Let Go and Pull for Shore
Rev. Douglas Taylor
March 24, 2013
Kahlil Gibran wrote: “Your joy is your sorrow unmasked. And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears. … The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.”
“When the night is dark and dreary and the road has left me weary …” Joyce Poley sings. When sorrow, trouble, hurt and heartache threaten to leave me alone and lost, there are ways to get through. There are no ways to get around it that are worth pursuing. There are no ways to ‘get over it’ that are worth pursuing. But there are ways through the sorrow and heartache.
And when the music fills my soul
And I am feelin’ strong
I’ll know again both joy and pain
Are part of the self-same song
–Lyrics of “Sing My Sorrows Away” by Joyce Poley
There are ways through. The question when you are in the midst of it, however, is how to keep going, how to persevere. I think it is important to remember, when you are caught up in the collapse of your life or are knee deep in your sorrow, that the long arc of your life is aimed for fulfillment and that what some people see as failure other know to be the natural ebb before the flow.
Perseverance, as Meg Wheatley told us in the opening words, is synonymous with “Tenacity, steadfastness, persistence, [and] doggedness.” (from Perseverance by Margaret Wheatley, p3) Perseverance is a virtue we don’t spend much time talking about but is so obviously a quality we long for in our lives. We often see perseverance however as unyielding determination, which is not exactly fair. We perhaps see perseverance as tangled up with strength and firm commitment, yet there is more to than that; and to think of it only like that is to miss an important part of perseverance. There is a yielding aspect to perseverance because it is concerned with the big picture, the long haul.
The long haul, what a great phrase! Listening to that Annie Dillard reading (from The Writing Life, p83-89) about the man who hauled an Alaskan yellow cedar log through the night brings home how that turn of phrase can mean perseverance! Ferrar Burns was in it for the long haul. Half the night he was rowing north yet moving steadily south in danger of being swept out to the ocean. Sometimes, faithful and productive action looks like the opposite. It can look and feel like failure. But in the long haul, with perseverance, you will get there in the end.
One of the David Leonard aphorisms mentioned at his memorial services is “If at first you don’t succeed, maybe there’s a lesson in that for you.” This could be a statement suggestion you give up, resign, quit. Or it could be a statement that failure is part of success. It could be a signal to pay more attention to how success is never a straight line. I mean, it is not like that for me. I think I’m headed one way and it turns out I’m taking the long way to get there. What’s it like for you? For me, a “yes” from life can sound like “No, no, no, no, nope, not this time, no, no, no, no, no, no way, not going to happen, no, no, maybe next time, no, no, not like that, no, no, not like that either, no, no, no, no, no, YES!”
Which leads me to talk about Taoism. This past week in the World Religions course we talked about Taoism. During our conversations around the iconic Yin Yang concept I found myself thinking about this morning’s topic of perseverance. I trust you are familiar with the Yin Yang image: A circle half black and half white. There is feeling of motion in the image because the halves are not a straight bisection from top to bottom, but rather an “s” curve or tear-shaped curve of each color. It represents the flow of opposites, as if the two halves are each moving around; and as the tapered end of one closes the swell of its opposite moves in. And in the heart of each color is a dot of its opposite.
In the second chapter of the Tao Te Ching, we read about opposites:
When people see some things as beautiful,
other things become ugly.
When people see some things as good,
other things become bad.
Being and non-being create each other.
Difficult and easy support each other.
Long and short define each other.
High and low depend on each other.
Before and after follow each other.
I could add that success and failure support each other, holding on and letting go depend on each other, beginning and ending define each other. Both are occurring in every moment. Consider the opening pair the chapter offered: beautiful and ugly. Taoism suggests that you don’t see something as either one or the other. Instead see everything as containing both in harmony. A flower is beautiful now, as it blooms and as it blossoms. But as it wilts and dies it is no longer beautiful, it is ugly. But its beauty is not gone, its beauty is in the experience, all beauty is. So it is with success and failure. So it is with joy and sorrow.
13th Century Iranian poet and mystic, Jalal Udin Rumi wrote:
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning is a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, meanness
Some momentary awareness comes
As an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
Who violently sweep your house
Empty of its furniture,
Still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
For some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
Meet them at the door laughing,
And invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
Because each has been sent
As a guide from beyond.
Don’t fall into the trap of judging your emotions as good emotions or bad emotions. Be grateful for whoever comes. Even if you see only the dark, a dot of light resides therein and more is pouring in soon. Even if you are pulled by the current in the opposite direction all night long, the full story of your life is not told in only that night. Morning will come. Even if life has said “no” countless times it may be clearing you out for a bigger “yes” still to come. As Gibran and Joyce Poley say, “both joy and pain are part of the self-same song.”
