Slings and Arrows of Ordinary Fortune

Rev. Victoria Weinstein

First Parish in Norwell
May 11, 2003

Reading Hamlet' s Act III Soliloquy Wm. Shakespeare (abridged)

To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, 'tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish'd. To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: there's the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time. . .

To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover'd country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all.


Before we deal with Hamlet, let' s consider… Dr. Seuss for a moment! This sermon was, after all, commissioned by a mother of two young children a year or so ago --- a mother I knew in Maryland who had adopted, with her husband, two children from Russia who wound up having a lot of special needs – the extent of which no one had anticipated. This was a tired mother, a drained mom who spent her share of time with the good doctor (Seuss), and who gave me the book Oh, the Places You' ll Go and asked me to " preach on this."

" Oh the places you' ll go!" begins the big, brightly colored book.

" You won' t lag behind, because you' ll have the speed. You' ll pass the whole gang and you' ll soon take the lead. Wherever you fly, you' ll be best of the best. Wherever you go, you will top all the rest. Except when you don' t. Because sometimes you won' t. I' m sorry to say so but, sadly, it' s true that Bang-ups and Hang-ups can happen to you. . . Just never forget to be dexterous and deft. And never mix up your right foot with your left. And will you succeed? Yes! You will, indeed! 98 and three-quarters percent guaranteed."

And as for that remaining 1.25 percent, that little crack of non-success that every one of us falls through at least once (and often… often!) in our lives? As Hamlet would say, " Ay, there' s the rub." And that is where Maureen, in reading this book to her beautiful, wild children one night, got caught. And she asked me to reflect on what we do when it feels like we are living in the " Bang-ups and Hang-ups" too much of the time, caught in a sense of " is this all there is?" How do we keep going, decently and with a sense of meaning, when we seem to be living for too long in the hard places?

The first famous story that came to mind when I thought about Maureen' s request was Job. Job, to refresh your memory, was the all-around good man of the Bible story who got caught in a nasty little struggle between God and Satan, where Satan basically says to God, " Okay Big Guy, what happens to your human creature' s faith when his life goes from delightful to disastrous?" And God says, " Hey, let' s try it and see!" Then we have blight and death and open sores and a myriad of nasty trouble for poor Job, who had previously been doing really well. It' s a great story -- for another time, I think. I don' t like it for today' s purpose because while I have witnessed plenty of people struggling with inexplicable bad luck and hardship, I have never been partial to the explanation that they are pawns in some kind of cosmic competition between good and evil. We are not clay chess pieces being moved and molded by malicious deities. But we do suffer. We certainly do. And for this particular conversation about suffering, I would like to spend some time with Shakespeare' s melancholy Dane: Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.

Hamlet, you may recall, has a laundry list of legitimate complaints. His father has died under bizarre circumstances. His mother, disgracefully, has married his Uncle Claudius almost immediately following her husband' s funeral. Hamlet' s girlfriend Ophelia is acting weird, and they' re sort of broken up but not really. They' re still involved enough for him to feel really guilty about her strange behavior, which he worries might be due to his rejection of her. He has a lot of responsibility, being a prince and everything. And worst of all, the clincher, is that his father' s ghost has appeared to him several times telling him he was murdered by his treacherous Uncle Claudius (now married to mother Gertrude), and the ghost is after Hamlet to get revenge for him.

Well, you think, I might be able to relate to the constant exhausting family drama, the painful relationships and the betrayals here. But so far, thank god, I don' t have ghosts walking outside my home at night, moaning and rattling chains and telling me to take revenge for them!

You don' t think you have ghosts? Think again.

We are all haunted. Think about the ghosts in your life, the ones whose unresolved issues you carry within yourself: the war-torn parents or grandparents, the unrealized mother or father who begs or begged you to achieve and obtain everything they themselves did not, the anguished dead victims of oppression, genocide, slavery, and all other collective forms of evil humanity perpetuates against itself; those gone before who call us to create justice, to bear witness, to not forget. To be human is to be haunted. To live fully in this life is to learn to live in relative peace with our ghosts; something Hamlet never manages.

Hamlet is beset with problems that seem to have no solution. He feels caught in a tangled web of responsibility, conflicting loyalties and perhaps worst of all, debilitating guilt. Such guilt, and none of the humor that he desperately needs to blaze a path through his obsessive thinking and break free from the whole mishegas (a wonderful Yiddish word for craziness). Hamlet is not a play with a whole lot of humor. It is not completely without laughs, but it lacks a central clown –the kind of character Shakespeare often provides to bring some comic relief to his otherwise grim plays. Well, in real life, clowns don' t ride their bicycles into our scene to make us laugh and smile when it' s convenient, either. If there' s any clowning to be done, any comic relief to be had, we are bound to discover it ourselves. Hamlet, a deeply depressed man, doesn' t know how to do this for himself. And boy, is that a lesson for us!

