The DuPage Unitarian Universalist Church exists as a beacon of liberal religious thought and practice. Amid the challenges and changes of a chaotic world, we aspire to proclaim and embody the possibilities of meaning in human life, of freedom in human thought, and of peace and justice in human community.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

How Can I Make Sense of Suffering? By Reverend Tom Capo

When I was 18 years old, I was asked to be the Godfather for my cousin, Tabitha.  This is a picture of her of her at 5 years old.  I was part of her life as she grew up.  I saw her at Christmas each year and I visited her during Mardi Gras.  She lived outside of New Orleans in Slidell, Louisiana.  We would regularly get together at my parent’s home, where all the family gathered for special occasions; she would share some of what was going on in her life.  I watched her over the years grow into a beautiful teenager.  Every once in a while, when I happened to think of it, I wondered, “What does it mean to be a Godfather; how am I supposed to help her on her spiritual journey through life.”  I was no longer Catholic while she was growing up; I had grown away from the religion of my youth, and had become a Unitarian Universalist.  My own spiritual journey was varied—affirming humanism and Buddhism as paths to deeper understanding of myself and the world.   And I thought Tabitha doing well on her own, spiritually and otherwise.  She seemed happy, full of teenage enthusiasms, lots of friends, beautiful and headstrong as only redheads are.  She didn’t seem to particularly want or need a God father. And I was very busy with my own life.  I was deeply involved in my church as a lay-leader.  I was in private practice as a psychotherapist. I had gotten married and had two very young children.  My life was full and enjoyable and wonderful—especially watching my two sons growing up.  My thoughts about my responsibilities for Tabitha’s journey through life and her spirituality faded into the background, overlaid by Boy Scout meetings, church Board meetings, workshops to earn Continuing Education Credits, dinners with our supper club; you know, with life.
In February 1993, my extended family, my parents, brothers and their spouses, my wife and children, my uncle and aunt, Tabitha and her younger brother got together for another Mardi Gras.  Tabitha was 16 years old, involved in lots of school activities.  She had a gaggle of friends.  She was in the band at school.  She was upbeat and excited to see me and all the rest of the family.  We ate together; we went to parades together; we even talked a little about nothing in particular in the midst of all that wonderful chaos.   A few weeks later, Tabitha had an argument with her parents and, while they were out at a restaurant, took one of her father’s rifles and killed herself in her parent’s bedroom.
            The word suffering is sometimes used in the very narrow sense of describing physical pain.  But I define suffering differently.  Suffering is our negative and persistent response to pain, pain that can come from many sources—from the death of a loved one; physical, mental, emotional, spiritual trauma or illness; and life stresses, such as personal conflict, economic hardship, life’s ordinary and extraordinary changes/transitions.  We cannot avoid pain.  It is an inevitable part of life.  As contemporary Japanese author Haruki Murakami reminds us: “Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.”  As much as I believe this, I have, as probably you have, suffered in response to pain. 
            Poet Elizabeth Jennings wrote:
…Time does not heal,
It makes a half-stitched scar
That can be broken and again you feel
Grief as total as in its first hour.
My grief over Tabitha felt and feels this way—like a half-stitched scar that will never ever completely heal, that can be broken open again and again and again.  Some of this is the normal natural pain of loss, and some was and is my suffering.
            For some time after my cousin’s death, I blamed her mother.  Her mother was chronically depressed, frequently talked about suicide, and never really took responsibility for her life, her marriage, her children, anything.   She drifted through life seemingly always on the verge of suicide; and used these threats to manipulate her family or to get her way or to deal with problems—problems she often created, though she seemed completely unaware of this.  Everything was always someone else’s fault.  I could not help feeling that somehow Tabitha heard her mother’s threats as permission to end her own life.  And yet, I was the psychotherapist in the family, who was called on to help my aunt, Tabitha’s mother, get her life back together.  My parents expected me to put aside my own feelings, my own confusion, my own share of the blame, to help Tabitha’s mother and her family find a way, somehow, to face life without Tabitha.  I couldn’t deal with my own why’s, because I had to help my aunt deal with her family’s why’s.  My aunt, uncle, and Tabitha’s younger brother, came to Houston to live in my parent’s home, too overwhelmed to deal with putting their lives back together; they wanted us to put their lives back together. 
