There Is Not Time For Despair

September 11, 2005
Rev. Victoria Weinstein

On September 11, 2001, I was living in Maryland. My mother called that morning – and said to turn on the TV. I sat there in total abject terror watching this thing unfold and I was just frozen with dread. It was a waking nightmare.

I went and got my Bible and opened it to the psalms because I knew that although this kind of horror was totally new to me, it was an old, old human phenomenon and plenty of it was recorded in the Bible, and especially the psalms with their laments and railing at God. And this stuff we were seeing was something of definitely Biblical proportions.

Last week I went back to the Bible – to the prophets this time, and it did my heart good to hear the words of the prophet Jeremiah, who witnessed the total devastation of his beloved land some 2,500 years ago. There is a time to read editorials or to watch CNN, and there is a time to just mourn. These words helped me to mourn:

How long will the land mourn, and the grass of
every field wither?... I have forsaken mine house. I have left mine heritage;
I have given the dearly beloved of my soul into the hand of her
enemies...Many shepherds have destroyed my vineyard, they have trampled down my portion,
they have made my pleasant portion a desolate wilderness; they have made it a
desolation: desolate, it mourns to me, The whole land is made desolate, but
no one lays it to heart. Upon all the bare heights the spoilers have come.
...And after I have plucked them up, I will again have compassion on them, and I
will bring them again to their heritage and to their land, every one of

We all knew that Homecoming Sunday this year fell on 9/11. What we never considered – I certainly didn' t – was that there would be a much fresher national tragedy to confront together in this house of worship.

It is so good and right for us to be here together, to share the strength of one another' s presence, to literally re-member who we are, what we are, what we are devoted to, our highest dreams and fondest hopes and our stubborn insistence that human beings not only can be, but must be the hands of God, healing and serving and helping and providing.

When I announced the subject of resilience for today, I did not know that hundreds of thousands of our fellow Americans would be displaced, traumatized, still in shock, not even able yet to begin grieving their staggering losses because they' re yet too close to the crisis that occurred in those last days of August. When I was planning to talk about resilience, I did not think about Gulf Coast mothers who gave birth on August 29th and who had to evacuate flooding hospitals, and who still don' t know today where their baby is. God forgive anyone who suggests the emotional practice of resiliency to someone in such shattering agony as that.

When I planned to talk about resiliency I was thinking about New York City and Washington, DC in 2001. I did not have in my mind the image of a man breaking down on national television describing how his grandmother drowned because promised help did not arrive in time. I had never heard about a mother and her 19-year old son who clawed their way out through their roof and swam to safety, clinging to one chimney after another as they worked their way to dry land.

When I started thinking about resiliency as an emotional quality I did not know about my colleague, the Rev. Marta Valentin, who was just called as the new minister of First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans. She and her partner moved there in July and now, her apartment is under water, her church building is under water, and worst of all, she doesn' t even know where most of her congregants are. They are trying to have a worship service by conference call this very hour. Right now, and we hold them in our hearts.

The other two New Orleans UU congregations are badly damaged, and our congregations all over the Gulf Coast are teaming together – as are other communities and faith and relief organizations -- with financial donations, volunteer hours and sheltering evacuees. Baton Rouge, LA, which is 80 miles from New Orleans, has doubled in size from 418,000 to 750,000 people. They are calling it "New Orleans North" these days. The UU Church in Baton Rouge is overwhelmed – they had 400 people at their services last week. I will be flying down there for a week in early October to provide ministerial support and relief to their minister, Steve Crump. I know you will all be very supportive.

So I am just so happy and incredibly grateful to see you, to see your faces, to see your eyes, to see you whole and in one piece. Many of you have endured serious trials this summer. Very serious illness. Difficult surgeries. Death of loved ones. Other losses. It is especially good to see you. We are just so fortunate to have this place, this good building that has been here to hold us as one people since 1830. We are so fortunate for the dry roads that got us here. We know that if we have resiliency at all, it is communities like our church that help provide that.

Given all the fresh sources of suffering in our land, I am aware that a comfortable white Yankee woman had better be very careful when talking about resilience. Isn' t "resilience" just another name for "stiff upper lip?" Americans love stiff upper lip stories. In one of the most popular summer movies this year, "Batman Begins," Alfred the butler means says to Bruce Wayne, who later becomes Batman – "Why do we get knocked down, Master Bruce? In order to get back up."

That may be really cool advice for Batman, but it' s not so hot if your husband went down with Flight 93 on September 11th or if you and your family recently lived in Biloxi, Mississippi. Why do we get knocked down? Because we do. Because that' s part of life. And although I loved "Batman Begins," I think it' s pretty perverse to say that the reason we get knocked down – the reason we suffer – is in order to get back up. No, it isn' t. Whatever meaning comes from suffering is ours to find. We may get back up, we may not. Some people break and never recover. Suffering isn' t a competitive sport, where the point is to take a harder and harder hit and keep springing up with your dukes up, with some really hot ninja moves.

