16913 Germantown Road
Germantown, Maryland 20875-0320
The Bright Side Of Life
Sermon Date:Sun, 05/29/2011
The Bright Side Of Life
A sermon by Gus Vandermeeren
May 29th, 2011
Sugarloaf Congregation of Unitarian Universalists
Germantown, MD USA
One of my favorite movie endings is the one in the Monty Python comedy "The Life Of Brian". Brian is a likeable, but dim-witted fellow living in Galilee at the time of Christ. The movie follows his life as he unwittingly stumbles into the role of the messiah, gathers disciples, performs "miracles" and gains a following. It ends of course with Brian getting crucified.
In the closing scene the camera focuses on Brian on the cross, talking to the man crucified next to him. Brian gives the man the advice to "Always look on the bright side of life" and starts singing the song by the same name, bopping his head to the rhythm. He's soon joined by his neighbor. Then, as the camera pans out you start to see hills full of crosses, stretching to the horizon, with each cross holding a man bopping his head to the rhythm, everyone joined in singing
Always Look At The Bright Side Of Life
We've probably all heard the expression "Every cloud has a silver lining". Over time I've come to believe it more and more.
My poem "I Danced In The Rain", which we heard earlier, is an example of this. It was inspired by an actual event in which I turned what could be seen as a negative experience, getting totally drenched by a sudden downpour, into a positive thing.
I can hear some of you thinking now... "Sure, but that was a small thing. It was summer, the weather was warm, and you were in no danger or major discomfort. What about the BIG monster clouds, the major crises, heartaches and disasters of life? Where's the silver lining in the loss of a job or home, a painful medical condition, or the death of someone you hold very dear in your heart?"
I'm not yet at the point in my spiritual growth where I can stand here and say this with absolute certianty, but YES, more and more I'm coming to believe that, even those life events that seem devastating, that threaten to crush our physical and/or emotional well-being... even those things have a silver lining.
I've looked back at my life experiences and, when seen in the right way, even those things that seemed "bad" at the time were actually valuable and positive.
My first wife discovered she had Multiple Sclerosis a month after we got married. It was a fast-progressing form of the illness. Thirteen years later she was dead. During those years she and I faced many heartaches and pains, both physical and emotional.
But I would not be who I am today without that experience. It taught me an amazing number of positive lessons. It taught me not to judge people--you never know what they're facing; It made me less arrogant; It strengthened my bond with the rest of humanity, giving me a better understanding of shared powerlessness and the fact that we truly are all in the same boat, facing the same things. It made me more compassionate and accepting of people. It made me grateful for the simple things that my body can do.
I remember, a few years after Patty passed away, I was to referee a soccer game in which there was known to be bad blood between the opponents. I called both teams together and told them something very much like this...
"I want you all to know how incredibly lucky we are to be out here today, on a beautiful sunny day, with a nice breeze, a shining sun, and the beautiful colors of blue sky, green grass and colorful uniforms. And look what I can do (at which point I raised my arm, clenched and opened my hand). Some of you are thinking the referee's gone mad. But let me explain. A few years ago my wife passed away after a long battle with a disease that took everything away from here, eventually leaving her paralyzed. I would have sold everything I had if it could've given back her ability to do even just this (clench and open fist again) so she could hold a cup or brush away a fly.
But today, you and I get to be out here, running and playing in the fresh air on a gorgeous day. So if you see me out there running alongside you and smiling, I hope you'll know why. It's not the winning or losing that's important. It's enjoying every moment of your life. -- let's have a great game"
I think the message got through to enough of the boys. The game was played with intensity, but there was no fighting.
I meant every word of what I said to those boys. Now when I have minor aches and pains, I'm aware that they're just that, minor. It's BECAUSE of Patty's illness that I now appreciate life more.
My experiences have made me a bit more humble. I've often told people that when I left College I thought I was the master of my ship, standing at the wheel, steering it wherever I wanted to go. I now know that I'm just a cork bobbing in the waves, pretty much at the mercy of the winds and waves. But that's OK, I'm learning to really enjoy bobbing! And having gone over some really big waves in the past, I'm less afraid of the ones coming up. I've gained confidence in my ability to weather the Tsunamis that life eventually throws at you.
In reflecting on these things it occurs to me that I don't think I could have learned those valuable lessons in a world where nothing bad every happened to me.
It's a lot like the ancient Chinese principle of Yin and Yang. There's no way for the cork to reach the top of the wave without also dipping down to the bottom. In many ways it's the difficulties in life that enable us to appreciate the rest of life--the things we have, the people in our life, the things that we ARE able to do.
