Handling It Better
May Sarton was born in 1912 and died in 1995. She was a poet. She was, by religion (for whatever it matters) a Unitarian Universalist. In correspondence with a colleague who knew her, I mentioned that I remembered well her wonderful presence as she gave the prestigious Ware Lecture at one of our General Assemblies a few years ago. My colleague wrote back to say that she also remembers it well, since she was on her honeymoon at the time – and that was twenty-three years ago! Well, who’s counting?
Sarton was prolific, but perhaps not among the best-known poets. She was better appreciated in her latter years for her poems of simple, everyday life, written from her house in a small town in Maine. Many people remember best her poem, “Now Voyager,” a poem of requiem, a farewell to a passionate soul.
Now voyager, come home, come home to rest,
Here on the long-lost country of earth’s breast
Lay down the fiery vision, and be blest, be blest.
The poem was widely used following the fall of Challenger spacecraft, perhaps for its lines
Here close to earth the deeper pulse is stirred,
Here where no wings rush and no sudden bird,
But only heartbeat upon beat is heard.
The lines that captured me awhile ago and led to this sermon were written in 1973 in her work Journal of a Solitude. She was, at the time, sixty-one years old. She wrote that morning of having had a bad night and of waking to the sight of the sun shining on a vase of daffodils she had set by a window. “And that,” she wrote, “Got me up and going.” She writes, “I asked myself the question, what do you want of your life? And I realized with a start of recognition and terror, exactly what I have – but to be commensurate, to handle it better.”
It’s one of the basic questions some people ask of themselves sooner or later – some sooner, some later, and some too late. “Who am I?” “What’s my life all about?” “What do I want out of my life?” These are not questions with once-and-for-all answers, of course. “What do I want out of my life” is a question that might occur in early years. But the question takes on a different tone in middle years and in later years – if one is willing and able to ask it. Life gets more complicated. The question earlier in life might get a response something like “A good job.” “Plenty of Money.” “Be famous.” But, then, as time goes on, the question changes emphasis; not so much what do I want but, as Sarton put it, what do I want out of my life?
The question can be haunting, like Peggy Lee’s song, “Is that all there is?” Or frightening, as Jack Nicholson says in a movie as he walks through a psychiatrist’s waiting room full of patients, “What if this is as good as it gets?!”
Sarton asks the question and quickly has the answer, “I realized with a start of recognition and terror, exactly what I have” “With a start of recognition” – not after long consideration, not after listing the pros and cons of her life but recognition, seeing her life, as it was, in its wholeness and, for her, in its solitude and recognizing -with a start, – (with surprise?) that what she had in her life was exactly what she wanted.
When I first read the passage, my first thought was, “Well, sure, she’s a little over sixty, she has a lovely old house in Maine. She lived alone but had thousands of readers and many friends. What more could she want anyway? And wouldn’t one have to be at least sixty years old to be able to say that what one has is exactly what one wants?
I don’t doubt for a moment that acceptance of what one has – of where one is, of who one is – is easier, more natural perhaps, in later years; the years psychologist Erik Erikson called “the age of wisdom.” But aging is a process, not a sudden happening; if one achieves wisdom in later years it is because one has been building wisdom throughout a lifetime.
The very core of wisdom is the acceptance of what is, of accepting what one has as what one wants. When one recognizes that acceptance, whether suddenly, with a “start,” as was Sarton’s experience, or slowly, through gradually growing awareness, will be different for each of us. It’s not that “this is as good as it gets,” rather it is that what we have is what is, and acceptance is the rooting place, the place from which we grow in wisdom, whatever our age. Wanting what we have, where we are, is what is called happiness. As a Zen saying puts it, “If enlightenment is not where you are standing, where will you look?”
Sarton says that she wanted what she had “with a start of recognition and terror.” Why terror? Frankly I’m not sure, but, in the days of struggling with her lines, I have a sense of it. Perhaps “terror” is too strong a term. Poetic license? I checked the thesaurus for synonyms for “terror” and, among others, came up with slightly easier terms: “alarm,” “unease,” “anxiety.” But “terror” is her word and I cannot change it to suit myself. So I think of my own life, not her life, which I do not know any more than she herself reveals and have no right to know.
I think of wanting what I have and, yes, the thought of it – the thought of moving toward wanting what I have – leads down the path toward something like terror or, at least, alarm. Among the many gifts I have – a partnership of many years, many friends, to the best of my knowledge very few enemies, a meaningful work – among all that, I have sixty-seven years toward the biblically-allotted time, I have a disease that nags and frequently beats at me, and little more than a year remaining of a long career with much uncertainly and anxiety about what lies beyond it.
What if that is as good as it gets?
But if enlightenment is not where I stand (if enlightenment is not where you and I stand) where shall we look? May Sarton’s lesson is the ageless lesson of Buddha and Christ, of Confucius and of the seers-within of every time and realm, that where we are is the sacred place, the “Kingdom of God” is within us. Enlightenment, happiness, health, wholeness is in wanting what we have.
And the terror? Well the terror lies, surely, in letting go of what we have desired, letting go of what we think we ought to have, letting go of how we strive to be. It occurs to me that we know what we want to get more than we know what we have.
“I asked myself the question ‘what do I want out of my life’ and I realized with a start of recognition exactly what I have but to be commensurate, to handle it all better.” Commensurate. It means “fitting.” “Equal to.” What the poet recognizes is that the core of wisdom, the secret to happiness is in wanting what she has and living in accordance with what she has.
