Sustaining Each Other

A Sermon by Jaco B. ten Hove, co-minister
Paint Branch UU Church--November 4, 2001

Behold: "the silence of eternity interpreted by love"! [Quote by John Greenleaf Whittier, sung by choir.] Our very lives are vessels of love, carrying that eternal life-giving message into the future. This, I believe, is our abiding purpose as human beings: to embody and carry forth the gospel of love. And when the strength of our love wavers, when we feel fearful and/or depleted?as can happen to anyone at times?we have each other to hold onto for sustenance.

It is to that reality, the perhaps occasional but nonetheless steady need for mutual support, that I wish to address myself directly this morning. During times of widespread cultural stress, such as we are in now, a painful paradox can emerge: more people are in need of relational sustenance, yet fewer folks seem able or willing to provide or share it.

For instance, economic struggles may force us into work modes that are very time-consuming and energy-draining, or very discouraging. Our tempers may be more on edge; our demeanors more fragile. Many kinds of guilt can erode our sense of self-confidence. Lingering anxieties might compromise our enjoyment of each moment and each other, and constrain our normal inclination toward generosity. We may shrink into the daily essentials and nurture each other less.

So in the face of pressures like these, it matters how we respond and what we prioritize. It matters that we are strengthened by our relationships, that we think about sustaining each other, that we deepen our resources?individually and institutionally.

Our faith that "there is more love somewhere" [song title, sung earlier] often brings us into community, into companionship, looking to find inspiration that will help us fulfill our own journey and maybe even help us be the source of sustenance for another who might be in need at any moment.

And it matters that we not lose our sense of humor. We use this curious and elaborate code of symbols called language to try to effectively express our feelings and ideas. But words often get in our way, yet we still pride ourselves on our ability to communicate with each other.

A colorful commentator on our culture [Jeff Stilson] once explained how he knew that we humans are so much more advanced than other creatures. "I had a linguistics professor who said that it's [our] ability to use language that makes [us] the dominant species on the planet. That may be. But I think there's one other thing that separates us from [most] animals. We aren't afraid of vacuum cleaners."

Motorized cleaning devices notwithstanding, "the silence of eternity interpreted by love" is not always about finding the right words. Love is expressed in many ways, only one of which is language. "It seems," Henri Nouwen reminds us, "that we often reveal and communicate to others the life-giving spirit without being aware of it." It can be that easy, yet we still too often live life as if love were a scarce quantity.

So it really matters how effective we are at relational interactions, at accessing and expressing and embodying the love that is our birthright, yet itís not something we are taught how to do very well in this culture.

If weíre lucky we may find some good mentors along the way, or we may have some good natural instincts that encourage a healthy balance of give and take in our relationships. But I believe that HOW we enter into the vision of mutual support makes all the difference, and this is a lifelong pursuit. I think we can always deepen our ability to be in relationship with others.

For instance, I have read about a nurse in a childrenís cancer ward, whose job is it to search for any available vein in an often emaciated young arm to give infusions of chemicals that are often long in duration and quite discomforting to the child. This fellow is probably the greatest pain-giver the children meet during their stay in the hospital. But because he has worked so much with his own pain, his heart is very open. He approaches his responsibilities in the hospital as a "laying on of hands with love and acceptance." There is little in him that causes him to withdraw, that might reinforce the painfulness of the experience for the children. He is a warm, open space, which encourages them to trust whatever they feel. And it is he whom the children most often ask for at the time they are dying. Although he is the main pain-giver, he is also the main love-giver.?
[Story adapted from pgs. 86-7, How Can I Help? By Ram Dass and Paul Gorman.]
It matters how we enter into the vision of mutual support. I know I always benefit from reminders that show me the way. So, with gratitude to my teachers, I have assembled some perspective and approaches to share with you today, in hopes that they might improve the odds for powerful connectivity between two or more people, especially when one might be struggling somehow and others endeavor to help?you, perhaps.

In this frightening new era, we can and should be very intentionally interested in sustaining each other, for our relationships are what we can always fall back on, if we have sustained them well.

First, though, I have to acknowledge that Unitarian Universalists are generally a well-defended bunch. We tend toward an internalized ethic of self-sufficiency, so we also tend not to ask for help when we might be in need. I fit this description thoroughly, and do believe that it is a value, to a point. But when my inordinate drive toward self-sufficiency becomes a barrier between me and others who could offer some needed sustenance, well, then I suspect this value evolves into a curse.