            Pain and suffering can also cause collateral damage, harm to family, friends, other people who are near those who are in pain or suffering.  In other words, in the midst of our own pain and suffering we may not realize that our pain may cause pain to those close to us.  Martha and I realized, despite the pain we were both suffering, Tabitha’s death had touched our children.  And we realized that it was important that our children be told the truth, in an age appropriate way, as completely and quickly as they were able to take it in.  Protecting or shielding them could have created a web of distortions and misperceptions, and a conspiracy of silence.  This was especially important, because my aunt, uncle and cousin lived very near us for a long time after Tabitha’s death.  My two young sons knew Tabitha, and had a relationship with her.  And my sons were exposed to my aunt’s family constantly, to their struggles and their grief, not to mention mine and Martha’s.  If we had told them stories or denied their observations, how would that have impacted their mental, emotional, and spiritual development?  We decided to be open with them.  My four year-old son, some weeks after Tabitha’s death, wrote a letter to her family saying he loved them and wanted them to know that Tabitha had just lost her feelings. 
Pain brings up strong feelings, overwhelming feelings.  The kind of feelings that feel like they are going to submerge you, maybe forever.  We suffer when we try to avoid the pain, but what happens is the pain becomes more intense and long-lasting.  Pain can make us question our meaning and purpose in life, our spiritual beliefs, our ability to cope with life, because life continues on even as we are in pain.  Suffering keeps us from embracing the pain and moving through, making meaning from, healing from it.  Even chronic pain, whether physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual, needs to be faced, not avoided, in order for us to make meaning from it.  We may never completely heal, but we can make meaning and find a path forward.
Putting off my own search for meaning, only proved to make the process longer and more difficult for me.  My anger and bargaining with myself persisted.  When I was finally able to start the process, I had to move through the blame I held toward my aunt, through the fear that I had missed something or I should have known something was going on with Tabitha, through the resentment that I had had to put aside my own feelings and needs.  Only after I was able to move through these stages of grief, only after I was able to forgive my aunt, and realize that there was no one who could have really looked into Tabitha’s head or heart and known the risk she posed, only after I was able to accept my own feelings and needs, only then could I begin to make meaning from her suicide.
I have spent time with many individuals and families suffering grief, pain, loss, significant change.  I have heard people struggle with long held beliefs in the midst of their suffering. I have heard people say about suffering: “take up the cross and suffer in silence, like Jesus did” “Suffering will make you closer and more like Jesus” “God wants us to suffer to be redeemed” “God will not give us anything more than we can handle”  “God did this thing for some greater purpose.”  I cannot tell you how many times in my practice as a psychotherapist that people said to me, “What did I do that was so wrong that God is punishing me” in the midst of their pain and suffering.  I have seen people struggle with these beliefs, lengthening their suffering.
There was more to my spiritual healing process that I wasn’t as prepared for.  I had to forgive myself for not providing the spiritual grounding and support that “might” have helped Tabitha.  I was her Godfather.  I was supposed to talk with her about my spiritual journey and her spiritual journey.  I was supposed to have mentored her, walked with her, helped her to find her own way to meaning and purpose, to embrace mystery, to search for the expressions of the divine in her life.  And as a Buddhist, to help her to understand that life is transitory, whatever she was going through would pass, as did all things.  Something that seemed world shattering, traumatic, overwhelming at this moment would seem different in the next moment, if she could have just held on to the next moment.  If she could have known she wasn’t alone in that one moment when everything seemed too much.
            Pain can bring up many irrational ways of thinking and feeling.  Some we may recognize as irrational, and we can move through them relatively easily.  But when we hold onto the pain, when we choose suffering, the irrational can find a niche within us.  And if we don’t give that niche some attention, that is, if we don’t take the time to examine and process that niche, we can find ourselves vulnerable to and reliving the irrational thoughts that bring more pain into our lives.  Pain and suffering result in feeling helpless, hopeless, fearful, angry, reacting rather than acting –we make poor decisions, lacking clarity, often not taking the time to reflect on what is happening within and around us. 
