Don’t just do something, sit there.

Our covidArt project. A neighbor in Ithaca proposed the idea that neighbors could create a spontaneous local art gallery on their porches during the period of confinement (a la the musical Porchfest in September). It inspired Samuel and I to create our own little way of sharing a smile with strangers in the front of our house in Colliers Wood. To date we’ve made 15 and given away 11 origami balls.

At the end of our first week of imposed lock-down, the second week of more or less following these guidelines, we’re all feeling a bit unsettled. Not unhappy. But not happy either. It’s hard to put a finger on it. Why does life seem so qualitatively different? I had an ah-ha moment when a neighbor from the Fall Creek Listserv sent around a link to this article in, of all places that I would never had read, the Harvard Business Review. It is entitled “That Discomfort You’re Feeling is Grief,” by Scott Berinato. Berinato quotes grief experts David Kessler and Elizabeth Kubler-Ross who say that there are many different types of grief and what many of us are feeling is in these days of uncertainty is called “anticipatory grief.” Kessler says, “Anticipatory grief is that feeling we get about what the future holds when we’re uncertain. Usually it centers on death. We feel it when someone gets a dire diagnosis or when we have the normal thought that we’ll lose a parent someday. Anticipatory grief is also more broadly imagined futures. There is a storm coming. There’s something bad out there. With a virus, this kind of grief is so confusing for people. Our primitive mind knows something bad is happening, but you can’t see it. This breaks our sense of safety. We’re feeling that loss of safety. I don’t think we’ve collectively lost our sense of general safety like this. Individually or as smaller groups, people have felt this. But all together, this is new. We are grieving on a micro and a macro level.

His advice on how to deal with it? Acknowledge it and let yourself feel the emotions. I lifted the title for this blog post from the title of Reverend Molly Housh Gordon’s sermon at Columbia, Missouri’s UU church on March 8th (the full text is at the end of the post). She speaks eloquently about Kessler’s second piece of advice: let go of the control impulse and just be in the moment whenever possible. She describes how sharing our fears and facing scary situations with a quiet presence is often more powerful than the rushing around trying to “do something.”

“The person in this time of my life (during a health scare) who ministered to me the most, was my best friend Karen, who looked me in the eye and took my hand and said: “I hope this is nothing. But of course it could be something. And if it is, we will face it together. She sat with me at doctor, and when I talked about my fears, she said “Yes, that is scary. We will get through it together.” She couldn’t take away this scare or fix whatever was going wrong with my body, and it was important that she didn’t try. Because that meant that she was willing to sit at the edge and look into the abyss with me, and hold my hand. Her presence reminded me I wasn’t alone. Her absolute faith in my strength lifted me up.

And reading the daily news does feel like looking into the abyss, especially as our country’s democratic institutions are being shredded, the climate crisis will only be worsened by a president who feels he can lift all EPA regulations in one swoop, and who uses the lives of his citizens as political pawns. But here we are at 15 South Gardens, Colliers Wood, and from here the world is as safe as it’s going to get. In fact a lot safer if you’re on a bike. The lack of cars has made biking for exercise a real possibility the past few days. Even our neighborhood, 6 miles from the city center, is usually jam packed with vehicles. This was Tooting High Street yesterday in the middle of Saturday afternoon, usually one of the worst times to drive.

Below is a aerial video taken a few days ago over London.

We’re taking lots of long walks and seeing parts of our neighborhoods that we would never have seen had we not been forced to slow down and appreciate the local. Yes, there are lots of things that we had hoped to do and see that we will not get to on this visit. But we will leave here feeling connected to this place in a way that none of us will ever forget.

When we got back from France we made a “bucket list” of the things we hoped to do before we left London, some things we’d saved to do with visiting family, some just things that would be more fun in the warm spring weather. The only one that seems to matter now is the one that Isaiah added at the bottom on March 16th…

Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There
A Sermon by the Rev. Molly Housh Gordon
Delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Columbia, MO
Sunday, March 8, 2020

Ten years ago, just as I was finishing up my seminary education, I had an experience that I’m sure is familiar to many: a health scare that required tests and a period of waiting to find out if what I was experiencing was nothing, something mild, or something bad.

For me, the result at that time was something mild, but I have journeyed with so many people, over these ten years and before, for whom it has been otherwise. Maybe it has been otherwise for you, or for your dear ones, a truth before which we pause, in grief. This life is so tenuous and beautiful and hard and worthwhile.

Amid our variety of experiences, I imagine many of us could share an experience of waiting for results, stranded in between one understanding of life and the world and another.
It is scary.
Our illusion that our lives and the world are predictable and safe is shattered for a time, and we must consider the universal but often repressed truth that anything could happen and we cannot control it.

When I had this health scare ten years ago, I found that most of my loved ones assured me that I would be fine, and that this would be nothing. I think they needed to believe that for their own sakes, but I didn’t find it comforting, because there was no guarantee that it was true, and because their assurances offered a subtle subtext: that perhaps they would not be prepared to face or handle the alternative.

The person in this time of my life who ministered to me the most, was my best friend Karen, who looked me in the eye and took my hand and said: “I hope this is nothing. But of course it could be something. And if it is, we will face it together.”
She sat with me at doctor, and when I talked about my fears, she said “Yes, that is scary. We will get through it together.”
She couldn’t take away this scare or fix whatever was going wrong with my body, and it was important that she didn’t try. Because that meant that she was willing to sit at the edge and look into the abyss with me, and hold my hand. Her presence reminded me I wasn’t alone. Her absolute faith in my strength lifted me up.
She didn’t particularly do anything, other than be with me. But she offered me a healing
presence. And it was enough.

