Staying Power (November 11, 2012)

posted Nov 11, 2012, 6:19 PM by Neal Jones

          Even for those of you who were raised in the Baptist church, like me, or some other evangelical tradition in which you learned the Bible from Genesis to the maps, I'm willing to bet that you will not recall the name of Demas.  Demas probably has the most condensed biography of any Biblical character.  He is mentioned only three times.  In Philemon (which is a book of the New Testament, by the way), Paul writes, “Epaphras, my fellow prisoner Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers.”  Then in Colossians, we read, “Luke the beloved physician and Demas greet you.”  Finally, Paul writes in Timothy, “For Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica.”  These three passages constitute three points on a downward trajectory:  Demas, my fellow worker; Demas; Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me.  Obviously, we know virtually nothing about this companion of St. Paul.  From his brief Biblical bio, we can infer that Demas may have been swept off his feet by the conviction and passion of Paul and that, initially, their imprisonment was an exhilarating test of faith.  But eventually, the honeymoon passed, and the distractions of Rome dragged Demas off his mountaintop experience.  He appears to have made a fine beginning and finished with a poor ending.  Demas had starting power but not staying power.   

          Starting power and staying power are not the same thing.  Starting a hike, for instance, is not the same thing as finishing a hike.  When you start out on a hike on a mountain trail, you are filled with excitement and eagerness at being out in nature, breathing in the fresh air, getting exercise, and seeing the multi-colored leaves and vistas of distant mountains.  But as the day wears on and you get tired, dusty, and sweaty and the landscape looks familiar, what is needed to finish the hike is not excitement but determination, perseverance, and endurance.

          Starting a relationship is not the same as committing to it over the long haul.  Starting a relationship is easy because the endorphins of the honeymoon period take over.  Everyday, ordinary things seem new and extraordinary.  His or her idiosyncrasies are cute and adorable.  “He looks like a little boy when he picks his nose.”  “I love the way her voice gets shrill when she's angry.”  Terms of endearment creep into conversation:  cream puff, honey bun, sugar lump.  But commitment begins when the endorphins settle down and the honeymoon ends.  When the everyday and ordinary are just … everyday and ordinary.  When idiosyncrasies become annoying.  “If I see him pick his nose one more time, I'm going to barf.”  “If she yells at me one more time, I'm going to shove a pencil in my ear.” Terms of endearment become terms of irritation:  big mouth, know-it-all, iron head, booger breath.    
          Having a baby is not the same as nurturing a family over the long haul.  All babies are darlings at first, and everything they do is adorable at first.  “Isn't she so cute when she cries.”  “Oh look, he made a little pooh pooh.  Isn't that the most precious pooh pooh you've ever seen.”  But just let them get older, and nobody wants to get up in the middle of the night when they cry.  Nobody wants to deal with little pooh pooh.  Children need dedicated parents when they're cute and when they're not.

          Beginning in faith is not the same as staying with it.  When many of us converts from other faith traditions found this or another UU congregation, it felt like falling in love.  Our new lover is nothing like the old one, who was dogmatic and narrow-minded.  Our UU lover is open, inclusive, authentic, and hip.  With this new lover, we feel understood and accepted for the first time, and we are free to be ourselves.  Discovering Unitarian Universalism for the first time can be intoxicating.  It can feel like a honeymoon.  But the honeymoon eventually ends, and it ends for new church members, too.  At first, this new community is a warm, fuzzy ideal, but then reality sets in.  The microwave blows a fuse, and the RE wing needs painting.  There are bills to pay, a budget to balance, and tables to set up.  Committee meetings last forever and nothing gets done.  Some people are downright irritating with their egos, their tempers, and their blind spots.  The minister is too liberal or too traditional, too political or too spiritual, too intellectual or too touchy-feely.  Are you a fair weather member, or can your membership in this congregation cope with conflict, frustration, and disappointment?  Wherever there are human beings, there will be conflict, and they will frustrate and disappoint you, even, believe it or not, at church.

          As you may recall, I have been talking these last several weeks about change, and today's sermon is the last of this series.  I don't know about you, but I've enjoyed this series … and that's all that really matters.  Change is well and good, but it doesn't matter how positive or constructive or healthy a change may be if we don't have the staying power to see it through, to persist with our change so that a temporary turn becomes a permanent direction, a new attitude and behavior become a reliable habit, and habit becomes character.  You may recall that my prescription for change has been to immerse yourself in your life experience because life is like a river, dynamic, ever-flowing, ever-changing, and if you stay immersed in your life experience, you too will change. 

