No one’s life is a cakewalk, whatever it may look like from outside. Some strategies for coping with impediments along life’s way to fulfillment.
“Roadblocks, Detours, and Setbacks On the Road to One’s Dreams”
This morning’s sermon was written was initially written at the request of one of a former church member, Valerie Adams, who made a winning service auction bid and asked me to preach on: roadblocks, detours, and setbacks on the road to one’s dreams. “What do you do,” Valerie asked me, “when you meet with obstacles that prevent you from accomplishing your hoped for plans?” Valerie died half a year ago, following a remarkable life of dedication and service. Born on the First Nations Lil’wat Reserve, Mt. Currie Band, about 300 miles due north of here, Valerie went from foster care to singing prfessionally to working her way through college, being elected to Phi Beta Kappa, working for the Los Alamos National Laboratory, nurturuing a extraordinary family, and being among the most generative and truly universalist souls I have ever known. I pulled this sermon out of a barrel, as they say, consulted a few updated sources, and offer it in honor of Valerie Rose Adams.
Thinking about Val’s question I had some ideas of my own, but I also resolved to ask others, people I know and admire, what they did under similar circumstances. Like a lot of people—most people I suspect—I’m a dialectical thinker. By which I mean, I think best when in dialogue with others. Considering what others have to say about a given issue helps me refine my own ideas, and more often than not, making me consider the issue from another’s perspective gives me greater insight and perspective.
Roadblocks, detours, and setbacks, of course, are familiar to all of us. No one’s life is a cakewalk, whatever it may look like from outside. As my favorite grandmother used to say, “It’s never easy.” Meaning, life is filled with difficulties. As Zorba the Greek puts it in Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel of the same name: “Problems? Life is problems. Only the dead have no problems.” The key is how we deal with them.
At General Assembly last June in Spokane I spoke with several delegates. One of the first people I asked was Suzanne, a remarkably upbeat and resourceful church leader I’d known in Santa Monica. “Make friends.” she said, “And ask for help. Many setbacks are the result of false assumptions we’ve made,” she went on, “or unrealistic expectations. If I can keep my eyes on the ultimate goal while dispensing with false expectations, setbacks often turn out to be blessings in disguise.”
Suzanne’s remarks reminded me of an excellent little book I read a few of years ago, The Four Agreements by the Mexican author Don Miguel Ruiz. One of our most common mistakes, writes Ruiz, is making false assumptions and expectations, especially about timing. Achieving our goals, if we’re clear with ourselves and with others about what we truly want, is possible. But what’s possible in the fullness of time may not be possible today, or even tomorrow. Ruiz was trained as a medical doctor, but also comes out of the traditional Toltec practices and spiritual wisdom of his native Mexico.
The need to overcome any number of obstacles on the path of life was understood by ancient people everywhere, and all the world’s wisdom traditions speak to it. One of the oldest books in the world, the Chinese I Ching, was first written down about 1200 BCE. Its purpose was one of oracular divination and it was used in the courts of ancient China whenever very important decisions had to be made. Not unlike the soothsayers of ancient Greece who consulted the oracle at Delphi or astrological signs, the Chinese have for millennia consulted the I Ching whenever they needed to get a reading on the current situation. The Ching is also used whenever important personal decisions have to be made, such as whether it’s a propitious time to have a baby, or to plant one’s crops. Subtitled the Book of Changes, the I Ching has been commented upon, and used, by virtually all subsequent Chinese philosophers, down to and including Mao Zedong.
Here’s how the I Ching works: you ask a question by meditating on it as you go through a lengthy ritual of separating and counting yarrow stalks. Or casting coins. Either way, the results lead the questioner to one of sixty-fou hexagrams, each one a different combination of six lines, some of which are yin (female) and some of which are yang (male). All the dynamical situations in life are reflected within its sixty-four hexagrams, far more in fact, when one considers the many different ways each hexagram can be ordered internally. One of them, Chien [#39], speaks directly to this situation of being blocked. “Here the individual is confronted by obstacles that cannot be easily overcome directly,” one reads: the very definition of a detour.
In such a situation it is wise to pause in view of the danger and retreat. However, this is merely a preparation for overcoming the obstructions. One must join forces with friends of like mind and put oneself under the leadership of a person equal to the situation. Then one will succeed in removing the obstacles.
Suzanne’s prescription holds up: ask for help. The key to such a dilemma, we read in the Book of Changes, is seeking the counsel of someone who has wisdom—and who can help you see around the roadblock with your ultimate objective still in mind. This requires not only good counsel, but also will and self-review. “An obstruction that lasts only for a time is useful for self-development,” continues the Ching. “This is the value of adversity.”
I remember asking my late best friend Marcus Hanna, a successful businessman back in Ohio, what he did when confronted with roadblocks or detours (like when the serious automobile accident he suffered in early 70’s had him in traction for months and laid him up for almost a year, or a series of business reversals he went through in the early 90’s). “You got to keep on going,” he replied, “even if it means riding the bus. In fact, the bus is often fun. And helpful. You’ll see things and people on the bus that make you think, often in new and creative ways. By the time you get where you’re going you’ll have had time to reconsider your whole strategy. Quite likely for the better.”
Marcus’s point is well taken. Detours are frequently the best part of the trip. When we’re thrown off our planned trajectory is when we’re most likely to pause and look around. For three years I served a little Unitarian church on Martha’s Vineyard Island. One had to take a ferry to and from the mainland, but sometime—especially in wintertime—high seas would shut the boats down. Invariably people would go nuts—“You can’t cancel this launch! I have a reservation!”—they’d cry. But the locals knew better; there was nothing to do but wait. Read a book. Enjoy the blustery wind. Chill out…and wait till it’s over, using the time as the gift it is: ‘free’ time, in a world with far too little.
