by Kevin M. Carson
A sermon given at the First Universalist Parish in Chester, Vermont, September 23, 2018
Where are the tunnels of hope through our dark mountains of disappointment?
If you are like me and have a lot of email and social media connections to people and organizations focused on climate change, conservation, and other justice issues, you have been bombarded with messages ever since the 2016 elections that are filled with fear, alarm, and outrage. And let’s not kid ourselves; there are plenty of good reasons to be concerned. There is a lot wrong with America and the world in general. It can feel overwhelming, and you hear people talk about “scandal fatigue,” and even “compassion fatigue.” Not surprisingly, the tone of some of the messaging in social media has begun to reflect a growing sense of despair, as each day, the latest news or tweet seems to bring some new assault on our values. About a month ago, for example, I received an email from the Climate Reality Project with the subject line: “We’re not giving up – and neither should you.” Not the most uplifting way to grab your attention, perhaps, but at least it is an honest sentiment of the realities we face in these difficult times. When all you can see in front of you is a seemingly endless series of obstacles, it can be tempting to simply give up.
2017 was especially hard for so many of us as we watched a new administration in Washington roll back and weaken policies on the environment, healthcare, and human rights, policies that were often hard-won minor victories in the first place. We watched helplessly as our president walked away from the Paris Climate Agreement and seemed to relish antagonizing other nations, denigrating our long-standing allies while heaping praise on ruthless dictators. We witnessed the loss of even common decency in American politics, as our president bullied and mocked anyone with whom he disagreed, or who opposed him in even the slightest way. It was just over a year ago that white supremacists marched in Charlottesville, resulting in the death of a young woman who opposed the overt racism that has once again revealed its presence in society. I was not surprised at all when I saw an article on the CNN web site earlier this month that announced that poling data from 145 countries confirmed that 2017 was, “the world's most miserable for more than a decade.” It seems people really were miserable all over. Last New Year’s Eve, I remember commenting to my wife that, “2017 was such a terrible and emotionally draining year. Surely 2018 would be better!”
Little did I know that just two weeks into the New Year, 2018 would become, for me and my family, the worst year of our lives, when my beloved daughter, Rachel, died unexpectedly on January 14th. I never imagined the sadness that would enter our lives this year – that the “long dark night of the soul” could ever be so long and dark. Over these last eight months, there have been moments of deep despair when I have felt engulfed by the “why’s” and “what if’s” of Rachel’s death, moments when I felt so angry about her absence and the future she was denied. Sometimes I have wondered how I could ever find the hope I need to sustain my ministry, and my advocacy for the Earth, in a universe that no longer seemed to make sense. Could I find anything positive to say to a congregation without my words sounding hollow or insincere? It was so much easier for me to find inspiration when I could think of Rachel heading to college, pursuing a career in wildlife conservation, or when I could imagine her children and future generations of my descendants.
As I have confronted my grief, I have tried to heed the advice not to bottle up my feelings – to let myself feel angry or sad without remorse, and to also allow myself moments of joy and happiness, without feeling guilty that the pain of grief has subsided for a little while. Sometimes it is hard, but I think it is sound advice. It is far too easy to abide in the sorrow and punish yourself emotionally for the injustice of it all. It is far too easy to relentlessly mourn a future that will never be. It is healthier to give the full range of emotions their due. It is okay to let the darkness have its moments, trusting that joy can and will show up unexpectedly on occasion, reaffirming, as Mary Oliver’s poem says, that “life has some possibility left.”
When we allow ourselves to ride out these waves of conflicting emotions without judgment, I think it is an example of the Buddhist concept of maitri, which is usually translated as “loving-kindness,” or simply, compassion. What Buddhist teachers will tell you is that loving-kindness must begin with oneself. If we have any hope of extending compassion to others – even to the universe itself – we must begin with compassion for ourselves. When we do, we are acknowledging that suffering is fundamental to the human condition – the first of the so-called Four Noble Truths which are the core teachings of Buddhism. Suffering is something we all have in common and understanding this is the root of compassion. Indeed, the very origin of the English word compassion means to “suffer with.” And without going too deep into the teachings of Buddhism, acknowledging the inevitability of suffering is the first step in the journey to awakening and salvation.
