Pro Infirmis is a Swiss organization for people with disabilities, and as today’s video shows, part of their work is expanding a sense of acceptance in society for difference, as well as for self-acceptance in people who carry the weight of such differences. One has scoliosis, another is in a wheelchair, a third lacks a limb, and so on. All had mannequins made to perfectly reflect their body shape, which would then be displayed in a major department store on Bahnhofstrasse, Zurich’s main shopping street. Passers-by were intrigued, delighted—getting the message that there is no one ideal body shape, that all belong to our world, all have their own kind of beauty.
Lots of amazing moments in that video. In particular I’m thinking about the moment when each person returns to the warehouse to see the mannequin that mirrors his or her own body shape. The mannequins are hidden under a sheet. The person approaches, they circle, the sheet comes off, and can you just imagine what it must have felt like? Shock, astonishment, admiration. They had no idea. One of them says, “It’s special to see yourself like this, when you usually can’t look at yourself in the mirror.”
I watch this video, and it is instant happiness. I find myself taken to a place where I am more open and relaxed, I find myself more aware of the positive possibilities of life, and maybe you too. More beauty, more justice, more hope, more pleasure, more laughter, more love, more forgiveness, more energy, more creativity, more connection.
Happiness is a good orderly direction.
And the opportunities to go there instantly are endless. One reason why is because we each come to the present moment bearing a lifetime of experience. Then something in the moment happens—we smell a certain unforgettable smell or something tastes a certain way or feels a certain way or looks a certain way or sounds a certain way—and it’s like, eureka! You feel plugged in. You feel it all coming together.
The other day I was making a dinner of pork tenderloin, and while it was baking away in the oven, I was preparing a vegetable side dish of mirepoix which is a mixture of chopped celery, carrots, and onions. Mirepoix is often the flavor base for soups and stews and sauces but I like it just in itself. Colorful to look at and very tasty.
I like to start with sautéing the chopped onion, and here’s where the real story unfolds. In my frying pan, the little white cubes of onion deliciousness are sizzling away in butter and the heat causes a release of this most amazing aroma. Ohhhh it makes me happy. Instantly. Not just because the aroma tends to lift me several inches above the ground, but also because the smell takes me back to a time long ago. Doesn’t smell do that for us? This most powerful physical sense of ours? The smell takes me back to memories of my grandmother on my mom’s side. Baba cooking Christmas Eve dinner. She’s like Captain Kirk and her kitchen is the Starship Enterprise. In one memory scene, I’m just trying to stay out of everyone’s way. Baba is calmly issuing commands to her husband (my grandfather) and her daughters (my mother and my aunt). The actual dinner, when the house will be overrun with a horde of hungry people ready to gobble up traditional Ukrainian fare, is just hours away. She’s at the stove and I smell that lovely onion smell. I also see her flabby arms flapping away as she’s agitating whatever’s in the pan, and I am not seeing her through the cruel eyes of a society that will not let women rest unless they have a certain body shape. She is my Baba and I love that her flabby arms flap away as she stirs the pot. She is part of my family. I am part of her family. I belong.
The smell of sautéing onions is: I belong.
We’re talking about this today because it opens up the door to what I take to be the essence of any truly meaningful religious way: how it connects us to thoughts and behaviors and people and history and whatever other resources that help keep us fluid and flowing through all the changes and challenges of our lives. This is the direction we want to be going in. Staying curious, because every moment the Mystery unfolds. No matter what, never ceasing to show up with an open, compassionate heart because we don’t want to miss a thing.
Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these broken wings and learn to fly
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to arise.
Wings can be broken. But we can still learn to fly.
Let me tell you another story. It’s about the trench warfare of World War 1. Did you know that the emperors and generals who ordered their men to war in August 1914 thought in terms of weeks, not months, let alone years? “You will be home before the leaves have fallen off the trees,” said the German Kaiser to his troops in early August…. But he was wrong. The leaves would fall off the trees four times before the war would be done. Four times, four long years. The grinding, catastrophic, cruel years of World War I.
