Sermon Delivered at the Universalist National Memorial Church July 23rd, 2017
by Carolyn Grim Fidelman
Staying aware and positive, activating your creativity, and being part of what moves this world forward are all part of a meaningful life. Will you give chase?
Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. …
Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you.
For some time now I have thought about what I might want to say to you should I ever have the chance to give a sermon. I do not have a degree in Divinity or any experience whatsoever in religious leadership. I have a degree in French literature, two in education, another in research methods and statistics along with a number of years teaching. I’ll draw today from that background and, yes, a bit like my son Russell and my father, from a sort of philosophical bent.
My undergrad years learning French literature were quite arduous. Not only having to master the language but then learning to read and appreciate works of great French literature. I’ll never forget the sinking feeling when I was assigned a huge book such as Hugo’s Les Miserables or Malraux’s L’espoir as opposed to the more digestible ones such as Voltaire’s Candide or Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. These were all great books and eventually I came to enjoy them each in what they had to offer.
One important payoff in becoming familiar with more advanced topics in French literature came when I encountered French philosophical thought. This was during my attempt to get a doctorate in French literature. Believe it or not, these philosophies and forms of literary criticism provided insights that have regularly expanded beyond literature for me, nourishing me and supporting me.
Chasing Life is the title of my sermon and what I would like to talk about is the refresh button that we have to press in order to fully appreciate and to take advantage of the gifts we have been given. If you believe in God, then you will say that God has given us a beautiful world. Our forefathers set up for us an amazing country that was different from anything else that people had thought of up until then. Due to geography and good government structure, we here in the U.S. have the ability to lead amazing lives.
Sadly, the bounty and possibility of our country is not, as we well know, evenly distributed over the populace. But we all do, more or less, have access to it. My sermon is about keeping an awareness of and grabbing on to the opportunities and resources that come our way. It is about staying alive and awake to what passes before us as we go about our lives.
I have traveled quite a bit and lived abroad. I guarantee you we have much to be grateful for. The problem is that it is easy to become numb to our bounty, to forget what we have, and for that reason to possibly lose it. Because nothing is permanent, possibilities are always presenting themselves and then fading away. To remain alive, we must continually be pursuing life.
Life is now. In the next moment Life will be something else. We like to maintain illusions of some sort of permanence in order to feel secure. But the minute we feel located in some comfortable place, whether physical or psychological, we will be jarred by another dislocation.
That is the message of the deconstructionist philosophers and literary critics I studied back in the day when I first attempted to get a Ph.D. in French literature. Though that life course never came to fruition for me, this aspect of my studies has always returned to my thoughts.
But before looking at French philosophers and writers who are one source of inspiration for me, let me start with what I found in the Bible. In searching for possible readings, I noticed that a frequent theme was the perfection of God, but the sinfulness or imperfection of people. We are often striving for perfection and the believers among us may look to the Bible’s admonitions to keep us on the path of righteousness.
Matthew 5:48 says “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” But this pursuit of perfection strikes me as a bit too linear and possibly misleading. And let us not forget that many non-believers or agnostics are just as pulled toward the idea of perfection. So much of the self-help literature is based on this pursuit, which itself is just a manifestation of fear. And, as we know, fear sells. Really, it feels to me as though the pursuit of and illusion of attaining perfection is a dead end. It is okay to have ideals and strive for them but even in the Bible there are warnings to remain humble in this form of striving.
Today’s second reading from Philippians Chapter 3 seems to put things in perspective regarding the pursuit of perfection. The apostle Paul wrote to the citizens of a Macedonian town Philippi from his jail cell in Rome, encouraging them to live a full life: “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” Paul models humility here while honoring Jesus’s love for him by continuing to strive. Later in the passage he says “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” Paul is not weighed down by the past. He even forgives his jailers perhaps. He stays present to “the prize” and “the movement upward.” Paul chases life.
I am particularly attracted to the word “mature” later in the passage. “Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you.” Expecting to really achieve perfection would be “immature” and soul-deadening. Paul warns us if we harbor such illusions we will run up against a wall, that is, God will reveal our folly to us in one way or another. We will get a message from the universe. Chasing perfection is not the same as chasing life.
But expecting perfection is the extreme and most of us probably acknowledge that.
I will switch now to more secular sources. Voltaire in his Dictionnaire philosophique tells us about a saying from an Italian
Dans ses écrits, un sage Italien
Dit que le mieux est l’ennemi du bien.
In his writings, a wise Italian
says that the best is the enemy of good.
The message here is to seek balance and moderation in our strivings.
Today’s first reading, also from Paul, references a kind of cycle of striving. “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame.” As we go about this life, how can we keep it real?!
Literary fiction provides interesting examples that resonate with our struggles to live a meaningful life. If you look back in older literature, the characters in poems, plays and novels were often heroic, inspirational role models, buffoons or evil doers. In other words, they were not entirely human but more so caricatures meant to teach a lesson or demonstrate some principle. Life was hard and people needed inspiration in order to keep going.
But then about a hundred and fifty years ago a new movement took root in Europe. In the 19th century people began to have more leisure time, and to be able to think about their inner life. There was a rise in the bourgeoisie. And people began to question where all this free time and new wealth was leading.
Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, written in the mid-1800s, is said to be one of the 10 greatest pieces of literature of all time, and plays this scenario out with one bored and fatally banal character. Emma Bovary is no heroine but not entirely a villain either. She alternates between chasing her own self-delusions, relationships and material things.
There’s nothing noble about her as with other literary heroines such as Cosette in Les Miserables. Her tendencies toward self-deception and self-gratification are off-putting. But she does seem quite real. She is certainly chasing something but it has about as much life as a petticoat. I think that character is a foreshadowing of things the late 19th and early 20th philosophers such as Freud wrote about.
In Freudian psychoanalysis, the pleasure principle is the instinctual seeking of pleasure and avoiding of pain in order to satisfy biological and psychological needs. (Wikipedia). Someone could conceivably call seeking pleasure “chasing life.” But hold that thought! Its counterpoint is the death drive. The death drive was a controversial notion when first introduced, often disputed by others in psychology, but reimagined by French deconstructionists such as Jacques Lacan, Jean Laplanche and Jacques Derrida.
This desire to return to the inorganic state is thought to be a reaction to the stresses of life, the inability to exert adequate power over one’s life and often manifesting as outward aggression or oddly repetitious behavior. Freud noticed this repetition with his patients who were traumatized by their experiences in World War I. These patients, often soldiers, would repeat the trauma in their dreams and waking experiences.
The child psychologist and theorist Melanie Klein noticed this in the repetitious play behavior of troubled children. The push and pull of a death drive as counterpoint to a life-seeking drive (also called Eros) appears to me to be somewhat mechanistic and deterministic. We can all think of people we know or things we have done ourselves that seem to point to living life at the mercy of drives. We can all have agency in our lives and crawl out of those holes. When we are truly “chasing life” we gain maturity (oh that word again!) in self-awareness, noticing when this is happening, and on our own or with support, pulling out of it, to get on with our creative striving. In psychology, this more authentic striving is often termed “desire.”
So how did psychologists such as Freud imagine that we could get back in touch with our true desires. Jacques Lacan says this about talk therapy:
The subject should come to recognize and to name his/his desire. But it isn’t a question of recognizing something that could be entirely given. In naming it, the subject creates, brings forth, a new presence in the world.” The truth about desire is somehow present in discourse, although discourse is never able to articulate the entire truth about desire, whenever discourse attempts to articulate desire, there is always a leftover or surplus. (Lacan, Wikipedia)
Our deconstructionists were very much about the ways in which language, an agreed upon system of symbols, is only agreed upon in the moment. Language, turns of phrase, the meanings of words are all constantly changing.
Jacques Lacan says “Life happens in the margins”. Lacan and particularly Jacques Derrida felt very much that the moment the thing is named is the moment it eludes, escapes, morphs or dies. And this is the point. Arriving at conclusions, being right, accomplishing goals, obtaining long sought material things, gaining a powerful position, none of these produce final satisfaction. Or, if so, it is only fleeting or otherwise you’re really talking about finality or the death drive.
You know the experience ☺ . You wanted this or that, finally got it, and then, after the moment of glory, there was this nagging letdown. Is that all there is? Is it over? What now?
For example, for years I debated about getting a doctorate. Did I have the money or the time? Was I too old? I remember my sister telling me about her friend who got a Ph.D. When my sister asked her what the thesis was on, this person could not remember. I was astounded by that. If I had a PhD I would most certainly remember the topic of my thesis. But I think the message was that this person was now deeply engaged in the work she was able to do as a result of the degree. She had moved on to even more meaningful activity.
This work occupied her mind so fully that she could not, at least for the moment, retrieve the topic of her thesis. I call that “flow.”
Flow was first coined in this was by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, a Hungarian psychologist in whose 1975 interviews several people described their “flow” experiences using the metaphor of a water current carrying them along. (Flow, Wikipedia). Taoists might talk about this in terms of a path or way. Chinese philosophers refer to “chi”, the life force or aliveness. When we have flow we are just living and being as we move toward our goals or desires.
To sum up, there is no 100%, all or nothing, black or white, and there is no final answer, no perfect. Hypervigilance is not a healthy form of awareness. Paul’s lessons in the 1st century in humility teaches us about that. We are also reminded by Paul that life is a cycle that leads us around again to hope and optimism if we persist and remain engaged. Voltaire in the 18th century urges us to act in moderation, to lead balanced lives and to avoid delusions of grandeur. Flaubert’s 19th century innovation is to present us with an anti-hero in the form of Madame Bovary, someone to think about when we become too attached to certain illusions.
In the 20th century psychologists and philosophers have further explored the structures of the psyche, debated what is real and what is fleeting. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries we have returned in some sense to the wisdom of the ages through a revisiting of Eastern philosophy and its notions of flow.
Here it is:
- We keep pursuing life
- We stay aware of the dead spots.
- We forgive ourselves if we fail from time to time to keep it real.
- In the end, what matters most is to keep moving, to keep chasing life.
685 II. Gray Hymnal
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time