Often, especially when the type of adversity we're facing is huge, it's difficult to see the bright side. It often takes time and reflection before the benefits come into focus. That was certainly the case with Patty's illness. There were certainly times when I experienced fear, anxiety, and self-pity. But, eventually I did come to see it as a very positive experience. I would never wish her pain and suffering on anyone; but for myself I would not trade away that experience for something easier.
It's not that fear, dread and anxiety are necessarily bad. Author and scientist Dan Gilbert has this to say:
You may think that it would be good to feel happy at all times, but we have a word for animals that never feel distress, anxiety, fear, and pain: That word is dinner.
Negative emotions have important roles to play in our lives because when people think about how terribly wrong things might go and find themselves feeling angry or afraid, they take actions to make sure that things go terribly right instead.
Just as we manipulate our children by threatening them with dire consequences, so too do we manipulate ourselves by imagining dire consequences.
Dan Gilbert's Lecture - Feb 2004
Unfortunately, evolution has favored the person who overestimates the negative consequences of an event. The truth is, as long as they don't kill you, things are never as bad as they seem. I'm sure we can all recall times in our lives when, upon experiencing something we dreaded, we learned it wasn't so bad after all.
Science backs up this feeling. Numerous studies have shown that people who have actually experienced an undesireable event tend to rate it less negatively than those who have never faced it.
Evolution has given us fear and anxiety. But it also gave us intelligence and culture. We're capable of learning, not just from our own experiences, but also from those of others. With these tools we can learn to face adversity in calmer and more positive ways.
Dan Gilbert theorizes that evolution also gave us "a psychological immune system to help us feel better about the world in which we find ourselves." At the heart of that system is the ability to synthesize happiness.
He distinguishes between two types of happiness, natural and synthesized. Natural happiness is what we feel when we want something and then get it. Synthesized happiness is what we make when we don't get what we want.
He describes several studies. The first one compares the happiness of wheelchair bound people to those who won the lottery. Surprisingly, both groups rated themselves equally happy.
In another study, people were asked to rank the desireability of 7 paintings. They were then told that they could have either their third or fifth pick. When of course they picked the 3rd, they were then told that they couldn't have that one after all, but they could have the fifth. Much later, they were again asked to rank the same seven pictures. They tended to rank pretty much the same as before, but with one surprising difference. On average the pictures previously ranked 3rd and 5th now switched places.
In the first visit they didn't get what they wanted, but by the second visit something in their brain had increased the happiness associated with that for which they had to settle. According to Gilbert, this ability to synthesize happiness is something evolution gave us to allow us to cope with the fact that, as the Rolling Stones put it "You can't always get what you want".
This subconsciously synthesized happiness appears to be as real as the happiness we get when we do get what we want. The question is, can we synthesize it consciously. In other words, can we actually decide to be happy?
I believe we can; that to a great degree, happiness is a choice. This is something many people have come to believe.
In 1642 Sir Thomas Browne said
"I am the happiest man alive. I have that in me, that can convert poverty to riches, adversity to prosperity. And I am more invulnerable than Achilles. Fortune hath not one place to hit me."
That's a pretty powerful statement. He can convert adversity to prosperity so completely and reliably that he considers himself immune from bad luck.
A similar statement was made by Helen Keller. Born blind, deaf and mute, she certainly has the moral authority to speak on the subject of difficulties:
" Your success and happiness lie in you… Resolve to keep happy, and your joy and you shall form an invincible host against difficulties."
Another quote that appealed to me comes from Norman Vincent Peale:
" Become a possibilitarian. No matter how dark things seem to be... raise your sights and see possibilities--always see them, for they're always there"
It even has a nice ring. We can call ourselves Unitarian Possibilitarians.
A common theme in these quotes is that there's nothing to create. We simply have to see and be aware of what's already there.
· Thomas Browne wrote"I have that in me", not "I must make something in me"
· Helen Keller says that your happiness already "lie(s) in you"
· Mr. Peale tells you that the possibilities are always there, we just need to see them
So, now I know what I have to do. It's really quite simple. All I have to do is "resolve to be happy", "see the possibilities", "focus on the good", "make lemonade when life gives me lemons", "look on the bright side", and "see the silver lining in every cloud".
That's your take home concept for today. And so concludes my sermon...
Not very useful is it? We've all heard these things before. But even if we fully believe them they can be difficult to put into practice.
