Rev. Fiona Heath Presented multi-platform October 10th, 2021
America’s Got Talent is a big show. All sorts of performers try out for possible fame and fortune. Earlier this year, a young woman appears on the stage at the auditions. Nightbirde is the name she uses – Nightbirde chats with the judges before singing an original song called It’s Okay.
During the introductory chat Nightbirde reveals that she has been dealing with cancer the past few years, and she is still living with cancer. She is not in fact, okay.
One of the judges tells her how impressive she is and Nightbirde says: “You can’t wait until life isn’t hard anymore before you decide to be happy.”
“You can’t wait until life isn’t hard anymore before you decide to be happy.”
If a young woman facing a terminal cancer diagnosis, whose dream to be a singer is being blocked by illness, can choose happiness, surely the rest of us can too. Can we decide to be happy? Is it that simple?
My first reaction is a giant NO, we can’t decide to be happy. Happiness is a feeling, a sensation, and just like you can’t decide to feel angry or sad, you can’t choose your emotions. Being told to decide to be happy makes me feel grumpy and inclined to hold onto my bad moods.
Emotions are guides to our state of being – they just are – and it’s right and good to feel a range of emotions – from anger and fear to joy and delight. When we feel angry or fearful or sad, those feelings are marking your experiences and should not be invalidated but instead be acknowledged and accepted.
Anyone who in a time of crisis has been told to “look on the bright side” knows how unhelpful that is, what we need is empathy.
It’s okay to struggle, it’s okay to feel bad. It’s okay to despair. As the Buddha says life is suffering.
And yet Nightbirde is also correct. You can’t wait until the good times to be happy, sometimes you need to seek it out, no matter how terrible things are.
While I don’t believe you can just decide to be happy, you can turn towards the good, you can open your heart even in the hard times. And it is that opening of the heart, and mind and spirit, which leads to, if not happiness, perhaps kindness or joy or delight or awe. Feelings that ground you in the good, and leave you feeling right in yourself.
It is the opening of the self that is difficult.
Many people were raised to be stoic, to endure, to not complain. We may have been taught the best way to deal with pain or struggle is to put our heads down and bull our way through – only coming up and opening when the hard times are gone. It’s a way of protecting ourselves.
It’s not a terrible way to live. But closing off the painful feelings can sometimes mean we also shut out the happy.
I know that I have been doing some shutting down of the heart during this pandemic. The fear of catching COVID, the worry about health systems crumbling under the strain, the uncertainty of re-opening, it is all so draining.
Some of you might feel like this – drained, capacity at an all time low, finding that every day tasks take twice as long. It’s emotional exhaustion. I have days like this.
And I think we have all been waiting for the re-boot. When this pandemic finally switches off and then life turns back on, restored to normal in all its full normalness.
No masks, no distancing, no worries. We can breathe a sigh of relief and get on with things.
Life isn’t going to re-boot back to the old normal. Normal is what is happening right now.
It’s getting better. We can be together and know it’s reasonably safe. We know that masks and physical distancing help. We know the vaccines are amazingly effective. We know that surfaces aren’t the issue. We know that if the vaccinated get COVID it is far far more likely to be mild. And yet, all of this is hard to trust.
It’s hard to believe the risks are low and more manageable. We’ve gotten used to being alone and feeling that crowds are dangerous. And for the medically vulnerable even the low risk is a risk.
Stress and exhaustion and worry are still part of the program.
But we can’t wait for the hard times to be over before we seek happiness.
I remind myself this is a both/and situation, that we can be both hurting and happy. After all, as Unitarian Universalists we live in the both/and space – we know that life is full of nuance and complexity.
“I used to think it was great to disregard happiness, to press on to a high goal, careless, disdainful of it.” said Anne Gilchrist, an English writer in the mid 1800s.
She continues: “But now I see that there is nothing so great as to be capable of happiness; to pluck it out of “each moment and whatever happens”; to find that one can ride as gay and buoyant on the angry, menacing, tumultuous waves of life as on those that glide and glitter under a clear sky…” https://www.brainpickings.org/2020/02/12/anne-gilchrist-walt-whitman-happiness/
I do not think anyone can always live happy, in fact I am sure it is necessary to make room for sorrow and anger and fear as well. And it also vital for the wellbeing of our spirits to remember that we can pluck out some happiness as we ride the tumultuous waves of life.
Contemporary English writer Josie George is a disabled woman living on social assistance who uses a mobility stroller and must spend much of her time resting. Even putting the kettle on for tea can sometimes take all her strength and bring pain. Her world consists of a few people and a few square blocks around her home.
Josie says “my gaze has intensified as my body has slowed. Now, I notice everything, and I am hungry for everything: hungry to experience every detail I can…. I study my surroundings as if they were an encyclopedia.”
Josie spends her days noticing and delighting in the world as it is. She strokes the black fur of her cat and “there, there again, something in me soars.” (Josie George, A Still Life, pg 14-15)
I think Josie is in touch with our first source: direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life.
As wordy as that source is, it is my favourite.
The first source reminds me that direct experience – paying attention to right here and right now – can renew my spirit. That it is an openness to the forces which create and uphold life. That’s the tricky bit of course – being open to the lifeforce.
Open to feeling all the feelings, the joyful and the painful, open to all the wonder surrounding us.
It doesn’t mean ignoring or denying our struggles but making ourselves a little bit bigger than them, making space for some of the good in the world to enter us.
We can find happiness in the small amazing details that are right around us, like the beauty of the yellow birch leaves above us.
Or we can go big.
The English writer Anne Gilchrist, also noted: “One of the hardest things to make a child understand is, that down underneath your feet, if you go far enough, you come to blue sky and stars again; that there really is no “down” for the world, but only in every direction an “up.”
“And that this is an all-embracing truth, including within its scope every created thing, and, with deepest significance, every part, faculty, attribute, healthful impulse, mind, and body of a [person] (each and all facing towards and related to the Infinite on every side), is what we grown children find it hardest to realize, too.”
I have never thought about how if you go far enough down there is blue sky and stars underneath my feet. It is astonishing and accurate. An all-embracing truth: we are related to the infinite on every side.
This is our first source – the experience of mystery and wonder. We live on an astonishing wonderful world full of small joys and amazing truths.
We live in the midst of glory, if only we have the eyes to see. If we are able to be a bit bigger then our pain and suffering, if we can open our hearts to all the wonders of living.
We can live into the both and – we are struggling and life is still good. We can hurt and still feel happiness and wonder. I don’t think we can decide to be happy but we can choose to look for good in small details and all-embracing truths. To see the glory of life.
Life can be glorious, a word we people of the chalice don’t use very often. But it’s a good word, meaning beauty and splendor.
When I see trees in autumn, all green and gold and orange and red, the words “glory, glory” arise in my mind.
Life is glorious. There’s a reason Christians use the word.
Macklemore is an American rapper who wrote a song for his grandmother Helen’s one hundredth birthday. There is a delightful video where he takes Helen out for the day, cruising in a Cadillac convertible, as he sings:
I feel glorious, glorious
Got a chance to start again
I was born for this, born for this
It’s who I am, how could I forget?
I made it through the darkest part of the night
And now I see the sunrise
Now I feel glorious, glorious
I feel glorious, glorious
The pandemic continues, but the horizon is brightening.
My wish for all of us is that in the days and weeks to come, despite our suffering, despite our worries and fears, despite it all, that we seek the good.
May we have experiences of wonder small and large so that all of us may have those moments where we feel glorious, glorious.
So Say We All.