Mary Oliver wrote a very brief poem entitled “The Uses of Sorrow.”
Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.
It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.
Should you refuse the sorrow you would diminish the joy. Should you deny failure then there is little chance of success. Life is all of it. Like the beauty of the flower, just because life is not all joy and success does not mean life is not full of joy and success. Success is in the moment. Don’t imagine the opposites as permanent choices; instead see yourself as containing both.
Perseverance is that quality we have of moving through the ebb and flow of life with grace. Through the beauty and the ugliness, through the joy and the pain, through the failure and the success, perseverance is the virtue of seeing through to the end: tenacity, steadfastness, persistence, doggedness. The image of a reed or bamboo shoot is a good one. It is strong yet supple. It bows and bends in the wind but is not uprooted by the storm the way hard wood trees can be. By yielding, the reed remains and continues.
What does that look like in your life? How do you manage the rush and storms of life, the swinging vagaries of chance, the ups and downs of it all? Do you wallow in the disappointments, or ignore them? Or do you adept them, perhaps even learn from them? Do you find your emotions, your self-esteem, your sense of self carried along on the ebb and flow in a draining and exhausting fashion? Or do you ride it out? Do you find yourself cursing the wind? Or do you just smile at the absurdity of it all, knowing that the winds blows today and are still tomorrow? What does it look like in your life?
We tell stories of principled heroes. We lift up the people who, in our society and our history, stand firm and do not yield to injustice. We shine the light on the great leaders who show fierce commitment and courage. But there is a secret to that strength we often do not see. There is an unseen power behind the scenes. It is the power of letting go. We do not give it much credit when it is seen so people often keep it hidden. Compromise and bending are too often seen as weakness in our leaders and in our role models and in our hearts.
Yet letting go is a huge part of perseverance. Perseverance is not synonymous with permanence. It has more to do with growth, and growth is about change. To persevere, we must let go of what is in favor of what will be. Whether we speak of making the world a better place and the perseverance needed to keep at the work, or we speak of sorrow and heartache and the perseverance need to continue to hope and to love and to reach out. Those who persevere have learned to let go: to let go of expectations, of judgment, of ego.
To let go is not to quit. Indeed to let go in this sense is to commit to something particular! Truly if you look at it rightly, the letting go is of whatever holds you back. To let go is to find that central and ultimate value in life worthy of your commitment, and then to surrender all else to win it. So it doesn’t matter if all through the night as you row north with your beautiful cedar log, all the while drifting farther and farther south. Trusting that the tides and the currents will carry you, you can leg go of your directional movement and just pull for shore.
Moving forward and slipping back belong to each other. In keeping with the way the Tao Te Ching would have it, they belong to each other not because one is good and the other is bad. They belong to each other because if we want to persevere we will have both in our lives.
Rev. David Leonard, in his last sermon, “Dueling with the Grim Reaper,” talked about living and dying. He said,
“Death and life are interwoven in an even more meaningful and immediate sense. Pervious experiences must in some way die before present experiences can be born. Past experiences become the humus out of which novelty emerges. We look back with regret on our “bad” experiences, and we sometimes look back at “good” experiences with nostalgic sadness, because they are over.
… The purpose of life is to live … Our instinct is to put death off and to deny its reality. But the truth is that our lives and our deaths are interwoven, and in order to come to terms with death, we need to come to terms with life – and vise versa.”
David used not only the specific and literal meaning of birth and death, but also the little births and deaths that happen throughout our days. The birth of a new day, a new friendship, or a new experience is always happening. Likewise, the death of the old day, an old relationship, or an old experience is also always happening.
Intellectually this is a little counter-intuitive but not overly difficult. Life and death, success and failure, forward and back, sorrow and joy: to look at these pairings as entangled and necessary is intellectually manageable. The trick is living it into reality. The trick is all this letting go and holding on, embracing the bad stuff as well as the good stuff. The trick is that on a daily level it is not simple. But those who learn the art of holding both the joy and the sorrow, the success and the failure, – holding all of it and honoring all of it – those are the ones who persevere.
So let go. Let go of your ego, let go of expectations, let go of all fear of sorrow or failure. Because the mistakes and failures are yours for the long haul and the sorrow and heartache are yours for the long haul. But so too is the joy, so too are the sweet successes and achievements. So let go and pull for the shore. Hitch your boat to the solid core of your integrity and your dream and pull with all your might. When you are caught up in the collapse of your life or are knee deep in your sorrow, remember that the long arc of your life is aimed for fulfillment and that what some people mistake as failure other know to be the natural ebb and flow of life. So let go and pull for shore.
In a world without end,
may it be so.