            Iris Bolton, Director of a counseling center in Atlanta, lost her son to suicide.  She wrote:
I don’t know why?
I’ll never know why?
I don’t have to know why?
I don’t like it?
What I have to do is make a choice about my living?
As I continued to struggle with spiritual and emotional issues from which there seemed to be no escape, I realized that I had to face the big question of why.  Whenever pain happens, the thought of why will inevitable rise up within us. 
I didn’t know why Tabitha committed suicide.  I never will.  And, I’ve come to understand, I don’t have to know why.  I will never like that.  Tabitha is a half-stitched scar upon my heart.  Sometimes, when I see a group of kids walking to or from school, laughing, talking, full of life, I’ll see a gangly red-haired girl, all knobby knees and sharp elbows, and that half-stitched scar will open, and again I feel grief as total as in its first hour.  But I’ve made meaning of her suicide and, in making meaning, have made a choice to embrace the pain, but not embrace the suffering. 
Tabitha’s death resulted in much soul searching and much bewilderment for me for some time.  But today, I hold her in my heart in a loving way.  By no means do I tell you this to say that what I went through was a smooth and complete process of dealing with my own pain and suffering; it was not.  I tell you this because we will all have pain and suffering in our lives.  Yes, perhaps, suffering is a choice, but it is a very easy, seductive choice.  And when we are fragile, a choice we often make without ever being aware of it.  So be gentle with yourself, don’t think yourself weak if you find yourself in the midst of suffering.  Know that you are not alone, know that life will be waiting for you when you are ready to return to it, and know that suffering will pass, if you face it.  Namaste

Monday, October 12, 2015

Beyond the Normal by Reverend Tom Capo, preached on 10/11/2015

Jim Mulac was a member of the congregation I served before coming here.  Jim developed a life-threatening illness, and so asked me to come over to discuss what he wanted in a Celebration of his Life service and to reflect on how he had lived his life.  Jim was a jazz pianist, a poet, a bookstore owner, a husband, father, and friend to many.  As we talked about the service and his life, he told me of a near death experience that he had many years ago.  He said that he had an out of body experience, a heading toward a light, and seeing deceased family and friends waiting for him.  This experience was transformative for Jim; after this experience he chose to live life as fully as he could every single day.  He had been an atheist before this near death experience; afterwards, he came to believe that there is something after death—though he pondered till the day he died what that was. 
Though perhaps none of you have had a near death experience, many, most, perhaps all of you have had a uniquely significant experience that struck you, that was so profound and moving that you were unable to adequately describe it in words.  And perhaps that experience did something to you, changed you in some way.  Many of these types of experiences are transitory, passing quickly in and out of our consciousness.  Sometimes these experiences offer some new insight, wisdom, awareness, perspective.  Some people say that they feel more connected to something larger after such an experience.
How do we as Unitarian Universalists make sense of these kind of “beyond the normal” of experiences?  And how do we share these experiences with one another?  Or do we share them with one another?  Doe our DuPage Unitarian Universalist family feel like enough of a safe and accepting space to share such things?  How would you respond if someone here shared with you a near death experience?  What if they shared a mystical experience or a transformative life-changing experience with you?  In our normal day to day life, people tend to be more interested in how to be effective and efficient, and not so much about the extraordinary.  The question becomes: is a Unitarian Universalist church an “appropriate” place to share mystical experiences?  If not, why not?
There is truth and wisdom that can be garnered from these extraordinary experiences.  What is wisdom?  Is it knowledge?  We each have access to much of the world’s knowledge, something no generation before us has had.  Does knowledge alone help us discern one truth from another?  Is it wisdom that helps us make sense of our knowledge?  Our life experiences, both the easily explained and the seemingly inexplicable, our individual and our shared experiences, can assist us in discerning how we understand, make meaning of, and utilize knowledge.  Wisdom, then, is that which directs knowledge so that we may live our values in a way that is congruent with our deepest selves.  How can a “beyond the normal” experience lead to wisdom; wisdom can lead a person to have a positive impact on the world.