          The problem is that sometimes life is frustrating and painful, and we would rather avoid our experience.  If you are unhappy with your weight, you probably avoid stepping on the scale.  If you are spending too much, you probably avoid going through your checking account and credit card bills.  If your partner's drinking is creating stress in your life, you probably avoid talking with him or her about their drinking.  This does not require sophisticated psychological analysis.  It is a natural human tendency to seek pleasure and avoid pain.  Most of us most of the time make whatever compromises and accommodations we have to in order to avoid discomfort.  We go along to get along, with ourselves and others.  We smile when we're not happy.  We nod “yes” when we would really like to say “no.”  Most of us most of the time don't seek change because change, even change for the better, interrupts our routine and disrupts our equilibrium. 

          Typically, we make a change only when we have to, when our compromises and accommodations just aren't working anymore, and our job or our partner or our health or life demands that we make a change.  In all the years I practiced as a clinical psychologist, not once did I have someone come into my office and say, “My life is going pretty well.  I'm not in any kind of distress.  But I thought I'd come in and spend a lot of time and money just to look my life over and make sure everything's ok.”  People usually change when their lives are not working, usually when they are in a crisis.

          So in a nutshell, here's what I want to say this morning:  You change when you embrace your experience, but unfortunately, these opportunities for change typically mean embracing uncomfortable, unhappy, unfulfilling moments in your life that you would rather avoid and that you typically do avoid.  It means that, in the usual course of things, when you change, things get worse before they get better.  Another way of saying this is that spiritual growth requires the capacity to tolerate painful experiences and uncomfortable feelings. 

          The temptation, of course, is to avoid painful experiences and uncomfortable feelings, and we do that by acting out.  We have a drink or get high.  We start an argument.  We change the subject.  We have an affair.  The socially acceptable ways of acting out are staying busy and buying things.  In fact, staying busy and buying things are the essence of the American Dream.  If you stay busy, you will generally be rewarded, which will enable you to buy things, and the more things you buy, the more you stay busy to afford upkeep of what you've got and acquisition of still more stuff.  It's not only a socially acceptable way of acting out; it's socially rewarding.  You can get ahead, be respected, and feel important if you act out in this way. 

          For example, if I come home from work and notice during my evenings and weekends how distant and estranged I feel from my family, I could stay with that feeling and embrace that experience, and if I do, I might be motivated to change my relationship with my family.  But it would be uncomfortable to embrace those feelings, so I might decide to act out instead.  I might start drinking two or three martinis when I get home.  Or I might have an affair with that young secretary at the office.  Or when my wife and kids start complaining about how I don't spend much time with them, I might get defensive and start an argument and tell them that it's their fault.  Or I might bring my work home with me, which means I would get more work done, which would please my boss and might even earn me a raise or a promotion, which would reward me to keep avoiding my uncomfortable feelings of being lonely and estranged from my own family.  With the extra income, I could buy my wife a diamond necklace and the whole family a vacation to the Caribbean, which would reward them not to talk about their feelings of being lonely and estranged, too.

          The problem with acting out is that it works.  Acting out brings immediate relief to uncomfortable feelings and painful experiences.  I do want to emphasize, however, that it brings immediate relief but not a long-term solution.  As the old saying goes, wherever you go, there you are. 

          I don't have to tell you that hanging in there, tolerating discomfort, and avoiding the temptation to act out are not values that receive much support in our consumeristic culture.  Our culture convinces us that the sky is the limit, that you can have it your way, that you can have it all and then some.  It teaches you that you can and should have a pain-free and risk-free life.  You should never be sad, anxious, or fearful.  You should expect immediate gratification of any desire and immediate relief from any discomfort.         

          A phrase that has entered our popular lexicon is "helicopter parent."  It refers to mothers and fathers who hover over their child with obsessive concern and micromanage their child's life to prevent him or her from experiencing any distress.  When I was a therapist at the university counseling center, a student told me that her mother called her every morning to wake her up for her classes.  University of Georgia professor Richard Mullendore calls the cell phone "the world's longest umbilical cord."  I think one of the hardest challenges as a parent is allowing your child to experience hardship and disappointment so that he or she can grow up.  Of course, that's easy for me say, isn't it? 

          I want to mention just two things that can help us resist the temptation to act out and increase our staying power to hang in there with uncomfortable feelings and unpleasant experiences so that we can experience the change we want in our lives.

