Given by Kara O'Neil 24 March, 2019
Today, I will be sharing with you what was intended to be my “contingency sermon,”
…intended to sit on the proverbial shelf, collecting dust, until such a time as I needed to pull it down, dust it off, touch it up a bit, and use it to fill an unintentional void in service.
It wasn’t meant for today,
it was always meant for an unprepared moment, a time when things didn’t go quite as planned.
Rev. Dubow asked me a few weeks ago if I had something on hand should he unexpectedly be unable to attend Service. Maybe, for example, if he were to return later than expected from a TDY. He said to me, that day, “you know, if the plane breaks”. Not being Air Force affiliated, I was taken rather aback by the phrase until he explained to me that this was a fairly common air force phrase which merely meant that sometimes mechanical issues could delay a flight just enough to make one late. It did not mean, as I took it, that he might be worried an airplane would be falling out of the sky.
Two weeks later, an Ethiopian Airlines flight carrying 149 passengers from more than 35 different countries crashed six minutes after take-off, killing every member on board. 19 of those members were UN staff, but many many more were humanitarian workers from around the world. Some of them were my colleagues. Many of them were colleagues of my colleagues. In my field of Social Pedagogy, the news of the crash came in wave after wave of devastation. I was dealing with tragedy both personally and in my professional communities. So, I decided to sit down and make an effort at writing my “contingency sermon” in the hopes of centering and finding some personal purpose in the days following the crash.
Following a rather difficult conversation with a colleague about their own personal loss, I opened a file named KUUF and found the Word.doc on my desktop waiting for a sermon to fill its blank pages. In the wake of tragedy and the mist of sadness, I had forgotten that the doc, made weeks prior, was named, “When the Plane Breaks”. The irony came as cruelty and I felt physical pain as I stared at the screen.
The notes I had written for myself in this Word.doc were:
“How do we prepare for unforeseen events, and how do we center ourselves after they occur?”
“How do we recover when plans fail?”
“How do we maintain spiritual health and mental well-being in times of trouble?”
For a few moments I sat just… sat. It was a while before I could begin to explore what this moment meant for me, personally and spiritually, and how I would share this experience with others.
The simple truth is that we all have sorrows and times of trouble. There is no human on earth who leaves this life unscathed by some moment where things were not right. But as I reflected on those who were lost too soon, I began to think about why some tragedies hit us harder than others.
Why does some pain seem easier to bear?
Why do we lament plane crashes with such ferocity, but are equally able to accept that “expected” death is a natural part of life?
What makes one death feel like more of a loss than another, when, in all reality, we have lost a loved one, regardless of the how?
So, I began to research grief and surprise and Spiritual Resiliency, and in that research, I found something quite interesting about the element of surprise. It seems overwhelmingly true that surprise is, emotionally-speaking, our worst enemy. The act of being surprised intensifies emotions, for better or worse. If we’re surprised with something positive, we’ll feel more intense feelings of happiness or joy than we normally would; if we’re surprised by something negative, our feelings of anger, despair or unhappiness will also intensify.
So, knowing this, “How do we prepare for unforeseen events, and how do we center ourselves after they occur?” Ultimately, it seems that it is not necessarily the loss which strikes us with such force, but the thunderbolt of the unexpected, which amplifies our reactions. And, in fact, whether the surprises we get are something “easy”, - perhaps the result of being given news of an unexpected responsibility with little time to prepare, or the sudden deaths of those we love -our brains react in exactly the same manner.
Tania Luna, the co-author of “Surprise: Embrace the Unpredictable and Engineer the Unexpected” defines surprise as “something unexpected or misexpected”. She has outlined the brain’s “surprise sequence” following a (rather ironically) predictable pattern.
First, of course, is the moment of surprise. This moment actually causes humans to freeze for 1/25th of a second. This can be from a loud noise to unexpected news. It’s a hijacking of our cognitive resources, a brief moment where the brain must re-evaluate what it thought it knew.
Then we move into the “find” stage of surprise. A moment where the mind generates extreme curiosity. It is this moment which causes the “What? How? Why?” reaction that so many of us have in times of surprise. Even in times of great distress, when one would rather not know the answer, sometimes the question pops out. That is, simply, the brain attempting to “find” an answer to help it reorganize information.
The next stage is that of “shift”. It is the moment when our brain changes perspective. It is how we re-evaluate what we know, and what reaction is appropriate to the situation at hand. This process can take fractions of seconds, or days, depending on the nature of the surprise and the effect it has on the brain. Regardless of the “shift” stage, it is the initial effect on the part of our brain called the amygdala which increases our emotions, good or bad, and it is here where we can begin to think about the connection between surprise and preparation, and how we can help ourselves before surprise occurs so we are better prepared to deal with the unexpected.
This is where we get into our fight or flight responses.
Many of us, being affiliated with the military, are quite familiar with the concept of “fight or flight”. We know that in every moment there is a potential to react offensively or defensively.
And we know that those reactions can be trained in humans.
Even those individuals who may always wish to flee can be trained to react offensively first.
So we know, then, that the reaction to surprise is changeable within the human brain.
How, then, do we make that change so that we are able to meet surprise in a healthy manner? What can we do for ourselves to mitigate the internal damage which occurs at the sudden-ness of very bad news? “How do we prepare for unforeseen events, and how do we center ourselves after they occur?” The answer seems to be that we must find ways to work through and prepare our emotions prior to such events.
