Some years ago, seemingly out of the blue, the question, “Do You Like Your Life,” brashly intruded itself into the forefront of my consciousness. This sermon will explore the various angles from which I then approached this question.
Bruce A. Bode, a native of Lynden, Washington, retired in 2018 as the Senior Minister of the Quimper Unitarian Universalist Fellowship (QUUF) in Port Townsend, Washington, after serving the congregation for fourteen years (2004-2018). He is now a Minister Emeritus at QUUF.
Before coming to Port Townsend, Rev. Bode was the Interim Minister of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Texas (2002-2004) and the Hope Unitarian Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma (2001-2002). Prior to that, he served for twenty-two years (1978-2001) as an Associate Minister at the Fountain Street Church, a large, independent, religiously liberal congregation in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
One of his interests has been facilitating study groups in adult religious education on poets such as: Mary Oliver, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Walt Whitman, Robinson Jeffers, Billy Collins, Jane Kenyon, and Gary Snyder.
Bruce is a graduate of Calvin College (1969) and Calvin Theological Seminary (1973) in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He has been married to Flossie Boerema Bode since 1970 and is father to Katie Bode-Lang and Libby Bode, and grandfather to three-year-old Clara Grace Bode-Lang, one of this planet’s loveliest creatures.
“Do You Like Your Life?”
East Shore Unitarian Church
August 25, 2019
Rev. Bruce A. Bode
“Do you like your life?”
This is the simple, straight-forward question that, some years ago, seemingly out of the blue, brashly intruded itself into the forefront of my consciousness. It was like seeing a large billboard alongside the highway with those words emblazoned on it. I thought some attention should be paid, and so I went through an exercise in which I explored that question from a number of different angles. Later that year, I made a major life-change; and, looking back, realized that that question and the accompanying exploration had, perhaps, set the stage for that change.
This morning I invite you to join me on the journey that I took at that time and to ask yourself the question, “Do you like your life?” To explore that question I will take you into and out of eight different, and in each of these eight rooms you will have the chance to ask yourself this question from a different angle or perspective.
Are you up for it? Here we go.
Is this an important question?
Room #1: Do you like your life?
“Do I like my life?” Is this an important question? Is this a fruitful or worthwhile question in terms of finding my way in life? Does it really matter whether or not I like my life? What does liking my life have to do with how I should live my life, or what life asks of me or calls me to do, or of what my responsibility to life should be?
Has my life been given to me so that I should like it? Do I see in any form of nature about me any concern at all with this kind of question? Does the infinite, unoriginated, self-existent, eternally creative power of all life and being care in the least matter whether or not I like my life? Do not I hear a great guffaw of cosmic laughter when I complain: “But I don’t like that”?
Isn’t one required to push through and beyond one’s personal likes and dislikes in life? I mean, if I were guided only by what I thought I liked, would that not lead to a completely self-centered, narcissistic, and inwardly-turned life; and would I not shrink and shrink until I was a little irritating bundle of open nerve-endings festering upon this great earth?
Do your duty to life, take your role in life, carry your weight in life, be a servant of life – this is what matters! And forget the question, “Do I like my life?” It’s a whimpy, whinny, ego-oriented, new-agey, hedonistic question that should not even rank in the hierarchy of questions relating to the values for living. There’s no decent religious philosophy of life that could possible emerge with this question as its starting point. And if you don’t believe me, ask John Calvin, with whose religious philosophy whom I was raised.
I’ve never done a single thing I liked
Let’s try a different room, Room #2: Do you like your life?
Arthur Miller’s play, The Death of A Salesman, is the tragic story of Willy Loman and his family. Willie Loman, who wants so badly to be liked, to fit in, to be somebody in the world; he spends his whole life trying to sell himself and his family.
But behind a little bauble of ornamentation that he endlessly polishes for public display, Willie Loman has nothing to sell and nothing to give … because he’s following only what he imagines others want of him, or for him, or from him. He doesn’t know what he wants or who he is apart from them; he has no independent point of view or sense of interior calling; all he hears and knows are outer voices.