Like many of us, I really donít know how to ask for help very well, but Iím trying to learn the difference between the value of my inner resourcefulness and the curse of trying to never appear vulnerable or weak. The former is mostly a strength, the latter a weakness when taken to an extreme, but the line between them is difficult to discern at times. I may lift up the principle of interdependence, but then live out of an exaggerated independence. To the extent that any of us are able to ask for help, we invite that life-giving spirit to join us on our path when the going gets rough.

And second, what I am about to suggest as ways we might be able to sustain each other does not pretend to approximate professional therapy, which is sometimes called for very clearly, but is not my training. Iíll be talking about friendship and caring, when you might be able to "be there" for someone and help sustain them through a trying period. There are ways of "being there" that have been proven to be more or less helpful, and I will explore some of them, but it is also essential to recognize when you might be in over your head, and need to defer to professional counseling services.

Okay, it might go without saying that the most important part of being a friendly sustainer is the ability to be a good listener, but then again it never hurts to be reminded of this posture, since we so often tend toward what we think is helpful judgment and advice-giving. A noted presenter on issues of caring in community, Sharon G. Thornton, puts it this way: "Listening must be grounded in absolute and unequivocal respect." [Unpublished paper, "Ministry to Families; Educating for Pastoral Care," LREDA Fall Conference, 2000? 2001?]

This also means limiting our own translation of what another is saying to us. Of course we translate all the time, but in good listening mode, we are aware of how our own filters can change the meaning of what we hear, and how, if we put our own spin on anotherís comment, we can possibly diminish the speaker.

A common inclination is to think weíre being helpful when we can identify with anotherís experience and then offer a similar situation from our own lives. "I know what you mean. It happened to me whenÖ" But this is not good listening and more often takes energy away from the person in need.

Instead of responding with empathy, Thornton suggests "listening with imagination," which involves both participants in a more mutual path. By listening with imagination, you can stay open to what you hear without needing to translate it into your own words or take it to your own conclusions.

The ancient Chinese scripture, the Tao Te Ching, invites me to understand this with a simple statement: "The sage helps the ten thousand things find their own nature." And Suzuki Roshi differentiates between what a so-called expert brings to bear in a conversation and how one with the open freshness of a beginner approaches the same situation. "In the beginnerís mind, there are many possibilities. In the expertís, there are few."

Words can be so loaded that we risk alienation when inserting our own into a conversation that is attempting to help sustain someone in need. It might seem counter-intuitive to believe that not offering any solution for anotherís struggle can be of more help than drawing on our own very creative warehouse of possible fixes, but itís often the case, especially if we are otherwise very present to the person and their struggle.

The story is told of a time when a fellow named Ryokan was asked by his brother to visit and speak to his delinquent son. Ryokan came but did not say a word of admonition to the boy. He stayed overnight and prepared to leave the next morning. As the wayward nephew was lacing up Ryokanís sandals, he felt a drop of warm water. Glancing up, he saw Ryokan looking down at him, his eyes full of tears. Ryokan then returned home, and the nephew changed for the better. ??[John Stevens, One Rose, One Bow, found in How Can I Help?]
Outside of professional therapy, people generally need safe, affirming space to work on their own issues, and providing that space can be much more helpful than providing answers. And you never know when your mere presence is of value, perhaps moreso than any great wisdom you might impart or solutions you might suggest. This is the mysterious but liberating truth of companionship. Often just being there is what matters the most. "The silence of eternity interpreted by love" will carry the day, have no fear.

Hereís another pertinent story from the journal of a very conscious but humble teacher.

I happened to have been on a mountaintop in a state of great bliss when a stranger suddenly appeared next to me, sat down, and immediately started to describe this problem he was going through. By the time I'd pulled myself out of the Higher Realms, he'd already detailed the whole drama, the cast of characters, and the decisions he was facing. I hadn't gotten a bit of it. Nothing. Nobody. Moreover, it was much too late to ask him to run it all down once more. He would have felt very uncomfortable, justifiably.

So there I was, intimate confidant to a deep problem, without the slightest idea of who was who and who had done what to whom. My first reaction was to laugh hysterically. It was one of those great Human Condition moments. But this guy was obviously in distress and looking for a kindly pair of ears, so I picked up as best I could.

To my continued amazement, none of the details became any clearer as we walked down the mountain. I kept hoping I'd find out who "she" really was, and what "he" had actually done. No such luck. And I wasn't about to ask a question that would reveal my total ignorance, make him feel terrible, or lead me to hysterical laughter.

