with Rev. Clay Nelson
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Rev. Clay Nelson © 25th March 2018
An occupational hazard of a minister’s vocation is needing to find the grace to be present to others in the midst of their sadness and grief; despair and disappointment. No one calls the minister to ask for a visit when, as Robert Browning wrote, “God is in his heaven, all’s right with the world.” Now I’m not complaining. There is no more sacred trust bestowed than to be invited into someone’s life when they are feeling most vulnerable, most fragile: most mortal. Such moments do not require words of wisdom or even of blessed assurance. Words are optional and, if required at all, the fewer the better. If I’m talking, I’m not listening. What can block my fulfilling my purpose is denying I’ve been or am where they are. Being human, denial is a pretty attractive place to retreat. To avoid going there, I have to be brutally honest with myself if I am going to remain present to those gripped by sorrow. Sometimes, I even succeed.
I was reminded of this last week when I asked the Adult RE group to watch a YouTube video entitled Being Mortal. It is about a doctor’s quest for how to be more helpful to his terminally ill patients and to understand why doctors are so bad at it, including himself. The video is very moving and thought-provoking on many levels, but one thing I took away from it was while we make jokes about doctors being gods in our society we forget they are just as mortal as we. Our jest is in truth a hope that like the gods they can save us from that beyond our control. They are tempted to accept divine elevation; they are trained to fix things, after all. They are not inclined to acknowledge that science and technology and their extensive training can’t stave off death forever, for their patients or for themselves. Every time one of their patients dies, their own mortality is thrust upon them. Better to try one more experimental drug or procedure to keep them alive even if the odds of success are astronomical. If they win the lottery against the angel of death, they can continue to deny that with every tick of the clock, they are dying too.
At this point, you would be understandably justified in asking where the ode to joy promised by the sermon’s title is? In answer, I point to the words often spoken at that time in the service when we share our joys and concerns, “I light this candle as both a joy and a concern.” Our concern is often a sorrow. Our sorrows, born of our mortality, my experience tells me, are the cup that holds our joy. Poets, mystics, and the animators of a Pixar film have had the same insight.
One of America’s poet laureates, Robert Frost, captured the idea in his poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay.” He tells us that “Nature’s first green is gold.” Plants and trees each reveal different shades of green, even from the same leaf. The new leaf is different from the others; for only a short time. It is softer, with a shine like gold. “Nature’s first green is gold.” But gold is the colour of autumn; gold is the colour nature offers as its last colour before the brown of death and winter. Nature’s last colour is gold. Yet Frost tells us, paradoxically, “Nature’s first green is gold, her hardest hue to hold.” A hint of the end is at the cusp of birth. Listen to the entire poem.
Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
This is a delightfully complex and nuanced poem. Rather than a melancholy ode to grief and despair over the momentariness of lustrous beauty, this is a poem about life. The poem explains that in nature the green leaf is the predominant feature for us to notice. The gold is noteworthy, but the green is life.
Then the pattern of the poem continues: The flower is noteworthy, but it is the leaf that is life. Dawn is noteworthy, but day is life. Eden is noteworthy, but grief is life. Robert Frost equates grief with the common green leaf of day.
This is not meant as a melancholy poem, but a full-throated acceptance of life. Grief is life. What an odd sentiment. It is a clever use of a literary device describing the theological concept of Felix Culpa, or “happy fall” or “happy fault.” In catholic tradition it describes The Fall, the ouster from Eden, as having positive outcomes. The concept is paradoxical in nature as it looks at the fortunate consequences of an unfortunate event, which would never have been possible without the unfortunate event in the first place. In his poem, Frost says the same for grief born of our mortality.
Sadly, it is a normal experience in our culture to feel as though you should always be happy and should resist all experiences of grief and sadness. Feeling sad is looked upon as some sort of failing. Sadness is actually a rather useful emotion, rich with potential for personal growth and maturation of the spirit. The same message is offered through the animated movie, Inside Out.
