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Life as Quicksand: The More Things Change

by the Rev. Elizabeth A. Lerner
Service at UUCSS on February 15, 2004

I want to talk about changes taking place, transitions, because I know that so many of us have seen great changes in our lives over the course of the past year, and because this congregation has likewise changed and been changed during this time. We are watching snow melt and beginning to long for the new green of spring. We have welcomed new friends, and new members, and new lives, and mourned the loss or suffering of others who enriched and bettered this congregation with their participation and energy and sharing. The larger life of the church has continued to develop, bringing us all the blessings and challenges that go along with being a religious community; one with a deaf access ministry, mission and vision statements, a covenant to finish and right relations still coming into its own among us. Some of us have moved, some have changed jobs, some have been, or still are, struggling with health problems. Some of us have lost family members, some will be gaining new ones soon. Some of us have made changes, some of us have had change imposed upon them. That idea of choosing change, as opposed to being changed, or maybe letting go vs. holding on, is also central to what I want to explore today. To do this, I am going to talk about storage boxes, antiques, antiquities, dogs, and wilderness tips.

Some change comes quickly, some slowly, some is inevitable much as we fight it, some we choose. The only element that seems to pervade almost all change is that it is never easy. For myself, much of the pain of change comes from my struggles between holding on to, and letting go of, what is past. How do we know when and how to do which? This can be a dilemma even about simple material issues: ‘should I keep this or throw it away?’

There is a records storage box in a minister friend's office that is partly responsible for this sermon, not because of what I saw inside, but because of what is outside. It had a large label affixed to the front for the box to be numbered, and then below it read: from:__, thru:__, contents:__, destroy:__. This box has been great food for thought for me. I would love to be able to organize the stuff of my life, and by extension my life itself, so clearly and definitively. Indeed, sometimes I've thought I’d done this, filled my life-boxes and filed them away complete with a destroy date for when whatever’s inside will be utterly useless and unrelated to my current life, but eventually I’ve found I was wrong. Can any of us maintain life-boxes like this? We think we’ve put something away, stored in in the basement or attic of our consciousness, maybe even consigned it to our psychic dump and suddenly there it is, posted upon our emotional refrigerator door, come round full circle. We frequently fail to know where our live boxes are or to anticipate where they will ultimately rest. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose. (Alphonse Karr, 1849)

And then there’s certainly something to be said sometimes for hanging on. With almost any material object you can think of, if you hang onto it long enough, meaning until everyone else has thrown it away as useless and outmoded, and then starts to miss it, you’ve got a valuable antique. (That’s why I will soon begin collecting manual can openers, although the electric one’s break down with such frequency that for all I know everyone else is hanging on to theirs too.) Of course, in the case of antiques, the value comes mostly from the scarcity, rather than the later ‘usefulness’, of the object, but the comparison illuminates the difference; that experiences often have usefulness in terms of what we may remember and learn from them that lasts much longer than most devices.

In Greek mountain villages, which are now mostly inhabited by the elderly and the very traditional, five years after a husband or wife has died, old widows and widowers disinter the bones from their grave in the village cemetary and place them in a box which is usually kept thereafter under their bed. Beyond a certain level of devotion and often a commitment never to marry again, this illustrates a very different vision of life and where its meaning is found and affirmed. It makes an interesting contrast to our tidy, modern culture and our conspicuously limited storage boxes. There’s a lot to be said for both views and ways of living. Greeks struck me as very much more in tune with life and death, and in many ways better able to cope with and accept the vagaries of fate, than many of us in America with all our self-help books and support groups and therapists.

Yet there is no question that having passed through one life transition, Greek villagers never return, and this means the traditional elderly have no connection to youthful exuberance, no hope for vivid lives of their own once they have become parents and then grandparents. In holding onto the past, they lose the future. Selfhood becomes a moot point, almost ridiculous, at that stage. And so we cannot draw a simple conclusion or paradigm for ourselves, from that contrast, neither is more ‘natural’ or more healthy.

I cast around for other examples of dealing with transitions while thinking this sermon through, and when driving around the other day I came upon another one. Dogs, surely often some of nature’s happiest creatures, riding in cars, whether inside or lolling recklessly out the window, almost always push their faces into the wind, and gaze unceasingly forward. You almost never see them looking out the back window, or checking out the traffic or pedestrians beside them, unless the car is stopped somewhere. Are dogs on to something here - something about not being trapped in the past, not spending too much of our time looking back rather than forward? Can we, as responsible adults, do the same? Should we even try? And how can we when dogs are just passengers but we must be drivers, navigators and have change for the tolls besides?

Plus, dogs have no sense of history. There is a marble threshold into the Athenian Agora in Greece with two shallow parallel grooves worn into it. These are the marks of the chariot wheels that drove over it daily almost 2500 years ago. The marks remain, indelibly there, though the drivers who made them died so very long ago. We know and care about what happened then, we are the inheritors of that time and those people in countless ways, and we continue to learn from their inspiration and mistakes just as we learn from our own. Much of what they built or produced is lost to us, but some remains. The people who built those ancient structures built them to last, despite the violently seismic region, and much has. That is important. The people are gone, their buildings are different and wounded, but so much of great worth is left. We, who have come so much later, affirm the priceless value and assert that their buildings, their thought, their laws, and those of other cultures, need only be studied and pondered to be learned from.

