Carry On

Carry On
March 6th, 2016                             Rev. Fiona Heath

Superheroes are everywhere these days in movies and television.

The Avengers.  Guardians of the Galaxy. The Arrow.  Flash.

All imperfect complicated heroes trying to save the world. The original superhero, for me at least, was Superman. Brought to movie life in the 80s by the impossibly handsome Christopher Reeve, Superman was a good alien from the planet Krypton, dedicated to saving earth and its people.

 

Superman has had many incarnations since then, but Christopher Reeve is my Superman. Reeve certainly seemed to be a super – more than the average joe – man. A privileged New Englander, educated at ivy league Cornell University and prestigious Julliard, the acting academy in New York, Reeve shot to stardom with Superman. Reeve continued to have a great career, acting with some of the best in the business, from Katherine Hepburn to Michael Caine. He had a beautiful wife and beautiful children. Physically active and adventurous, he flew airplanes, piloted a sailboat and rode horses competitively.

And then came the accident. It was front page news for weeks, the highest of dramas in our culture. The perfect man – a celebrity - struck down by tragedy. The man of steel undone.

In May 1995, Reeve was competing in a horse jumping and dressage event. He went with a team to an event down in Virginia. In the second event of the day, he and his horse Buck were in a cross country race. On the third fence Buck started to jump and simply stopped. Reeve had his hands tangled in the bridle. He went over Buck’s head, and, unable to get his arms free, landed right on his head on the rail.

He broke his neck. From Superman incarnate to quadriplegic in seconds. Reeve had the worst possible spinal injury, unable to move from the shoulders down or breathe on his own. In the days after, as he began to realize how bad the situation was, he said – he mouthed - to his wife Dana, “maybe you should let me go.” Reeve could not imagine living without travel, adventure and athletics. Paralysis, he said, created an indescribable void. Dana told him she would support whatever he wanted, because it was his life and his decision. But she would be with him, no matter what. She asked him to wait two years, and if he felt his life was not worthwhile, she would help him find a way to end it.

Then she looked at Christopher and said “you’re still you. And I love you.” Reeve said these words “you’re still you” saved his life, made living seem possible. She was able to see him, not the injury. He felt the depth of Dana’s love and commitment, and decided his job was to find a way to cope and be a productive person.

He looked at his three children, saw that they were glad he was alive, and realized that he could still be their father. Making the choice to live was the beginning of his new life. A very different life from before, but a good life. One that held meaning, purpose, and love.

Christopher became an esteemed film director and an activist for paralysis research. His foundation has raised millions to fund ground-breaking research and provide support to those living with spinal injuries.

Two years after the accident, Christopher knew, despite the very real limitations of his body, that he was glad to be alive. This is the power of resilience. People who are resilient are better able to harness their inner strengths to rebound quickly and more fully from setbacks.  They also know how to ask for help in recovery. Christopher Reeve was a resilient person.  He chose to live.

And having made that decision, he was determined and focused enough to get through the many difficult days of recovery. But, and I don’t say this lightly, it was easy for Christopher Reeve to be resilient. He lived a life of privilege. He had access to the best doctors and highly expensive medical equipment. He had loving and supportive family and friends. He could afford extensive renovations on his home. He could pay for full time staff to care for him.

Being resilient is much harder when you don’t have strong support systems. Christopher was very aware of his privilege and used it to advocate for others. His voice at federal health funding hearings brought substantial increases to medical support for spinal injuries.  His foundation continues to support research. Christopher had the inner strength to come back from the depths of despair. And he had access to an incredible amount of support which allowed him to share his gifts and contribute to society.

Sadly, in October 2004, after an evening spent watching his teenage son play hockey, Christopher became ill and passed away from heart failure. His story shows us the real power of resilience when you have inner resources and external support.  That even the worst of injuries can be overcome so that you can still live well.

The good news for all of us is that resilience is not a character trait that you either have or you don`t. It is a combination of thoughts, attitudes and behaviours that can be learned. The good news is that while we may not have the resources of wealth and celebrity, we  at UCM do have people to turn to in a crisis – each other.  Community matters.