My colleague Bryan Jessup, retired as Minister of the UU church in Eureka, California, but we’ve stayed in touch since seminary. One of the things I love about Bryan is his sense of humor—humor often laced with the salty wisdom of one raised on a farm that went on to graduate from Stanford University.
“When faced with adversity,” he says, “detour #1 is typically the corner cantina. After a few beers comes the roadblock: in front of the men’s room door. And then comes the setback, when I go and set back down.” He went on, in an only slightly more serious vein.
“(A),” he said, “I bash my head against the wall. After I’ve done that for a while until it’s out of my system I
(B) lighten up, by remembering
(C) to let God be God, and let Bryan be Bryan. Then
(D) I have a beer. And
(E) adjust my underwear for comfort.” Sounds silly, but there’s a lot of wisdom, it seems to me, in Bryan’s formula. Whenever roadblocks or detours stymie us we’re bound to be upset—at first. How can this happen? we holler. This is not what I planned! Clearly not; and yet what is, is. And we must deal with it somehow, or go insane. There are forces in the universe beyond our control and learning to accept that is the beginning, it seems to me, of wisdom. As the 12-step serenity prayer (written by Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr) puts it: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.” Once you’ve adjusted your attitude: relax, get comfortable, and begin again the long, focused process of achieving your goals.
Difficulties and obstructions throw a person back upon themselves. It’s easy—and tempting—to blame others for the setbacks we encounter. And while some setbacks are due to external forces, the I Ching suggests clearly that one’s first consideration, when dealing with any obstacle, is to look within and engage in self-appraisal: “While the inferior person seeks to put the blame on other persons, bewailing his fate, the superior person seeks the error within himself, and through this introspection the external obstacle becomes for him an occasion for enrichment and education.”
In his efforts to build an anti-colonial movement, Mohandas Gandhi engaged many dozens of students, teaching them his theories on non-violent political revolution. Whenever one of them failed, the Mahatma responded by withdrawing himself and trying to resolve within his own heart what he had done wrong as a teacher, such that his student hadn’t succeeded. This is the value of adversity: it gives us the time and opportunity for self-development.
But the serenity prayer doesn’t stop with insight, and neither does the Ching. Discriminating what’s possible from what’s not requires wisdom, which is why the Chinese Book of Changes urges seeking the advise of a thoughtful friend and counselor: “one must join forces with friends of like mind,” urges the oracle, “and put oneself under the leadership of a person equal to the situation. Then one will succeed in removing obstacles.” Suzanne Zilke’s strategy of seeking friends and asking for help is the beginning. Introspective self-appraisal is also important. But getting past life’s roadblocks, detours, and setbacks requires a third component, what the Ching calls “unswerving inner purpose.”
This will to persevere, despite setbacks, is the final element required, it seems to me, to get past roadblocks and meet our goals. Keeping your eyes on the prize. And keepin’ on keepin’ on.
“Do not let the fact that things are not made for you, that conditions are not as they should be, stop you. Go on anyway. Everything depends on those who go on anyway,” wrote the early 20th century American artist Robert Henri. A contemporary of his, President Calvin Coolidge, with his typical Yankee resolve, put it this way:
Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan “Press on” has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.
Chief Eaglefeather was the co-founder of New York City’s Guardian Angels. He’s of mixed Native- and African-American descent and, in recent years, has led workshops and seminars on achieving one’s goals for many of our country’s—and the world’s—leading corporations. One of his mantras is easy to remember and helpful to keep in mind:
If you can conceive it
and you can believe it
you can achieve it.
Too many people, when faced with adversity, throw in the towel and settle for the “life of quiet desperation” decried by Henry David Thoreau. The give up, convinced that what amount to temporary setbacks are intractable. They’re not. Not if you resolve to overcome them. But first you have to do what I’m saying. Go ahead: rant and rave for a while. Vent. Cry. Cry your heart out, if you have to. But then stop and get back into the game. “Problems? Life is problems.” We all have them. We all face obstacles; it’s a natural aspect of the earth experience. It’s how we deal with our problems that makes all the difference. Conceiving (with the help of wise supporters) a way around the various roadblocks that our bound to block everyone’s life; believing in ourselves enough to find a skillful way around them—only then can we achieve our goals. The opposite of Chief Eaglefeather’s prescription is also true: if we can’t conceive it, and don’t believe it, we’ll never achieve what we’re after.
In a certain region of Japan there’s another tradition, as old as that of consulting the I Ching. When a child is born he or she is presented with a porcelain cup. These cups are purposely very thin and fragile. Through the course of one’s life they are bound to break from time to time. Whenever that happens they’re repaired with a special gold solder. Over the course of a lifetime, with each mishap, each person’s cup becomes unique—and uniquely beautiful. Just as each person becomes more beautiful by virtue of the unique difficulties they’ve confronted and—with painstaking attention—repaired. And then gone on with their life.
As A. Powell Davies affirmed in this morning’s reading, it takes more courage to face a broken scheme of things and mend it or reshape it than it takes to plan it out in the first place. But this is how we grow our souls. And how we grow in faith. Too many UUs understand faith the same way one of my Sunday school children back in Connecticut defined it: believing something in the face of all reason. That’s blindness, not faith; certainly not a mature faith. Mature faith, as defined in the Book of Hebrews 11:1 is “the evidence of things hoped for, [and] the conviction of things not seen.” It’s the recognition, in other words, that behind and beneath all our struggles lie opportunities for growth in consciousness and in our capacity to love. That in the fullness of time our courage and commitment can prevail—will prevail. That in the end deeper meaning and growing insight will reward our labors. And that with resolution in our hearts, and with the help of friends, roadblocks, detours and setbacks are, in fact, an integral part of the road we need to take to make our dreams come true. Amen.