk who basically, by happenstance, devoted his life to trying to stop suicide. There is a weird a kind emotional voyeurism when reading about suicide, and there is also that sense of trying to save everybody that reminds me of the Catcher in the Rye – Holden Caulfield is haunted by an image of himself, standing in a field trying to save children running through the grass and going too near a cliff. It captures something. How does the world work? What are the rules? What can I count on? Who is counting on me? Are there unseen edges, where we might drop and disappear? Will anyone notice my fall? There is something about probing depression that is a way of trying to find hope. Trying to locate the memory that could save us all, by establishing the point from which it all went wrong, and then starting over.
Thinking of what to talk about this week, this is the topic that kept popping up for me – the losses that seem like they should have been preventable. I have a twenty year old, and last year – his first year out of school, one of his classmates took her life. They went to a small school; 35 students in grades six through twelve, and so relationships were intense. Sitting through Anna’s funeral with my son, in a temple filled with teenagers, I could not make sense of what was happening. There were two stories; one of a bright girl with specific passions; an adored, cherished child whose parents did everything they could and who worked diligently to get Anna to the right place, so she could thrive. And she did. The second story had to do with neurology; with learning differences and social challenges that stalked her until they blotted out everything else, and Anna was gone. Somehow, these two very different tales were about the exact same person, and they were both true. Then, six weeks ago, another schoolmate –two years younger – chose the same path. This is not something that gets easier with experience. Last year, people in Newton had to absorb a story with similar outlines three times over, and it is completely destabilizing. Everything we think we know melts away, but what do we replace it with? How do we go back and make this not happen? How do we explain it – to the children, or to ourselves? What does it mean?
It is Memorial Day weekend, and it is hard not to think of our losses; of the dead, and the manner in which they left us. On Friday I went in to Boston Common with Levi, and there was an enormous hillside planted with flags, one for every soldier lost, and at a microphone, family members were coming up and reading out the names of their dead. It was desolate and beautiful at the same time. Sometimes the endings are natural, and though sad, they do not upend our universe. I’ve had that – with my grandmother, and my step-father. It works if the person who died has lived a long life; if you can feel a measure of gratitude for the fullness of time. But just accepting nature is dangerous, too. We might begin to choose the narrative in which loss is inevitable; where Anna’s challenges — or Sam’s or anyone’s– determined their fate from the get-go. It all makes sense – if your kid has depression or autism or perfectionism or an eating disorder, this is the path you will travel. Last year at this time, we as a congregation were mourning the death of one of our members, and there was a part of that story that seemed almost predetermined. But that’s the thing about death: even when it’s expected, or puts an end to suffering, it never actually makes sense. In our parishioner’s case, we learned so much about the other life she almost had – the brilliant child, graduating from university while still a teenager, the activist who changed other people’s lives. I cannot forget a mother describing her only daughter as a star that burned too brightly, and consumed itself.
We miss people, sometimes even when they are still alive; can’t quite process where they are. If we really believed in logical outcomes, would we work so hard to have things go our way? Would we fight for the right school, the right community, the right help? Would we as a church community be welcoming if we were ruled by logic only?
Memorial Day began a few years after the Civil War, as a way to honor the fallen by decorating their graves with flowers. The date was chosen not to commemorate any battle or event, but because it was a time when no matter where you lived in the United States, there would be some kind of flower in bloom. The ceremony began on the front porch of what had been the home of Robert E. Lee in Arlington, Virginia. Confiscated by the Union, the property became the National Cemetery. The impulse to no longer have sides – to honor all the losses, no matter what – ran deep. In Mississippi, women of the confederacy saw the bare graves of union soldiers, and wanted it remedied; in New York, folks saw the confederate burial sites abandoned, and felt shame. And so, at what had once been the home and grounds belonging to George Washington, we created a huge National Cemetery, and Ulysses Grant and his wife spread flowers on top of the confederate and the union soldiers alike, blanketing all the sleeping dead under something beautiful, and everyone gathered to pray and sing together. What did they pray for? This incalculable loss had to unite us, and make us change. We would have to believe in something together. We are not there yet. I cannot picture this without thinking of our own Unitarian Universalist Flower Communion, begun by a minister in Prague. Norbert Capek wanted to celebrate beauty and diversity and our ability to be joined in life-affirming community without any references to the religions that had divided his land. For his beliefs, Capek was put to death at Dachau.
