Active Hope: Call to Adventure By Rev Anthony Makar
This has been a tough week. Every week since November two years ago has seemed tough, but this week was something else.
I get Washington Post notifications on my smart phone. They pop up and say things. Friday morning I woke up to this notification: “In the fight over Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation, the only consensus is the that Senate—and the nation—have hit a new low.”
That is truly what we saw this past Thursday, in the events unfolding in Washington before the Senate Judiciary Committee, when Dr. Christine Blasey Ford described her allegation of being sexually assaulted by Supreme Court Justice nominee Brett Kavanaugh.
For so many women around the country, it was an excruciatingly painful ordeal. For every survivor who goes public with their story, there are hundreds of others who never will. Yesterday, Dr. Ford’s voice was the voice of millions. Millions of survivors are remembering their own traumas and how their lives were changed in an instant by male sexual violence.
On Thursday, Acting Associate Minister Taryn Strauss created a vigil space, here in the Treehouse, for folks who needed to step out of isolation and be known and loved. Taryn tells me that two women came to the vigil yesterday who had never come to UUCA before and their rape stories came pouring out of them the second they saw her.
I know that we are a country of due justice, where it’s not fair to be pronounced guilty without due process. The FBI investigation that is underway will help, hopefully, with that. But my main point here is that we cannot allow male discomfort to distract us from the real focus right now, which is how women continue to be treated as second-class citizens by other men and, yes, by some women too.
Imagine what America would do to a female judge who yelled and cried her way through Senate testimony.
That’s the other side of things. How Kavanaugh responded to the allegation, with anger and tears and absolute denial and also conspiracy theory accusations against the Democrats for setting up a so-called “search and destroy mission” via Dr. Ford’s accusations.
What we did not see was thoughtfulness, which is what we want from a Supreme Court judge. Any thoughtful person can put two and two together. It is well known that Kavanaugh was a heavy drinker, and that he bragged about sexual conquests in his yearbook, and that boys of his generation tended to see sexual assaults as mere horseplay. Put two and two together, and it seems reasonable that he did in fact do what Dr. Ford says he did, but he just doesn’t remember. Because he was stone drunk at the time. Because it was just horseplay, just fun that bros have together.
Some kind of fun, right, that ends up being, as Dr. Ford said, “Indelible in the hippocampus.” “Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter and their having fun at my own expense.”
Agh. We could go on and on.
But my Washington Post notifications weren’t done with me yet.
As I was devouring the news about the Supreme Court hearings, another popped up, and it read: “The Trump Administration sees a 7-degree-Fahrenheit rise on global temperatures by 2100.”
Let me ask you, do you know what this means, if true?
Scientists say that if global temperatures rise just FIVE more degrees Fahrenheit, what we will have, in effect, is a totally different planet, with extinction consequences comparable to what happened 65 million years ago when a giant asteroid collided with the earth and wiped out the dinosaurs.
If that’s just FIVE degrees, then what will SEVEN degrees do?
But the Trump administration projection also means this: they are assuming that the planet’s fate is already sealed. That investments in carbon neutral sources of energy are not worth our time and energy. That we should just deregulate everything and allow business to have its complete way.
Ugh. Once again, we could go on and on.
But right now I want to stop and simply ask you a fill-in-the-blank question: “When I consider the state of the world today, I feel…. That’s where you fill in the blank, with a feeling word.
Is it “overwhelmed”?
Is it “discouraged”?
Is it “scared”?
Is it “enraged”?
The Washington Post notifications—the New York Times notifications—the whatever-news-sources-you-read-and-trust notifications: they just keep coming, endlessly.
Scholar and spiritual activist Joanna Macy hits the nail on the head when she says that feelings of uncertainty and despair are the “pivotal psychological reality of our time.” We are all feeling high levels of alarm about the future we are headed into.