What is it to draw near to the end of a life and have to admit that you’ve never done a single thing in your whole life that you really wanted to do, that your whole life has been based on pleasing others and doing what you thought they liked and wanted of you?
In the play, Willy Loman couldn’t even get so far as to admit that to himself. If he had, there would have been some hope. And then, sadly, when his oldest son, Biff, was close to breaking out of this same prison, Willy did everything in his power to stop the escape … to the point of taking his own life, which, as I recall, was effective in keeping Biff from breaking out and moving forward.
What a frantic, humorless horror of a life it is when you only live what you take to be your duty. You pay, and the world around you pays, for not attending to what you really like … because it takes a tremendous effort to squash desire, to thwart EROS, which is life’s energy in you.
And, of course, you can’t really thwart that energy; it just goes underground. You can feel the molten magma moving beneath the surface, rumbling and threatening. And you can sense the fear behind the front: fear of disapproval, fear of standing out, fear of being found out … which is the discovery that you are essentially hollow inside, just a cardboard cutout of a human being, all exterior and show with no knowledge of who you are, or what is real. or what you love and are attracted to in this world.
So, there’s a little advice in this second room … and the advice is this: To live at least a little of your own life, if not for yourself, then for your children, that they might live theirs … to each day devote at least a little time for yourself and no one else … and to do something that has no other aim than that you take pleasure in it.
Over the years, I’ve officiated at multitudes of memorial services, and I’ve noticed that in remembering people we remember most keenly and with greatest pleasure what it is that they liked to do … not necessarily what they were good at, or what they were respected for, or what brought them success – although often these are related – but what is remembered with most pleasure is what gave them most pleasure.
A path with heart
Room #3: Do you like your life?
How do I put together my experiences from these first two rooms? How do I coordinate my desire to relate to the community of larger life, to contribute to and to serve the greater good, and to attend to the responsibilities and obligations of being a citizen of my society and a citizen of this planet … how do I put this together with my desire to do what I like?
The advice of Joseph Campbell, whom I was privileged to organize lectures for in the early 1980s, is to “follow your bliss.” Through “following your bliss,” Campbell believed, you can most readily and most helpfully serve the world.
So, what is your “bliss”? According to Campbell, it’s that which calls most deeply to you from within:
What is it that you most like to do?
Where do you feel the deep sense of being?
Where are you most at home, most free, most centered, most related, most on track, most deeply happy?
There’s the clue, says Campbell. That’s the creative life-energy stirring within you; that’s the “voice of God,” as it were, calling to you.
Thus, his advice is to move toward that, discover what it is, nurture and develop it, and then try to make your contribution to larger life through that.
“A vital life vitalizes,” he says. Or, again:
Don’t ask yourself what the world needs; ask yourself
what makes you come alive. And then go and do that.
Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.
I want to add that this “bliss” that Campbell is talking about – often misunderstood – is not an “ego-oriented bliss.” It’s not about ease or the easy way. It’s not necessarily what brings you direct comfort. And it’s certainly not about financial security. The “bliss” Campbell is talking about is something deeper than ego-interest … though, hopefully, the ego will be interested enough at some point to pay attention to the deeper “bliss level” of its being.
Bill Moyers, in interviewing Joseph Campbell, once asked him: “What about happiness? If I’m a young person and I want to be happy, what do the myths tell me about happiness?” Campbell answered:
The way to find out about your happiness is to keep your mind on those moments when you feel most happy, when you really are happy – not excited, not just thrilled, but deeply happy. This requires a little bit of self-analysis. What is it that makes you happy? Stay with it, no matter what people tell you. This is what I call “following your bliss.” (The Power of Myth, p. 155)
The hand dealt
Room #4: Do you like your life?
Do you wish sometimes – or often – that you had been dealt a different hand in life? Do you wish that you were prettier, or taller, or smarter, or stronger, or better coordinated, or differently shaped, or born to different parents, or born in a different time or place?
It’s all right to think these thoughts and to fantasize and daydream. Indeed, I think it’s healing to mourn for the road that could not be taken, and to feel sorrow for what isn’t but might have been, and for what once was but is no more.