While it is, of course, impossible to prepare for the unexpected, you can certainly train your mind and emotions to react to negative surprises by teaching yourself how to manage and deal in healthy ways with negative emotions. Certainly, a self-reflection of how we deal personally with what we perceive as negative emotions is in order.
Jessie Dudley, Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Program Manager at the Mental Health Center of Denver, had this to say:
“By allowing yourself to feel everything you need to feel, you learn how to cope and build your toolbox of coping strategies. Then, next time you feel that same feeling, you know what to do and what works for you. You realize the feeling won’t kill you. It doesn’t’ make the sensation any less, but it makes you more aware of how to respond to it.
If you don’t build coping skills, when you feel those emotions, you want to push them away. Emotional avoidance is effective to an extent. Really, everybody tries to avoid feeling badly. But the more you avoid, the less coping skills you’re developing. The less you are able to cope, the more afraid you become of the emotions, which leads to a vicious cycle of pushing them down. In many cases, people may turn to other unhealthy ways to cope, including addictions and substance abuse. Remember this: we are constantly evolving. Your coping skills will evolve and grow too.”
But what does all this have to do with our spirituality? How do we maintain healthy spirits in the midst of extreme sadness?
And this is maybe the most universal question.
Unitarian Universalists celebrate extreme differences in how they experience, produce, and define spirituality. Some find comfort in the words of the Bible while others choose to sing and dance in a dense forest. Some pray while others chant. But the general idea of a healthy soul seems to be nearly universal. It is a feeling of peace and understanding about who we are, and why we are here.
Dan Wakefield, a UU member of King’s Chapel in Boston wrote this about spirituality:
"Spirituality" is a kind of lens through which to enlarge and give clarity and meaning to the chaos of moment-by-moment experience, to make sense of the jumble of the past, and to conceive a future worthy of blood and breath. I think of religion as the particular creed I believe in and through which I relate to God and existence—in my case, Christianity. I think of spirituality as including all religions, a name or label for the whole thrust and impulse of humanity to see beyond its immediate concerns and to act beyond ego, to take part in the painful and glorious process of creation.
At different times I've experienced whatever I think spirituality is in prayer, work, writing, and making love—just as I have experienced all those activities without it too. I have "seen" it exemplified on Boy Scout camping trips, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the loving care of a dental hygienist with an especially antsy patient (me).
"Spirituality" is not misty and ethereal, but funny, tough, and inventive.”
To me, a healthy spirit seems linked with the confidence to move about the world with love and faith. Whether that be faith that everything will work out as it should,
or that everything happens for a reason, or simply faith that you are strong enough to make it through, it is the idea of surrendering a piece of ourselves to that which we cannot control which enables us to grasp our spirit and bring it back when it heads towards the abyss.
I will share with you some word that I personally enjoyed reading, from Wane Arnason, a UU minister in Cleveland, OH, who said:
“As a lifelong UU, I will always be grateful for the theologically diverse congregations I have belonged to, and for the blend of reason, justice seeking, and celebration we bring to religious life. I meet many other Unitarian Universalists who have felt the need for a regular discipline of the spirit. Sometimes that need is fulfilled by opportunities made available within our movement. At other times our members seek teachers and resources that are outside of our community. The blessing that is Unitarian Universalism not only allows, but encourages this search and invites us to bring back home what we learn.”
People find solace in many ways. Some listen to music, some meditate, some volunteer long hours or give their time to causes which give them purpose. But Spiritual Resiliency is about finding that space within yourself where you can find peace and comfort.
Whether you meditate, pray, or simply sit and reflect, it seems that many of the world’s spiritual leaders support quiet time with the self. It is, perhaps, in these moments of silence, that we find and regain the power of our spirit, and, thus, find ways of dealing with surprises, even when they are tragedies nearly too big to comprehend.
And it is necessary that we accept and move past these moments where the plans have failed, because it is in these spaces of need that we find purpose, and because it is that internal fortitude which brings us to center and enables us to continue, strong in our paths.
I am not Catholic, but I often find solace in the well-known prayer of St. Francis of Assisi:
Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love,
Where there is offence, pardon,
Where there is discord, unity,
Where there is doubt, faith,
Where there is error, truth,
Where there is despair, hope,
Where there is sadness, joy,
Where there is darkness, light,
Oh, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek,
To be consoled, as to console,
To be understood as to understand,
To be loved as to love,
For: It is in giving that we receive,
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
It is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
These words are comforting to me because I find that filling the void with works of service has been exceptionally healing. And I think we can all agree that love heals. I don’t pretend to know whether the human spirit is an entity within each of us, a shared energy among us all, or a gift from a Divine Creator. But I believe, very strongly, that the thread that joins us together is love. And that within acts of kindness we can soothe not only our own spirits, but those around us.
We all find our paths and our own methods to heal, when our spirits are bruised. Spiritual Resiliency doesn’t mean never hurting… it simply means finding your way back to the light.
I hope that you find that this space is always a safe space to heal. There is also a plethora of resources online, and there are organizations in most major cities, including surrounding us here in Germany, provided to offer activities or education in ways that we can re-center and learn to deal more effectively with our emotions.
These organizations range from bicycle clubs to yoga studios, and more. Truly, any time spent with the self, preferably in an enjoyable way, can be time used to train the mind toward calm and focus. Of course, if this is, at any time, a task which feels too big, there are always chaplains and/or mental health professionals who are truly there to help.
And you are never alone.
I wish you all love and light as you search for your paths.