Delivered September 21, 2014 - Rev. David A. Miller ©
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of San Dieguito
A Unitarian Universalist Association Congregation—Solana Beach, Ca
(Lightly edited version)
Sometimes being a Unitarian Universalist feels very freeing. I don’t have to choose from any specific scripture which for today will allow me to explore a line from popular literature, Popeye the Sailor. The line is “That’s All I Can Stands, I Can’t Stands No More” and he usually uses this line when he has reached the edge or limit of his ability to deal with a situation and it is right after he says this that he eats his can of spinach which gives him super strength. This made me think of what it means to be on the edge of not being able to stand any more. This is a time when it is so easy to feel overwhelmed with what is going on in the world. Events and catastrophe, scandals and conflicts come flowing past us at an unbelievably high rate of speed. Just when you think one crisis is over another one begins. Just when you think one flare-up of tensions has subsided, another one heats up. And it is hard to know how to deal with all of that in our public lives together. What do we do, do we take to the streets, do we huddle quietly in our homes and pull the covers over our heads?
I have talked before about being overwhelmed, a couple of years ago I spoke about what happened when I saw that people couldn’t stand what was going on in the world anymore and it seemed they often dealt with it on-line by going into an electronic rant. They would take that anger, frustration and hopelessness and zing, it would come out online. At the time I said I felt bombarded by it. Some days, all that venting would come flying through my Facebook newsfeed at a dizzying rate so much so that no matter how righteous the thoughts were being expressed, my eyes seem to glaze over as I viewed the many angry words surging through my field of vision. This can be true with my email box as well, whether from well-meaning friends or organizations like MoveOn.org which I have to say I have moved on from. What I have found is that all this new media, all this electronic communication, has given us a completely new way of venting our anger or frustration, hurt, wounds or pain.
Of course, politics and all the news isn’t all that can drive us to the edge of all we can take. It can be dealing with children, or parents. It can be stress at work. It can be money problems or relationship problems. It can be just the constant flow of what to do next in an incredibly busy life, or the lack of busyness in a life that once was much busier. And, of course, the point is that when you are on the road to the edge, what can be done to help make sure you are not going to go over it?
One of the things I know that can sometimes send us right up to the edge is what I call the 95% - 5% rule or the 5% rule for short. The 5% rule is when 95% of your life is pretty amazing but the 5% that is bad or challenging at the moment seems to take up 95 % of your brain space. It happens when you let that 5% blow out of proportion and encompass everything, then it seems like your whole world is revolving around that 5%. Sometimes this is totally understandable. If you have a sudden major diagnosis or illness, it doesn’t matter if you have the most fabulous life in the world. Even if you wake up every morning filled with gratitude and joy, when you get a call and the news on the other end of the line is that sudden kind, the kind that rocks your world, it can easily fill up 95% of your consciousness. I think this can be true with many things that take us by surprise, they can end up taking a disproportionate amount of space in our consciousness and they stay there until we deal with them one way or another.
This is related to another version of the 5% rule that comes from my interpretation of Family Systems Theory. Family Systems Theory talks about how when a system is moving along a path it is important for the system to stay grounded and centered along the path taking into account the long term health and happiness of the entire system. In these systems, there will always be 5% that will somehow demands attention and the challenge is not to have the whole system move off course to deal with the 5% that is the loudest, most often heard from or the one that most consistently demands attention. Let me give you an example. Let’s say there is a family with two parents and six children and they are on a summer trip in a station wagon across the United States. They have two weeks to get from Madison, Wisconsin to Disneyland. Five of those children, are mostly pretty happy and do have their occasional issues or differences of opinion but never exhibit behavior that demands for the parents to stop the car and pull over. One child however, let’s name this child, #4, demands a great deal of attention. #4 knows that every time they cause a problem, the whole system will come to a halt and deal with them so, they often cause problems and each time they do, the parents pull over to address the problem. This is a version of the 5% rule. In this scenario, our final meet up with Mickey Mouse is being threatened because, and understandably so, it is almost impossible for everyone to think, talk or pay attention when #4 is screaming as the station wagon is rumbling down the road. I didn’t ever say this was going to be easy.
Let’s take this example and apply it to our everyday lives. In our everyday lives, maybe this looks like a conversation we had at work. In general, our job is fine. We may love it or not love it but in general, we are happy and things are about as good as they can be. Then at 4:30pm on a busy day, right before you are ready to go for the weekend something happens, it could be a conversation with a supervisor, it could be a task that was not completed, it might be an email you shouldn’t have sent and then it happens, you are filled with remorse or regret or fear and child #4 starts screaming for attention in your head, it wants you to pull over your car, it wants you to move the whole system to the edge.