What did I ask a minute ago? How do we go back and make all of this not happen?
One of my children, when he was six or seven, was obsessed with magic. His determination to be a magician was spurred on by the knowledge that this was really possible — the elderly man who lives two doors down from us was a professional magician, and the black metal name post on his mailbox features a rabbit popping out of a hat. At Halloween, he and his wife would give out little magic discs, and no one was ever sad about this or asked for candy instead. Unfortunately, my son was absolutely terrible at performing tricks. The reason was that he TRULY BELIEVED in magic. He did not understand the part about tricking anyone – after all, if you were tricking someone, then it wasn’t magic, was it? It was as if he believed a magician was a conduit, somehow; a figure who could make the mystery in the universe appear for others. If he put on the white gloves and the black hat, and waved the wand just so, magic would happen. So when he practiced a card trick, he wasn’t working on timing, or palming a card, or distracting the audience. He was PRAYING; willing the magic to happen. It was heartbreaking. In order for him to do what he loved and believed in, he would have to have that belief destroyed. There was no other way. What is a parent to do – Encourage the faith, or help develop the skill? Are we happier believing in the magical, or in manipulating objects so that we create delight and astonishment for others?
I never did figure this one out. It felt like a lose-lose proposition. I loved his innocence, his belief and faith, but I would have liked him to have some success, too. For the record, time did take care of this – Asher is quite good at some magic now, and last week I overheard him discussing Penn and Teller’s performances with his older brother. “No, Dana,” he said. “Teller is the one who doesn’t talk. That’s why it’s ironic.”
Perhaps you know the figure of Job, in the Hebrew Bible. Job was a man who believed, and his story is harrowing. It goes like this: Job is a good man. Satan tells God that Job is only good and faithful because things are going well for him, but if he suffered, that faith would erode. Satan proposes a bet – torture Job and see if you can make him lose his faith. God accepts the bet, believing Job will not change even when his circumstances do. God is right. Job remains a good man. But he loses everything – his children die, his cattle are afflicted, his crops wither and die, his friends abandon him.
Generally the story is used to explore the problem of evil, and the nature of God. Why would a God who loves justice allow this to happen? Job is innocent, and God arbitrarily decides to kill his children and destroy his health just to see what Job will do. For us, living in the 21st century, a logical response to this is simply atheism. If that is God, then I want none of it. But at the time it was written, and for many centuries afterwards, rejecting God was not a viable position, and so the story had to mean something else. Even now, that seems to sidestep the issue – as if getting rid of God would mean getting rid of suffering. The question ancient people were exploring was not whether to believe or not, but how to live in a world like this. How do we live in a world that is cruel, and unpredictable, and in which people suffer? And I think the book of Job offers us something that gets overlooked in the horror of a God who does, essentially, play dice with the universe. The story asserts over and over again that human suffering is NOT a punishment. All the terrible things that happen to Job are NOT HIS FAULT. No one can understand it; nothing makes any sense, but it is clear that he is a good, upright and honest man who is being made miserable by forces that are completely beyond his control. It is hard for people to accept this – his wife tells him to curse God; his friends keep telling him that he must have done something wrong, but Job remains adamant – and so does God. They agree that what has happened is not what was deserved. It just is. And there is no way to go back and make it disappear. The task is to go on living, even after all that he loved was taken away.
Yesterday I celebrated my niece’s marriage. Not quite three years ago, I did the funeral for her father, my brother-in-law, Tom, who died of cancer at age 53. At the funeral, I remember Abby crying and saying that it was so hard to look forward, thinking of all the events her dad would miss. Instead of her wedding being a happy thing, it meant that Tom would not there to walk her down the aisle. But yesterday was a joyous event, and I could feel him in the room anyway. Life does go on, even with all our losses.