And then she says that, as a result, ‘We often hear comments such as ‘Don’t go there, it is too depressing’ and ‘Don’t dwell on the negative.’ “The problem with this approach,” she continues, “is that it closes down our conversations and our thinking. How can we even begin to tackle the mess we’re in if we consider it too depressing to think about? Yet when we do face the mess, when we do let in the dreadful news of multiple tragedies unfolding in our world, it can feel overwhelming. We may wonder whether we can do anything about it anyway.”
This is the pivotal psychological reality of our time.
And there has got to be a better way through.
And that is what our new worship series is all about. The Active Hope way. A better way through the wilderness that we are feeling all around us.
It begins with clarity about that little thing with feathers, as poet Emily Dickinson once described it: hope.
Hope can be passive, in the sense that our preferred outcome is likely to happen, we know that up front, and so we are hopeful, and so we act accordingly.
But then there is another kind of hope, one that is more about our desire for what we want the world to be like, and our acting upon that desire without any up-front guarantees.
Passive hope is about waiting for external agencies to guarantee the result, and only then do we act.
But active hope is that feeling deep within you that you are alive, and that in this particular time and place, the only thing you need to concern yourself with is what you do next. Refusing to prejudge. Not needing to know the effects of your actions up front. Just get out there. Just keep showing up and showing up and showing up no matter what.
It is a practice, this active sort of hope. What is beautiful about Joanna Macy’s work is that she shows us what the parts of the practice are.
And each sermon in this series is going to articulate them.
Starting with, as she puts it, “following the thread of adventure.”
It’s really a way of reframing what’s going on, in the largest sense. Tuning your imagination so you can comprehend the big picture of what’s happening and thus see the details with greater meaningfulness.
I tried to do some of this this past Wednesday, when I was at the State Capitol at a press conference, speaking on behalf of an environmentalist initiative called Stand4Forests, supported by over 250 national organizations, elected officials, and thought leaders from across the country. The essential message is that standing forests are crucial, not only to mitigating the impact of natural disasters, but to reducin the CO2 burden in the atmosphere, protecting diverse habitats, and providing clean water and air.
And what I said, before I got specifically to the part about standing forests, addressed the big picture meaning of the huge crisis that climate change represents for us.
We don’t have to be afraid of crisis. The human species was born out of crisis. We know crisis. Some people, when there’s not enough crisis in their lives, create some just to keep life from getting boring.
There is a reason why every culture on this planet—all places, all times—tells some version of the hero’s journey, which begins in circumstances that are ordinary; and then crisis hits, which is at the same time the call to adventure; and the hero goes, and they encounter dangers and strange things and meet new friends and fight all sorts of monsters; and then they find what they were seeking, a knowledge, a treasure, a changed state of being; and then they return home and nothing is ever the same again.
Crisis is in our bones, and our mythology, which arises out of our deepest instincts, proves it.
Odysseus and his Odyssey
Demeter in search of her daughter Persephone
Arjuna in the chariot with Krishna
Buddha under the bo tree
Frodo on his way to Mordor, ring of power in hand
Celie in The Color Purple, and all she endures
Luke Skywalker against The Empire, and Darth Vader
Harry Potter, Hermoine Granger, and Ron Weasley in the fight against Voldemort
Katniss Everdeen and the Hunger Games
Yesterday and today and forever we will be telling stories like this because we love them, we thrill to them, they feel realer than real to us, and that is because we are no stranger to crisis.
We don’t have to be afraid. We can step towards crisis, rather than away.
We are stronger and braver than we know.
That’s what I said, there at Wednesday’s press conference, and what I was doing was following the thread of adventure. “If you ever feel,” says Joanna Macy, “that the odds are stacked against you and doubt whether you’re up to the challenge, then you join a time-honored tradition of protagonists in this genre. Heroes almost always start out seeming distinctly underpowered.”
But what makes the story, she goes on to say, “is the way the central characters are not put off. Instead, their tale sets them on a quest in search of the allies, tools, and wisdom needed to improve their chances. We can think of ourselves as on a similar journey…”
It is the journey of active hope.
But, now, what are some of the ways we can improve our chances?
