Shadows in the Snow

December 10th, 2018

In the Leo Tolstoy fable, The Three Questions, the wise turtle Leo tells Nicolai,
“There is only one important time, and that time is now.
The most important one is always the one you are with.
And the most important thing is to do good for the one who is standing at your side.”

There is only one important time, and that time is now.

It’s hard to accept this deceptively simple truth. I know I don’t feel that my time driving on highway 410 is especially important. All of us come here distracted by the rest of our lives, our minds and hearts arriving a little later than our bodies.

It is hard to be present, to insist to ourselves that this very moment is important.

And yet if we are present in this moment, if we give attention to one another, it is a reminder to each one of us that we matter. That this chalice community matters.

I am grateful every Sunday for the gift of your presence.

There is only one important time, and that time is now.
The most important one is always the one you are with.
And the most important thing is to do good for the one who is standing at your side.

As Unitarian Universalists we have a fairly broad view of who we are with, who is standing by our side.
Our principles call for a world community, our vision is of an interdependent earth.

So the one we are with includes Syrian people fleeing their homeland.  Even across the globe we felt they were standing at our side. Bringing 4 families to Canada was an act of being present in the moment, acknowledging the suffering of others as our own, and responding.

What we did as a community mattered.

But being present in the moment, trying to do good, isn’t always easy.
To be present is to be open and aware of your environment, and with that openness comes vulnerability – the environment is going to impact on you.
And that isn’t always great.

I find myself whining “when will there be good news?” every morning.  I read articles about starving polar bears, devastating wild fires, escalating violence and wars, the powerful men who are sexual abusers, and just want to give up.

I don’t want to be present to the world.  It hurts.  It’s exhausting to experience the weariness and despair and fear. Many women have been experiencing this with the #metoo campaign.  It is both heartening and heartbreaking to have truth long kept privately finally acknowledged openly.
Heartening and heartbreaking.

It isn’t that sexual harassment is news to most of us.  We live in a society shaped by male privilege with women as sexual objects, and every woman has experiences of being sexualized.  Like racism, it is culturally embedded, and all of us have learnt to be casual about sexist jokes, remarks and behaviour.

While I suspect I have had less then my “fair share” of metoo moments, I’ve still got plenty of them, from sexual harassment to having my expertise ignored unless a man says so too.

As comic Jo Brand said, “It doesn’t have to be high level for women to feel under siege … for women, if you’re constantly being harassed, even in a small way, that builds up and that wears you down.’

It wears you down.  And can shut you down.

Fortunately, society is ever evolving, and with the whisper network shouting, this dynamic is no longer normalized.

It’s important that as a society we have the conversation about harassment and gender roles and sexuality.  It’s essential that women finally get to speak for themselves and name our experiences and be believed.

And to be present to this can mean being open to pain.
To be present to this moment may trigger us to relive past moments of abuse in our own lives.
The moments when we weren’t believed.

For women who have been feeling this “metoo” moment personally, I, along with Joan A., will host a sharing circle after service today. This is for women who wish to share their personal stories or feelings in a safe atmosphere.

As Leo the turtle told Nicolai:
“There is only one important time, and that time is now.
The most important one is always the one you are with.
And the most important thing is to do good for the one who is standing at your side.”

In this this chalice community, we strive to be present to one another.
We take time on Sunday mornings to simply sit and be together, present to the pain as well as the joy.
May we remember that now is important.


Despite this month being an encouragement to presence, I don’t think we can always be fully present.

It’s not healthy.  We need times of being open and aware and we need times of closure and protection.
The world can be too much with us. The pain and suffering can be too much. Often, we just need to get on with things, or be strong for our children, or restore ourselves.

But in the end, we can’t avoid the suffering.  Even when we try to smother it with food or alcohol or whatever addiction we choose.

To live well, we have to accept the suffering in order to be truly present to the joys as well.
We have to figure out how to handle the pain.