The movie opens with the line “Do you ever look at someone and wonder ‘What is going on inside their head?’” That is the introduction of Joy. Joy is a personification of the emotion inside Riley the protagonist’s head. Soon after we meet Joy something goes wrong: baby Riley starts to cry and we meet Joy’s nemesis: “Hi, I’m sadness.”
The movie imagines that these personified emotions work a console in our heads, pushing buttons, recalling memories, creating our emotional landscape. Joy and Sadness are the two dominant emotions with Fear, Disgust, and Anger playing off them. The tension between the Joy and Sadness is the heart of the movie. Joy believes that Sadness is not a useful emotion. Fear keeps us “safe,” Disgust keeps us “from being poisoned physically or socially,” and Anger “cares deeply about things being fair.”
Joy, the dominant emotion in Riley’s head, does not see what sadness is for. Thus, the movie becomes an extended answer to the question, “Why is there sadness?” That answer is one with the one Rumi, a Sufi mystic, offered in the twelfth century. He, too, personified our emotions. He says being human is like being a guest house, into which you invite your emotions like guests. Like an “emotion party” in your head, Rumi imagines all of these feelings as guests we can welcome in, guests that each have something to offer. Rumi says “Even if they are a crowd of sorrows, who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture, still, treat each guest honourably.”
Rumi has a purpose in his embodiment of emotions that visit us. As visiting guests there is no chance of them being confused with who we are. My guests are not my identity. I am not my anger or my sadness. I can say “I am not my fear; I have fear right now but I am not my fear.” I like that part. And in so doing, I can also see my emotions simply as facts – information about my experiences of the world. My body tells me I am hungry – that is a fact. In a similar fashion, when I am sad – my body is telling me information, it just is a fact. I can’t stop it but I can respond to it.
Each emotion is a fact happening within us. But it has something to offer. In the movie, there is a scene when Joy is trying to help another character cheer up but she can’t do it. She tries tickling her friend, then distracting her friend from his sorrow, then making a game of doing something else. But then Sadness sits down next to the friend and just says stuff like, “You must be really sad.” “That was really important to you.” Joy, meanwhile, is trying to stop Sadness from making their friend even sadder. But what Sadness is really doing is helping the friend acknowledge the fact that he is sad.
Sadness offers us lessons in empathy and compassion. On its own, sadness is an isolating experience. Yet, when we welcome it in and move through it as if it is real and important, eventually sadness becomes a tool of connection. Our sorrows connect us to our joys and that helps us connect to others.
Kahlil Gibran says your joy is your sorrow unmasked. “When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.” In the Pixar movie, Joy and Sadness learn that they are complementary. All of the emotions, really, are born from caring and the deep desires of our lives. Our fears and our anger, our grief – all of it is rooted in the same source as our joy.
“Some of you say, ‘Joy is greater than sorrow,’” Gibran continues, “and others say, ‘Nay, sorrow is the greater.’ But I say unto you, they are inseparable. Together they come, and when one sits alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed.”
In the movie, the personification of Joy constantly tries to keep Sadness at bay. “Here is a chalk circle and your job is to stay inside it and not touch anything!” But by the end, they learn to work together, allowing the person to experience richer, fuller emotions by blending them together.
As we grow and mature, our emotional range expands beyond five possibilities. It is more than just learning degrees of a single emotion, like being piqued versus furious. We learn about how they blend, like Robert Frost’s leaf. The bush around our home is another example. All the shades of green are painted across it. The pōhutukawa, kauri, cabbage trees, kōwhai, rimu, ponga and so many more all contribute to an expanse of green with many different nuances that never fail to draw my eye. And even they are never the same for long, as they change with the direction of the sun’s light throughout the day. So, it is with us. When we welcome and embrace our emotional guests, prepared to honour and learn from them, our lives are enriched just by their presence. The more they make themselves at home the more we become fully alive and connected to all that is around us. It is in our being present to that sense of oneness we discover we are an ode to joy. It is our reward for the occupational hazard of being mortally human.