Editor’s Note: [Secular Sermon #6] This is one of the more somber sermons in this series. It’s also more helpful and thought provoking than any sermon I’d expect to hear in any “house of worship” – even in a very liberal one where clergy don’t outwardly encourage belief in God as the path to salvation. Read this to more fully appreciate the one life you have. /Linda LaScola, Editor
By “RJ Twain”
The average American life on TV looks like the front end of a bell curve. You’re born. Yay! You take your first steps. Yay! First day of school. First date. First kiss. Yay! Yay! Yay! You face some challenges. You overcome them. You become a big important person. And then the episode ends, because no one wants to talk about what’s next.
We don’t do tragedy. If an American wrote Romeo and Juliet, she wouldn’t stab herself at the end.
She’d grab that knife out of her dead lover’s hand and go all Kill Bill on everyone: Montagues, Capulets, the monk who sold her on that stupid overly-convoluted plan. Everyone must die. Except Juliet. She rides off into the sunset. On a Harley or something.
Why? Because it’s a better story? Of course not, it’s a horrible story! It has one, and only one, redeeming quality. If you identify with the protagonist, then for the space of two hours, you get to feel invincible. For two hours you can forget the truth.
Shakespeare wrote tragedies. Euripides wrote tragedies. The Vikings built an entire mythology out of tragedy. The gods will fall at Ragnarok and I go to die with the gods. Buddha built an entire religion out of tragedy. The first noble truth is, “Life is suffering.” Many great cultures embrace tragedy. Not us.
We only want to talk about the first half of the bell curve. Which leaves us, if we’re lucky, completely unprepared to deal with fully half of our life!
The closest we ever get, is we talk about quitting. Losing. Giving up. Throwing in the towel. And am I right in noticing that all of these have horrible connotations? But examine the metaphor a little more closely.
Throwing in the towel. What’s the towel for? It’s for cutting your losses. Maybe you get out now, so you can rematch later. Maybe you hang it up and do something else with your life while you still have most of your teeth. Throwing in the towel isn’t quitting. It’s accepting a short-term loss for the sake of a long-term gain.
There will come a time in your life, some place on the back half of that bell curve, when you’ll really really wish you had someone around to throw in that towel.
It takes time and effort to get someone in your corner, someone you trust enough to let them make the call. You hand them that responsibility, and you trust them to see the thing you cannot see, to say the thing you don’t want to hear, to do the thing you refuse to do. That’s serious, difficult work. Which is why most people don’t do it.
This applies in a thousand places, but a very simple one is a durable power of attorney, or living will. If you are mentally incapacitated, who do you trust to make decisions on your behalf? It’s cheap. It’s easy. And it matters. Same thing with insurance, regular checkups, financial planning, and a dozen other things we know we should do, but too often we don’t, because we don’t want to think about it. Find a friend. Do it together.
But again, the story doesn’t stop there; that bell just keeps curving whether we like it or not. You start out way down here on the left, where you’re lucky if you make it to the potty in time, and chewing solid food is an accomplishment. Then you grow up, hopefully do some good, and you wind up over here on the lower right, where you’re lucky if you make it to the potty in time, and chewing solid food is an accomplishment.
At a certain point, you’re past throwing in the towel, and it’s time to pass the baton. It’s not about losing, or quitting, or wearing out. It’s about giving your absolute best, and then when your lungs are burning and your legs are jelly, you stretch out your arm and you set that baton into the next person’s palm so that they can continue the race.
That’s an amazing story. Why don’t we tell that one?
Because it’s hard. You need a team.
(Whine) “But I don’t want a team.”
Of course you don’t want a team. Nobody wants a team! Teams are made of people, and people are dumb. The only reason we have teams is because we have no choice. There are things one person cannot do. When you’re getting the snot kicked out of you in the ring, you cannot throw in your own towel. When you’re running a relay, you cannot pass yourself a baton.
Wish you could.
Because this isn’t about death. It’s about life. It’s about choosing to see any ending, especially death, in the larger context of continuing life. Passing the baton is infinitely better than running until you fall over. Because the race doesn’t start or end with you.
You think it’s difficult to find someone you trust to watch your back? Try taking whatever it is that matters to you, and placing it in the hands of a student, or enshrine it in an institution. Hand it to them, knowing full well that you could do it faster and better, if you just did it yourself. Hand it to them, knowing the whole time that they are going to mess with it. If you’re lucky, they’ll improve on it. If you’re very lucky, you’ll live to see them improve on it. But first, they’re going to mess it up. It’s what they do.
Newton built on Galileo. Einstein built on Newton. And the minds of the future will surpass Einstein. We are getting better. And any step forward, no matter how small, no matter how halting, any step forward brings us all forward — as long as you pass the baton.
It’s easy to get upset because life is not the linear growth we imagined as a child, or the exponential growth we imagined as a teenager. It hurts when a dream breaks. But ignoring a hard truth doesn’t make it better, and facing a hard truth doesn’t make it worse. Don’t let reality steal your joy. If your joy was grounded in a dream, it wasn’t real anyway. Real joy grows out of truth.
Bart Campolo, humanist speaker and writer and fellow Clergy Project member, offers a metaphor for this that I find very helpful:
Imagine you rent a cabin for a week. Maybe you bring your family. Maybe you bring your friends. Maybe it’s just you, a warm fire, and a good book. Whatever it means for you, it’s the most perfect vacation of your entire life.
Only now it’s Thursday, and you know there’s only three days left. What do you do? Sit there and mope? Waste the last three days feeling sad because you’re running out of time? No way! You squeeze every last second out of that vacation. You enjoy every minute, because, specifically because, exactly because you know it won’t last.
And on the last day, maybe you carve your name into a little hidden spot. Maybe you clean the place up and restock the woodpile. Maybe you leave behind a good book or a deck of cards, because you know someone else will enjoy that cabin after you, and even if you’re not there to enjoy it, knowing they will be is all the reason you need.
Are you with me? Finality is not to be feared. Finality is fuel for the fire. Limitation is the mother of creativity, and scarcity is the father of value. Consciousness would be the world’s greatest gift even if it lasted forever. How much more is it worth if it won’t last?
Bio: “RJ Twain”– Occasionally funny, sometimes even on purpose. Raised in an evangelical home, RJ moved slowly to the theological left during his time in ministry, until he moved so far left he fell off the edge. Today, he’s a humanist, a rationalist-in-training, and a member of the Clergy Project.
>>>Photo Credits: By User:Ruhrfisch – took it myself, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5185949; By Frank Dicksee – http://www.odysseetheater.com/romeojulia/romeojulia.htm, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=896519 ; https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/25/Mark_Twain%2C_Brady-Handy_photo_portrait%2C_Feb_7%2C_1871%2C_cropped.jpg