But, this is only the beginning. Accepting that suffering exists does not mean we must simply accept the world as it is, doing nothing to alleviate the pain and injustice we see all around us. It can become the motivation for us to act in the world – to become warriors for compassion and usher hope into the world. Hope can arise from even the smallest gesture of kindness. Between the Internet and television news, we witness a constant stream of bad news about climate change and human rights every day– what Al Gore likes to describe as “a nature hike through the Book of Revelations” – but there are also signs of hope almost every day. A small piece of good news can be a welcomed respite from the troubles of the world. Maybe it’s a story about an animal being rescued by human strangers, an article about someone planting trees on the other side of the world, a judge blocking some awful policy, or some species showing signs of coming back from the brink of extinction. There are lots of moments like these that help balance the scales, even if only a little at a time. Sometimes we need to cherish such moments of hope though they are as ephemeral as rainbows.
The world can be an ugly place, and life can seem like a pointless struggle against the odds. Finding hope is not always easy, but I don’t know why we would ever assume it should be. I am reminded of my favorite quote from the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, who said, “The universe is under no obligation to make sense to you.” Even so, we can’t let that deter us.
When it comes to situations that challenge us to the core of our being, we can choose to take a stand and become a warrior for compassion even at great risk. Doing so in a universe that makes little sense at times is to embark on a hero’s journey, and if you know anything about heroic journeys, they are usually difficult and fraught with peril. And sometimes, whether we like it or not, the hero’s journey is even foisted upon us. We may feel like Odysseus, shipwrecked and adrift in a sea of troubles, wondering what gods we have offended and wondering if we will ever find our way home – and if we do make it home, what fresh calamities must await us there.
In Dr. King’s letter from the Birmingham jail, he acknowledges the difficulties experienced by the clergy who showed up in cities across the south in support of Civil Rights – how many of them were criticized or even dismissed by their faith communities for taking a stand against the evils of racism, and how many others were beaten and jailed by authorities. Dr. King then summarizes their struggle and suffering, saying, “They have carved a tunnel of hope through the dark mountain of disappointment.” There is a reason he chose the metaphor of carving a tunnel of hope. Tunneling through a mountain is laborious, difficult, and often dangerous; he did not say they found a new pass across the mountain, or discovered some easier way around it. Creating hope about an issue as large and difficult as changing a nation’s attitude about racial equality is relentlessly hard work that can test anyone’s resolve. Some days you might make good progress on your tunnel of hope, and other days, the best you can manage is to just keep digging, one shovel full at a time, holding on to the faith that one day you – or someone working with you – will break through to the other side.
Life can throw ruthless challenges in our path. Psychologists talk about the “change curve” that describes how we react to such challenges, and it relates to the so-called “stages of grief” that you have probably encountered at some point, based on the work of Elizabeth Kübler-Ross – those being denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Most psychologists now agree that the concept of “stages” implies a progression that is too linear to accurately describe how we react to grief or change – we really bounce around these emotional states much more depending on our personality – but the basic idea of the curve is still valid. When we are confronted by loss or significant change, whether it is good or bad, we generally react to the shock by denying its reality in some sense, then we get angry about it and enter periods of despair, before bargaining or experimenting with how to react, until we hopefully reach some level of acceptance and integration into our life. This emotional journey can be represented by a U-shaped curve, and an important feature of this journey is that you must go down into the valley of the curve – into the realm of despair and depression – before you can go back up and reach integration. For a relatively minor event in your life, this entire process may go quickly, and you may not even recognize some of the stages. But for something as serious as profound grief, this can be a lengthy process, and you may visit the valley of despair many times or dwell there for some time. The main thing to remember is that, no matter what, there is no shortcut to acceptance that skips over the valley of despair altogether. To find hope in the face of despair, we must go down to go up. Carving tunnels of hope through the dark mountain of disappointment is a nice metaphor for the emotionally draining work of confronting the dark feelings we can’t avoid on the way to a new integrated reality.
Last month, as part of my own efforts to climb up from the valley of despair, I attended Leadership Corps training in Los Angeles with the Climate Reality Project, the organization founded by Al Gore to educate the public about climate change. If you are looking for an issue that can seem almost insurmountable and fill you with shock and despair, climate change is a good candidate – and I would argue it is the most important issue humanity faces today. As the activist and author Bill McKibben once said, “You can’t really, plausibly, give an ‘I have a dream’ speech for climate change, because the two possibilities are a miserable century and an impossible one.” It is a very big deal, and I think it is a good example of the kind of challenge Dr. King spoke of from the Birmingham jail.