It can be really hard, we have all been there in one way or another. Maybe we have said something ill-advised to our spouse and then left the house for work. Maybe we have been on a date and told the wrong story. Maybe we have just not done something that you really feel you should have done to help someone along the way. It isn’t easy, and it can be very complicated but part of our ability to cope in a healthy way is our ability to not be pulled and sometimes dragged into short term actions that satisfy or help make us feel better about the immediate needs of this 5%. Our ability to take a longer view, to gain and keep some perspective, really can help us to understanding what behavior helps us stay on course and what behavior stops us from getting to Disneyland. If we always react to each problem with actions that pacify the immediate issue, we can be giving into things that lead to short term comfort but threaten our long term health and happiness.
So when we get to a place where that’s all we can stand and we really can’t stand any more, what do we do? Well, one way to ask that question is, what is your spinach? What is the thing that you can consume that will help you overcome that 5% that is trying to take over 95% of your brain? What gives you strength? What do you rely on? What helps you be your best self?
There are of course some pretty logical, reason-based and therapeutically healthy answers to this. Things that we use to help us cope, that take a longer term view like therapy or exercise. They can be hobbies like surfing or making art. Maybe you journal or maybe you like to cook. These are all pretty healthy and positive ways to deal with that long trip across country. When I mean healthy, I usually say that in opposition to short term solutions that might comfort us but threaten our long term happiness like excessive drinking, substance abuse or other overindulgences.
And short term answers often don’t help us escape the cycles in which we can find ourselves caught. In some ways I feel sorry for Popeye. I am sorry that he is in a cycle that seems to be about having relative calm and happiness in his life, then something happens and he feels threatened or he feels the need to act because he gets to the edge of all he can stand and then he can’t stand any more. When this happens, thankfully he is able to down that can of spinach and although it does help him get past this edge, he always seems to get back to this point again and again and again.
When thinking about this cycle, I couldn’t help but reflect on what we can do to not keep coming back to the same place, some way to keep us on the path for the longer journey and I found myself thinking about what we can do to stay on what some call, the balcony, in other words being able to remove ourselves from being immersed in the pressures of the moment and doing what we can to keep navigating down a healthy course by seeing the larger picture. Remember, we don’t always know the final destination, but I think it helps us to try and keep our trip as healthy and meaningful as possible.
That is why I use the terms staying centered or grounded. Being centered or grounded isn’t about being inflexible or about being sure of yourself. To me being centered means working to understand who you are by understanding what it is that you want in life over the long term and continuously revisiting that as you travel your path. It means trying to understand what is your “stuff” (the stuff that you are responsible for) and differentiating that from what is the “stuff” of others. It also means opening ourselves up to listen the still small voice inside. This phrase still small voice isn’t from Popeye, it is actually from one of the parts of the Hebrew Bible where I have found meaning. In 1 Kings 19:11-13 it reads, 11 And he said, Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the Lord. And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake: 12 And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice. 13 And it was so, when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle, and went out, and stood in the entering in of the cave. And, behold, there came a voice unto him, and said, What doest thou here, Elijah?”
Although many of us here today may not believe in God and many may not believe that God will speak to anyone in a still small voice, it doesn’t mean we should discount wisdom where we can find it and I believe that it is wise advice for us to listen for our still small voice, the voice of what centers us, the voice of what grounds us to this earth. To me we listen because in the midst of all the noise, in the midst of all the Facebook posts, in the midst of all the daily challenges and changes that we face, we need to find a practice, find people and find ways to remind us of who we are at our core and what we strive to be when we are being our best self. We need to take time, schedule time and have time to reflect on what is important to us, on our own humanity, on the respect and dignity of those around us and how we are living our lives in a ways that brings out the best in us no matter what we face. Grounded doesn’t mean unable to change, in fact grounded means we can change and that we actually keep asking ourselves how are we willing to change as we strive to connect to that deep sense of self. Whether prayer or meditation, beach walking or running, fasting or writing poetry, sitting in silence or singing in jubilation, part of the practice of any spiritual community is to listen for our still small voice, that voice that calls us to our best selves, that voice that reminds us of the common good, that voice that moves us to hope, that voice that connects us to each other, that voice that helps us remember to stay on the path for we are in this for the long run.
Amen and may it be so.