          The first is having a loyalty greater than yourself to which you are devoted.  When St. Paul says that Demas deserted him because he was "in love with this present world," he's implying that Demas didn't have staying power because he had no greater cause or allegiance than to himself.  Love of a friend or partner, of family, of country, of an ideal or principle will cause people to sacrifice their comfort on behalf of something beyond self.  In a former life, I was a therapist at a drug and alcohol treatment center, and it was remarkable, especially by today's standards, in that it offered 90 days of in-patient treatment to single mothers.  Whenever I would ask those mothers why they were making the necessary sacrifices to participate in that prolonged recovery program, they would answer without hesitation, "I'm doing this for my child." 

          During has last weeks, Don Mohr kept talking about some projects he wanted to finish up here at the UU or find others to finish up if he didn't live long enough to see them through.  Don was always nurturing this congregation because this congregation and our UU principles nurtured him.  He was devoted to something greater than himself, and that gave him a reason to live, even when there was precious little life left to live.

          If breaking your addiction for yourself is not reason enough to stick with it, do it for your children.  If staying healthy for yourself is not reason enough to hang in there, do it for your family and friends.  If working on your marriage for yourself is not reason enough tolerate discomfort, do it for your partner.  If living by the dictates of your conscience for yourself is not reason enough to delay gratification, set an example for others.  If working for a more just, more compassionate, more humane society for yourself is not reason enough to get involved, do it for the next generation.  The change we seek for ourselves is never just for ourselves; it's for all those whose lives touch ours.

          The second thing I would mention to help resist the temptation to act out and increase our staying power to hang in there with unpleasant experiences and uncomfortable feelings is to develop a different relationship with our emotions.  Our society has become quite efficient, and we learn early on that we can be more productive if we turn off our emotions, especially any emotions that connect us with others.  We are more efficient if we cut off our relationships with others, or at least keep our relationships superficial and utilitarian.  If you can act more like a machine or computer, you will be highly efficient, productive, and successful in life.  You will also likely feel empty and depressed, but at least you'll be efficient, productive, and successful. 

          We learn not to listen to our bodies, its sensations, and its feelings. 

          "What do you mean, you're hungry?  You can't be hungry, you just ate."

          "You don't want vanilla ice cream.  You like chocolate."

          "Boys don't cry."

          "You're not hurt.  Keep playing."

          "Don't be too smart if you want boys to like you."

          "Don't you get angry."

          "That looks stupid.  You can't draw."

          "Keep smiling."

          What I'm suggesting is having a different relationship with our emotions.  If we feel a bodily sensation or emotion, we must feel it for a reason.  Some would say that God created us that way.  I would prefer to say that our evolution has hard-wired us to feel as well as to think.  Since we have evolved with emotions, they must promote our survival.  When I feel pain, that's my body's signal that something is injuring me or not working properly.  In the same way, my emotions also speak to me if I would only pay attention to them.  I might learn something if I would be a student and view my emotions as teachers.

          When I feel sad, it would help if I developed a sense of  curiosity about my sadness.  I might ask myself, "What is my sadness saying to me?  What loss have I experienced?"  Maybe I'm too much in a hurry to move on with my life.  Maybe my sadness is telling me to slow down and grieve.

          When I feel anxious, I might get curious and ask myself, "What is my anxiety saying to me?  How am I being threatened?  How am I feeling unsafe?  What must I do to feel safe and secure?"

          When I feel angry, I might ask myself, "How have I been hurt?  What boundaries of mine have been violated?  What wants or needs of mine are being denied?  What goals of mine are being frustrated?"

          When I feel guilty, I might ask, "What values of mine have I violated?  What lessons can I learn from my mistakes?  What amends and apologies do I need to make?"

          When I feel envious or jealous, I might ask, "What am I feeling insecure about?  What am I basing my self-esteem on?"

          When I feel vindictive, I might ask, "How have I been put down?  How am I feeling powerless?"

          My emotions, even my so-called negative emotions, are a source of great wisdom, and I could learn a lot from them if I would regard them as teachers instead of enemies to defeat or avoid.  Paying attention to uncomfortable feelings, tolerating unpleasant experiences, resisting the temptation to act out, hanging in there for others as well as for ourselves -- this is what allows us to make changes in our lives and to make those changes last.  In plain, down-to-earth language, this is what spiritual growth is really about.

                                                                                                                                    Rev. Dr. Neal R. Jones