Wolverine and Endless Rumination by Rev. Jonathan Rogers

In this series on superheroes and emotional intelligence, today we address Wolverine and endless rumination. Because this is also our high holy days service, it will likely be the only one where we don’t show clips from a superhero movie. We’ll have to make do with a music director who is a Wolverine, and also a dead ringer for Hugh Jackman.

Here is some brief background info about Wolverine, for those of you who, unlike me, spent your teen years being too well-adjusted or attractive to have memorized the powers and backstories of comic book characters. UUCA member Aaron Dill shares the following succinct and poignant analysis: “Wolverine is extremely long-lived and able to heal most wounds. Over the years, he’s gone so far as to reconstitute himself after countless grievous injuries, even including being hit by a nuclear blast.  However, he’s not invulnerable, nor does he have any special immunity to pain.  Although he is able to live through terrible wounds, he still feels the pain of each one. Before deciding whether to help someone or throw himself into a dangerous situation, he has to consider the painful consequences he almost certainly will have to reckon with later. More than other superheroes, Wolverine is prone to periods of hopelessness and brooding. I think consciously, repeatedly throwing himself into the fire, sometimes literally, is one of the causes.

Related, every time he reveals his claws they punch through the skin and muscle of the back of this hands: it literally hurts him to use his powers to help other people.  Granted, he’s usually helping by killing a bunch of folks, but still.” Thank you, Aaron!

In some ways, Wolverine feels like one of the most Unitarian Universalist superheroes. For UUs, and for American UUs in particular, the theme of necessarily causing one’s self pain to exercise your superpower feels apt because it’s frequently painful to exercise our superpower of justice-making. Case in point: Beacon Press, the publishing wing of our Unitarian Universalist Association. It was Beacon Press who published the Pentagon Papers after Daniel Ellsberg leaked copies of them to the New York Times and Washington Post. Ellsberg demanded the Post deliver copies of the documents to Senator Mike Gravel, one of two Unitarian Universalists then serving in the Senate. Dozens of commercial and university publishing houses rejected Gravel’s proposal to publish the Pentagon Papers. According to the Beacon Press website, the other publishers were concerned about “near-guaranteed political persecution and a bleak bottom line.” Despite the political and financial risks, Beacon published the papers and indeed, “the director of the press was subpoenaed to appear at Daniel Ellsberg’s trial, and J. Edgar Hoover approved an FBI subpoena of the entire denomination’s bank records.”

When you know that regardless of if what you are doing is right or wrong that it is going to cause pain, whether the pain of you and your denomination getting subpoenaed or the pain of adamantium claws tearing through the flesh of your hands, it is reasonable and in fact sensible to reflect on whether that pain is worth it. Part of the reason that UUs deliberate with such care and caution before acting collectively is a knowledge and memory of what acting for justice has cost us in the past, even when our cause was just and when it prevailed. In the 1970s it was the Pentagon Papers, in the 2000s it was Julie and Hillary Goodridge, the lead plaintiffs in the landmark case Goodridge v. the Massachusetts Dept. of Health which gained same sex couples the freedom to legally marry in Massachusetts in 2004. For Wolverine, it’s been pain to himself and those he is closest too, that he has had to weigh against doing the right thing. In either case, endless rumination is indeed a potential pitfall folks can fall into.

We recognize doing the right thing is important, even when it is painful. And we can train ourselves to do the right thing even in the face of negative consequences by regularly taking small actions that strengthen us, even as they are difficult or painful to undertake. I mention all of this in a high holy days service because one of the most important themes of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is repentance and atonement, and those are not pain-free processes. It does not matter how big an error you are repenting or who you are seeking atonement with, it’s something we all struggle with and resist internally. That’s why we have ritualized the process and committed ourselves to it over the courses of millennia; it sure is not something most of us would do just on our own as humans. And yet, it is so necessary and central to us being the community and the movement that we as justice-seekers are called to be. Repentance and atonement make us more resilient as individuals, as families, and as a community. And so I encourage us all this week, as the high holy days continue until Saturday evening, to repent and atone, even and especially in difficult cases. Don’t delay, don’t endlessly ruminate. By doing the self work of acknowledgement and apology, you will truly be laying the foundation for the challenging and sometimes painful change-making that lies ahead. Peace, Salaam, Shalom, and may it be so.