Four people with taper candles light chalice framed by two rings

“Showered with Blessings” – May 7th, 2023

May 8, 2023

READING:

“I Will Not Die an Unlived Life,” by Dawna Markova

I will not die an unlived life 
I will not live in fear 
of falling or catching fire. 
I choose to inhabit my days, 
to allow my living to open me, 
to make me less afraid, 
more accessible, 
to loosen my heart 
until it becomes a wing, 
a torch, a promise. 
I choose to risk my significance; 
to live so that which came to me as seed 
goes to the next as blossom 
and that which came to me as blossom, 
goes on as fruit. 

SERMON:

In the early 1980’s a fever-pitched craze swept American kid culture. The 80’s were known for these toy crazes. And I count myself to be one of those crazed kids.

The Care Bears. Anyone remember the Care Bears? They started off on greeting cards in 1981– different colored bears each bearing a symbol on their belly that represented some aspect of their personality, that corresponded to their name: Wish bear, Tenderheart Bear, Love-A-Lot Bear…And something about these greeting card bears gripped the public so deeply, that stuffed animals began being made. Forty million of them were sold in a mere few years. But that was nothing. It was the animated TV show that really put us into a frenzy. Care Bears were then everywhere: stickers, lunch boxes, t-shirts, comics, records, books, collectibles of every kind. I wore my Care Bears shirt into a nub. And movies were made too–grossing millions.

What was it about those bears? I realize that fads like these often have much to do with strategic marketing and just wanting what everyone else has, but SOMETHING about those bears hooked us.

Here’s what I remember about them, that set them apart from all the other cute toy franchises of the 80’s, the Care Bears had a magical power. Whenever there was a problem–which usually came in the form of an unkind, unjust, negative, or troublesome person–those bears would shout out, “you know what time it is?” and all the other bears would come running and they would link their little bear arms up in a long rainbow chain, and then shout, “it’s time for the Care Bear Stare!” And they would stare at that problem person until beams of powerful love-light would shoot out of their chests and just flood the person, until they were restored to their humane selves. The Care Bear Stare!

This is why I love following pop culture and crazes or things that go viral. It helps give you a balcony view of what people are craving; what people need. In this case, the Care Bear Stare.

It doesn’t surprise me that there is a deep, often unconscious, place in us all, no matter our age, that longs for stories that takes fear and cynicism and general cantankerousness and turns them into hope and kindness and loveliness. I sense we hunger for these stories, because most of us are seeking antidotes for the fear and cynicism and general cantankerousness that lives in us all. Some of you might feel like your sun rises and sets with these feelings.

And there’s a scientific explanation for why our default settings so often boing us back to the negative (fear, mistrust, cynicism, problematizing…) And why it takes so much work, intention and practice–whole religions are based on this– to not succumb to them so much. Science tells us that our brains’ neurological roots span billions of years. And over this massive swath of time, our survival and evolution has been made possible by our ability to react more strongly to, and pay more attention to, the negative feelings than to positive ones. Suspicion, mistrust, and fear as primitive survival mechanisms are the reason we are here today. The world was a very dangerous place for our cavepeople ancestors. Thank goodness they paid close attention to those feelings! Many scientists also refer to this primitive age as the world of carrots and sticks. Carrots being the rewards of life: food and shelter, even beauty and joy; and sticks being the threats of life: predators, injury, disease, environmental calamity.

We know that our long-ago ancestors unyielding attention to the ‘sticks’ was once a matter of life and death–FAR more important to look for and notice the lion in the brush (the stick), than it was to notice the beautiful flower that’s growing on the other side of it (the carrot).

And what we are left with, now, is a brain still motivated by the well-worn patterns of ‘stick thinking’ which keeps most of us giving more energy and attention to what’s not going well than what is.  Modern-day social scientists and neuroscientists call this the “negativity bias.” What’s not going well, rather than what is. And I am talking about our natures here. We know that our families of origin, life crises, traumas, or injustices–holding identities that force us to be on high-alert–these are different. I am homing in on one piece here. We are complex organisms, friends.

But science ALSO teaches us that the brain has the capacity to change, this is called neural-plasticity. Right alongside this fascinating science about human behavior across time, is another daily-seen human truth: that millions and millions of people long for the Care Bear Stare and lives guided by trust, hope, compassion, and calm. And for a while now there has been an outpouring of wisdom and resource teaching us about re-wiring the brain for a new survival instinct which has to do with experiencing the world not as a place conspiring against us, but conspiring in our favor. Just take that in for a second. The world not as a place conspiring against us, but conspiring in our favor???

To get this requires a capacity, (and some creativity!), to shift your attention away from everything that’s going wrong and attend and befriend everything that’s going right.

