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That's How We Learned to Get Through This

03/19/23

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Om Namah Shivaya, shivaya namah om. Salutations benevolent one. Or salutations Lord Shiva. Ancient words. Perhaps one of the most well-known mantras in Hinduism. Thanks again to Janet Fall for guiding us in these various chants this morning.

Om Namah Shivaya, shivaya namah om is a prayer, a meditation on divine love, a contemplation of oneness, of all-in-all. It may have a calming effect. It may bring spiritual insight. Even if it doesn’t, one may enjoy the physical act of vocalizing, the repetition of the words, or the way the chant sounds.

I call this sermon “That’s How We Learned to Get Through This.” In our lives, what have we learned about getting through difficult times, through pain, through loss, through anxiety and panic attacks—getting through what some may rightly call the end of the world? Om Namah Shivaya, shivaya namah om is one among many answers to these questions. More broadly, spiritual practice—prayer, meditation, being still, being quiet, slowing down, finding calm, finding peace, letting go, gaining perspective; and then adapting, evolving, transforming—spiritual practice helps us get through hard times. Any methods we have for grounding ourselves, centering ourselves, connecting ourselves to others help us navigate through hard times, help us “get through this.”

As a reminder, our ministry theme for March is vulnerability. Last Sunday Anne Vogel introduced us to this theme. She asked the question: is vulnerability a weakness or a strength? Of course, it’s always a bit of both. However, Anne rightly emphasized the positive role vulnerability can play in our lives. When we’re willing to be vulnerable, willing to be seen for who we truly are; encountered with our blemishes, imperfections, faults and flaws; encountered in our pain and suffering; encountered in the midst of our greatest need; when we’re willing to ask for help; when we’re willing to trust that others will catch us as we fall; therein lies our capacity, and the capacity of others, to learn, to grow, to give and receive love, to give and receive compassion, to find joy, and thereby to persist, to endure, to “get through this.” So here, at the Unitarian Universalist Society: East, at this liberal religious spiritual community, this beloved community, we welcome vulnerability—your vulnerability, our collective vulnerability. We recognize vulnerability as a gift, as an opening for growth, learning, creativity, compassion, joy and love.

Having said that, I also wonder if we sometimes make it sound easier than it really is. “Come, be vulnerable, share your pain. It’s a gift. It’s a pathway to growth and love.” I don’t want to romanticize it and lose sight of how difficult it can be to share one’s vulnerability, especially in a public setting. Our larger society doesn’t look kindly on vulnerability. Most of us are socialized to some degree to hide our vulnerability. Most of us don’t easily share it. It takes practice, which is why I point to the necessity of spiritual practices as instrumental in helping us “get through this.”

I’ve also been wondering about and struggling with the tension between recognizing vulnerability as a universal human condition vs. recognizing the vulnerability of particular people or groups of people. Not all vulnerabilities are equal.

On one hand, it is true that human beings are inherently vulnerable. None of us can survive after birth without extensive and long-term care from parents or guardians. Throughout our lives, none of us escapes the pain of illness, injury, heartbreak, loss, decline and ultimately death, all of which produce fear and anxiety, sometimes low-level, under the surface fear and anxiety, sometimes full-blown and overwhelming fear and anxiety. There are many things we can do to manage our fears and anxieties. Healthy relationships, financial stability, safe neighborhoods, good schools for our children, meaningful work, friendships, spiritual communities, not to mention access to shelter, nutritious food, and clean water: all help lessen the fear and anxiety that arise from our inherent vulnerability. Which brings me to the other hand: the less access one has to these things, the more vulnerable they are, the harder it is to “get through this.”

And why do some people or groups of people tend to have less of these things? Why are some more vulnerable than others? We know we inherit and live within political and economic systems that by design make some people and some groups of people more vulnerable than others. Poor people are more vulnerable than wealthy people. People of color are more vulnerable than white people. Women are more vulnerable than men. People with disabilities are more vulnerable than able-bodied people. Elders are more vulnerable than middle-aged adults. Right now my heart is with transgender and gender non-conforming people who are daily becoming more vulnerable to political violence and what some are calling “eliminationism.” In statehouses around the country there are approximately 370 anti-trans bills under consideration. A March 6th message from the Unitarian Universalist Association described it this way:

“We are experiencing the outright political targeting of transgender and nonbinary+ children and adults…. This policy violence and dehumanizing rhetoric creates an environment that can provoke physical violence and further discrimination. We are also witnessing efforts to criminalize reproductive healthcare, comprehensive education about race, Black history, and gender, and numerous issues of human rights that are spreading across countless states nationally. These attacks cut right to the heart of our fundamental religious belief in the inherent worth and dignity of each person, a fundamental right of conscience, and the values of personal agency that give us all the opportunity to live fully into our whole selves.[1]

I deeply appreciate that the UUA has put out this message in support of trans and non-binary people and their families in this moment of heightened vulnerability. I appreciate that the UUA is offering programming on how congregations can organize against anti-trans legislation, as well as celebrating Trans Day of Visibility on Friday, March 31st. I hope our congregation can continue to do everything in our power to support trans people, their families and everyone who loves them in this time of heightened vulnerability.

The bottom line for me is that what makes our congregation a beloved community is that we can acknowledge and respond to the common vulnerability all human beings share and simultaneously acknowledge and respond to the specific, heightened vulnerability certain people or groups of people face because of who they are. All people live with vulnerability, so we respond. Some people live with more vulnerability, so we respond.

How do we respond?

My title, “That’s How We Learned to Get Through This,” comes directly from the poet, independent scholar, and activist (who has been described elsewhere as a queer black troublemaker and black feminist love evangelist) Alexis Pauline Gumbs. The quote is from her 2018 book, also a poem, entitled M Archive: After the End of the World.[2] Gumbs calls this poem “speculative documentary,” “written from and with the perspective of a researcher,” what she also calls “a post-scientist sorting artifacts after the end of the world.”[3] This researcher lives many generations from now among the descendants of those who survived the end of the world and evolved in response to it. The researcher is uncovering evidence of the impacts of late capitalism, antiblackness, and environmental crisis which, we know in our time, are taking an immense toll on the planet.[4] The quote I shared earlier stood out to me as a powerful recognition of an existential vulnerability, along with an enduring question, how do we live with it? How do we respond to it? How do we get through it? Here’s the quote again:

“they dug in their memories for the one day. for some of them it was a couple of days per month. rock-bottom days. The days in their lives when the world had already ended. They thought back. And asked:

What did we each do then? On the day that everything went wrong, when transportation and communication technologies conspired against us individually. When we personally couldn’t get out of bed, dehydrated with crying. When we didn’t ask for help. When we hurt the people we loved. When the sun died. When we lost everything. When we lost exactly who we needed to save. When we knew there would be no tomorrow. What did we each do then? How did we keep breathing past it (because we are the ones that did). They dug for those memories and stacked them in a row.

That’s how. That’s how we learned to get through this.”[5]

This fictional (yet not so fictional) researcher has uncovered a critical spiritual practice. Survivors of the end of the world looked back on their hardest days, and remembered what they did to get through it. They dug for those memories and stacked them in a row. I’d like to respectfully adapt this practice for our exploration of vulnerability. I’d like to invite you to recall a hard time in your life: an illness, the death of someone close to you, the dissolution of a cherished relationship, an attempt to get sober, an incapacitating period of mental illness, the loss of physical ability, the loss of a job, financial challenges, being bullied, being targeted due to gender identity, due to race, due to disability, due to something about you over which you have no control. You may even recall your experience of the world ending, as certainly there are days when it feels that way. In the midst of your vulnerability, how did you learn to get through it? What memories can you stack in a row and use in the future?

If I may, I’d like to name some stacked memories, which I’ve accumulated over the years, which emerge from my experience of alcoholism in my family of origin, of having a child born with a serious medical condition, and of losing my father and my father-in-law.

I remember taking small steps, short steps, tentative steps, one or two each day, and sometimes stepping back if necessary.

I remember making lists and checking off the boxes.

I remember learning to wait, being patient, trusting that the fear and anxiety would ease in time.

I remember worrying less—or not at all—about what others thought.

I remember learning what it means to be enough.

I remember letting go of the need to be perfect,

giving up control,

embracing and living with uncertainty,

falling.

I remember taking deep, cleansing breaths.

I remember asking for help.

I remember opening up to the love of family, community and congregation.

I remember building an altar and praying. I can’t tell you all these years later what words came out of my mouth, but I suspect all the words we pray in the midst of our vulnerability are some version of what the ancients prayed: Om Namah Shivaya, Shivaya namah om. Our father who art in Heaven. Baruch Atah Adonai. Salutations benevolent one. I suspect all words we pray in the midst of our vulnerability are some version of Om, the sound of creation, the beginning sound, the sacred sound of the universe.

There is a common, human vulnerability. And some are more vulnerable than others. What have you learned about how to get through this? What memories will you stack for next time?

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Read the UUA’s entire March 6th message, “UUA Responds to Growing Legislative Attacks Against Trans and Nonbinary+ Kids and the LGBTQIA+ Community” at https://www.uua.org/pressroom/press-releases/response-attacks-lgbtqia-community.

[2] Gumbs, Alexis Pauline, M Archive: After the End of the World (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018).

[3] Ibid., p. xi.

[4] I want to add that M Archive is conceived as a poetic companion piece to professor M. Jacqui Alexander’s 2005 Pedagogies of Crossing: Meditations on Feminism, Sexual Politics, Memory, and the Sacred. At one time Gumbs served as a research assistant to Alexander. I realized early into my first reading of M Archive that familiarity with Alexander’s work would greatly benefit my understanding of Gumbs’ project. M. Jacqui Alexander is an Afro-Caribbean writer, teacher, and activist. She is both a Professor Emeritus at the Women and Gender Studies Department of the University of Toronto as well as the creator and director of the Tobago Centre “for the study and practice of indigenous spirituality.” I am adding Pedagogies of Crossing to my reading list.

[5] Ibid., p.49.

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