We avoid being present because it hurts.
Because our pain, the pain of others, looks like a tsunami of suffering that will surely drown us.
It can be overwhelming.
Sometimes it is, and that’s when we need to close down and care for ourselves with compassion.

But as we practice presence, the tsunami shrinks in force.  It looks like a huge wave about to crush you, but it breaks and swirls around instead. Instead of being swept away, you bob with the waves and stay grounded in yourself.

As we accept our experience, our feelings, as they are in the moment, they crest and fall away.
And then we can feel the joy that is there too.

As poet Louise Bogan said  “I cannot believe that the inscrutable universe turns on an axis of suffering; surely the strange beauty of the world must somewhere rest on pure joy!”

I believe that is the attitude of Unitarian Universalism.
That somewhere, there is pure joy.

It lies in the love you feel when the grief releases or the compassion felt in seeing the pain of another.
It takes practice to learn how to sit with our emotions and make our way through to joy.

We don’t learn how to handle our emotions in western society, and it isn’t an instinctive process that just happens as we mature.

Being present is a choice, it’s a choice to open the heart to life.
But we can’t choose presence, until we learn how to be present.

In Buddhism, meditation is the path to presence.
Meditation teaches us to be open to the experience of emotions without getting swept away by the feelings.

Tara Brach is a Unitarian Universalist Buddhist mediation teacher.
She teaches people how to recognize, honour and manage their own emotions through meditation.

She once worked with an African American man named Richie.  Richie was a photo-journalist and had married Carly, a white woman from a conservative country club family. Richie knew what he was getting into, but struggled with the on-going resistance of his mother-in-law Sharon, who refused to be seen in public with them.

Sharon told her daughter she was making a terrible mistake, that they would end up divorced and miserable.  She ignored all of Richie’s attempts to reach out to her, telling Carly he was good person but it was still a mistake.

Richie was angry but didn’t want to give up on the relationship with his mother in law, even with her racist attitudes.

While meditating, he realized he felt Sharon was telling him he was unworthy of her daughter.
His anger was covering up his own fears of failure and unworthiness. Richie resolved to be kinder to himself.

With more kindness towards himself, he began to look at his mother-in-law with kindness too.
He saw that behind the coldness was a tight, scared heart.  Richie saw that Sharon was truly afraid her daughter would end up miserable.

As a photo-journalist, Richie always had his camera with him, and he began to take pictures of his mother-in-law in happy moments with the family. At Christmas, after receiving the usual passive aggressive unsuitable gifts from his mother in law, he gave her two photos.

Richie had caught Sharon cradling her new granddaughter, looking down adoringly at the infant. The other was of a playful moment with her husband. Sharon began to cry, looking at the pictures of herself with her granddaughter and her husband, looking radiant, loving, and happy.

Richie had truly “seen” Sharon—her vulnerability and spirit, and he’d expressed his care by mirroring her goodness.

Because he hadn’t given up on her, a thaw began.
It took some months for Sharon to tell him what those gifts had meant to her, and to apologize.

In being present to his own emotions, and holding himself with kindness, Richie was able to see the pain behind Sharon’s coldness.  In being present, he helped Sharon become present. (Story from True Refuge, by Tara Brach)

Being able to handle our emotions matters. It isn’t instinctual, we need to practice how to face our feelings, face the pain, so that we can find the underlying joy.

We may learn to do this through sitting meditation, or by going on long walks or intense workouts.
We may understand ourselves better through music or through being grounded in all our senses.

Each of us finds the way that works best for us.  It’s a challenge, but if we keep on practicing, it becomes easier to face the painful suffering.

It becomes easier to have compassion for ourselves and to be vulnerable with those we love.

Being present is to live fully – to experience both the joys and sorrows of living.

Being present within ourselves helps us be present to others.

As Leo the turtle told Nicolai:
“There is only one important time, and that time is now.
The most important one is always the one you are with.
And the most important thing is to do good for the one who is standing at your side.”

So Say We All


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