So we just quietly walked on down. And from time to time I would punctuate the conversation with what seemed like appropriate remarks: "That must have been hard." "What did you feel then?" "Boy, things sure do get confused in life." Great insights like that. And he would nod appreciatively, continue, and I'd contain my sense of this wonderful human absurdity. Meanwhile, I was growing increasingly fond of this guy. And feeling great empathy for his problem-whatever it was.

When we reached the bottom of the hill, he stopped for a moment and then suddenly embraced me. "I just want you to know how incredibly helpful you've been," he said. "You're one of the most understanding, compassionate people I've ever met. Do you think we could have another conversation like this again?" I was dumbfounded. It was one of the great moments in my life. "Sure," I said. "I'd love to." And he walked off to join some other people?a number of whom kept coming to me during the day saying, "What did you tell Eddie? He's just so grateful to you. He says you're wonderful."??

[pg. 128-9, How Can I Help?]
Yes, good listening skills and/or just a loving presence are important in many settings, but let me now focus on a few particulars of how else we might be engaged in the act of "sustaining" each other, whether it be family member, friend, neighbor, etc. (Iíll use the term "friend" to represent any companion.)What else might help you sustain another?
ï It helps to acknowledge the truth of your friendís feelings. Allow them to be expressed as fully as is natural, without trying to change them.

ï It helps to stay in relationship even amid your own discomfort. Donít run away. Be present and interested and patient.

ï It helps to be kind, to actively hold your friend in positive regard, to offer your generosity of spirit and time, unconditionally.

ï It helps to offer reminders that despite whatever is troubling them, there can still be fulfillment in their life. Yes, itís a new emotional landscape, but thereís still value present. Invite them to name what they can remain faithfully attached to.

ï It helps to look for small openings where hope might shine through and then remind your friend of their own worth. Even amid great misery there is always hope.

ï It helps to note or ask about whatever new meaning is emerging in their reflections. Sometimes there might be surprises that are ultimately for the good, but they can be overshadowed by the struggle. You can notice these newer elements and gently reflect them back.

ï And it helps to listen with your own soul activated and alert, since there is often mutual benefit involved in such relational moments. You never know when there will be an important learning for you, or when your friend might become your teacher, even though you thought you were the care-giver.

In each of these postures, you begin by paying heed to your friendís issues, without projecting your own translations. But itís a good bet that there will also be some emerging material for you to think about, tooólater, in your own settings.

So try this challenging technique: Whenever you feel called to suggest something to another person, hold that thought and first suggest the same thing to yourself, and see what happens. Notice when you feel compelled to do something, and donít do it. In fact, be leery of it. Instead, test that same initiative on yourself before applying it to another.

Perhaps if you remember nothing else I say this morning, try to hold on to this notion: that you may be better off trying any suggestion you have on yourself before offering it to another person. This is my most recent learning on this subject, and a challenge that Iíve accepted, at least in theory.

Whenever I feel compelled to do or suggest something for someone in need, I will try to first look deeply inside myself to see if it is actually more about what I need. This is a demanding approach, to be sure, and I sense its value, but Iíll see if I can abide by the discipline. I am a veteran problem-solver and advice-giver, so itíll probably be very hard for me to add this step in my process. If I can, however, I suspect it will change and deepen my ability to listen to others, grounded in absolute and unequivocal respect.

But for now, to bring me toward a conclusion, I want to return where I started. Do you remember the very first word I spoke in this sermon? It was: "Behold!" I love this word, because it always draws us to something that is worth noticing. "Behold," I said: "the silence of eternity interpreted by love," as I honored the choirís portrayal of this poetic quote, which became a touchstone for me in this sermon.

When you say or hear the word, "Behold," itís almost always capitalized, because it usually begins a stirringly new thought. Behold your own "interpretation by love"; itís A Beautiful Thing. BeholdÖeach other, for you are all worth noticing.

Sharon Thornton helps me understand how important this is.

"When we behold others," she says, "we do not just look and see what is in front of us. To behold also reveals our own need to be held. When we truly behold another we are moved, touched, and we become involved with them. This expresses a radical mutualityÖ, the beginning place of authentic relationshipÖ At such a moment of recognition we practice hospitality in a way that offers us a glimpse of what our healed world might look like."
In such a time as we are in now, my friends, to behold "a glimpse of what our healed world might look like" is a spiritual act of great significance, and I invite you into that posture of radical hospitality and sustaining companionship.

BeholdÖeach other, for you are all worth noticing. BeholdÖand be held.

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