“Handling it better.” Of course, we don’t know how May Sarton might have handled her life better. We’re not supposed to know and we don’t have to know. The true value of a poet’s self-revelation or confession, of any artist’s revelation, is not so much what it tells us about her but of how the insight, the revelation, resonates, strikes the chord, within us. The poet’s self-revelation has value when it raises a question within us about ourselves. “Do we want what we have?” “Are we living commensurate with what we have?” “Could we handle it better?”
I have met a few people who handle what they have extraordinarily well. They lived a life commensurate with what they had. If we think of wanting what we have as accepting – and not merely putting up with – what we have, they handled their lives well. As I think of two or three, they were not easy lives: the outrageous death of a daughter just into college, the sudden onslaught of a terminal cancer, the fading into oblivion of the mind and memory of a near-lifelong partner.
Handling our lives better as they are means not wasting the life we have by wishing it otherwise, damning it as it is, railing against the universe (or God) for how we are placed in it. Whatever the condition of our lives, bitterness, anger, cynicism, resignation – none of this is handling it well. Dylan Thomas notwithstanding, raging against the dying of the light will not make the night surrender and the light victorious. The end will be the same.
Being commensurate, being equal, to the life we have would mean, put simply, making the best of it. Being commensurate would mean, again, not wasting what is, what we have, by smothering our hours in anger, in envy, in bitterness, or in mere resignation.
You can think of many examples of people who have come to want the life they have, doing amazing things with lives some might think all but over. An almost-too-obvious example is Christopher Reeve, the movie superman, man of steel, who became paralyzed from the neck down. And there is Professor Stephen Hawking, the brilliant scientist whose body is almost completely devoured by the disease ALS.
Professor Hawking said recently, “I don’t have time to do the things I can do, so it doesn’t seem important to worry about the things I can’t do.” He said this in a lecture at the Kennedy Center. In the audience, an eleven year old boy who wants to be a physics theorist beamed in joy at his hero’s words. Like his hero, the boy communicates through a pointer and computer. He has cerebral palsy.
Bringing it home: Teri Tomatich is a member of our congregation. The Tomatich’s home burned down a few weeks ago, literally to the ground. Teri wrote to her friends in an email this past week, responding to those who have said they can’t imagine what it is like to suddenly lose your home like that. She compares the experience to having written something important on your computer and, before you have saved the work, the computer crashes and all is lost.
“When that happens to me,” Teri writes
I get this first sense of- NOOOO! Hoping that I really didn’t lose it. Then I get angry that I have to spend time having to write it all again – what a waste of time. I also get a little worried that I won’t be able to recreate it in the same way, that I will forget to add something that was there before. But when I do write it, I see that it comes from within me and the second version often comes out better because I’ve had the “dry run” integrated and my perspective on it is different. OK, now multiply that process in a big old way.
I don’t think anyone could handle the life she has any better.
I can anticipate one of the responses to all this. There’d be a bit of an edge to it and it would go something like this: “I’d like to see you walk a mile in my shoes before you go on to talk about ‘wanting the life you have’ and ‘handling it better.'” In many cases, I know of the life you have and I had you in mind as I wrote. And, as for walking in your shoes: thank you, no, my own are tight enough – which is only to say that our lives cannot be compared in terms of better or worse, more or less tragic or unfulfilled or bitter.
And when I speak of wanting what we have it is not to say that Christopher Reeve or Stephen Hawking want to be paralyzed or that Teri Tomatich is glad her house burned down. I’m not speaking in recommendation of the Christian saint who thanked God for his gift of blindness or of Dickens’ Tiny Tim who said he hoped people saw him in church because his lameness would remind them of who made blind men see and lame men walk.
Giving in to fate or to God’s will – mere resignation – is not enlightenment. There is no where to go from resignation. The lesson is, again, that the ground of enlightenment is allowing oneself to grant that what is is, to move into acceptance, which is to be commensurate, to handle it all better. It is when we have come to terms with our lives as they are that we are able to move on to whatever extent it is possible or, if this is, indeed, as good as it gets then to have the full goodness of it.
If pressed too much, my grandmother was fond of saying, “I’ve only got but two ‘ands, luv.” We only have so much to work with. If we are busy wrestling with what we insist we don’t want we are missing what good there might be and perhaps missing intimations of other paths.
I do not want you to presume that I have achieved that enlightenment that recognizes that what I have is exactly what I want. Sometimes, that teacher is more helpful who speaks more out of the struggle than out of the achievement.
The last time I went to the Tucson mountains I climbed my favorite trail up to a gathering of huge boulders, my “special place,” my “sacred space,” where, for many years, I had sat absorbed into the desert spread out miles and miles before me. This time, the spirit was oh so willing and eager but the body was weak. I could not manage the climb up the smaller rocks to reach the place above. After awhile, my heart pounding and threatening, I could only settle for an easier perch. And there I sat, in tears, feeling the loss to the depths of my soul.
I realized just a short time ago that I have not yet come to terms with those losses. My life is not what it was – and whose is? But I have not yet come to want what I have. What I have come to is the recognition that the fullness of my life and living lies in what I have, in wanting what I have. My happiness will be there. It will not be in recovering what was or achieving what is not yet.
In 1943, the renowned theologian and tireless advocate for social justice, Reinhold Niebuhr, lived and preached in the small town of Heath, Massachusetts. He wrote a prayer for one of his Sunday Services. It came to be known as “The Serenity Prayer.”
You’ll recognize it, of course. I use it to sum up:
God, Grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference.