Wobble, But Don’t Fall Down

Presenter: 
Rev. Megan Foley
Sermon Date: 
Sun, 03/01/2015

To have the chance to commemorate the 1965 March on Selma in the same month as we talk about how to be a people of resilience – that is an interesting opportunity.

We are so lucky to be able to hear from Jim today about that march across Selma’s Edmund Pettus bridge. Jim joined many other UUs in going down to Selma to support the effort there. The fact that two of the three martyrs of that event were UU tells you something about our concern for the cause. As a result of our involvement 50 years ago, there are hundreds of UUs going to Selma again this week to join in the commemoration of the anniversary.

They’re going by train and by bus, prayerfully and hopefully, expecting to celebrate and remember while being fully aware that the work of racial justice is nowhere near yet done. It has progressed, it has changed, but it has not completed. So we celebrate and we hope, this month, as we remember Selma. So much has been done. So much left to do.

I think this is where the issue of resilience merges with the conversation about Selma. Here, our two themes of the day meet up and match. How do we handle the fact that the work is not done, that the work is still two steps forward and then one or even two or sometimes three steps back? How do we keep on moving?

For that matter, what happened to the marchers, 50 years ago, when they got on that bridge and got beaten down, skulls cracked and ribs broken, just for wanting to vote, which was already their right?

The answer is, they went back and tried again. They went home first, and healed up a bit, and gathered reinforcements and friends, and they prayed, and then they went back and marched again, and then it worked.

Resilient.

There’s an interesting piece of research out there about the difference between privileged people and less privileged people when it comes to social justice work. Privileged people – those with more assets, more advantages, more money, more education – they have more power, so it makes sense for them to be active in making the world better for those who are struggling.

But it turns out that privileged people tend to get demoralized very quickly. Privileged people are used to being able to improve things in their world, and when they face problems that aren’t easily improved, they often just give up.

People with less privilege don’t do this as much, it turns out. They don’t have the option of turning inward into their relatively pleasant private lives, ignoring social problems. That’s hard to do when it’s your social problem, affecting your daily life.

Those with less privilege are often more able to stick with the social action, to keep doing the hard work day after day after day. They got knocked down, but they get up again, like that song that I can’t get out of my head this week: I get knocked down, but I get up again, you’re never gonna keep me down, I get knocked down, but I get up again….

Like those Weebles of long ago, those little figures with the round bottoms, people in the middle of trouble may wobble, certainly, but they don’t fall down. They can’t afford to.

Maybe it’s because I am one of these people of great privilege, but I have this natural instinct to think that trouble is to be avoided, and that the world’s goal really should be to eliminate it.

I often think things like that life is already really hard, and we should try not to make it any harder for people if we can avoid it. I use phrases like “Don’t borrow trouble,” meaning, don’t make things difficult earlier than they need to be. I think my instinct - in fact, I think my goal, is to make lives – my own and my family’s and yours – to make lives as smooth as possible, as trouble free as possible, realizing that it never is possible to make a completely trouble free life, of course.

But this month’s theme of Resilience is making me take another look at this way of thinking.

It is impossible to entirely avoid the troubles and pitfalls of living, of course. But those who study resilience tell us that avoiding troubles and pitfalls actually makes us weaker and more vulnerable. Avoidance doesn’t make us safer, it actually threatens us.

It is the practice of learning to deal with trouble that strengthens us, that fortifies us. And we learn to deal with trouble when we have trouble.

Rather than building a glass house in which we can crouch, waiting in fear of falling stones, it’s actually far better for us to get out in the world and let life’s natural pitfalls and misfortune teach us so that we’re safer and stronger and less depressed the next time around. We’ll know we can handle it, whatever it is.

Resilience imparts skills, and self-confidence, and leads us to build support systems, and confers gratitude, and perseverance. Resilience teaches us how to rely on ourselves.

Resilience gives purpose to our lives, and that gives our lives meaning. And how many of us are looking for lives with great meaning? I hope all of us are. But that’s not the same thing as looking for an easy life, even if I forget that at times.