And yet “comparison-shopping” is not the way to make it when it comes to determining whether or not your life has value and is worth living, or whether or not you can be happy.
As it turns out, the place of meaning is the place where you are, and it has to do with playing the hand that is dealt you to the best of your ability.
Some of you may remember the popular singer and comedian from many years ago, Jimmy Durante, who died in 1980 at the age of 86.
Jimmy Durante had an awful voice: clipped, gravelly, frog-like. And the question was once put to him: “How have you made a singing career with such a voice?”
“Well,” he croaked, “them’s the conditions which prevail.”
In other words, he used what he had … and what a prince he was with that frog-like voice of his.
And when it comes to comparing ourselves with others, which, it seems, is how we live so much of our lives, it may be worth considering that life from the inside may feel and be quite different from what it appears on the outside.
I think sometimes, what if the anxieties and wounds of our interior selves, our souls, would show themselves externally like our physical afflictions do?
What if each emotional injury or soul-wound – each fear, each sorrow, each anxiety, each self-doubt, each self-loathing, each regret – what if each of these would show themselves outwardly as a bodily injury: a welt or bruise or scrap or even the loss of a limb? How differently we would appear to others! And how differently we might treat others!
What interior burdens and heartaches, just in this gathering here today, are carried within and beneath our exterior selves?
A now-deceased colleague, the Rev. Forrest Church, who served for many years as the senior minister of the All Souls Unitarian Church in New York City, began his book, Lifelines, with the account of an anonymous letter that was put one day under his study door. The letter, in part, read:
What is the meaning of adversity? I don’t think I can handle it anymore … I am very tired of this stupid life … I feel absolutely hopeless.
[Signed] A Parishioner.
PS. Yes, I’ve had therapy and medication … but I remain hopeless…. Please help me.
Who was the author of this anonymous letter?
Fearing possible suicide, Forrest, along with his staff, tried to think who might have written this letter. Discreet inquiries were made … but the staff came up with nothing … nothing except the realization that anyone in their congregation might have written that letter. We simply don’t know what hidden struggles go on in the interior places of a human life.
“One day you finally knew what you had to do”
Room #5: Do you like your life?
“Do I like my life?”
“No! No, I don’t like my life! I feel like the world is madly racing toward hell, and I can’t keep up with it. The polar icecaps are melting and I’m just contributing to their demise. I try to avoid saying our current president’s name and yet find myself almost addicted to his most every narcissistic tweet. I’m not taking good care of my body, nor paying adequate attention to my dreams.”
How have you lost your way in life? How are you off the track that you feel you should be on? I assume, I guess, that we are all, always, at least a little bit lost and at least a little off-track.
Whether or not that is so, this is a room for trying to stop the bleeding and for having a hard conversation with yourself. This is a room for recognizing that: “If I keep moving in the direction I’m going, I’ll get to where I’m heading” – and that’s not a place I want to be.
So, this is a room not only for taking inventory of your life but also for taking some action.
What is needed to change your life? Do you know? If you don’t know, then make an effort to find out. Talk to yourself, speak with a friend, visit a therapist.
But if you do know what is needed to change your life, then, for God’s sake, and your own, and the world’s, do it … and do it now, not tomorrow, because it seems that day never comes.
Take a step in the direction that you know you need to be going. Take a step in that direction, even if it be the tiniest, little baby step … even if you just move an inch … even if you can’t see exactly where it will lead you. Take that step, move in that direction, though it require all the courage and strength you can muster just to move that little bit.
This is your life! As far as can be ascertained, you’re not coming this way again … at least not in this form … and not with this consciousness. So live this life … and live it NOW!
Mary Oliver has a marvelous poem, with which some of you may be familiar, about moving out in the direction that you know you need to be going? It’s titled, “The Journey.”
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
their bad advice –
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do —
determined to save
the only life you could save.
(Mary Oliver, “The Journey”)
And yet a word of caution before you leave this room and throw over the life you have built up: before you quit your job, divorce you spouse, leave your partner, sell your house, and move out of country.