So Hamlet reaches a crisis point, as many of us do at times in our lives when we feel trapped and constantly assaulted by " the slings and arrows" of perfectly ordinary fortune. Crises aren' t always dramatic: they are often quiet, characterized by moments when one wonders if he or she can endure another day of misery, of chronic dissatisfaction, of being misunderstood, of feeling profoundly lonely even when in the company of others, of sensing oneself as perpetually unlucky, or just plain stuck. In his moment of crisis, Hamlet asks that famous question that many of us has put to ourselves at times of suffering: " To be or not to be?"

It is the ultimate existential question, the one the philosopher referred to when he said that the central question facing every human being every day was whether or not to kill themselves. It' s stark, and it' s real. This is where Hamlet is living. This is how caught he feels in this actually quite petty family drama. I think it is to Shakespeare' s credit that this character that considers self-annihilation isn' t holding the fate of the world in his hands. He isn' t at war (although war could be imminent). He doesn' t have his finger on the little red button. He' s just a guy with a lot of what feel like insurmountable problems.

Perhaps Hamlet' s most recognizable trait to contemporary audiences is that he cannot stop thinking! Hamlet cannot stop processing and analyzing -- he' s like a tragic version of one of those Woody Allen characters who spend all of their adult lives on the analyst' s couch -- and because of this, Hamlet is frozen, paralyzed by word and by thought, kept at an arm' s distance from his life as it unfolds before him. He seems caged by his mind. Sound familiar at all? He is the ultimate modern neurotic.

Hamlet strikes me as the kind of man who has a whole lot of religion but no spirituality. And that is the essence of his problem. It is not that his problems as they are insurmountable, it is his orientation to them that is destroying him – he' s thinking all the wrong thoughts, as Kurt Vonnegut would say, and that' s what makes my heart ache for him and makes the bloody dénouement of this play so inevitable that it' s absolutely predictable and absolutely tragic. All those bodies littering the stage because this guy couldn' t let go of anything, couldn' t open the merest window in his being to let the Holy Spirit blow through.

What do I mean by saying that Hamlet has religion but no spirituality? Simply this: Hamlet gets religious points for being great at examining the moral dimensions of his predicament. He weighs pros and cons (" Dad' s dead; Uncle Claudius killed him. Mom married Uncle Claudius, so maybe she' s guilty, too. I should kill them both. I shouldn' t kill either of them; it would be wrong. Maybe I should kill myself! But what will happen if there' s an afterlife?" ) He judges as if on high like a demi-god. He is concerned to do the right thing. He even worries about eternal damnation (he is no Universalist). These things show us that Hamlet, to a certain extent, has got religion.

But here' s where he fails as a spiritual being: never once do you hear Hamlet suggest that there is anything beyond himself that is operating in the universe for the good. Never do you hear him say " this is a rotten time and although things may never work themselves out, I may work myself out in relation to my problems." Hamlet cannot accept grace. He feels responsible for manipulating, fixing, solving, untangling his tangled world - -he sees this as his job. To flip an old cliché on its head as Hamlet might, we could say " God' s not in his heaven and nothing' s right with the world." You just want to pry his sticky little fingers off the control panel (Annie Lamott).

What Hamlet ought to do to better balance his spirituality with his religion is politely tell his Ghost to go to hell, or to heaven, and leave him (the hell) alone! And he ought to take Ophelia on a picnic and let her weave flower garlands and marvel at her slight insanity and just tenderly let her be. He ought to invite his friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern over and instead of hiding behind a feigned madness, he should tell them how he really feels and ask them to arrange a road trip out of Elsinore, and perhaps out of Denmark altogether. Spring break to Ft. Lauderdale! C' mon Hamlet! Loosen up!

If Hamlet can' t tolerate the corruption in his kingdom then he shouldn' t try to. This is how our free will can truly free us of the ties that bind, and choke. What if Hamlet acknowledges his limitations and where he doesn' t feel talented or capable? (What if we did?) Hamlet should rely on his friends more. He is dying of loneliness and isolation. He is dying of thinking, of not trusting that he can let go, and of not feeling allowed to merely be. He is perishing of personal micro-management, and in him I see reflected too many modern men and women.