So there they are, the soldiers, in the cold, in the muck, mud sucking at their boots, miserable in trenches…. It’s Christmas Eve, the darkness of night surrounds them. And then suddenly, along various areas of the British-German front, it happens without forethought, without any central planning: love takes human form: Christmas trees go up, a spontaneous upsurge of singing: Silent Night, Oh Christmas Tree, O Come All Ye Faithful. Something other than cruelty and death and madness happening across No Man’s Land. Harmonizing! Harmony. All this happening independently, mind you, in various areas of the British-German front, as much as two-thirds of it, thousands of soldiers singing, each side singing to the other instead of shooting.
It led the soldiers to actually get out of the safety of their trenches, to finally meet face to face. The Christmas Truce of 1914. It’s one of the most remarkable incidents of World War I, perhaps in all of military history.
Now, one hundred years later, trench warfare of a sort is still with us. Today’s headlines scream
Israel Strikes Gaza After Militants Resume Rocket Fire
How Israel Brought Gaza to the Brink of Humanitarian Catastrophe
Lines in the Sand: Deadly Times in the West Bank and Gaza
Why Are the Arab Gulf Countries Silent on Gaza?
Everything You Need to Know About the Israel-Gaza Conflict
One thing we DO need to know is that this conflict is longstanding and messy beyond belief. In my detailed exploration of this from March 25, 2012 entitled “The Bronze Bull: Understanding the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,” I wrote: “The solution is courage which is restraint in the presence of shrill voices from people and from the press and from leaders who perceive an enemy and push for a fight by any means necessary. The solution is a willingness to be genuinely curious about the supposed enemy, willingness to walk in their shoes for a time, willingness to start over, begin again. The solution is refusal to label this kind of empathizing as anti-Israel or anti-Palestinian.” That’s a piece of what I wrote then, and it is all so general. Nothing specific. Sounds good, but how to make it happen? How do we make it happen internationally when, right at home, we can be stuck in the trenches of our own private, individual wars? How to let go, how to forgive?
The Christmas Truce of 1914 comes as instant happiness to me, and maybe to you, because it suggests how even the most desperate situation can shift. Not in planned ways, nothing that is foreseen. But the possibility is always there. We never stop working towards a solution, for sure: but we also know that the world is a Mystery and there’s a lot more going on than meets the eye. I know: nothing in this mere attitude can now directly prevent further deaths. But this does not mean it is impractical. Show me a statesman or stateswoman who is hopeless and I’ll show you a conflict that keeps grinding and grinding away.
Never let go of hope. Whatever helps us stay hopeful and engaged: give us more of that! Whatever helps us stay in the game.
Sometimes it’s just plain silliness. You may already be aware of the story told about Dr. King in the hours before he was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel. Do you know what he was doing? Pillow fight. Civil rights icons like Andrew Young and Ralph Abernathy: smacking each other upside the head. Dr. King being smacked and smacking away.
The world must not be allowed to take our silliness away. Save the world, yes, but savor it too. Let your soul be large enough for both. That is our Unitarian Universalist spiritual way.
So go on out there and watch some cat videos on the interwebs.
One word: karaoke.
Have you heard about the new movie Guardians of the Galaxy? How many of you have already seen it? “I am Groot.”
Maybe you have Braves Fever, or Falcons Fever, or Fever for some other sports team. Go for it!
(For myself, I have crazy figure skating fever—don’t get me started!)
All of these things, and more: they get us excited, they get us laughing, they get us pumped up, they keep us sane in a world that can be way too heavy sometimes….
Consider yet another example of blessed silliness. Here are some foreign words with no direct English equivalent:
Kummerspeck (German): It means, excess weight gained from emotional overeating. Literally, it means “grief bacon.”
Shemomedjamo (Georgian): When you’re really full, but your meal is just so delicious, you can’t stop eating it. The word literally means, “I accidentally ate the whole thing.”