Yet, even as we delve into the past, the more we learn, the more we learn we have lost. Despite the feeling of timelessness that pervades parts of Greece, especially amidst ancient ruins, the battered remains of that time are a testament to the perception of G. K. Chesteron who wrote: “All conservatism is based upon the idea that if you leave things alone you leave them as they are. But you do not. If you leave a thing alone you leave it to a torrent of change.” He is right; the fact that we do not choose or initiate the change does not mean change will not come upon us and all that surrounds us eventually, no matter how sturdily built and masterfully crafted the work is, whether it is a temple or one's own life.

It is a continual rediscovery for me that much of life, life itself, is not to be counted on by me or anyone else. Diderot, the 18th c. French philosopher wrote:

"The first vows sworn by two creatures of flesh and blood were made at the foot of a rock that was crumbling to dust; they called as witness to their distance a heaven which never stays the same for one moment; everything within them and aroung them was changing, and they thought their hearts were exempt from vicissitudes. Children!" - Oeuvres Romanesques

We don’t think, every time we get into a car, onto a bike, up a ladder, walk down a street, go exercising, dance, about accident and heart attack statistics. Life would be impossible to live if we did. We make plans for ourselves and with others, and we save and we anticipate and then something changes. Thus we may receive some of our greatest joys, but also our greatest surprises and our deepest grief.

Sometimes, maybe more often than not, change is difficult, not because it is even necessarily unhappy change, but simply because it comes before we are ready. Sometimes the speed is dazzling and it can seem ever more so in our super-swift culture with faxes and modems and microwaves and internet. Everything is speeded up, and so life with it. Alvin Toffler wrote a book about this where he defined the term ‘future shock’ as “... the shattering stress and disorientation that we induce in individuals by subjecting them to too much change in too short a time.” and “the dizzying disorientation brought on by the premature arrival of the future."

This is a sense most of us are familiar with. I have certainly felt it in a daze of happiness and also in a daze of grief. We all do at one time or another. To deal with it well may mean different things to different people. It’s hard, though, at such times not to deal in a way that tries to deny or at least postpone the inevitable while we are unready. Some people plunge right in and wrestle with their dragon. Some refuse to address it, and do something, anything, else to occupy their time and mind. Change can be scary and it can be exhilarating. But of course the one thing it cannot be is denied.

This is where the quicksand comes in. Being suddenly confronted by change or transitions can feel like having stepped into quicksand. One moment you’re walking along, minding your own business, enough on your plate as it is, and suddenly you’re up to your knees in something thick and threatening; it may be bottomless and it’s sucking you down. I read, a long time ago, about how to make it out of quicksand, and it made a lasting impression on me, because the only way to make it out, if you are alone, is so ironic and frightening. You must throw yourself down and immerse yourself in it. I imagine this must take tremendous courage; it's pulling your body down anyway, but you need to disperse your body weight more evenly. Then you have to try to swim through it. It's not like water, and the action doesn't flow, and it doesn't feel good, it's gritty and grim and exhausting, and it's the only thing you can do to get yourself up on dry land again. (Though yelling for help is also always to be a good idea.)

This is a faith issue. Change in our lives, whenever it is such a sinking struggle for us, is a challenge to our spiritual selves every time. If we feel ourselves being pulled down we need to ask ourselves what is it we are sinking into. If we find it is a kind of quicksand, be it fear or despair or whatever, we may find that the casting of ourselves down into it and swimming, the struggle itself, is part of the answer. At the very least it takes us away from the place where we’re sinking, and closer to dry land. In our lives, maybe the hardest part is our resigning ourselves, our accepting, perhaps our embracing, change, but if we can accept it and begin to weave this new pattern into the old, we continue to affirm and uphold the meaning we find in the experience of living.

The nature of life is change; the world is in a constant state of flux; what goes around comes around, and there will be an end to good times and an end to bad times, and more good will come, and more bad, and much of both will be unforeseen by us, however much we worry or ponder or plan. Helen Keller once said "When one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one which has been opened for us".

It is important for us to look around us at all our doors, and perhaps trust that we are not randomly walking back and forth through them like a Three Stooges routine, but finding our way through a maze we did not construct and cannot always anticipate, one with a creative power for good at its core. We may walk or dance into the present; we may have to swim there; but I would differ with Gertrude Stein: there is a There, there. We come closer to it throughout the journey of our lives. We may draw strength and courage for it, and share our joys and grief in it, with each other.

For everything its season, and for every activity under heaven its time:
a time to be born and a time to die
a time to plant and a time to uproot
a time to kill and a time to heal
a time to break down and a time to build up
a time to weep and a time to laugh
a time for mourning and a time for dancing
a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them
a time to embrace and a time to abstain from embracing
a time to seek and a time to lose
a time to keep and a time to discard
a time to tear and a time to mend
a time for silence and a time for speech
a time to love and a time to hate
a time for war and a time for peace.

As we close the winter season and note the changes around us and in us, may we share these with each other and walk together to where we are going. Amen.