In the struggle to address climate change, I think we must look at something like the abolition of slavery for an adequate comparison – a struggle that took decades of work by thousands of people, and even a bloody Civil War that cost perhaps a million lives, before the evil of slavery was ended. And, you could even argue that the struggle continued for over another century with the Civil Rights movement, and it continues today in the efforts to confront institutional racism and oppression. The big difference between climate change and abolition is that climate change is truly an equal opportunity problem. Everyone is impacted by climate change no matter your race, color, nationality, or creed – or even your species.
The dark mountain of disappointment looms large. The drastic changes we need to make around the world to have any hope of maintaining a reasonably comfortable world in the coming years faces powerful opposition. But, despite the depressing political environment and climate deniers that can make your blood boil, despite the epic storms that are routinely dumping “thousand year” rainfall events these days, despite the scientific data on melting polar ice and accelerating extinction rates, and despite the year after year of record global temperatures, there are tunnels of hope forming all around us. Thousands of grass roots organizations are emerging in countries around the world, and people are getting educated about the reality of climate change more than ever before. In Los Angeles, the Climate Reality Project held it largest training so far, adding 2,200 new leaders to its corps of 17,000 worldwide – people dedicated to educating others and advocating in their homelands. Networks of advocates are forming at an amazing rate. Over just the last few weeks, I have connected with around 100 new friends on Facebook dedicated to making a difference. They live on every continent except Antarctica, and a significant number of these folks live in some of the poorest nations on Earth. We are certainly not alone in our struggles. There are warriors for compassion in every land.
People are recognizing the intersectionality of justice issues that will feel the impact of climate change, and they are forming alliances that link thousands of individuals into communities of justice. A good example is the formal alliance that has been formed between the Climate Reality Project and the Poor People’s Campaign, which has been revived in recent years by the Rev. William Barber. Faith communities are playing a key role in bringing groups together, and they are providing the important spiritual and moral leadership that justice movements need to sustain their energy and faith in the future. And when you look at the polls, most Americans – and even a greater majority of people in other nations – support significant efforts to address climate change. Fossil fuel companies may be rich and powerful, but so were the slaveholders, the slave traders, and all the industries that depended on slave labor.
Friends, if I didn’t see such a groundswell of hope I don’t think I could be speaking to you today. And if climate change is not your main issue, I encourage you to look around and see similar signs that tunnels of hope are out there. I am confident they are.
On a final note, I want us to remind ourselves to keep some perspective as we stare up at the dark mountains of disappointment in our lives. There is a saying I am very fond of that is usually attributed to the Talmud, but it is really a mash-up of quotes from two more recent rabbinical commentaries on the Talmud. I may have even quoted it to you before, and it goes like this:
Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief.
Do justly, now.
Love mercy, now.
Walk humbly, now.
You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.
We all need tunnels of hope through the dark mountain of disappointment, and problems like climate change are going to need lots of folks carving lots of tunnels, sometimes relying solely on the faith that humanity will eventually break through to the other side. If life or world events get you down, never let despair have the last word. Get angry. Be sad. Grieve while you must, and then find yourself a purpose and a shovel and get digging!
“Don’t Hesitate” by Mary Oliver
If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy,
don’t hesitate. Give in to it. There are plenty
of lives and whole towns destroyed or about
to be. We are not wise, and not very often
kind. And much can never be redeemed.
Still, life has some possibility left. Perhaps this
is its way of fighting back, that sometimes
something happens better than all the riches
or power in the world. It could be anything,
but very likely you notice it in the instant
when love begins. Anyway, that’s often the
case. Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid
of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb.
Excerpt from Letters to the River: A Guide to a Dream Worth Living by Sparrow Hart
“Something’s not working. Everybody knows it. The turmoil and breakdown of order, sustainability, and basic sanity in almost every natural and human system is overwhelming and disheartening. The list – war, economic injustice, environmental disaster, poverty, decline of democratic ideals and decency – goes on and on. When the system itself is at fault and every problem is interconnected, it can appear like there’s nowhere to start and whatever we do won’t make a difference.
The need to face ‘inconvenient truths’ grows stronger every day. Wise voices announce we need a new paradigm. No doubt this is true, but how can we step outside and look at a reality we live within? When the ways we perceive and think about the world are a root cause of the problem itself, what can we do?
Today we face a task of creating a world worth living in, and doing so requires stepping outside the boundaries of what’s known and familiar. We won’t find the solutions we need by recycling the same old routines with better management, more efficiency, or greater effort, for it is the worldview or ‘dream’ of the culture itself that leads to most of the dis-ease and dysfunction of modern life. Like the heroes and heroines of old, we must leave home and enter new territories of the mind, soul, and imagination if we are to find the answers we seek.”