When it comes to the "look on the bright side" scale, people's innate personalities vary widely, from the "Bah humbug" scrooge who manages to throw a gloomy wet blanket over anything to the perpetually cheerful person without an apparent care in the world, with most of us falling somewhere in between.
The word "innate" comes from the latin word meaning birth. These personality traits do seem to be born into us. I must admit that I envy the people who like my younger brother seem not to have to work at being happy. Is it possible for the great majority of us, those not naturally that way, to become more positive? Or are we doomed to see the world the way our genes direct us to?
I once read a self-help book on how to be happy. It was full of nice quotes and personal anecdotes, all leading to pretty much the same conclusions I've stated today, "have a positive outlook on life and you'll be happier and better able to handle adversity ". By the end of the book I wanted to scream out
The problem with some of these book is that they're written by high energy people who were born looking at the positive. What about those of us who aren't naturally that way?
The main problem that I see is that, no matter how much I agree with something, if I don't recall a value at the moment when I need to apply it, then it's not doing me much good. Yes, I believe that I'm better served by looking at the bright side, but how am I going to remember that when I'm already running late and the traffic light turns red?
I want to leave you with a few ideas that I think can help. Some of these I've been doing for some time, others I've only just started doing or anticipate that doing them will help me. All of them can be applied to any habit or trait that you wish to embed more deeply into your personality.
1. Surround yourself with physical reminders:
· hang up posters with inspiring quotes
· bumper stickers (hey we're UU's... what's another few stickers?)
· subscribe to a daily feed such as favoriteinspirationalquotes.com
2. Reserve just 5 minutes a day to think about just one inspirational quote.
· Try to come up with examples of this idea in action.
· In what situation of the recent past could I have used this?
· Is there any current situation to which I can apply it?
3. Discuss your values with your friends and family.
· By talking about it you re-inforce it in your brain
· By making them aware of the type of person you want to be, you put subtle pressure on yourself to then behave that way.
· Ask them to help you. Ask them to remind of you of the values you want to live by, at the times that you need to remember them. But keep in mind that ultimately the responsibility is yours--you cannot blame them because they didn't remind you.
4. Teach or advocate the value. This sermon is a perfect example. Simply doing it forces me to spend a great deal of time thinking about the concepts, thereby allowing them to get more deeply ingrained in me. In effect I'm also publically stating that this is a value that I'm trying to implement in my life. Public self-labelling can be very useful when it's a positive label.
5. Practice whenever you can. Don't wait until a major life calimity before putting the principle into practice. If the traffic light turns red, use the gift of extra time. Or focus on something beautiful for a small time.
6. Recall adversities of the past. When facing adversity it can help to remember difficulties of the past that you've been able to get past. This can give you confidence in your ability to face the current problem.
7. Which brings me to the thing I've found most useful, something that's becoming more and more a part of my soul. Become aware of the beauty all around you. It truly is everywhere. At first you may have to force yourself, but I can tell you from personal experience that it does become a habit. Why, just look at everything here right now. I won't even mention the obvious things such as the natural beauty that can be seen right outside these windows.
· Look at the wood grain in this podium. Isn't it gorgeous? And the texture... How wonderfully smooth it feels.
· And all the beautiful faces I see as I look out at you.
· And the concrete floor. Take a close look at the marvelous pattern of cracks and subtle color changes. Who would've thought that it could be so beautiful?
· The subtle curves of the lamps,
· The beauty of those colored pebbles in the water,
· The wonder of water itself. How cool and refreshing it looks.
· Even the stink bugs. Like all living creatures they're really quite fascinating.
I could go on and on. I really could. But I think I've made my point. At every moment of our life we're surrounded by beautiful things, sounds, smells, tastes, textures, emotions, people. If you have trouble seeing it, start by focussing on something small... what's pleasing about it? Keep practicing... After a while even the stink bugs look good!
I Dance In The Rain
By Gus Vandermeeren 1999
I run through the forest,
consumed by my cares.
They blind my eyes,
fill my head with despairs.
Dark clouds are looming.
Too late to turn back.
I should've planned better.
Foresight I lack.
The floodgates are opened,
with frightening power.
The torrent unleashed,
for mortals to cower.
A billion liquid hammers,
come crashing to the floor.
The roar is deafening,
and I'm drenched to the core.
I'm soaked to the skin
So why am I laughing?
Why am I skipping?
I dance in the rain,
a madman I'm sure.
I whoop and I holler,
with joy that is pure.
I lie on the boulder
with arms spread wide,
washed clean by this tide.
I dance in the rain,
I twirl in the downpour.
My cares have all vanished,
Despair is no more.