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Holding On or Letting Go

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The occurrence of change is probably the only thing in life that is constant. The universe is an inherently chaotic place. 

Today’s Texts: Ecclesiastes 3: 1-8 and John 8: 1-8

By Marty Smith

Lives can change in an instant. Just ask the people of Paris.

At least 129 innocent people killed; 352 injured. People who were just going about the business of living their ordinary lives. The city is essentially shut down; the county’s borders are closed. Everyone’s life is disrupted. The restaurant and concert hall attacks occurred in an area of Paris I visited a couple of years ago – the Place de la République and the Opéra Bastille – the new Paris Opera. We saw Wagner’s Tannhäuser at the Bastille.

It all seems both real and surreal. I want to know why this happened. I want to make sense of it. I want to make it predictable so that someone can stop it from happening again.

seasonThe occurrence of change is probably the only thing in life that is constant. The universe is an inherently chaotic place. We impose order, patterns and regularity on everything for our own comprehension, convenience and comfort. We want stability, predictability and equilibrium, not chaos. Most of all we want security.

But random events just happen. Mathematicians and scientists now study chaos theory – the effect of random events on systems. Even the earth shifts under our feet – mostly imperceptibly, sometimes with catastrophic violence. Weather systems gain strength, then blow themselves out, in patterns that refuse precise predictability. Political maps change. Governments change. At least in the western world we design them that way. Our communities change, sometimes for the better, sometimes not. Cities and outlying villages expand, farmlands disappear. Some cities die from the inside out.

Neighborhoods change. New people move in, others move out. Our lives change. We make new relationships; we lose others. Our relationships change. The people close to us change, and so do we. We even plan changes in our lives. Sometimes those changes work out; sometimes not. Our bodies change. We grow up and then we grow old. The challenge of aging is the challenge of change.

The readings for today, both of which are probably very familiar to you, talk about change. The writer of Ecclesiastes talks about times in life that seem to be opposites of one another: birth and death, planting and harvesting, laughing and crying. Getting between these stages involves some sort of transition, some sort of change. In the reading from John, Jesus tells Nicodemus that if he wants to be a part of God’s Kingdom, he will have to change and take on a new spirit.

Change encourages growth, new ideas. Organizations become stagnant without fresh input. But responding to change demands our time and energy. I think we underestimate the amount of emotional and psychological energy we spend dealing with change. In the physical world, every change requires some input of energy. Even processes that are energetically favorable require energy to get them going.

Change is stressful. The transitions listed last week in the bulletin – births, deaths, marriages, break-ups, graduations, new or lost jobs, changes in residence – all of these events appear on lists of things that cause us stress and affect us physically, psychologically and emotionally. Even the positive changes can be stressful. We want a new job, but that means acclimating to new people, new surroundings, perhaps a move. And no matter how much we want children in our lives, how many parents have then longed for days when they would love being free again? With every change comes a loss of some sort.

I believe our response to change is grief. I particularly think that we grieve every loss, and therefore every change, in our lives – no matter how small. “Grieving” may seem like too strong a term to use; we usually only think of grief in terms of a response to someone dying or to catastrophic loss, but I’ve experienced it and I’ve seen the reactions of others to events that you wouldn’t ordinarily associate with grieving.

My son had his heart set on going to medical school. When that didn’t happen, his grief was palpable. The magnitude of the grief is proportional to the disappointment of our expectations and the upset to our equilibrium. I find that identifying the grieving process in some unexpected places helps me understand both myself and others better. It allows us the freedom to be in emotional states where we aren’t ordinarily comfortable.

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross identified five stages of grieving in her now classic 1969 book On Death and Dying. You are probably familiar with them.

Denial – “This didn’t really happen.” “This can’t happen.”

Anger – “Why did you do this to me?” “Why does this always happen to me?”

Bargaining – “What can I do to make this go away?”

Depression – “Life just doesn’t seem worth living now that this has happened.” “I just don’t care anymore.”

Acceptance – “I’ve let it go.” “I’m ready to move on.”

I would probably add guilt to the list (“There must have been something I should have done.”), although the argument can be made that guilt is anger taken in upon yourself. These stages are not experienced in any particular order. They may even come and go at random, although denial is usually the first and acceptance the last. It is rare for someone to reach the final stage without first going through at least some of the other stages.

When change is forced on us, our first response is to hold on to what we have had. We want things to remain the way they are. We want the status quo especially when it is to our advantage, when we are afraid, or when there is hope that things will soon return to “normal.” We want comfort and stability.

