“Twin Towers, Empty Spaces” – November 14, 2004
Rev. Andrea Greenwood

Opening Words – Czeslaw Milosz, Theodicy

No, it won’t do, my sweet theologians.
Desire will not save the morality of God.
If he created beings able to choose between good and evil,
And they chose, and the world lies in iniquity,
Nevertheless, there is pain, and the undeserved torture of creatures,…


Story – The Man Who Walked Between the Towers, Mordecai Gerstein

Reading from Jamesland, Michelle Huneven
In this reading, Alice Black is attending Wednesday lectures at her
local Unitarian Universalist church; a new and controversial offering put
into place by an interim minister named Helen, who came in after a much
loved humanist minister who nurtured roses and private meetings with female
parishioners has retired…. Helen is trying to grow the congregation,
reach out into the community, and bring in more spirituality. The speaker
this evening is a therapist “like Helen, in her forties. Jean Trimble had long curly brown hair…. Her deep tan somehow suggested the practice of nudism. She wore a long
crinkled cotton skirt with sandals and had gold bands on several fingers and
toes.

Joy, she said, was rarely free floating. It was tethered to sorrow,
which rarely existed where joy had never dwelt; and vice versa. Joy and
sorrow were the balancing weights in the dance of human emotions. Joy
without sorrow was mania, Jean said, and sorrow without the memory of joy
was depression. “So let’s all remember a few recent joys. Just bring them
to mind. Don’t worry, you won’t have to share them.”…..

“Joy isn’t an individually owned feeling,” Jean continued. “Each drop
of it adds light and loveliness to the world. Now I would like you to
recall a time when you felt joy for someone else’s good fortune.”……
“Even our enemies’ joy should be welcomed. I would like you to remember
a time when somebody you don’t like had an occasion for joy. A situation,
maybe, where you lost out to them. When you didn’t get the job or promotion
or lover of your choice, and someone else did.”

The audience, like Alice herself, was beginning to fidget. She could
practically see arguments forming in thought bubbles above some of the older
folks…. “When we see joy as something we can participate in, despite its
source or its subject, our envy and sense of deprivation diminishes and true
joy takes its place.” Jean paused, and smiled. “And that’s it. There’s
only so much to say about a matter of pure experience. To that end, I
brought some music so we can engage in my favorite joy producing activity:
waltzing.”

WALTZING. Oh, great. Like the lecture hadn’t been corny enough.
“Remember,” Jean said. “Those of you who choose not to dance, or are
unable, can still participate. Joy doesn’t belong to the dancers alone.”
Alice shivered. Why did so many of these evenings degenerate into
hokiness?


Sermon

Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect who created Boston’s
Emerald Necklace, also planned New York City’s Central Park. At the time,
which was before the Civil War; before industrialization; before cars, and
needless to say, before skyscrapers, the need for an empty space was a bit
suspect; especially an empty space which was costing the public a great deal
of money. The island was not particularly developed; there was plenty of
farmland, and the grid system of streets and avenues had barely been laid
out. But Olmsted explained his work to critics and politicians with an
ability to foresee the future that astounds even now. He wrote, in 1857:
“There will come a time when New York will be built up, when all the grading
and filling will be done, and when the picturesquely varied, rocky
formations of the island of Manhattan will have been converted into
foundations for rows of monotonous straight streets, and piles of erect,
angular buildings. There will be no suggestion left of its present varied
surface, with the single exception of the Park. Then the priceless value of
this …ground will be more distinctly perceived, and its adaptability more
fully recognized…. “