For answers, I found myself looking into something that might seem entirely unrelated: video games.
Stay with me here.
What is undeniable is that people love video games. The Entertainment Software Association, an industry coalition, reports that forty-two per cent of Americans play video games for at least three hours every week. Three-quarters of players are adults, and forty-four per cent are female.
Jane McGonigal, a game designer who argues that we can learn strategies from video games to help us in our real-world lives, says that the amount of time people have collectively put into World of Warcraft (a very popular on-line gaming platform) is 5.93 million years, which is roughly the time since our ancestors first stood erect.
And then she says: Imagine if that level of engagement had been turned to real-world problems….
Which is what her book SuperBetter is all about. In the introduction, she shares a personal story of her horrendous case of post-concussion syndrome after hitting her head in 2009. She suffered through near-constant vertigo, headaches, and nausea. She had trouble speaking and remembering names. She was depressed. But determined to recover, she had an aha! moment and tapped into what she knew best—video game design. She renamed herself “Jane the Concussion Slayer,” and she went looking for allies in family and friends, and she also sought out power-ups (or quick actions that make a person feel better and more energized). In short, she tapped into the ancient, archetypal hero myth but gave it up-to-date video design elements. She said, “I felt like I was finally doing something to get better, not just lying around and waiting for my brain to hurry up and heal itself.”
She was practicing active hope, video-game style!
And as we live out active hope journeys together—
… as we witness all the ways that women are treated as second-class citizens—
…as we witness all the ways that people in power are throwing in the towel in the face of climate change—
…as we witness everything that creates anxiety about what our future will be like, and brings us deeply into this pivotal psychological reality of our time—
I want to ask: what will your secret hero identity be? Secret identities, says Jane McGonigal, can remind you daily of the personal strengths you bring to a challenge, or the ones you’re not so good at but you hope to get better at them.
Want to know my secret identity? DO NOT TELL ANYONE
It’s Tortoise Man. Crisis is happening all over, but I’ve got thick skin, and it all just bounces off. My shell is magical, meaning that it can expand to become as large as I want, and I can carry the people and the issues that need carrying forward. I am above all relentless. I may be slow, but I know where I need to go, and just like the song Woyaya, I believe we will get there, heaven knows how we will get there, but we know we will.
What’s your secret hero identity, that will express your active hope?
And then there’s this: power ups. Pac-Man had power pellets, Mario in Donkey Kong had a hammer, and and Link in the Legend of Zelda had fairies. As for what we have in the real world, to stimulate a mood boost, power ups could include: talking with a friend, or playing with your pet, or exercising, or taking a walk, or sending someone a gratitude note, or watching a funny animal video on Youtube.
Yes,even that. Washington Post notifications need to be balanced by funny cat videos on YouTube.
Lots to say about Jane McGonical’s work, but to close, I want to take us back to our video clip from earlier, from one of my all-time favorite adventure movies, “The Princess Bride.” The Peter Falk character is a grandfather who comes to visit his grandson, who is sick and just happens to be playing video games to pass the time. Grandfather brings a book with him, and grandson asks, “Does it have any sports in it?” And grandfather says, “Fencing. Fighting. Torture. Poison. True Love. Hate. Revenge. Giants. Hunters. Bad men. Good men. Beautifulest Ladies. Snakes. Spiders… Pain. Death. Brave men. Cowardly men. Strongest men. Chases. Escapes. Lies. Truths. Passion. Miracles.”
If God exists, and God is anything, God brings life to us in all manner of varied forms just like this, and in the list we need to include climate change, and we need to include mysogyny and sexual abuse, and we need to include everything else, but let us not forget the parts about goodness, and bravery, and truth, and passion, and miracles.
Let us not forget the part about active hope, and how each of us has a secret hero identity to bring to the challenges of life, and maybe all the terrible problems get solved, maybe not, but no one will ever say of us that we stepped back, that we ran away.
They will say of us:
We showed up.
We showed up.
We showed up.