Great Ideas: Something to Live for, Something to Die for

Something to Live For, Something to Die For
Rev. Anthony David
June 7, 2009

The famously dour writer J. D. Salinger once said, “I am a kind of paranoiac in reverse.  I suspect people of plotting to make me happy.” If this is something you have suspected about UUCA, then you are right!

Meaning within life is our focus this morning: the practical endeavor of living in the world richly, with a sense of something to live for and something to die for. While Rev. Keller has focused on this more generally, my focus will be on exploring our story for today from Paolo Coehlo’s great book, The Alchemist—highlighting the specific wisdom it brings to the art of living.

One insight is this: balance the amazing with the mundane. In the story, the wise man invites the boy to wander around his castle and witness all its wonders. But then he says, “As you wander around, carry this spoon with you without allowing any oil to spill.” At first, the boy overfocuses on the drops of oil and misses out on all the wonders of the castle. Then he overfocuses on the wonders and loses the drops. Neither will do for the wise man. The secret of happiness, he says, “is to see all the marvels of the world, and never to forget the drops of oil on the spoon.”

Perhaps one way of thinking about this balance is in terms of alternation. For me, the drops of oil represent the nitty-gritty of our days: the tasks and responsibilities that keep us busy at work and at home, the established relationships in which our lives are grounded, the habits and patterns which give us comfort and regularity. The drops of oil are all this, as well as the point-of-view that results from one’s attention being narrowly focused on such things. And this is as it should be, says the story. It’s one part of the good life. But don’t get stuck. Make room in your life for the wonders of the wise man’s castle also. At times, expand our perspective into one that’s more us-centered, more community-centered, more cosmic-centered. Do a random act of kindness, expecting nothing in return. Balance times of great busy-ness with times of reflection and retreat. Step back and see your life from the perspective of history. Read a book. Go to a museum. Come to Sunday services here at UUCA. At night when you arrive home, don’t just go straight into the house—pause and look at the stars and feel awe at your existence. Step out of the daily grind and go on vacation. Go on a date with your partner or spouse. Go dancing. Sing Kareoke. See a movie that takes you out of yourself and into the world of possibility. Try something new.

The art of living requires an alternation between these two: the drops of oil on the spoon, and the wonders of the castle. Otherwise, trouble. If we fixate on the daily and weekly tasks and responsibilities without allowing for times of retreat or play, we become unimaginative and dull. Same thing happens if established habit and pattern rule our lives and we never question the sacred cows, never try something new. The air in our balloons leaks out, and we’re sagging. Life’s no fun, because we take ourselves way too seriously. Whereas we may be building up a cathedral brick-by-brick, all we can see is each individual brick, and we are disheartened. Larger wisdom says about every crisis, “This too shall pass. You are not the only one to ever have experienced this. You are not alone. One step at a time.” But if our eyes are fixated just on the drops of oil, we can’t hear that wisdom. We feel alone in every crisis. We make a mountain out of every molehill.

Conversely, if we dwell only within wonder and possibility, then we are flaky. Commitment-phobic. A walking, talking Peter Pan syndrome. Everything has to be made new, which means that we keep wasting energy reinventing the wheel. We love to flit in the midst of other people’s ideas and achievements, but what about our own? Why can’t we be more like them, we say, but then when it is time for us to step up and lead, we say, Not me. “There is a time in every man’s education,” says Emerson, “when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till.” This is what Emerson says, which means that if, indeed, we are stuck in wonder, then we remain abstract in our lives. Because we don’t want to get our hands dirty with details, we end up knowing more about history than making it ourselves, here-and-now. No kernel of nourishing corn comes to us, since the plot of ground which has been given to us to till requires too much discipline, too much hard work.

We’re in trouble, if it’s one or the other and not both. The drops of oil which we carefully carry, and the wonders of the wise man’s castle. Remember both, however—take care of both—and that is the secret of happiness.

It’s a question of balance. The art of living.

But now let’s turn to the other kind of balance that the story points out. It’s subtler than the one we’ve just looked at, but foundational, in fact, to everything else…..

It’s about balancing a desire to experience meaning in life with a capacity for patience. The poet John Keats calls this “negative capability,” which is when, as he puts it, “[a person] is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” Without a burning desire to know, we would never risk putting ourselves in the midst of uncertainties and Mysteries and doubts; but to the degree that our reaching is irritable, meaning evades our grasp. It’s just one of the frustrating and yet delicious paradoxes of the spiritual path.

Desire to know, and yet a capacity for patience. We see this already developed in the boy in the story, even before he encounters the wise man. Clearly he has a great desire to know the secret of happiness, otherwise he would never have left home. And so for forty days he finds himself lost in the desert, wandering, but he doesn’t give up. For two hours, he has to wait his turn to speak to the wise man, but he doesn’t get impatient. When the wise man appears, he has the audacity to say that he doesn’t have time just then to explain the secret of happiness, and then he gives the boy a truly weird assignment: to explore the wonders of his palace while, at the same time, he carries a spoon with mysterious drops of oil in it. But the boy is game: he does it. And then he does it again. And we know that in the end, meaning emerges—but only because the boy has been able to unite his great desire to know with a capacity to trust the process.

It’s a hard balance to strike. The process of our lives can take us into unexpected, strange places. Things happen. And whereas we could be like the boy, just going with the flow, seeing where it takes us, often we demand far more control, and when our circumstances refuse to explain themselves to us—tell us their rhyme and reason—we pitch a fit. I pitch a fit. I just struggle with this at times, and maybe you struggle along with me.

Reminds me of a poem by Billy Collins, called “Introduction to Poetry.” The speaker is clearly a frustrated professor talking about his students, but the speaker could also be God, and the poems referred to our own lives……

I ask them to take a poem?and hold it up to the light?like a color slide??or press an ear against its hive.??I say drop a mouse into a poem?and watch him probe his way out,??or walk inside the poem’s room?and feel the walls for a light switch.??I want them to waterski?across the surface of a poem?waving at the author’s name on the shore.??But all they want to do?is tie the poem to a chair with rope?and torture a confession out of it.??They begin beating it with a hose?to find out what it really means.

How are you interpreting the poem of your life this morning? Are you like the boy in the story—in search of meaning, in a strange place, but able to wait, capable of allowing the meaning to emerge in its own good time? Or are you beating your life up with a hose, trying to torture a confession out of it?

The spiritual way is a paradoxical way. To desire meaning with all your heart, and yet not to reach for it irritably. Trusting that it is there. Loving the questions of life, so that someday, you live right into the answers….

There’s an old Italian joke that writer Elizabeth Gilbert tells about a poor man who goes to church everyday and prays before the statue of a great saint, begging, “Dear saint—please, please, please … give me the grace to win the lottery.” This lament goes on for months. Finally the exasperated statue comes to life, looks down at the begging man and says in weary disgust, “My son—please, please, please … buy a ticket.”

Life stands before us like a big question mark, and at times we can harden our hearts, or our hearts can go faint, because we do not already have an answer in hand. We want the conclusion before we even begin; we want a guarantee up front; we want … a miracle. But what we must do instead is simply buy the ticket. Begin from wherever you are. Take the first step, and then take another. Place yourself in the field of uncertainty, Mystery, and doubt, and do not despair. Allow life to surprise you. Trust. This IS the secret. Right here.