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[Chalice] Acceptance and Action [Chalice]

Presented April 6, 2014, by Doug Muder

Opening Words

The opening words are from the Buddha: “Your job is the discover your world, and then, with your whole heart, to give yourself to it."

Story for all ages: "Four Men, Four Shovels, and a Canal"

Once upon a time there was a tiny country that sat between two big oceans. And everybody who lived in there knew that what the country really needed was a canal, so that any boats that wanted to go from one ocean to the other would come through their country. Our story is about four men with shovels who lived in that country. Now, the first man thought, “If I dig that canal, I’ll be a hero to everyone.”

So he took his shovel and started digging. And he dug and he dug and he dug, but at the end of the day what he had didn’t look anything at all like a canal. A canal would be miles long, and wide and deep enough for boats to use. But what he had made was just a hole. So he said, “Tomorrow I’ll have to work harder.” And he did. The next day he got up really early and worked really, really hard. But at the end of the day, all he had was a bigger, deeper hole that still didn’t look anything like a canal. “Well tomorrow,” he said, “I’ll have to work even harder than that.” And so that’s how his days went. Every day he would work just a little more frantically. And every night he would be a little more depressed, because deep down he was starting to realize that no matter how hard he worked and how long he stuck with it, he was never going to dig the whole canal. And so his days were full of frustration and failure.

The second man also thought, “If I dig the canal I’ll be a hero.” But he was a little more realistic than the first man. “I’m just a guy with a shovel,” he said. “I can’t dig a canal.” And so he did nothing.

But every night he would dream about digging the canal and being a hero. But every morning he would wake up and realize all over again that he couldn’t do it. So all day long he would sit and do nothing and complain to his shovel, as if it were the shovel’s fault. “Why don’t I get to be a hero? If I were a giant I could dig the canal. If I had magical powers I could dig the canal. Why do I have to just be an ordinary guy with a shovel? It’s not fair!” And so his days were full of idleness and bitterness.

The third man was also realistic, and he also knew that he couldn’t dig the canal, but he said, “I wonder what I can do?” And so he wandered all over the country, looking for useful things that a man with a shovel could do. So In the winter he shoveled snow, and in the spring he helped people dig their gardens. In the summer he dug holes to plant trees in, and in the fall he helped the farmers shovel the grain into their bins. Every day he found something worth doing and he did it. So his days were full of satisfaction and self-respect.

Now the fourth man also wandered through the country, finding jobs that a man with a shovel could do. And after he had wandered for several years, one day he came upon an army of men with shovels, and they were digging the canal. So he joined. So every day he worked with that army of men with shovels, digging the canal that the country needed. But it was huge job, even for an army. Years went by. And when it came time for the fourth man to retire from shoveling, the canal was still only half done. Years more went by and the fourth man got very old. And he thought, “Before I die, I want to take one more look and see how the canal is going.”

So he had some friends take him up to a high place where he could from one ocean to the other. And from that place, he could see that the canal still wasn’t quite finished, but it soon would be. And he looked at the men who were still digging, and he smiled with a sense of triumph. And he said, “We are heroes.”

Meditation

In the words of the Serenity Prayer: "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."

Readings

The first reading is Psalm 118, verse 4:

This is the day that the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.

Now, that's really short, so I'm going to read it again, because it's so precisely crafted that if you're not listening carefully you may imagine that it says a bunch of things it doesn't actually say. For instance, it doesn't say this is a particularly good day. It also doesn't deny that we might all wish the Lord had made some other kind of day entirely. And third, it doesn't promise that rejoicing and being glad today is going to be easy.

It just says exactly what it says:

This is the day that the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.

Now, acceptance is one of the great spiritual virtues, to the extent that reaching a state of perfect acceptance is sometimes described as the goal of spiritual practice. But in the second reading, Martin Luther King warns us not to push it too far.

