You are What You Expect[i]
By Charles Rush
October 7, 2007
Matthew 6: 33 &, 6: 39
“Seek Ye First...”
(mp3, 6.8Mb) ]
Churchill once observed that "A pessimist sees the difficulty in every
opportunity; and optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty." This
was a man well acquainted with this subject matter. Personally, I like Chauncey
Depew's observation. He remarked that “a pessimist is a man who thinks all
women are bad; an optimist is one who hopes they are."
to abound in certain fields more than others, economics among them, as most of
us here know from reading their work each and every week. Barry Asmus once said of his colleagues that economists appear to
learn pessimism deeply. "They've
predicted 8 of the last 3 recessions".
favorite for the week comes from Mark Twain. He said that some of us appear to
be born pessimists, others appear to be born optimists, but "all of us can
learn to become bigamists."
The germ for
this sermon came from an article in the New York Times magazine many months ago
that relied on a series of studies on our attitudes towards the future.[ii]
We are, of course, an admixture of both optimism and pessimism. Curiously,
people tend to be overly optimistic about the prospects of their own personal
future. That is, they tend to overestimate their own abilities and they tend to
overestimate their own ability to control the future. We view ourselves as
residents of Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon, where "all the men are strong,
all the women are good looking and all the children are above average."
Psychologists suggest that these are positive illusions that help us to
actually venture out to try more than we ever would if we had a realistic
assessment of our situation and our competence.
argued that these positive illusions persist in our collective attitudes
nationally, as suggested by Nobel Laureate Daniel Kanheman
and Jonathon Renshon several months ago in Foreign Policy magazine, to explain how
we got into Iraq and later found ourselves adjudicating
a protracted civil war.[iii]
Perhaps you've seen that piece of video feed that has 30 of our politicians
interviewed right at the onset of the invasion of Iraq, answering the question
of where we will be in a year or two, and when will we get out. No one wanted
to answer the question in detail naturally. But, every single one of them was
not only off the mark- but woefully off the mark, on both sides of the aisle.
Truth be told, the rest of us just weren't caught on tape, but we all deserve a
big heaping of humble pie. The authors suggest that this war wasn't so much a
triumph of hawks over doves as it was the triumph of our positive illusions
about our ability to control the future.
curiously, our positive illusions personally and nationally tend to give way to
pessimism when we think globally. When the lens is opened to zoom out and wide
angle, we tend to think that our best days are behind us and the future
portends decline, scarcity, and controlled chaos. It is almost as if we give
voice to our collective subconscious that we as a species are in the mid-life
phase of our evolution, looking back nostalgically at the warm fuzzy memories,
minimizing the struggles and frustrations, anticipating the dissolution of our
collective health and our eventual terminus.
latest round of research on the general subject of our optimism and pessimism
has noted of 'closed-loop feedback mechanisms' that tend to re-inforce our basic disposition. In every day language, there
is a self-fulfilling quality to our outlook on life. In one interesting study
that many of us somewhat acquainted with looked at gambling comparing
pessimists and optimists on their ability to sustain risk. One presumes that a
very similar study could have been done on equity traders.
Gibson and Dr. David Sanbonmatu[iv]
found that optimists tended to remember their victories and minimize their
losses, whereas pessimists were 61% more likely to remember their losses and
minimize their gains at the black jack table. And that way of viewing the world
translates into predictable behavior. In a losing streak, pessimists are more
likely to quit playing earlier and cut their losses before the chips are all
gone. Optimists tend to stay in the game longer, presuming their luck will
turn, even if the odds are stacked against them. It is interesting that we project our disposition onto our behavior
and we also interpret what we actually do in such a way that we refract our
memories to re-inforce our disposition to continue to
behave that way in the future.
This is why we
have more and more parents nowadays that reflect on what they are teaching and
modeling for their children because they are aware of the persistence and
gravity of our fundamental dispositions. I once asked my 75 year old mother if
she could summarize in a sentence what she learned from her parents, a tough
question to answer, but often revealing. She said, "The wolf is at the
door", reflecting the experience of those adults that lived through the
Great Depression in our country in the thirties, as well as that reserve and
caution so pervasive in my Dutch ancestors.
It will be
interesting to see how our children answer that question in 4 decades time.
Whatever their answer, it most assuredly will not be 'the wolf is at the door'.
But all of us are aware of the power that we have to shape the next generation
and how powerfully we were shaped by the previous generation.
