Being Grateful for your Problems
Ps. 33:1, 4-8; Lk. 22:24-8-28; 39-44
One morning, the dour playwright Samuel Beckett was walking with a friend through the streets of Paris on their way for a coffee. It was one of those spectacularly crisp warm mornings of spring that make Paris so magnificent, so Beckett’s friend said, “Doesn’t a day like this make you glad to be alive?” To which Beckett responded, “I wouldn’t go as far as that”.
Alas, joy eluded the brooding existentialist playwright, pensive and reflective on what our lives are all about.
Don’t you wish you had someone that could just explain it to you briefly? Better yet, don’t you wish that a couple of times in your life, the self you will become at the end of your life could have spoken to you when you were younger just to answer one or two things that were of particular importance at that critical juncture? I know I could have used that perspective.
Because you probably know that we humans are actually lousy at predicting who we will be and what we will need later in life. 30 year olds almost invariably think that when they are 60, they will be pretty much like they are at 30 only a little richer, a little slower, a little less in shape, probably wiser, hopefully more world wise from travel.
We fail to anticipate how much we are going to change, how different our needs will be, how differently we value things as we get closer to the grave. I was amused to read a recent poll that was done of our recent college graduates, wondering how they would compare to my generation.
They asked the ‘ready to be hired’ to name their top three life goals. 80% of them said they planned to make a lot of money. 50% of them also said they want to become famous.[i] There is nothing wrong with wanting to become successful and having the world know about it. But every generation mouths these life goals like they are enough, like if we just do that everything else will just take care of itself.
These days those lofty aspirations also strike me as speaking to our worst fears, which is probably equally as important. We don’t want to die poor and insignificant. We are anxious that our lives might be for naught, or for not enough to justify them.
At any rate, over the course of thirty years, I’ve listened to quite a few people that lived a full life. I’ve listened to them reflect on what was important in their life. And none of them speak about wealth or fame.
Money only comes up as an issue when it is an anxiety because we have too much of it. Sometimes people worry that they’ve given too much to their children. Ironically, too much money undermines their own self-development and growth. And this reflects the research on that subject that has been done in the past couple decades.
It is interesting that money and celebrity are not on the minds of people who have been lucky to live over 8 decades and are able to reflect on it. Fay Vincent, the commissioner of Major League Baseball, wrote a piece in the Wall Street Journal on Thursday. What mattered to him most was his intimate relationships, in his case, exemplified in his endearing marriage to his wife, because they have each deeply influenced and changed the other.[ii][iii]
Money, as researchers have pointed out, is only a factor if you fall below a certain line, and very few Americans fall below that line. Above that, the differences in creature comforts that we expend so much energy about, bring only insignificant and inconsistent differences in the deeper fulfillment that makes our lives worth living.
Oliver Sacks, the neurologist and prolific author, wrote about his life just a couple of months before he would die at the age of 82, what mattered most to him was the relationships in his life as well. He said, “I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.
“Above all, I have been a sentient being; a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.”
In processing all the experiences of his life, what he comes back to, what the point of our living is all about, resides in the spiritual realm. He knew he was going to die as many of us in this generation will.
And this is what he says, “I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude.” Gratitude and awe are the fundamental spiritual disposition. It is the wonder that you felt when your children were born. It is how we respond to being loved and accepted. It is the moments of harmony when we resonate with a rising sun and reflect the spiritual goodness of living and being connected in this world. So, St. Paul has a wonderful adage in Colossians 3 where he says, “cultivate a life of gratitude”. The spiritual life leans into the deeper meaning of our lives through the matrix of gratitude.
Professor Robert Waldinger is concluding the most extensive longitudinal study we’ve done on the subject and he says that the research is crystal clear that our relationships are key to our well-being.[iv]
Harvard studied the graduating classes of 1938-1940 in depth for their entire lives. And they did a parallel study on a group of young men that came from one of the poorest ghettos of Boston at the time. 725 men over decades, only 60 of them are still alive. It is the most comprehensive study of its kind. And they had three major finds.
First, that social connections are good. We humans are hard-wired that way. Family, friends, community are the building blocks for deeper, fulfilling meaning. And the converse is also true, loneliness is toxic for humans. People that are reported that they were more isolated from others than they wanted to be had poorer health, were less happy, and had earlier brain deterioration than others. And this is probably significant because at any given time in our country, 20% report that they are lonely and they don’t want to be.
Secondly, the Harvard study concluded that it is not how many friends you have, it is the quality of relationships that is important. It turns out that conflict is probably worse for us than we presumed it to be. In that study, high conflict marriages that also lacked affection or intimacy were probably worse than being divorced.
This is an area we are just beginning to study in depth and it will probably be significant. But think about how many kids grow up in conflict, in war zones like Syria, just surviving in neighborhoods like Compton, and in the 45% of families that break up all across our country.