Modern psychology has a word … maladjusted. Certainly, we all want to avoid the maladjusted life. ... We all want the well-adjusted life in order to avoid neurosis [and] schizophrenic personalities.

But I say to you, my friends ... there are certain things in our nation and in the world to which I am proud to be maladjusted and to which I hope all men of good-will will be maladjusted. ... I say very honestly that I never intend to become adjusted to segregation and discrimination.

I never intend to become adjusted to religious bigotry.

I never intend to adjust myself to economic conditions that will take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few.

I never intend to adjust myself to the madness of militarism, to self-defeating effects of physical violence. ...

In other words, I’m about convinced now that there is need for a new organization in our world. The International Association for the Advancement of Creative Maladjustment – men and women who will be as maladjusted as the prophet Amos. Who in the midst of the injustices of his day could cry out in words that echo across the centuries, “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream."

Acceptance and Action

About half of this talk is going to be the long version of a story some of you already know pieces of.

Just a few weeks ago, Deb and I celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary. We met and got married while we were graduate students in Chicago. And in those early days we lived like graduate students: without a lot of stuff, getting by on our teaching stipends, living in a small urban apartment where we fought a never-ending battle against roaches. But we were happy living that way. So while it was nice to leave the roaches behind when we left school and got two professional-class jobs outside of Boston, we were in no big hurry to upgrade our lifestyle. In a very literal sense, we didn't know what to do with all the money we were suddenly making.

We didn't have student loans to pay off. Neither of us had a dream house fantasy. We weren't really into cars. We didn't collect anything. And while we hadn't yet definitely decided not to have children, we were in no hurry to start that either. So we saved a lot, without any clear idea of what we were saving for. This was in the mid-1980s, at the start of the longest sustained bull market in the history of Wall Street, so the money we saved didn't just stack up, it multiplied.

Obviously this was a rare and fortunate situation, and it seemed to demand an exceptional plan to take advantage of it. Eventually we came up with one: We decided we would take a retirement period in the middle of life rather than put it off to the end. We would travel the country and see its beauty. We'd take time to think and read. We'd re-establish contact with all our far-scattered friends. And wherever we went and whoever we visited, we would try to bring with us the extreme luxury of slack. We would be the people who had time to listen and pay attention, who had time to pitch in when you were ready to start that project you'd been talking about. We'd take children on adventures, and give their parents a chance to rest and get to know each other again.

It was a beautiful vision.

By 1996, we were ready for a six-month trial run. I quit my job and Deb took a leave of absence. We didn't renew the lease on our apartment, got rid of some of our stuff, loaded some into our car, and moved the rest to storage. And before setting out, we did one last round of check-ups and tests to make sure we were healthy and our prescriptions were up to date. And so, one day at the end of July, I was sitting on the floor in an apartment that was empty but for a telephone. I was waiting for Deb to get back from her last day at the office so that we could get into our loaded car and go to our first destination.

And the phone rang. Deb's doctor wanted to see her in the morning. And when we got to that appointment, he told us she had breast cancer.

It was time to replan. We had three weeks until the surgery and Deb had no symptoms we could notice, so we did a few of the things we'd pictured: We housesat, we visited nearby friends, we camped in parks and climbed mountains.

"Homeless people with cancer," I told a friend, "live in the moment."

One evening in Freeport, Maine, living in the moment got to be a bit too much. The multiple parking lots at the flagship L. L. Bean store confused us, and so when we came out of the store to drive back to our campsite, we were convinced for about ten minutes that our car had been stolen. Not only would that mean we had no stuff at all, but I wasn't even sure how to report the loss. The police would ask for an address and a phone number, neither of which we had. Where would the conversation go from there?

So I was grateful and a bit humbled when we finally found the car.

While Deb was in the hospital I stayed in a tent in some friends' back yard. Surgery seemed to go well. The surgeon believed the cancer had been contained in the breast, so further treatment wouldn't be necessary.