This is the
profound meaning of the text this morning from Numbers that says "The sins of the Fathers are visited upon the
Children unto the third and fourth generation." For better and worse,
the consequences of what we do, how we live, and the values that we articulate
are not only horizontal- affecting our friends and family around us- they are
also vertical, stretching down the generations in ways that we could not
anticipate and perhaps would not intend.
And one of the
important goals of developing a healthy, responsible sense of self as an adult,
is being aware of how we have been formed, but
not letting that definition exhaustively control our sense of purpose and
destiny. The past is important. It is fundamentally formative. We cannot
entirely escape it. But it needs to be balanced by the pull of our own future.
This is simply
one dimension of what Jesus suggests in Matthew this morning. "Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and all these other
things will be added to you." In the teaching of Jesus, the Kingdom of God, is the future pull of the Spirit in
our lives. It is the 'not yet', the 'unknown', it is the hope of things not yet
seen. It is promissory in nature. It is collective in nature, so it is bigger
than our personal hopes and dreams, and yet our personal hopes and dreams are
part of it too. Jesus suggests that the pull of the future of God is as
powerful and healing as the push of the past has been controlling and
For most of us
this is a gradual process that works itself out in young adulthood and it
continues to be a challenge throughout our lives.
Kevin Brownson sat in his car, idling, as he looked up the lawn
at this home all a glitter with the seasonal lights inviting the warmth and
peace of winter and perhaps a fire. He was thinking to himself that it wasn't
all that bad, the phrase 'all that bad' which had been roiling around in his
mind like loose change in a dryer for the past 24 hours.
afternoon, he'd been sitting with a therapist and his wife, listening to her
describe all of his worst features and some of his best caught in a poor light
so as to accentuate the dimension that even his virtues weren't entirely what they seem. He sat there in enforced
silence- this was the point of the exercise for him to just listen without
being able to respond- getting more and more defensive, thinking that this
description was somewhat unfair and somewhat untrue.
He spent the
rest of the evening and most of the next day coming back to this caricature.
Every free moment it seemed, he would envision this statute of vice that had
been depicted for him, draping it with another adornment of virtue here, an
accessory of interesting characteristic there, so that by the drive home, he
could almost envision the original ugly model and at once the overlay of his
redaction so that finally he had an image of himself that he could recognize as
something like who he actually was.
He kept telling
himself that he really wasn't that bad, that this whole exercise was really
unfair and not helpful. At odd times during the day, he would think of pitching
the whole relationship, pitching his whole life, even though this was not
really an option. Shortly after that thought left him, he would come back to
this dis-ease, this lack of fulfillment, this vague
ennui that his wife described. When he thought about his wife articulating this
sentiment, a defensiveness arose within him, a low-grade rage about the
presumption, the sheer arrogance, the … whole damn exercise was just irritating.
But in a
moment, that would pass and as it did, he was left himself with the unsettling
reality that he wasn't really happy either… And why not? And what constitutes
He had driven
home that evening past so many of the landmarks that dotted the scenery of his
life, past the hospital where two of his children were born, passed the
elementary school they all attended, over to the pool to pick one of them up.
With each turn, he was reflecting on how solid and grounded their life was, and
that really he'd done a good job… they'd done a good job.. and life could be a
lot worse. And it was good, but… And it was good, but…
All the time,
these images from his own childhood kept bubbling to the surface. They were an
odd collection and occasionally he would try to focus on one of them only to
discover that he couldn't recall many of the details around it anymore. There
he was at St. Leo's school winning an award in 8th grade. There he was walking
out to mid-field with the two other Co-Captains to flip a coin at the beginning
of the football game. There he was camping on what turned out to be a strange
night in Boy Scouts. Good memories really, crisp… at one point, he almost said
out loud to himself, 'a lot of uniforms' and he could see himself as an
remembering how competitive his brothers all were and the time he broke his
brother Michael's collarbone in a wrestling move that pitched them both off the
He was thinking
about what he had achieved, about how he had graduated with honors and how
proud his parents were, the partial scholarship to college, just barely getting
into the Big East law school, and paying for it himself. He could hear the
aphorisms that his father used to extol at the dinner table or after the game-
these tidbits of wisdom on how to
succeed, maxims on how to keep a competitive edge.