Consider some unlikely scenarios: political parties try to rig the election system so that they can remain in power; a failing dictator resorts to killing hundreds of thousands of his own people in order to maintain his rule; millions of dollars are funneled into lobbying by groups such as the National Rifle Association, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), and American Chemical Council in order to pass legislation that assures continued control over industries and points of view by those already in control even when the general welfare suffers. A hundred and fifty some years ago we fought a civil war because a large and influential part of the population refused to change. Is it only about greed and power?

The migrant and refugee crises both here and abroad have brought to the fore those who fear cultural changes. Where to put and house emigrants and how to find something for them to do are certainly huge and perhaps intractable problems, but demonizing people because we are afraid they will disrupt our way of life solves nothing.

Are we all really just denying that we have lost control of solving some vital issues?

Are rebel groups in Syria and Iraq mired in the anger of grieving the loss of rational government of their countries?

Are we (the U.S.) really grieving the fact that the world is a much more complex place than we imagined and we no longer have the only say-so in how to run it?

Are we grieving the loss of the perverse innocence that allows us to believe that?

Although we can get stuck and never move beyond them (as in the examples I just mentioned), denial and anger can give us focus and motivation to move our lives forward in the face of adversity. In the spring of 2005 I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. The following year or two were challenging as I struggled with radiation treatments, a teenage son of whom I had half-time custody as a single parent, drugs that gave me symptoms of being a post-menopausal female (I went to my 45th high school class reunion and had more hot flashes than any of the women did), and extremely low energy during a winter that was one of the snowiest on record. And barely enough help from others to get by.

Many people offered verbal support, but little else. There were many days when I didn’t know how I would find the energy to get through, but somehow I did. A quote from Winston Churchill became an inspiration: “It’s not enough that we do our best; sometimes we have to do what’s required.”

Somewhere along the way I began to let go of things. I wonder sometimes whether it was a side effect of the drugs I took, which were supposed to shut down my male hormone system for a while, or whether it’s just the perspective gained from dealing with a life-threatening illness. Whatever the reason, I came out of this process much less aggressive than I used to be. I find I can take a lot more things in stride. Before cancer I felt I needed to control everything; you probably know the type of person I’m talking about.

An important moment came when I realized that my son Ryan and I started having the same sorts of issues that my father and I had when I was a teenager. Ryan is a lot like me in that he has a mind of his own and doesn’t like to be told what to do. My dad and I had an awful relationship during my teenage years because he wanted so much to control me; his most extreme statement was “You don’t feel that way.”

Do parents grieve the inability to control their kids or the fact that they ever thought they could or should in the first place? So I backed off and started letting Ryan make his own decisions. What I was that I didn’t have to intervene – basically he was a good kid and simply needed someone there to make sure he didn’t go far astray. He didn’t need a boss; he needed a manager. I could let go, and the result was liberating.

I think the secret to growing old is learning to let go. My body wasn’t the same after the radiation treatments, but I decided not to subject myself to more drugs or procedures that might make me “normal” again. What’s “normal” for a 65-70 year old? More and more often it seems like I don’t feel the way I want to.

I’m not unique. Most of the older people I talk to tell me similar things. We spend most of our lives denying that we’re getting older, even during those moments when we say we are – the process is so subtle most of the time. But my body has been dropping hints more and more frequently lately, and every so often the reality hits me – “I’m going to die.” I hope not too soon, but probably sooner than I’d like as long as I have something to keep living for. For the time being I just have to figure out which hints need to be dealt with and which ones don’t.

Letting go is not giving up; it’s that last stage of grieving: acceptance. The only way to the future is to let go of the past. Letting go is not being overwhelmed by what you’re facing, of having the confidence that you can face it, that you’ll do your best, that you’ll do what you have to. Right now part of that for me just means getting on my bike and putting in 30 or 40 miles and however many hills I can climb because it is somehow symbolic of what I have left behind. It’s a new “me” that feels born again. I have let some things go, I have moved on, and I have changed.

I would like to leave you with a version of Reinhold Niebuhr’s serenity prayer. Apparently there are a number of versions of this prayer, and it’s not even clear that he was the original author. Whoever wrote it and however it’s worded, it sums up well what I have tried to say here this morning.

“God grant me the grace to accept with serenity the things I cannot change, the strength to change the things which should be changed, and the wisdom to know the one from the other.”