Back in 2005 an article was published in The Sun magazine by a man named Rob Brezny and I want to read some of it to you. Here are its first words:

“Thousands of things go right for you every day, beginning the moment you wake up. Through some magic you don’t fully understand, you’re still breathing, and your heart is beating, even though you’ve been unconscious for many hours. The air is a mix of gases that’s just right for your body’s needs…” And then he talks about the sun, “which continually detonates nuclear reactions in order to convert its body into light and heat and energy for our personal use…” and the floorboards and walls and doors and temperature controlled homes we live in; the toilets and faucets that work on our behalf; appliances making every inch of our lives so convenient powered by electricity that comes from what plant? Where? Wow! He names all the convenient products and medications we rely on, that countless scientists somewhere have tested and toiled over–some have given their whole lives to just one of them so that its safe for us to use or can even keep us alive! Or our clothes, where he asks: “Who gathered the materials to make the fabrics they’re made of? Who imbued them with colors, and how did they do it? Who sewed them for you?” And the food you ate, harvested, or was made or processed; transported and shelved. The people you’ve never met and will never meet making it all possible. On and on and on he goes: literacy, communication, muscles, transportation…

And then he writes: “It’s as if there were a benevolent conspiracy of unknown people who are tirelessly creating hundreds of useful things you like and need…You’ve been awake for two hours and a hundred things have already gone right for you. If three of those hundred things had not gone right” he writes “–your toaster was broken, the hot water wasn’t hot enough, there was a stain on the pants you wanted to wear–you might feel that the universe was against you, that your luck was bad, that nothing was going right. Despite the vast majority of things still working with breathtaking efficiency and consistency, you would be deluded to imagine that life is primarily an ordeal.”

Remember that negativity bias? That primitive survival mechanism that keeps our energy and attention aimed at what’s not going well rather than what is?

And then he puts forth THE EXPERIMENT. And talks about this word coined by Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow in the 1970’s: PRONOIA.  And Brezny says that Pronoia, is the antidote for paranoia. It’s the understanding that the universe is fundamentally friendly! He says that pronoia is a means of “training your brain–remember neuroplasticity–to perceive the universe as a prodigious miracle created for your amusement and illumination and thriving.” Pronoia. The opposite of paranoia.

Since 2005, I have been working hard at this. And it is one of the most transformative, practical, joyful tools I have in my spiritual toolkit. With people, events, my own failings and fallibilities, disappointments, criticisms, injustices, situations where I feel hurt or worried over, paranoid, defensive…it’s not that these don’t matter, or that I am working to silence them or snuff them out. It’s more that I work to see them as right-sized in this massive, magnificent world and life of blessing. I must stand at a different angle to do this. That’s the practice. The re-wiring of my brain.

A question I often like to ask myself when fear or hopelessness or paranoia sets in is: is this the whole truth? Is this THE truth? Am I sure? And then, could the opposite be true? So often that question, ‘could the opposite be true’, helps me know if it’s the absolute truth or not. And then, zoom way out–these problems of ours can seem SO BIG. Zoom out and ask, what’s going right? How is my life being showered with blessings, not curses?

The remarkable thing is that when we encounter the world as a benevolent conspiracy that might just be working in our favor, we become more compassionate. People who are losing it on the highway, or living their lives out hating people, or just in a constant state of defensive, heightened anxiety–we begin to understand what this is–how unsafe the world feels when we are in this state. And we begin to see each other as human beings just trying to survive.

Time, I say, to start wondering about a new survival mechanism. For I worry about what a constant state of paranoia is doing to us as human beings.

Faith and God; prayer and religion–the spiritual life–as I see it, teaches us about the creative and bountiful beauty and blessed-ness of life and our fellows, says eat of it all and then go be it in the world. Go give the Care Bear Stare! From seed to blossom; from blossom to fruit, like our poet writes. That, my spiritual companions, is what religion, at its best, is for. It is the antidote.

Let’s listen to Dawna Markova’s words again:

I will not die an unlived life 
I will not live in fear 
of falling or catching fire. 
I choose to inhabit my days, 
to allow my living to open me, 
to make me less afraid, 
more accessible, 
to loosen my heart 
until it becomes a wing, 
a torch, a promise. 
I choose to risk my significance; 
to live so that which came to me as seed 
goes to the next as blossom 
and that which came to me as blossom, 
goes on as fruit.

Reverend Sophia Lyons
Website | + posts

Rev. Sophia is committed to radical welcome and spreading the good news that is our bold Unitarian Universalist faith. Some of her areas of interest include interfaith partnerships, addictions ministry, spiritual direction, and working towards collective liberation for all. Rev. Sophia aspires to live her life and fulfill her ministry guided by spiritual seeking, big love, and the seven principles of Unitarian Universalism.

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