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An ancient image for resilience is that of bamboo bending in the wind. While the mighty oak can break in a storm, crashing to the ground, the bamboo sways with the wind and remains intact. A more contemporary image is that of the 70s kids toy weebles. Weebles were little egg shaped people. And when weebles wobble, they don`t fall down.

Resilience is about flexibility in response to trauma. It is about adaptability to change. It isn`t an innate way of being. Resilience can be taught. And at the forefront of resilience training is the United States Armed Forces. Soldiers in old movies are seen as strong and stoic, like John Wayne. To show emotion is to show weakness. To exhibit mental distress is weakness. To ask for help is weakness.

It is not surprising that combat soldiers have high rates of depression and suicide. The US army began to understand that the army culture of stoic strength was not good for the soldiers. Resiliency is now part of their training strategy. Leaders are modelling the importance of seeking help when struggling. Soldiers are taught specific skills to maintain physical, emotional and spiritual resiliency while in the field.

They are taught to stay healthy by eating well and having a fitness regime. They are taught how to change their thought habits and develop different attitudes. Catastrophic thinking – imagining the worst –cascades into anxiety and poor judgement. So soldiers are taught that when they imagine the worst case scenario, they also need to imagine the best case scenario.

For example, if they phone home and their partner doesn`t answer, if they assume it is because the partner is in bed with someone else, they are asked to then assume the partner has won the lottery and is out buying a new car.

This is to help them understand that both scenarios are extremely unlikely, so that they find a way to a more balanced viewpoint.  http://www.army.mil/article/38384/  

Soldiers are taught to look for and focus on the positive moments during a stressful situation.  For the fifty people throwing stones at American soldiers in Afghanistan, one will invite them in for chai and conversation. They are also taught that any event is neutral, it happened. What the soldier can control is their reactions to the event.

One naturally optimistic soldier, after being captured in the Gulf War, spent her time feeling grateful to be alive, rather than upset that she had two broken arms and was being held prisoner. Research results suggest that the resiliency training has made a difference. Catastrophic thinking is declining among soldiers who have taken the tests. Soldiers report feeling more focused and prepared, as well as better able to look after one another.

Not all of us find being resilient so easy. We can`t always find those inner resources of strength and compassion. I can get stressed out writing emails, so I`m pretty sure if I was a prisoner of war with two broken arms, my strongest emotion would not be gratitude. But I have never had formal training in resiliency strategies.

Fortunately I have the chalice. Unitarian Universalism can help us develop resiliency. One key aspect of resiliency is positive self regard. You have to consider yourself worthy to make it through stressful times.

It can be easy to play the blame game, or feel that it is all your fault. With positive self regard,  you can move past the negativity. The first principle says that each of us has inherent worth and dignity. When bad things happen, we still have value. We are worthy of love and care. When you are struggling, remind yourself that this is true. And if you don`t believe it, call a friend and ask them to remind you.

Come here and look at the chalice flame and remember you are welcome. Nourish your spirit with the six sources. Spend time in meditation or in nature and reconnect to the larger whole. Come here and remember you belong. Reaching out to others, being part of a community, is as important to resiliency as personal strategies. Having people to turn to matters. So come to this chalice community and remember that you are not alone.

Christopher Reeve did. Superman was a Unitarian Universalist. He and Dana found their way to a local congregation after the accident, finding it a good fit for their independent sense of spirituality. Reeve considered his church as a place where people can be true to themselves, where there is a belief that people are doing the best they can, as they struggle to love themselves and one another. This spiritual orientation guided Reeve`s moral compass. Helped him use his power and influence to help others. Helped him to live a life of meaning and purpose and love.

Unitarian Universalism made a difference to Christopher Reeve. My hope is that it makes a difference in your lives. That here you have found a place that helps you sway in the winds of change, bending not breaking. May we be bamboo, flexible, adapting to the ever changing events of our lives.

So Say We All!

(Reeve, Christopher:  Still Me 1998, Nothing is Impossible 2002)

 


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