Reading Hamlet again helps me get a grip on that slippery fish we call spirituality, which may in fact be the ability to allow things to be what they are and to continue to live with decency and a sense of gratitude despite " the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" – or ordinary fortune; to somehow exist in a flowing pattern around one' s problems as a river flows around the rock, as opposed to taking up residence in the rock and trying to bust our way out. Or, far worse, to " take up" the sword and end our troubles by ending our lives, as Hamlet ultimately does. He doesn' t actually commit suicide, he works things so that someone else kills him. I' ve seen the play many times and the audience just hangs its head when he dies. It' s that sad. It' s that unspeakably pointless and tragic.

As I become more influenced by Buddhism I begin to believe that a great measure of what we call spirituality is another name for relinquishing control over people and situations, including ourselves and our own lives. Whoever told us that life was a problem to be solved was setting us up to be constantly exhausted. Why did no one ever tell us that problems that get solved are just as soon replaced by other problems, as the Buddha taught? When we are taught that joy and satisfaction are only to be found in the fleeting moments and spaces between problems, we are set up to regard life as one big series of painful episodes broken only by brief respite. And we cannot live that way without breaking our hearts. We cannot live that way without beginning to regard life as a punishment.

One evening my grandfather and I were playing cards and I was asking him to tell me stories about his life. After hearing his tales about his poor beginning in rural Pennsylvania, his cruel mother, and his running away at the age of fourteen to the big city – all of which he related in a way that made me realize he did not pity himself or think himself unfortunate, I asked him " Dede, what' s the meaning of life?"

And to my surprise, he took the little score pad we were using and wrote on it (and I still have the piece of paper), " To do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God." This fairly flattened me at the time because (1) my grandfather was an intensely modest man whom I would have expected to say something like " oh honey, I have no idea" or " just be a good person" and (2) My mother suspected that part of the reason her father served as their church' s treasurer for something like fifty years was that he got to miss most of the church service and count the offering. Let' s say I was not expecting a Bible quote in answer to my query.

The quote comes from the book of the prophet Micah. " How shall I live?" Do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with thy God. What particularly impresses me about this response is that there is nothing in there about happiness. Those three action verbs," do, love and walk" offer a path that proposes meaning rather than promising happiness. Ah, what a relief! So while I would not say that that moment changed my life exactly, I do remember that I was fairly depressed that summer, worn out from living too long in hard emotional places, chasing that elusive bird called happiness, and this quote somehow set me free. I thought to myself that I could do justice and love mercy and walk humbly with my god – I could do all of those things without ever worrying whether my life was turning out the way it should or whether or not I was happy, or even content. It shifted my focus. It gave me a clear sense of what to do with myself. And just as you might imagine, a sense of contentment came along later.

This again from Kurt Vonnegut, Jr:
" It strikes me as gruesome and comical that in our culture we have an expectation that a man can always solve his problems. There is that implication that if you just have a little more energy, a little more fight, the problem can always be solved. This is so untrue that it makes me want to cry – or laugh."

I couldn' t agree more. It is a cruel thing indeed to perpetuate the notion that we can always solve our problems. So for those who suggest that the aim of cultivating spirituality is to cultivate happiness, I' m sorry. I don' t agree, if we define happiness as the absence of pain or problems. I believe that the point of spiritual practices – be they internal or external -- is to be in better, more flexible spiritual shape to ride the inevitable rapids that the river of life will take us on. Not to achieve happiness, because what is that anyway? Perhaps to achieve flexibility. Appreciation. Maybe even joy. A sense of curiosity, openness, compassion. The ability to open up the clenched hand, to look into Ophelia' s terrified eyes and love her without hooking into her craziness. The ability to hear the voice of the ghost and to tell it goodnight, and thank the ghost for offering opinion without promising to act on its suggestions. To steer clear of the murderous uncle rather than feel we have to kill him. To forgive mother for her blind denial. To go on living, which is hard enough.

" To be or not to be?" asks Hamlet. Well, I' d have to vote for not to be. Not to be tormented by one' s racing thoughts that lead nowhere but into spiritual self-destruction. Not to be constrained by the expectation that one is responsible for solving problems or avenging wrongdoing, even the wrongs we commit against ourselves. Not to be trapped in the thankless job of making relationships work under crazy circumstances but not to be compelled to take up arms against them,either. Not to be trapped in the guilty fantasy that we can solve all our problems or even most of them; or that we' re supposed to be able to.

" To be or not to be?" Here' s a thought to leave with you: " To be … is to be for others," said Rabbi Abraham Heschel. This is something Hamlet never thought of. So let us think of it for him. To be is to be for others, to be with others, because others -- all others without exception—are suffering their own slings and arrows of their own ordinary, outrageous fortune. To be is to be for others, and with them – and this, we might tell Hamlet, is a consummation devoutly to be wished.