He nodded his
head, half in mirth, half in derision, at the way that these little maxims to
live by almost completely defined what he knew of his father and how they had
been good guides nevertheless. He was thinking how good he had been at
following the rules, how good he was when everything was defined and you knew
what the goal was. And he was swept with a wave of sorrow that very nearly
became a full blown self-pity thinking of this kid who followed the rules had
somehow become this man who wasn't entirely sure even what the game was around
him, full of frustration and anxiety. Why was this so hard?
He was sitting
in his car out in front of his house, looking up at the lights. It was a nice
view. It was a nice life. He was thinking of himself the way most people
thought of himself and he was thinking of the way his wife viewed him in that
therapy session. He looked up at his neighbors homes and thought of one image
and the other image and suddenly he
wanted to cry. The lights were twinkling out of focus when he said out
loud, 'There is so much more… There is so much more to me'.
And there is so
much more. You come to this realization at some point that, without intending
it, you have been living someone else's expectations for you, you've been
reading out of someone else's script. It may be a good script even but it
doesn't work because there is so much more to you than this script asks you to
deliver. And there are these key resources of creativity, there is a sense of
being fully engaged and alive spiritually that you are not accessing. You've
been pushed along by the streams of the past and you have ridden them up to
this place but they won't be enough in and of themselves to unlock that deeper
meaning to life that you hunger for.
Who are you
really? What would it take for you to find that deeper fulfillment? On your
best days, in an imaginative moment, what would you look like if you could
really awaken your spouse so that they were alive and rich in personality,
engaged, interesting,… really alive....Spiritually resonant…. Creative.
important dimension to this challenge comes not from the past but from the
future. It is not enough to just look back on who you were and where you've
been. Who are you becoming? Where are you headed?
That is a much
more difficult question to answer isn't it? And it is not just the unknowing about the future, it is also the
spiritual energy and creative resolve that it takes to paint a vision. It is
much harder to make choices and know deep in your heart that all this
responsibility lies solely with you. It is much easier to beg off this mission,
staying preoccupied with the responsibilities of the challenging present, as
though the present lived day after day, somehow miraculously becomes our
future. It is much easier to give ourselves excuses for why the picture of our
future contains such a stunted and vague cameo by rehearsing family scripts
from the past again and again, giving ourselves a certain well deserved
permission to defer the future until we can resolve the limitations of our
past. This looking back at the past, this focus on the limitations of the past,
it works for a long time, sometimes for a very long time, until you catch
yourself consciously doing it and it becomes painfully evident how banal this self-
justification for mediocrity really is. You realize, you just have to let it
go. True but it can't be definitive.
No, the truth
is, that more than half of the healing of the past actually comes from the
healing power of a new future that pulls you on to where you need to be to
realize just how much more there is of you than the limited script that your
well meaning family had for you or your dysfunctional family- those myriad
layers of constriction they laid upon you. Jesus taught us "Seek ye first
The Kingdom of God". It is out ahead.
It is true that
Jesus gave us quite a lot of content about the future pull of the Kingdom of God and that content is an important
guide. But part of it you can't define exhaustively because part of it involves
you. Who is it that you are meant to become? That, of course, can only be
answered by you. That question may never be done in isolation. We are always in
relational community and we can't answer that question maturely or profoundly
without some insight and feedback from our spouse, our loved ones, the beloved
community. But there is important introspection that is required. Who are you
essentially? Who are you becoming?
This is not as
simple as defining your future assets or designing a new home. None of us are
entirely sure we really know who we need to become and most of our significant
changes can't just be bought, leased or employed.
But all of the
hope that the future holds, all of the promise, all of the imagination and
creativity… what a powerful spiritual pull, what a healing spiritual pull.
And all of the
realism about seeing ourselves as we actually are, all of the psychological
insight about how we became who we are in light of the subterranean forces of
the past… what a powerful awareness of self.
Be more… Become
more… Read from your own script…Seek ye first the Kingdom of God, and all these
other things will be added unto you… Amen.
Title comes from Holt's work listed below and the first piece is entirely
indebted to his research and conclusions.
[ii] See Jim
Holt's, 1.21.07, from the Way We Live Column, NY Times, January, 21, 2007, pps.
the January issue from 2007. I did not have time to find the article and
actually read it before publication of this sermon. Any misrepresentation of
their thesis is entirely my fault. I simply presume that this is obvious enough
that it is not controversial.
[iv] I found
this on www.medicalnewstoday.com from 15
February, 2004. The full study was published in the February, 2004
issue of Personality and Social
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