Living Our OWN Lives

Living our OWN Lives, a sermon on the theme of Courage

Rev. Brian J. Kiely, Unitarian Church of Edmonton, January 17, 2016

Perhaps it’s family expectations or job constraints or the weight of social norms, but some of us bump into roadblocks that keep us feeling like we are leading someone else’s idea of a life, not our own lives. How many of us feel that we get to make all of our life choices freely?  Not too many, right?

I think most of us will acknowledge that there have been at least some times in our lives when we have been constrained, held back, even forbidden from following dreams and living fully and deeply.  And a good many those restrictions and constraints last years, even decades and in some cases, a lifetime.

Sure, no one gets to live wild and free and hedonistically all the time.  Most of us make choices that include accepting obligations.  That’s just part of growing up.  And many of those obligations rest lightly on our shoulders – we accept them willingly.  That’s not the situation I am discussing today.

I think of people who, because of financial needs are trapped doing work they despise.  I think of family members in the so-called ‘sandwich generation’ who, after finally gaining some freedom after raising children, find themselves limited by the increasing needs of aging parents.  And then there are also those trapped in loveless or abusive relationships who simply can’t see a way out.  There are those who for whatever reason, internal or external, labour under the burden of obligation, duty and taking the back seat to the needs of others. They are resigned.

Serving others…That’s one of those “I don’t know if this is a good thing or a bad ting” Buddhist dilemmas.  It can be either, or it can be both.

I am reminded of the classic needs of others story from the Book of Luke.  Jesus comes to visit his friend Lazarus.  Lazarus has two sisters, Martha and Mary.

Mary chooses the ‘Skip the Dishes’ option to listen to the teachings of the Master while Martha works away in the kitchen preparing food for them all.  Martha complains about this to Jesus… “Hey why do I have to do all the work while she gets to hang out with you guys?” or words to that effect.  I don’t think it’s Jesus’ finest moment when he rebukes her by saying that in focusing on food for the soul instead of food for the body Mary has made the wiser choice.  At the very least it’s a good way of ensuring he gets a dinner that’s been dropped on the floor. But then he is allegedly God and has higher concerns in play.

It’s a good illustration though, for it demonstrates some of the tensions we all face.  Martha accepts her role in the family and understands her place is to make sure hospitality is provided in a way appropriate to her culture.  The brief story does not tell us if she’s okay with this most of the time and just bugged today, or if this obligation is a perpetual burden that weighs down her spirit. Either way, on this day, at least, it’s not one that falls lightly on her shoulders.  That’s all we know.

What are Martha’s secret hopes and dreams?  Is she always made angry by her frustrations at the cards life has dealt her?  Is there something she would rather be doing or is she just rubbed by having to do it all alone?  We don’t know, but I bet we all can think of someone we know who would relate to her anger.  It might even be us.

Having to live the storyline that has been imposed on us can be hard on the soul and the psyche. Nothing irritates more deeply than the gnawing feeling that we are unfulfilled, that we are in the wrong place, doing the wrong work.  And perhaps nothing can be sadder than seeing long held dreams fade away.  Singer-songwriter Bruce Springsteen captured the angst in “The River”.  The man in the song can remember his hopes and dreams now dashed by the wear and tear of a family started too young.  The longing for unfulfilled dreams denied can poison our lives with bitterness.  The song captures the feel perfectly:

Now those memories come back to haunt me

They haunt me like a curse

Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true

Or is it something worse

We really don’t know what is in Martha’s heart.  We just learn of a single burst of irritation.  But we all have stories too, and we read this incident through the lens of our own lives.  We ascribe to her our hopes and dreams, our frustrations or our joy at being of service to others.  She is neither hero nor villain except as we choose to make her one.

We know just as little about Mary.  We only know that on this day, she chooses to lay aside her obligations and do something that feels good for her, something that stimulates and enriches her.  Now I know I tend to read this passage and cast Mary into the role of the one who always puts herself first and ignores her duties.  I see her as a kind of selfish person.  In other words I see her as me!  Because I was often accused of being exactly that kind of person when I was growing up.  Perhaps rightly so!

But viewing her that way involves a big assumption.  I have known people who really are trapped in the Cinderella story – the part where she is perpetually at the beck and call of others in the family.  This person is slapped down and criticized anytime they wish to do even one small thing for themselves.  Maybe that’s what’s at play here.  But maybe this day with Jesus is just one small change to Mary’s dutiful daily pattern.

The thing is, this small change can be a threatening thing.

There is a field of study in sociology and psychology called Family Systems Theory.

The key to FST is looking at the family (or any other group, be it workplace team -congregation-  any group of people really…the key is looking at them almost as a biological organism – complex cell.

As the system passes through time, it develops a startling resistance to change.  The individuals in the system change…they grow old and away from positions of authority.  New children and spouses come and go etc.  but the family roles remain mostly static.

Studying generations of behaviours in families, researchers noted a very strong tendency to repeat certain patterns in every generation.  If there was a culture of service to others in one generation, it would likely still be repeated two and three generations later.  If the family had a culture of abuse or violence, that also would be repeated.