I love how examples of what I want to talk about just cross my path in the weeks before I need to preach. I like to think the universe is watching out for me. So last week, there was an article in the Washington Post about a young man from Gaithersburg named Luis Jovel, Jr. They call him Junior. And when Junior was twelve years old, he got hit by a car and lost the use of his arms and legs. He spent 8 months in the hospital and he now uses a wheelchair and needs an aide to feed him and his mom to dress and bathe him.

This is the sort of situation we who are able bodied feel terrible about. We feel so terrible about the trouble that we sometimes tend to start to try to avoid it, we find ourselves turning away.

That’s actually what first happened to Junior. He was so excited to finally get back to school and home, to his friends and family. His friends – they were in the seventh grade, mind you – his friends were really glad to see him at first.

But soon, as it describes in the article, “it became clear they didn’t know how to be his friends anymore. They didn’t know how to act around their football loving pal who now could barely speak and was constantly accompanied by an aide because he could no longer walk or feed himself.”

Teachers started treating him with kid gloves too, putting him in easy classes, giving him tests that had all the answers on the back. Making it so that things weren’t any harder for him then they already were. Except those efforts to make Junior’s life easy just made things terribly hard, and lonely, and isolating. Junior became determined that the one area where he wouldn’t be left behind anymore was in his academics.

He went to Clarksburg High School, and continued to do well. Things did get easier. He joined sports teams that mixed people with disabilities with those who don’t have disabilities. He met other people who didn’t let their wheelchair get in the way of who they wanted to be.

Junior gained confidence. He started talking more, eating in public with friends even with an aide feeding him. He became a member of the National Honor Society and started to think about being an engineer.

He learned that the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign had a program for students with disabilities that would allow him to live in a dorm and be independent. He got in.

His mom was so worried. He was worried, too. But he went anyway. And now he’s a freshman there, staying up late with friends, taking very tough engineering classes.

I think the most important part of this story is what Junior says about the accident now. Junior says, “I’m not the smartest person, but I work hard…[the accident has] made me better, in every way. I’m more focused now. I know what to do.” He goes on to say, “I’m happy with the way I am, but I always want more…I want to be the best person that I can.”

That’s not how he was before he was injured. The injury, as terrible as it was, it made him into this person.

That’s admirable, but it’s important that you don’t think that Junior Jovel is a special case. That’s the thing about resilience. You wouldn’t wish this situation on your worst enemy, most likely, so how do you credit the fact that this situation has made Junior better in every way, according to him? Does that change the way you think about trouble, the way you think about tragedy? It does for me.

Don’t you live with terrible situations that have also made you better in every way?

Now that you know they have the potential to do so, what needs to happen so that you can grow from your trouble, become resilient, become strong, become free?

One thing they say makes a difference is to have a strong support network of people who can help you through the rough times of life. This network doesn’t only feel better or offer more resources, but it actually affects your biochemistry – the NIH study says, quote, “possibly via [the social support’s] effects on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical system, the noradrenergic system, and central oxytocin pathways.” Social networks change your brain. They make you resilient.

I prefer data gleaned from poetry, so I offer this from the Elders of the Hopi Nation:

Here is a river flowing now very fast.
It is so great and swift that there are those
who will be afraid, who will try
to hold on to the shore.
They are being torn apart and
will suffer greatly.
Know that the river has its destination.
The elders say we must let go of the shore.
Push off into the middle of the river,
and keep our heads above water.
And I say see who is there with you
and celebrate.
At this time in history,
we are to take nothing personally,
least of all ourselves,
for the moment we do,
our spiritual growth and journey come to a halt.
The time of the lone wolf is over.
Gather yourselves.
Banish the word struggle from your attitude
and vocabulary.
All that we do now must be done
in a sacred manner and in celebration.
For we are the ones we have been waiting for.
-- ELDERS OF THE HOPI NATION

Every time you get knocked down, you can get up again. Every time. In fact, that is what life is about and what life is for. Those around you can help you. They can give you the strength to go back to that Edmund Pettus bridge of your own life and try to cross over to get the freedom you deserve.

You will do no-one any good by staying down or staying away. Every time you get back up, you grow stronger. You are the one you have been waiting for. But the time of the lone wolf is over. See who is with you and celebrate.

So may it be. Amen.