In the Harvard study, sustained conflict correlated with health problems and a number of other health problems.
And when they went back to study the men who were happy and healthy at 80. The strongest correlation turned out to be??? How happy and solid their relationships were when they were 50. Not only were they happier and healthier…
The third insight was that they kept their mental acuity longer in old age. Researchers speculate that people who are securely attached are able to retain sharper memories, perhaps because they have more good memories that they can draw upon.
It is people that are important. So Professor Waldinger reminds us that we need to keep making new friends all through our life. In particular, we need to make new friends after we retire, which men notoriously underestimate.
It is a theme that underlies the very end of Jesus life, as he turns towards Jerusalem with his disciples and ultimately has to face his own death. Jesus didn’t get to live a full life. He died too young, in the pursuit of a moral and spiritual cause.
But in the backdrop of his entrance to Jerusalem, his trial and his death, you have the drama of the disciples that also speaks fairly directly to the importance of intimate spiritual relationships in helping us endure difficulty, suffering, and death. It is through those relationships that we have the strength to weather on through, come what may.
As soon as Jesus enters Jerusalem, he brings the 12 disciples together to celebrate the Passover meal. That is what friends do, they break bread together. They share wine. He illustrated that point by washing everyone’s feet. Because love serves one another.
And he told them that such betrayal as they would know, would come from each other. Just like out most painful disappointments come from our spouses when our marriages fail. Our most painful family experiences come from our siblings that hurt us as adults in some way that breaks our trust.
Then Jesus takes them to Gethsemane and asks them to pray with him. Because that is what friends do for each other, they support one another when they are going through very difficult and ambiguous times in their lives, when they don’t exactly know what to do next. And our deep disappointments come from people that we thought we could rely on in our time of need who turn out to just be indifferent. They fall asleep like the disciples. They just don’t show up.
Finally, to make the same point personally, we have the encounter between Jesus and Peter, the zealous disciple who says he will defend Jesus to the end and then he runs off when the Roman soldiers come. His anxieties and his fears get the best of him, slinks into the crowd, slinks into the night, and when people ask him if he knows Jesus he is caught on tape three times saying “I don’t know him; I never knew him. Dammit, I have no idea who you are talking about.”
It is like a man I knew whose wife was dying of cancer. She had these awful treatments to go through. Their relationship had been deteriorating. And in the middle of the treatments he started an affair with another woman and just didn’t show up for his wife in her time of need. So painful, more hurtful than even he intended it to be.
Don’t be like that. Don’t trample your relationships. Don’t abandon them. Don’t ignore them. They are your anchors that give your life zest and the deeper joy. They are where you find the deeper pool of meaning. Those are the memories that will come back to sustain you when the aches and pains of age start to wear you down.
They are the source of the most profound strength that we can have to get us through difficult times. It is simply astonishing how much suffering we can endure for one another when we live out of love.
And what about you? Where will you devote your energies in order to become who you will become? How is your most mature self, beckoning you from the future? Where are you headed?
I want to thank our new members who joined us this week. You have made our prayer life bigger and stronger as we lift one another up in inspiration.
Over the years, I have often been pleasantly surprised that the friendships that people have made at Christ Church persist long after both sets of friends have moved to different parts of the country and gone quite different directions in their life. It is because they have gotten to know each other in that deeper way and it has more significance to us. We not only share our hopes and dreams, our concerns and our worries, we get to a point where we do actively pray for one another. And you know what? We need it.
Last November, we had people in the church think of someone that inspired them, someone that they looked up to. Julie found these stars and we passed them out to everyone and had them write down the name of the person that inspired them. And we hung those stars during Advent. Advent is over. Juan takes down the stars and he hands them to me, wondering what to do with them.
I looked through them, prayerfully really. It was like holding a handful of inspiration and somehow it just didn’t seem right to toss them in the trash. Looking through them, many parents were named, teachers, coaches but I was moved that a goodly number of them were you. You named someone else in the congregation that you look up to. I was like, ‘Wow’. Now you can throw them out Juan…
I hope that you find yourself wonderfully surrounded by the right people. And I hope that you can become the right person for others. I hope that you err in the right direction and choose relationships fundamentally. And I hope your life blooms with love.
[i] I haven’t yet found the actual study itself. I heard the stat from a TED talk given by Professor Robert Waldinger at Harvard University describing the findings of their 75 year longitudinal study on the Harvard graduating classes of 1938-1940. I also pass on a couple of the studies findings in what follows. They are consistent with what researchers like Martin Seligman, Daniel Gilbert et alia have been saying about living a fulfilling life.
[iii] Thursday, February 25, 2016, p. 11 on the home delivery. I’m not sure about the link.
[iv] See his TED talk at https://www.ted.com/talks/robert_waldinger_what_makes_a_good_life_lessons_from_the_longest_study_on_happiness?language=en