Olmsted’s words function like a prism, casting light forward and
backward in time and space, illuminating a reverence for nature, and
implying a human need for something elemental, as well — the rocks and the
irregularity. His description automatically includes a horizon on a human
scale and contrasts it with our vertical strivings, even before we have
achieved them. Somehow, Olmsted knows we will reach up, always and forever
— and that we will find comfort, too, in space that is not built, not
predictable, not angular. His vision of Central Park acknowledges New York
City as expressive of our desire for transcendence, and plans for the
experience of immanence as well. It is reminiscent of 15th century
Florence, a city organized around efforts to build a cathedral taller than
any in the world, with none of the traditional supporting buttresses —
while simultaneously conducting archeological digs to prove that they had
strong ties to all the tree spirits and nature gods of pagan Rome.
Designing these buildings, erecting these structures may well satisfy some
longing, but actually working in them, or in the shadow of such towers, may
not. And so we have the earth, and the Park.
I am using New York in the post 9/11 sense; as emblematic of America
itself. And yet I do not really believe that New York’s role of American
icon has its roots in that tragedy. In many ways, New York has always been
that, with Wall Street and Ellis Island; with the Empire State Building and
the Statue of Liberty; or with Times Square and the Cloisters. People who
are actually from New York often talk about being a little bit estranged
from the “American scene” — New York City welcomes people from all over,
and what they have in common is being from someplace else, but the native
New Yorkers don’t have a “back where I came from” experience to process, an
American heartland to claim. But New York really is expressive of the
American identity, and, because of the attacks on the World Trade Center,
now serves as a touchstone for what it means to be an American in the 21st
century. In this age of politics based on identity, we have in this one
city an easy reference point that is neither red nor blue; an event we can
point to to explain who we are and it is emotionally resonant with everyone:
Vulnerable, angry, grieving, proud, determined, heroic, lost; the center of
everything and ground zero. It is a place which is not there anymore; it is
both the spire into the heavens, and the buried stuff of a lost
civilization. New York captures all of our feelings, even the schizophrenic
ones.

Last week in the Globe there was an interesting article about a women’s
hockey team on which a rabbi plays. It was, in some ways, fluff — a little
oddity to report on, the rabbi mom playing aggressively in this incredibly
violent sport, which not many women play, especially the spiritual ones.
But there was this one line that jumped out at me. The rabbi hockey player
said that the hardest part was the locker room, because she was used to
being able to ask people anything about their lives, and she was used to
being told everything, too. So she knew about the heart attack one player’s
husband had had, and inquired as to how she was doing, and promptly had her
head bitten off: we are here to play and be aggressive, don’t ask me this
stuff. For the rabbi, it was completely possible to be in pain or be
worried while simultaneously trying to slam a puck into a net. She took it
for granted that this was true for others. But it usually is not. People
tend to operate out of grief or out of strength, — to be joyful or
sorrowful — and not live in the space between the two points very often.
Around the time Mark scheduled me to preach this Sunday, I and many
other clergy received a notice of Bipolar Awareness Day. The flier asked us
to address issues of mental health from the pulpit, to try to puncture some
of the secrecy associated with this kind of suffering. People will say to
their minister, rabbi, imam, or priest: “I can confide in you, but no one
else knows.” This has been true in every congregation I have served — not
so much about mental health specifically, but about any area of life where
one may feel vulnerable to shame. In every congregation, there have been
families with a member in jail, and very, very few people knew. Even fewer
acknowledged it. In every congregation, there have been people
hospitalized with mental health problems, with very little awareness or
opportunity to help on the part of others. In a world of managed care and
benefit carve-outs, people do turn to clergy, but it hasn’t been altogether
clear why. Is it confession? Healing? Absolution? Direction? Of course
it is usually all these things: one should feel less alone, less
responsible, have an idea of how to get specific things accomplished, like
paperwork and insurance forms. Meals and rides can be arranged — all sorts
of little things that can make life less overwhelming. But the real
question that drives most people to religion is, why is this happening?
What does this mean?

Sometimes Unitarians are subjected to a kind of ridicule that says we
believe in salvation by education, and today I will lay myself open to that
charge. I maintain that understanding what is wrong, and having others
understand is freeing, and empowering, and in the case of mental illness is
especially appropriate in a church setting. The stigma attached to mental
illness is a religious issue — not only about compassion and respect, but
as a cause. It is the dualistic thinking of Western religion which caused
this stigma in the first place — the idea that the world is divided into
physical and spiritual realities, with one inferior and the other sacred.
Perhaps this division began positively, as a way to give hope and control to
those whose physical existence was in jeopardy. A person may be without
material comfort, and be rich in spirit; rich in love. But this world view
has also made it possible to view mental illness as an issue of insufficient
effort; of moral failure and lack of spirit; of demonic possession.