Excerpt from “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King, Jr., April 16, 1963
“If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust. Perhaps I have once again been too optimistic. Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world? Perhaps I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the church within the church, as the true ekklesia and the hope of the world. But again I am thankful to God that some noble souls from the ranks of organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined us as active partners in the struggle for freedom. They have left their secure congregations and walked the streets of Albany, Georgia, with us. They have gone down the highways of the South on tortuous rides for freedom. Yes, they have gone to jail with us. Some have been dismissed from their churches, have lost the support of their bishops and fellow ministers. But they have acted in the faith that right defeated is stronger than evil triumphant. Their witness has been the spiritual salt that has preserved the true meaning of the gospel in these troubled times. They have carved a tunnel of hope through the dark mountain of disappointment.”
“Take a Knee” by Rev. Kirk Loadman-Copeland
As you approach the grave of any soldier who died defending America, take a knee.
For the courage and clarity of Colin Kaepernick, and his protest against police abuse, take a knee.
For Michael Brown, Eric Gardner, Tamar Rice, Walter Scott, Freddie Grey, Philandro Castile, and all the others who have died tragically and needlessly at the hands of police, those very officers who swore an oath to serve, protect, and defend, take a knee.
For Heather Heyer who was killed by a white nationalist in Charlottesville, take a knee.
For the more than ninety people killed and others who were wounded in shootings in churches in the last 20 years including Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist in Knoxville, the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin, Mother Emanuel in Charleston, and First Baptist in Sutherland Springs, take a knee.
For the churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples that have been desecrated or burned, take a knee.
For all those killed and wounded in more than 200 school shootings since April 1999, including Columbine, Red Lake, West Nickel Mines, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, Umpqua Community College, Santa Fe, and Parkland, take a knee.
For all of the other mass killings including the concert in Las Vegas, the Pulse Nightclub, and San Bernadino, take a knee.
For the refusal of legislators to pass sensible gun control legislation, take a knee.
For all of the wounded warriors who struggle for healing and wholeness, and for those veterans whose service to America led to homelessness or finally ended in suicide, take a knee.
For all of the immigrants who came to this land in search of a dream called America, for those now being denied asylum, for children ripped from their parents’ arms and imprisoned, and for countless others who died in the deserts of the Southwest trying to get here, take a knee.
For the Statue of Liberty, who now weeps, take a knee.
For black lives that have not mattered since slaves were brought to America in the 1560s, for the stunning incarceration rates of black males that represent the new Jim Crow, and for the cancer of dehumanizing racism that seems stronger than ever, take a knee.
For the genocide of the first peoples of this land and for every treaty made with Native tribes that was broken by the United States, take a knee.
For the ravage of drug overdoses, now dramatically increased by opioids, which killed over 70,000 Americans in 2017, take a knee.
For the corporate greed that resulted in close to six million foreclosures during the Great Recession: jobs lost, careers ended, families ripped apart, and dreams forever destroyed, take a knee.
For those white lives that now no longer matter, though their grievances are used to fuel the fires of dissension and racism within America, take a knee.
For the assault on our democracy: voter suppression, gerrymandered districts, Citizens United, special interests, Russian meddling, and more, take a knee.
For the undermining of the rule of law, for trading lies for truth, for the assault on the free press, for political tribalism, for legislators who betray the constitution and their oath of office, and public officials whose greed places self-interest above the national interest, take a knee.
For the willful ignorance of climate change and the peril that the earth and we face, along with all life, take a knee.
For those who have given up on the American dream, both in this country and among our allies throughout the world, take a knee.
For all the women who have been paid less than men for the same job, for those who have suffered domestic abuse, and for those who have suffered sexual harassment and assault, take a knee.
For the elderly who seek dignity in their declining years, for the differently-abled who struggle to make a life worth living, and for all who simply seek to love whom they love without ridicule or discrimination, take a knee.
And for every other way in which we have fallen short of the nobility of which we as individuals and a country are capable, take a knee.
Take a knee as an act of compassion, a call to justice, an awareness of humility, a gesture of solidarity, a prayer of kindness, an invocation of our better angels, and a necessary precursor to reclaim our power as citizens.
Take a knee, and then, in the wise words of poet Maya Angelou, “rise.” Rise to resist, to protest, to march, to vote, to volunteer, to dream, and to work for as long as it takes to “Let America be America again. / Let it be the dream it used to be,” as the poet Langston Hughes wrote.
Take a knee, and then stand, place your hand over your heart, and whisper the words, “with liberty and justice for all,” and mean it.