Nemeto, the Buddhist monk from our reading, says that suffering is good for us only in that it lets us know how strong we are; what we are made of. It gives us a chance to make choices about how we want to live. And we can choose to live as people with faith in life, and in ourselves. It won’t prevent anything – it might actually cause more pain, because being genuinely invested can open us up to loss — but faith can make us strong enough to act despite the cost. Our veterans certainly know this. For Anna’s parents, believing in her potential rather than her limitations made her suicide all the more devastating – but how could they have done anything else? How could they have lived otherwise? What we learn is how powerless we are in the face of love. We do what we will not for any guaranteed results, but because it is what we know is right. And it may bring us to our knees and shatter our hearts, but there is some comfort in knowing we have done the right thing. Pain and loss are not part of some divine lesson, or something anyone deserved. And it is not something we can prevent, either. But we have to learn how to feel joy anyway, in spite of all the loss and the suffering. We have to learn how to be alive, even in the midst of death.
A long, long time ago, I was taking a class in family therapy, and I heard this story that just stuck with me. There was a therapist who had an aunt who was depressed. She had aged, and had limited mobility, and was a bit isolated. Many of her closer friends had died, and she lived alone. She did still go to church, but because of her wheelchair, she came a little late and left a little early – she didn’t want to block the aisles. This man was at a loss as to how to help, and so when a colleague was coming to town for a workshop, he asked him to visit the woman. She keeps hinting that she wants to die, the man told Dr. Erickson. Make this better.
So the famous therapist went to visit the older woman, who gave him a tour of her house. When the tour was over, the doctor berated her. He said, your nephew is worried about you, thinking you are depressed, but obviously that is not really the issue here. The problem is that you are not being a good Christian.
The woman was taken aback, and started to protest, but the therapist interrupted to say, Look. You have money. You have time. You have a green thumb. And you are wasting it. You should be reading your church bulletin, finding out who is sick, or who just had a baby; who is graduating and who got engaged or married. Keep track of all these happy and sad events, and then take your African violet cuttings and re pot them. Your handyman can drive you to the houses of these people who need your condolences or your congratulations. Then he left.
When the woman’s nephew heard what his colleague had said, he was appalled, and he said so. I came to you for help, he said, and you yelled at her. And the response was, Listen. There was absolutely no sign of life in your aunt’s house, except in her plants. The only windows that weren’t blocked by curtains and shades were open for her plants. I thought I had a better chance addressing that tiny bit of life and encouraging it to grow than if I faced that overwhelming gloom.
It is so logical, isn’t it – whatever you pay attention to is what is going to grow. You can grow the problem, or nurture the little bit of life that you can find. Obviously this story has a happy ending, or therapists wouldn’t use it. I’ve seen it told with various details changed, but it always ends the same way –– pulling out an obituary that says, “African Violet Queen of Milwaukee Dies, Mourned by Thousands.” The old aunt lived for ten years, but everything was changed – not by magic, or by some kind of incantation that brought God to earth, or erased her need for a wheelchair. She still couldn’t walk, she still lived alone, and she still had outlived most of her friends. But nevertheless, everything changed. Those ten years were filled with meeting new people, and bringing herself into other people’s lives instead of trying to stay out of the way. We all want to be connected – in our joys and our sorrows, yes – but more fundamentally as who we are, what we love, what matters to us. We want to be known, even in our deepest pain. We are people who have loved, and lost, and who are still alive, remembering those who are no longer here, and treasuring the memories, even when they hurt beyond words.
Keep living. That is the message we come to church to be reminded of. Through grief and fear; through joy and success, keep living. Sometimes we may come to church to find ourselves. We want strength and confidence and assurance that we can act for good in this world; or at least in our own lives. We come for solace, for beauty, for peace. We may come simply to be around others; to be part of that air that is changed by the gathering of people who, for whatever reason, get up and bring themselves through these doors, looking for a hand, perhaps; or ready to offer their own.
Keep living, and honor those who once lived with us. Amen.
Closing Words from Barack Obama
We memorialize our first patriots — blacksmiths and farmers, slaves and freedmen — who never knew the independence they won with their lives. We memorialize the armies of men, and women disguised as men, black and white, who fell in apple orchards and cornfields in a war that saved our union. We memorialize those who gave their lives on the battlefields of our times — in jungles, deserts, and city streets around the world. And we memorialize those who fought battles no one could see, and suffered wounds that would not heal.
We are bound together, one honorable chain of sacrifice, carried across all the generations.
May we be at peace.
In our hearts, in our homes, in our nation, in our world,
May we be at peace.