Suffering is life. All the religious traditions know and teach this truth, and perhaps none so simply and purely as the Buddha, who said that all suffering comes from the failure to accept that change is inevitable, and that loss is inevitable, and nothing stays, and we have no control over that. The reason we hurt so much is because we refuse to accept this with equanimity, and compassionate inner peace.
(FYI, I haven' t even reached beginner status in accepting this myself; I' m just reporting to you the wisdom of the Buddha. I' m not sure I' ll ever reach beginner status in accepting this.)

Resilience isn' t about taking a Rebecca of Sunnybrook farm approach to everything, and it doesn' t require that we cling to optimism when it would be healthier to mourn and grieve, as it is today. Resiliency isn' t about constructing a tough exterior or interior so that nothing touches us and nothing "gets to" us. To do that would be to give away what is most human about us, and that is our ability to feel, to live in the world as unarmored, soft animals.

Resiliency, rather, is about knowing that whatever loss there may be, whatever horrid circumstance, there might be a life-giving response, there might be a creative reaction, there might be a way to go on. Resiliency is about knowing that there must be a way to go on. It doesn' t have to be cheerful or pretty, it just has to be the desire to go on.

I heard a story about a pregnant Rwandan mother of six whose village was destroyed in the Tutsi massacre in 1994. "She was shot first, buried under the bodies of her slain children, and left for dead. She dug herself out, buried her children, bore her child, and later adopted five children whose parents had been killed in the same massacre. She expressed her belief that her life had been spared so that she might care for those orphaned children after losing her own." (Meg Wheatley, Turning To One Another, p.59)

Resilience isn' t about a stiff upper lip. It is about seeing the possibility for beginnings when there was only terrible, bleak ending.

Aron Ralston was hiking in Utah when a boulder fell on him, trapping his right wrist between a boulder and the wall. For five days he tried to get free and then faced the inevitability of his own death of hypothermia, until he realized he could cut off his arm and get free. He said to an NPR reporter, "The moment when I figured out how I could get free, it was the best idea and the most beautiful experience I will ever have in my life… It was all euphoria and not a bit of horror. It was like having my life back after being dead." ("As Good As Dead," Felipe Martinez, in The Christian Century, May 31, 2005)
Resilience is about moving forward when you have every reason to absolutely believe that you are trapped.

Setsuko Thurlow, who was a schoolgirl in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, remembers the exact moment the A-bomb was dropped, killing 140,000 Japanese. She was 13 years old that day, and was rescued by a man clearing away the debris that buried her and all her classmates alive. She saw thousands of stunned Japanese civilians streaming out of the city – burned, blackened, their flesh hanging from their bones. Her own sister and nephew were burned beyond recognition, and died ten days after the blast. The agonies they suffered are literally unimaginable.

On September 17 of that same year, just a month after the bomb, Hiroshima was hit by a typhoon. It was at that point that the traumatized Setsuko could finally cry, when she found herself walking home in the torrential rain, wading her way through knee-high water, mud, and sewage.

When she got home, she threw herself into her father' s arms and finally let loose with all the tears and grief she had been suppressing since August 6th. "Why do we have to suffer so much?" she cried. And her father said, "What right do you have to be sad? We have life, we have each other and we have a roof over our heads."

That response may shock you, and seem to be lacking in compassion, but Setsuko Thurlow says it helped her to emotionally reconcile what had happened, and gave her the strength to speak out against nuclear proliferation as an adult. "When I was 13," she says, "There were three nuclear bombs in the world. Now there are 30,000. It' s discouraging, but I don' t despair. There is not time for despair. I want to live and I want my kids and my grandkids to live."

Resiliency is about finding something to live for when everything seems destroyed. It is about realizing that there really is not time for despair. The Hasidic Jews, who are no strangers to suffering, say, "The Holy Presence cannot dwell in a place of dejection."

Above all, resiliency involves engagement, engagement which then generates creativity. It is creativity that allows us to think of solutions, to remember that a new day is coming, to envision a future where there may be less pain and suffering. Resiliency is relational: we can be resilient because we have relationships to live for, more love to give even after we feel we have been shattered. Resiliency is about hearing music when there seems only to be deafening silence.

Let me close with one last story.
Author Meg Wheatley tells about the time she went on a tour of Robben Island, the South African prison where Nelson Mandela was locked up for more than twenty-five years for his anti-apartheid activism. Her tour guide was a former prisoner on the island. He showed them a long, narrow, barren room that had been used as a cell for freedom fighters. They had been crowded in there --jammed in there -- with no cots and no furniture: just cold cement walls and floors. As the guide quietly described the brutal treatment he received during his incarceration there, the tourists looked through the bars of the door and tried to imagine what it could have been like, how they would have survived it without going totally mad. At one point, the tour guide paused. Speaking very softly, he said, "Sometimes, to pass the time here, we taught each other ballroom dancing." (from Turning to One Another, Margaret J. Wheatley, p. 74).

We go on together, listening for the music.