I was thinking about this experience this week, as we collectively live into a long and
unremitting health scare. Yes, I’m talking about the novel virus Covid-19, and the stark reminder that our interconnection is as threatening as it is beautiful and our bodies are vulnerable to sickness and death, no matter the advances of medical science.

But I’m also talking about the health scare about our democracy and its capacity to function for the good of its people.

I’m also talking about the health scare about our planet and whether we can halt our damage to its capacity to sustain life.

The world is not being very kind right now to all the ways we try to feel in control of our lives. We teeter at the edge of so many abysses in this life, and perhaps more than ever in this time, we need a friend who will just sit with us there, peering over the edge.
And so here we are. Let us sit together.

My dear UU Churchers, this life is so fragile and strong isn’t it? We are so interconnected, and that reality is the source of such comfort and fear. The world could use our healing presence right now. We ourselves, could use a healing presence right now.
The thing about a pandemic is that it brings us face to face with our helplessness more than almost anything else. These days there is a lot in our lives that we can convincingly feel in control of (even if we are not actually in control of it). But we cannot control the invisible movement of this tiny virus.

And we know it. And we fear it. And our fear is a healthy force when it moves us to measured caution, when it helps us protect each other. But there is a spiritual lesson in being unable to escape our helplessness. We get at the heart of what it is to be alive and human and loving the world together, when we are unable to escape our helplessness.

Because the flip side of life’s tenuousness is its preciousness. Life is tender and beautiful because it is contingent. Our lives are rich and precious because we are helpless.
And so this morning, let’s ponder for a time, what it is to be helpless and to stay with our
helplessness, and to survive it and grow.
I am a bit of a recovering control freak, and so I’ve thought a lot about the lessons of being helpless. Here are a few that I’ve learned, though they never stick quite enough for me to avoid having to learn them again.
When we are helpless, we will be afraid. That’s ok. But we are human creatures, so we are likely to feel the urge to do something, anything to get away from that fear. Resist the urge. Fear won’t kill us, but it can kill our compassion. Breathe. Stay with it. Let it move through your body and out again. Fear is only a problem when it pools and stagnates.

When in doubt, slow down. Resisting the urge to just do something will, in the end yield a deeper, more centered doing. If you find yourself rushing around, reacting, sit down for five minutes. Breathe. The next right thing can only become clear if you are paying attention. Pay attention.

Helplessness has two neighbors: frustration on one side and tenderness on the other. When frustration takes over, take a break. Breathe. Walk through the house of helplessness, and you will find tenderness waiting for you out the other side.
We desire to control things out of a feeling of love, but control is the love-killer. Letting go of control, and leaning into helplessness, unleashes and nurtures love.

It is good and right to grieve that we cannot save or heal or fix our loved ones. This is a crappy fact of life. But when we truly engage that grief work and stop showing up to save, we open ourselves to embodying a radical presence that is more healing than any of our fixing attempts could ever have been.

When we lean into our helplessness, letting go of the idea that if only we could do or say just the right thing we could somehow change things, that is exactly when the moment opens to us most fully, and we are able to simply be with what is. This radical acceptance of the moment is exactly what makes our presence healing, because it is also a radical acceptance of our loved one or our self, exactly as they are.

There is no stronger message that you are OK, that you will be OK in a deep way, than the acceptance of a loved one. In The Art of Being a Healing Presence, pastoral counselor Susan Cutshall writes:
“When you practice healing presence, the effect is subtle. You don’t appear to be doing very much, and the other doesn’t necessarily appear to be receiving a great deal. Yet as you stay attuned, something takes place. Maybe you see the other relax a little and breathe more freely. Maybe they open up and speak more honestly. Perhaps they share a feeling, have an insight, lighten a little. You may have little idea of anything changing, yet the other can be shifting profoundly. This movement in others will flow from your caring self-restraint as a helper. You carefully and lovingly contribute less, so that more can take place in them.”

This presence is available to all of us. It is not unique to ministry or chaplaincy, other than that we are trained to seek it out.
One of the times I witnessed it most profoundly was in my time as a chaplain at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. But it wasn’t me providing healing presence. It was the wife and daughter of a man who was dying. It was clear that the time had come. There was nothing left to do, and everyone knew it. So they dimmed the lights, and they put on soft music, and they sat and peered over the edge together, just murmuring soft words of love and release.

To this day I can remember, though not quite describe, the quality of that presence. They were helpless, but not without hope. They were letting everything about the moment move through them, and so doing they created a peace that filled up the room.
I remember thinking, I want to be held like this, when I come to die. I remember thinking, I want to be held like this. Period.
It strikes me as profoundly sad how often we wait until the last moments of someone’s life to stop striving so hard and just be with them. We can do that now. At any moment. We can be rigorously present, with acceptance, to the ones we love and the realities of our own life.

I have often wondered what it would be like to consider our presence to one another in the every day moments of life the way a hospice chaplain might. What if our starting point was always the acceptance that the only, best thing we could give was simply our open and loving presence to the moment at hand?

What would shift in us? What would powerfully change in our world?

I give the last word here to the poet Mark Nepo, who writes in his poem, “Accepting This”
My efforts now turn
from trying to outrun suffering
to accepting love wherever
I can find it.

Stripped of causes and plans
and things to strive for,
I have discovered everything
I could need or ask for
is right here—
in flawed abundance.

We cannot eliminate hunger,
but we can feed each other.
We cannot eliminate loneliness,
but we can hold each other.
We cannot eliminate pain,
but we can live a life
of compassion.

we are small living things
awakened in the stream,
not gods who carve out rivers.

Like human fish,
we are asked to experience
meaning in the life that moves
through the gill of our heart.

There is nothing to do
and nowhere to go.
Accepting this,
we can do everything
and go anywhere.

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