And within the family, individuals tended to fall into specific roles either willingly or by assignment.  Perhaps it’s the strong parent and weak parent, a tradition of absentee father, a daughter who is expected to remain at home and care for the elder generations, a golden child who carries the hopes and dreams of the clan on her or his shoulders.  It can be anything, but it is a recognized and oft repeated pattern.

The most important thing the researchers observed – for the purpose of this discourse – was how very hard it was for one member of the family to change their assigned role.  The moment a person steps out of place – wants something different – wants to follow an unapproved dream – they throw the whole system into stress and anxiety.  The person sticking up for their hopes and values -sometimes for their very identity – becomes identified as toxic and is challenged by other family members almost like white blood cells surround, isolate and attack an infection.

Getting back to the title Living your OWN Life, family systems theory suggests that stepping out of your assigned role – ‘coming out’ if you will, claiming your space, is one of the hardest things you will ever do.  And you can expect to be attacked for it.

In the wonderful old football movie Rudy (a true story) a working class kid gets to go to Notre Dame University.  He is verbally and emotionally abused by his parents and siblings for wanting to show off, be better than them.  Really he is attacked for wanting to change his place in the system.  His kind of dream is not celebrated.  It is perceived as an attempt to destroy what has been valued by the rest of the family as ‘the way things are and ought to be’.

I used the term ‘coming out’ earlier.  That can be a great example.  So many LGBTQ people are ostracized and rejected by their families not even for having a dream, for simply asking to be seen for who they are.  It’s tragic.

I know there are people in this congregation who have gone through these very kind of attacks, for many different reasons and in many different situations.

Here’s a small personal example:  I left the Catholic faith of my family very quietly.  But a few years later, when I felt called to become a Unitarian minister I had to tell my mother, brother and sister.  My dad was in the last stages of his life and very devout.  I was attacked.  Most importantly I was told that if I revealed this decision to my father and he died EVER, it would be my fault.  It never occurred to me to do so.  I knew he was relying on his faith in his hard time, but the intensity of their response shocked me.  We have all made peace about it – time can heal a lot, though my sister still refuses to enter a Unitarian church.

I’m sure everyone here has seen something like these examples.  Perhaps you been on the receiving end… or perhaps you have put down another’s dream.  Sticking up for yourself can sometimes feel like jumping into the business end of a game of Whack-a-mole. Wherever you stick your head up, bang, someone is trying to pound you back into place.

In time, the system can learn to adapt to the change, even to accommodate and celebrate it. But one can anticipate a great deal of stress reaction when the change is first proposed.

Maybe Martha’s reaction to Mary was a symptom of stress in the family system.  Mary was at the very least making change.  That might have threatened Martha’s sense of stability and order… or perhaps she was forced to think that she was failing somehow in accepting the life choices handed to her.  Martha may have felt that Mary ‘rising above her station’ was a personal affront.   It was less about this particular incident, but perhaps more a fear that the family would change forevermore and that Martha would be the loser in the story.

So here we are, out of Biblical time and back to today.  Back to you and you and you and you and your individual hopes and dreams.  How do we balance the needs of those we love and respect, balance our sense of obligation and responsibility with our need to live our OWN lives a fully and deeply as we can?

This is complicated.  This is as complicated as it gets.  What do we owe to others?  What do we owe to ourselves? What right do we have to say “No” to those who have loved us?  What right do others have to exploit our weakness and self-doubt in order to keep us in service to them?

Complicated questions.  My answers…MY answers, not yours and not the RIGHT answers will probably offend some of you, affirm others.

It’s a complicated conversation.  And underneath it all lies as our responsive reading suggests, a willingness to risk.  Risk, of course speaks to this theme of courage.

But everything is a risk: (reading #658)

To laugh is to risk appearing the fool.

To cry is to risk appearing sentimental.

To reach out for another is to risk exposing your true self.

To place our ideas – our dreams- before the crowd is to risk loss.

To love is to risk not being loved in return.

To hope is to risk despair.

To try is to risk failure.

To live is to risk dying.

I believe in risk, not just because I am an optimist, but because I have tested the downside of every one of these options.  I’ve been called fool and sentimental.  I have lost face and lost love.  I have tasted despair, however briefly and I accept that I will one day die.

Those things are merely price tags for living the life you want to live.  I believe —- as deeply as I believe anything —- that the alternative – living empty, living afraid, living resigned, living the life someone else demands or expects of you, that is far worse, far more toxic far more spirit-killing.

No one will have every dream come true.  No one really expects every dream to come true, though I am still waiting for my contract offer from the Edmonton Eskimos.

Becoming adults does mean accepting responsibilities and putting some things aside.  That’s okay.  The dreams of youth should be replaced and revised by the dreams of adulthood and the dreams of aging well.

But when the burdens of life imposed upon you become too strong, begin to make you feel ill in your heart or your body, then maybe that BIG RISK doesn’t seem so risky after all.  Sure there will be stormy seas, and maybe where you are going isn’t always clear, but when the time comes to live your own life, as fully and deeply as you can, well the weight of the risk will seem to fall away.

There will be those who will attack you, but remember to look around… for there will be those who will support you and celebrate your courage and bravery for finally choosing to live as YOU.

Wayne Arnason captures that sentiment in his lovely closing words (#698)

Take courage, friends.

The way is often hard, the path is never clear, and the stakes are very high.

Take courage, For deep down, there is another truth: you are not alone.