Think about Francis of Assisi, a late 12 and early 13th century Catholic preacher and friar.  What do you know about him?  Some of us might think about the blessing of animals; this ritual is conducted in remembrance of St. Francis of Assisi because of his love for all creatures.  What else do you know about him?  He had a mystical experience and changed from being a rich boy who spent money on indulgences for himself and his friends to being a person who renounced all his worldly goods.  He believed that he had received messages from god to do specific work in the world: rebuilding a church, caring for people and animals, starting religious orders.  Whatever you may think of Francis’s story—Catholic myth or historical truth or whatever—what most of us can agree on is he had a profound experience, and made meaning from it in such a way as to have a profound effect on the world.  I believe that some of you here today have had a profound, perhaps transcendent, experience.  And you made meaning from it in such a way as to benefit humanity, animals, the planet. 
American writer, activist and pagan Starhawk talks about a transcendent experience as a conversion and says, “Conversion is primarily an unselfing.  The first birth of the individual is into his own little world.  He is controlled by the deep-seated instincts of self-preservation and self-enlargement—instincts which are, doubtless, a direct inheritance from his brute ancestry.  The universe is organized around his own personality as a center.  [Conversion, then, is] the larger world-consciousness now pressing in on the individual consciousness.  Often it breaks in suddenly and becomes a great new revelation.  This is the first aspect of conversion: the person emerges from a smaller limited world of existence into a larger world of being.  His life becomes swallowed up in a larger whole.”  Starhawk reminds us that these experiences can push against our relatively narrow life focus, giving us the opportunity to have a larger worldview and to become increasingly un-self focused.  The extent to which we explore this larger worldview depends on our own choices—how far we are willing to let go of the self, how comfortable we are in a universe that is not centered around our own personality.
So, how do we reconcile all this mysticism, transcendence with science?  Neuroscientist David Eagleman writes, “People wouldn't even go into science unless there was something much bigger to be discovered, something that is transcendent.”  His work is on the edge of science.  He is constantly looking for something more, reaching out to change the world, looking for wonder and awe in life.  In a recent blog he writes:  “While medicine will advance in the next half century, we are not on a crash-course for achieving immortality by curing all disease.  Bodies simply wear down with use.  We are on a crash-course, however, with technologies that let us store unthinkable amounts of data and run gargantuan simulations.  Therefore, well before we understand how brains work, we will find ourselves able to digitally copy the brain's structure and able to download the conscious mind into a computer.”  He feels called, if you will, to combine psychology, neuroscience, and computer science; he also explores culture, fiction, and synesthesia--a neurological condition in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway—he wonders if we could learn to smell though our fingers.   What was the “conversion” experience that birth this neuroscientist?  He fell off a roof when he was a child, and developed an interest in understanding the neural basis of time perception.  This was how he made meaning from that profound experience, and now he is having a profound effect on the world.
I believe we’re primed for transcendent, profound, transformational experiences; I don’t think it matters whether you are a humanist, a mystic, an atheist, a Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, Hindu, Jew—or whatever.  We have the opportunity to re-evaluate our lives, our priorities, to look at the world with wonder and awe, to break down the barriers that culture has placed before us, to explore new ways of living, being, and doing in the world.  These are properties of the human mind and as far as I am aware, no other living creature has the capacity for transcendent experiences.  A case could be made that other plant and animal species adapt to their environments, so as to be more successful or dominant, but adaptation is not the same as transformation, just as knowledge is not the same as wisdom.  Humans can choose to explore their personal beliefs, can become more intentionally self-reflective, and can change the world. “People wouldn't even go into science [or social justice work or ministry or journey into their selves, their beliefs, their lives] unless there was something much bigger to be discovered, something that is transcendent.”
What meaning will you make of a transcendent or profound experience?  Will you ignore it?  Dismiss it? Ponder it?  Be transformed by it?  What wisdom, enlightenment, insight, wonder will you take from it?  How un-self-focused will you become as a result?  When the larger world consciousness presses on your own consciousness, how will you live in a universe that is not centered on your own personality?  These are the questions I leave you with as you back go out into a world that will offer you experiences that are beyond the normal.