But the day after we moved into the apartment we had hastily found, the pathology report came back: The cancer had spread into some lymph nodes, and they weren't sure the surgery had gotten it all out.

Deb's mother had died of breast cancer just a few years before, so we knew what this meant. Treatment options have changed in the last two decades, but in the 1990s, cancer contained in the breast almost always got cured. Lymph nodes were the toss-up zone, and if it spread beyond that -- to the lungs, liver, bone, or brain -- you were almost certainly going to die.

So there was a second surgery, and then a battery of tests, any one of which could result in a death sentence. And then we went away for the weekend to plot our strategy.

We came to three conclusions. First, we wanted to give Deb the best possible chance to live. The doctors had convinced us that our best shot was to keep nothing in reserve. Hit it with every weapon in the medical arsenal: chemotherapy, radiation, more chemotherapy ... everything. So we decided to sign up for an aggressive plan of treatment that would last nine very difficult months.

Second, we had learned from watching Deb's mom that treatment doesn't always work, and that dying in denial is ultimately harder on everyone. So at the same time that we were fighting for Deb's life, we would also be preparing ourselves and preparing each other for her death, if it came to that.

And third, we had to decide how to look at the nine months of treatment. We knew they would be difficult, so it was tempting just to write them off, to say: "Life will suck for nine months, but it will be worth it because then things will be better."

But there was a problem with that: We actually didn't know that life would be better in nine months. No matter what we did, that death sentence might come any day. And if it did, those next nine months might be a sizeable chunk of all the time we had left together. Each day, no matter how bad it might look compared to the past, might also be the best day we had left. Wouldn't it be a shame to write that day off?

And so we decided that there was no length of time we could afford to write off. That beautiful New England fall might be the last one we would see together. And while that was a sad thought, it would be even sadder to miss that last chance because we were looking past it to a future that didn't come.

That's why we developed the following practice: Every morning began with a question: "How is today not going to suck?" (That was exactly how we phrased it.) And every day there was a different answer. Some days Deb felt almost normal, so we could do the kinds of things we had always enjoyed: take walks, go to restaurants, attend music festivals, visit with friends. Some days were harder, but we could still take a beautiful drive up into the White Mountains. Some days that was too much, but we could sit on the couch together and watch cartoons. And some days the most we could manage was that she would lie in bed and I would read to her.

And there were some days that just sucked, no matter what we did. But a surprising number of them didn't. Amazingly, on the whole, those nine months turned out to be happy ones. Now, I realize that's not everyone's experience of cancer treatment, but it's actually not as unusual as you might think. One of the reasons that so many people incorporate "cancer survivor" into their identities and join survivor groups is that there is something in the treatment experience that they value and do not want to lose sight of, even as they return to ordinary life in every other way.

And it's not just cancer. If you listen to the stories that people tell about their lives, you may notice that there are many objectively hellish situations -- war, shipwreck, famine, prison -- that they would never wish on anyone or want to go back to, but which nonetheless inspire a perverse form of nostalgia.

During that awful winter at Valley Forge, General Washington read to his men from Thomas Paine's The American Crisis. "These are the times that try men's souls," it began. And it is easy to imagine those soldiers as veterans decades later, sitting in front of a fire with full belly and a pint of ale, saying, "Ah, those were the times that tried men's souls."

I think that's a mystery that deserves some thought. We spend our lives wishing for good luck. But often the times we look back on fondly are times of bad luck. What's that all about? For me, I think the attraction of those nine cancer-dominated months was that never in my life have my ambitions been so closely matched to what I could do. Without some special attention and effort, those days would have sucked, one after the other. But because we took that challenge on, day by day, they didn't. It has never been quite so easy to see that my actions were making a difference.

Also, our day-by-day actions were closely aligned with our longer-term goals. Month-by-month, we were trying to win more time together. And day-by-day we were establishing why. We didn't just want more life in some vague, abstract sense. We wanted more walks, more drives, more conversations, more music, more cartoons. We knew that if we were given more days we would not waste them, because we were not wasting them now.