Believing mental illness to be either a sign of God’s disfavor or a result
of the person’s own failings makes it very easy to cast off our
responsibilities to those who suffer. We can see this in homelessness
statistics (a huge percentage of the homeless have mental illness); in our
jails (take note of how many times the perpetrator of a murder has a mental
problem and has not been able to get any help. Treatment programs are not
funded, psychiatric beds do not exist, and there are no resources available,
but there is always funding for prosecution and incarceration) and in our
insurance policies, which carve out benefits for anything which effects
one’s behavior. The ability to remove one’s head from the rest of the body
is codified into our health care system! One of our tasks, as a religious
people, is to bind body and soul; to recognize that there is only one life,
and it is a physical one. Spirit may infuse that life, animate it, but
there are not two separate lives, and mental illness, like all illness, is
rooted in the body.

What does it mean to be mentally ill? In many ways, it means isolation,
as a person sees and hears things that others do not, and therefore cannot
be shared. It means confusion, as feelings arrive independently of reason:
one can suddenly be trembling in fear or rigid with rage with absolutely no
context. It can mean causing physical pain to alleviate internal anguish,
like van Gogh cutting his ear. It almost always means memory problems. It
can mean struggling to find the energy to get out of bed, and sleepwalking
through the days; and it can mean not being able to sleep for weeks at a
time. “One need not be a chamber to be haunted,” Emily Dickinson wrote —
“one need not be a house. The brain has corridors surpassing material
place.” Internal regulation which we take for granted is missing for many
with brain-based illness, and establishing patterns for sleeping, eating,
even toileting, takes great effort, lots of medicine, and yet those patterns
remain incredibly fragile.

So often in our culture, we emphasize how we are all alike, and usually
what we mean is “on the inside” — in our hearts and minds. We may look
different; be different colors, shapes, sizes, and ages, but we all love,
and feel pain; we all think and hope. But stressing sameness makes it
difficult to explore genuine differences, and almost guarantees that those
whose illness is not visible will be left out; will be left whispering that
“No one knows.” How do you explain that the nature and quality of your
suffering are categorically different from what people mean when they speak
of human pain? This is especially difficult in a theological setting which
worships suffering, while simultaneously defining evil as anything which
causes suffering. Is someone with mental illness chosen by God to live in
anguish? But then, how can God be good and just? We explain it with free
will, and say we all choose, which may make us feel better about the design
of the universe, but has to make a sick person feel even worse: Not only
are you suffering, it is your own choice.

The fact of the matter is, we are not all the same, and the degree of
control we have over our behavior varies not as a matter of will, but of
brain function. In his book Mind Wide Open, Steven Johnson contrasts
panicked activity and calm planning in the midst of chaos, wondering why
some of us respond to stress with fight-or-flight and others with tend-and
befriend. It is not a disinterested question: Johnson’s wife gave birth to
their first child after three months of bedrest, and he wrote that in the
hospital, after the delivery, with the three of them together in the same
room for the first time, he fell asleep realizing how much anxiety he had
been carrying, and how free he now felt. He said he couldn’t wait to wake
up and walk around and experience life without fear. But the next day
turned out to be September 11, 2001.

Johnson remembers the images we have all seen repeatedly now, but what
he can’t forget and can’t understand is his wife’s response. She simply
stays calm and takes care of the baby. She advises everyone to stock up on
bottled water and calls the pediatrician to ask about the air quality. She
understands logically what has happened, but doesn’t experience the shock
and terror everyone else dies. And Johnson later goes on a neorobiological
quest to figure out why.

What he learns is that the chemicals associated with childbirth and
lactation also have a profound effect on emotions associated with strong
social bonding. Mrs. Johnson’s body had a very relaxed circuitry because of
these chemicals, so she watched the planes hit without her stomach clenching
— probably at least partly because what she was really watching was her
son. There is a huge connection between what we see and how we feel;
between vision and chemical response. Gazing at an infant, looking into the
eyes of a human being, releases oxytocin, a chemical which creates the
desire to take care of a vulnerable life. Looking at a force — fire,
hurricanes, gunfire, planes drastically off course — releases adrenalin,
and creates the desire to strike back, or to run away. This information
about how the brain works should help us understand why life is so
complicated and frightening for people who have visual hallucinations:
their brains are constantly releasing chemicals in response to threats that
no one else can see. Knowing that the monster one sees is not real helps
rationally, but does not change the body’s response, so the ill person is
left trying to calmly reason with himself about what is real and what is
perceived, while adrenalin courses through his body, urging him to either
attack or take cover.