Tartle (Scots): The word for that panicky hesitation just before you have to introduce someone whose name you can’t quite remember.
Iktsuarpok (Inuit): That feeling of anticipation when you’re waiting for someone to show up at your house and you keep going outside to see if they’re there yet.
The urge to pinch or squeeze something that is irresistibly cute.
Do you feel it? Instant happiness!
You know, silly doesn’t need a reason. But there’s still depths there to know. The foreign words name behaviors that come out of our fragility and humanity and remind me I am and none of us are divine beings and that the perfectionism of our cruel inner (and outer) critics completely misses the point of living. The word “human” shares the same root with humus, humility, humor. It fills me with relief: the insight that they all go together, and I’m a part of it, with all my grief bacon eating and the times I tartle and the moments when I want to gigil something.
It’s happiness. Instant.
Even more instant happiness can come from the ideas we choose to dwell on. Some ideas make us clench up inside, others make us relax. Let’s try an experiment with idea pairs: each idea in the pair should send you in different directions. Close your eyes, allow the words I am about to say to wash over you, and pay close attention to your physical reaction to them. Ready? Here we go:
Idea pair number one:
The unpleasant situation you are in right now will last forever.
Now redirect your focus on a different idea: this too shall pass.
Next idea pair:
You are completely and utterly alone in what you are experiencing.
And now to redirect: the way you are on has been travelled by others; you are NOT alone.
How’s it going? Are you experiencing how the different ideas send you in different energy directions?
Try this next idea pair:
When other people hurt me, they know exactly what they are doing. They have it all figured out. The impact of what they’ve done to me was something they actually calculated ahead of time down to the details and they still gave their actions the go-ahead. What they did had everything to do with me and nothing whatsoever to do with their own lack of awareness or issues or problems or whatever.
Now redirect: Other people have good intentions. It’s not personal.
Is it not a source of instant happiness to know that the ideas we habitually dwell on are ultimately up to us? That even our mental ruts can, with consistent mental effort and focus, be reshaped to reflect something more positive and more accurate and truthful about the real world we live in?
Several weeks ago, I attended the memorial service of a child who was just a little over one year old. She had been born with spinal muscular atrophy and it is a fatal genetic disease. From the moment the diagnosis was made, the parents knew that their child would never grow up. They would never have the “traditional” parenting experience.
Just imagine yourself in their shoes.
Before the actual memorial service started, when picture after picture of the child was being projected onto the screen in the sanctuary, I found myself thinking unworthy thoughts but insistent thoughts nonetheless. What good can come from such a flawed life? What value can there be in such a temporary relationship? In all the pictures, the child is just lying there. She was never able to use her limbs, as far as I know, or even move her head. A big tube snaking out of her nose, down and away. Machines, wires.
And then the memorial service began, and I heard some things. I heard her caretaker saying that she had one of the biggest personalities she’s ever known. Personality booming out of wide-open, very intelligent and aware eyes. Red cheeks and huge smiles and squeals of laughter. How she loved being outside. How she had “eyelashes reaching all the way up to heaven.”
This is what her parents had decided to do. They had decided to live life to the fullest while they had her. Her mother regularly painted her fingernails and toenails, always dressed her up beautifully. They took her all sorts of places. They took her to the swimming pool and gave her the delicious experience of being in the water. They took her to the aquarium to see the whales and the sea lions and the sharks. There were pictures from these trips, and some were taken from the child’s perspective, as a way of trying to get into her world and see it how she might be seeing it. They were curious. They cared.
Lots of pictures of cuddling, of holding her close, kissing her.
The parents said that they had never loved more deeply or been loved more deeply, than with this child who lived just a little over a year. And that was the substance of their nontraditional parenting experience.
I left the memorial service knowing that not everything truly valuable has to last forever, or even for a while.
I left that place knowing that not everything truly valuable needs to be without flaws or complications or shortcomings or endings.
I left that place knowing that life despite all is good, and that sweetness is everywhere, if we but have eyes to see it.
Take these broken wings and learn to fly.