There were other things we weren't doing. We weren't counting on a future that might never come. We weren't making ourselves promises that we couldn't deliver on. We weren't dwelling on the unfairness of it all or wishing that things could be magically different. All those things that we weren't doing get summed up in that broad term acceptance. In order to fully appreciate our time together, we had to be fully present. In order to answer the question "How is today not going to suck?" we had to center ourselves in today. We couldn't start with the abstract vision of a good day and impose it on this day. We had to accept today, as it was, with all its limitations and ask what we could do with it. Each morning, we had to discover our world, and then, with our whole hearts, give ourselves to it.

But I think there's another important thing to point out, and that's why I brought Martin Luther King into the discussion: Acceptance is not resignation. Just as King did not resign himself to segregation or militarism or injustice, we did not resign ourselves to Deb dying the way her mother did. And we did not resign ourselves to nine months of unhappiness. Acceptance is not just adjusting yourself to bad circumstances. It also means accepting your own role in the situation, your own possibilities, your own power to shape events.

That's what the second man in my story does wrong. Yes, he accepts that he is just one man with a shovel, so he can't dig the canal by himself. But he doesn't take the next step: He doesn't accept a man-with-a-shovel-sized mission. He hangs on to notion that only something grand is worth his effort, and so he does nothing.

That's an easy trap to fall into. It's easy to focus on how enormous the world's problems are, and to think: "If I were just bigger, then I could do something." If I were president like Barack Obama, then I could do something. If I had billions to give away like Bill Gates, then I could do something. If I had the inspirational genius of a Martin Luther King, I could lead the movement our country needs, and that would be something. If I had the medical genius to cure cancer, that would be something. If I had the literary genius of a Harriet Beecher Stowe or a John Steinbeck, I could write the Uncle Tom's Cabin or The Grapes of Wrath that this generation needs, and that would be something.

But I don't. I'm just me. You're just you. What can people like us do? The insight of the third man in the story is to ask that same question, but change the emphasis: What can people like us do? And if we can do things, then let's do them.

In the final years of my mother's life, she had hurt her knee and was in Sunset Home learning to walk again. If she could walk just far enough to get back and forth to the bathroom, then she could go back home with my Dad, and the two of them could survive there with outside help coming in for a few hours each day.

So that's what she was trying to learn in the physical therapy room, as she used the parallel bars to shift as much of her weight to her scrawny arms as she possibly could, then slowly move one leg forward just a little, and then the other. One day I came in to cheer her on, and she walked what seemed like a trivial distance -- less than I will pace back and forth dozens of times while my mind is somewhere else, paying no attention. But it was twice as far as she had walked the day before, and it gave her hope that she would make it home again.

That was a good day.

So the question I'm trying to raise is: When we talk about acceptance, what exactly should we be trying to accept? I think it comes down to this: Whatever you do for the world or for yourself or for anybody, this life is the tool you will do it with. This body. This mind. These skills. These resources. This time. This place. You don't get to be a giant. You can't have magical powers. This is what you have.

The journey of the rest of your life doesn't have to end here, but it does have to begin here, because this is where you are. From here, you may have another fifty years to work with. You may have a week. Whatever, that's the tool you have. That's your shovel.

What are you going to do with it?

There will be times in your life when it makes sense to aim high and dream big. And I hope you do, because those are wonderful times and you shouldn't miss them. But there will be other times when it will be a good day if you can cross the room under your own power, times where the far edge of your hopes, the absolute limit of your abilities, is that for you, and maybe for one other person, this day will not suck.

And if that is the size of your abilities, then that is the job you should be doing. And let no one tell you that job is too small.

Closing Words

This is the day that the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.

©2014 Doug Muder

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Muder, Doug 2014. Acceptance and Action, http://www.uuquincy.org /talks/20140406.shtml (accessed November 21, 2017).

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