Sometimes that imposing Berlin Wall before you is just waiting to come down, and all it takes is a little push at the right place at the appropriate time – the courage to say to your partner, “Do you think we could talk?” or to your boss, “I need to make a shift here,” or boss to employee, “I want you, if you would, to try a little experiment with me.” Sometimes the wall is just waiting to come down.
It suits me just fine
Room #6: Do you like your life?
“Do I like my life?”
“Yes! Yes, I do, I do, I do. My life is so rich, so full of challenge and possibility, so full of beauty; it overwhelms me sometimes. When I was seventeen, I thought, ‘What could it be to live to be twenty-five or even thirty years old?’ I simply couldn’t imagine it. I couldn’t imagine how life could possibly maintain its interest that long? But, now, at age seventy-two, the years keep flying by, and the notion of time itself gets more and more weird. And I can’t imagine that I would ever have seen as much as I have or have experienced as much as I do. My life now is not necessarily what I expected, or what others expected of me; but it suits me, it suits me just fine.”
Poet Jane Kenyon, in one of her remarkable poems, summarized a day in her life this way. The poem is titled “Otherwise.”
I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.
At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.
And Room #7 is the room where things are “otherwise” … because there are times in a life when things are “otherwise” and they will not be different.
There are horrific things in this world – increasingly so, it seems – and there are horrific things in an individual life, horrors beyond words to tell. And this, too, is one of the rooms of reality.
Do you like your life? There are times when it is appropriate to say, “No…no, no, no, no, no, a thousand times, no!!” It’s what needs to be said. And the thing to do is to say it, and to cry out against it.
There are simply times in a life when there is no solution, and there’s nothing that can be done except to say, “No solution” … to hear yourself say it, and for others to hear you say it, so that they can carry the burden along with you. There is a time for this … and, I believe, there is room in this universe for this.
Says poet, Robert Bly: “For the winter dark of late December there is no solution.” (“Eleven O’Clock at Night,” The Man in the Black Coat Turns)
So this seventh room is a room for living without answers … for living with loss … for weeping … for wailing …
… a room for crying out against the powers that be about our the human plight and the burden of self-consciousness …
… or, as the Hebrew psalmist puts it, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me.”
The empty room
And now the final room, Room #8: Do you like your life?
“What? There’s nothing in this final room; it’s empty.”
Yes, that’s right, this final room is empty … and it’s empty because this is a room for you to add whatever you need to add that may not have been covered for you in this exploration of rooms.
And it’s also a room for thinking about which of the other seven rooms you may need to visit again … because I suggest that all of these rooms belong to us at one time or another. But are there any of them that you particularly need to re-visit at this time in your life?
Please don’t be afraid to visit and re-visit these rooms.
Don’t be afraid to look back or to step back in life.
Don’t be afraid to start over.
Don’t be afraid to learn what you think you should have learned years ago.
It’s never too late to grow into yourself … or to expand your horizon … never too late to find a greater depth of meaning and value in life.
And so this final room is a room for imagining your future; it’s a room of future possibility for yourself and your world.
And, indeed, I believe that the creative power of life and being will support you in your efforts that are in direction of an expanded horizon and of the future … for life does not tarry with yesterday but is continually pushing forward.
And as we join in this forward-pushing movement, the life-energy supports us. Strength will be there beyond what we presently know; grace will appear that will surprise us with its solicitude …
… for when all is said and done, I do believe that there is a great grace in this beautiful/terrible world of ours, or, as author Robert Johnson puts it:
We take two steps forward,
and we slide three steps back,
but we get to Heaven anyway,
because we were headed
in the wrong direction to begin with.
There is, finally, only one thing required of us: that is, to take life whole, the sunlight and shadows together; to live the life that is given us with courage and humor and truth.
We have such a little moment out of the vastness of time for all our wondering and loving. Therefore. let there be no half-heartedness; rather, let the soul be ardent in its pain, in its yearning, in its praise.
Then shall peace enfold our days, and glory shall not fade from our lives.