While wanting to believe that we all belong and that we are all really
the same underneath it all, most of us also rebel against the idea of our
feelings being so proscribed. Who we love and how we feel — shouldn’t that
be unique, somehow? It can’t just be chemical. Chemistry is part of the
base, physical world; love is — well, love. It is spiritual and pure. But
we may have to content ourselves with the fact that brain chemistry can make
us feel such love, because all the evidence points to human attachment as
just another part of our evolutionary heritage. The capacity to feel love
is biological. Another way to say this is that it is not divine; it is
natural. But we cannot mean natural in the romanticized, magical way that
implies beauty and good. Nature is savage and rough as well. Understanding
this gives us a chance to consciously urge evolution along: let us choose
to remove shame and blame from mental illness, and choose not to be afraid
of those places in the brain that are uncharted, or unfamiliar. Genuinely
doing so can change the landscape; can alter the world.

And so we return to the Park; to Olmsted’s vision of a place that was
unplanned and untamed; to a preserve which was irregular and unpredictable.
It would be a meaningless place without the gridwork of streets and avenues;
without the columns and steeples reaching up and casting shadows. And what
are those towers without the space between? The emptiness is where the
possibilities lie; where cables are thrown to span the distance, like
Phillippe does in the story I read. In the end, hope lies in what we do
more than how we feel, and so we must be people of action. We live in a
world which visually stimulates us to act with aggression, or to withdraw.
What we are shown repeatedly creates fear. But it is our job to develop a
social memory that includes love, too; to make sure that joy and sorrow
remain acquainted. The steps we take not only change the world, but change
how it feels to live in this world. What do those steps look like?
Something as simple as the map called “purple America”, proportionally
mixing red and blue rather than coloring each state one or the other makes a
huge difference in how we see ourselves and in how we react to our
environment. Mordecai Gerstein’s book remembering the building of the World
Trade Center and how Phillippe Petit found freedom in the space between
those towers creates a much more empowering response to loss than repeatedly
showing video footage of the towers falling.

September 11 gave us all a glimpse of what life might feel like every
day to someone whose brain chemistry is atypical. On that day, we all could
see that the veneer of civilization is very, very thin; that it barely
spreads itself over this irrational universe that boils and bubbles
threateningly just under the surface of our days. That morning, the
foundations shook for everyone, throwing us into one anothers’ hands and
hearts, acknowledging that this life — in all of its glory — is also
brutal, and it simply cannot be borne alone.

The human presence is transformative. On this, evolutionary science,
religion, and chemistry all agree. And yet we resist, like the hockey
player pushing away the rabbi as she inquired after her family. If we admit
to vulnerability, we won’t be able to fight; to win. But the truth is, if
we don’t admit to vulnerability, we do not get to live, and we do not learn
to love. American culture is identified with the perpetual frontier; with
pushing forward and being pioneers. In strength, it looks like
self-reliance, and independence. But this pioneering spirit makes us
fragile, too. It degenerates into self-indulgence and greed, and is
accompanied by an exaggerated sense of personal honor which legitimizes
lawlessness. Self interest does not create community, and neither does
shared experience if we don’t bring what is fully human into that
experience. And what is human is not either/or; it is both/and. We need to
keep spanning the distance between opposing feelings; continually bind
ourselves as one; throwing cables out in the darkness so that we can step
out into the world. Perhaps it sounds scary, living on that wire, but that
is what is required of us; to be bridges and connections — not only between
what we each feel on our own, but between each other. Freedom is ours, as
long as we are on that wire.


Closing Words John Donne

And into that gate they shall enter, and in that house they shall dwell,
where there shall be no cloud nor sun, no darkness nor dazzling, but one
equal light,
no noise nor silence, but one equal music,
no fears nor hopes, but one equal possession,
no foes nor friends but one equal communion and identity
no ends nor beginnings, but one equal eternity