Transcending Sorrow
a sermon by
Rev. Roberta Finkelstein

Unitarian Universalists of Sterling, VA
Sunday January 2, 2005

Copyright © 2005 Rev. Roberta Finkelstein
Page last modified: 18 Jun 2005, 12:00 -0400

How do we transcend sorrow? How do we go on with our lives after experiencing a painful loss, a deep disappointment, a personal betrayal? That question was posed to me last year by the successful bidder of the sermon topic of your choice at the Auction. It took me a while to get around to it, but I finally scheduled it for this first Sunday in January, thinking it would work well thematically with our Coffin and Cradle ritual. I had no idea that sorrow would be visiting the earth on such a dramatic scale this week. The tsunami in Asia has claimed the lives of more than 120,000 people; the scale of suffering and misery among the survivors is impossible to comprehend; the grief unimaginable.

For us, the tsunami is a tragedy half a world away. We care, we send money, we urge our leaders to respond appropriately. But we don't experience sorrow in the same way that we do when we are touched personally. Because sorrow is a very personal and individual experience. Even knowing of the massiveness of the loss from the tsunami does not make it's impact felt the same way our own personal losses, on a much smaller scale, affect us. I want us, as a faith community, to respond appropriately to the tragedy and need of our global neighbors, but I also want to focus this morning on the personal spiritual work of transcending sorrow.

I'm sure all of you have felt the physical symptoms of grief - the clutch in the gut, the pounding heart, the sense of mental disorientation, of time standing still. The theologian C.S. Lewis, in his memoir A Grief Observed, begins by noting with surprise how much grief feels like fear. And our initial reactions to grief and loss are likely to mimic the autonomic responses to fear that are bred into our genetic code. On the most basic level, living things respond to fear either by fleeing or fighting. On a more sophisticated level, grief counselors tell us that our initial responses to loss are likely to be denial and anger. When Elizabeth Kubler-Ross first proposed her schema for understanding the grief process - the denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance steps - many of us mistook her work for a linear kind of psychological process. Of course nothing about the human psyche is linear, and people dealing with sorrow are likely to experience all of those reactions in circular and elliptical patterns over and over again. But still, those first stages - denial and anger - are the psychological equivalents of the fight or flight responses. Grief feels like fear because our initial reaction to grief is so similar to our reaction to feeling threatened with physical danger.

The psychological literature is filled with material about the work of grief. But in a faith community, there is more to it than merely regaining psychological balance; there is a spiritual process of transcending sorrow that is the real subject for our reflection this morning. Therefore I won't spend a lot of time reviewing Kubler-Ross's work or talking about denial and anger and bargaining and depression. I want to spend our time in what I think of as the acceptance/post-acceptance stage. Because that is where the spiritual work of transcending sorrow begins.

"You may not have control over your initial reaction to something, but you can decide what your response will be," wrote Morrie Schwartz in Letting Go: Morrie's Reflections on Living While Dying. "You don't have to be at the mercy of your emotions. You may not be able to change your medical prognosis, but you can control the destructive emotions that can subvert your mental and physical health. For me, acceptance has been the cornerstone to my having an emotionally healthy response to my illness." Morrie Schwartz is, of course, the subject of the best-selling book Tuesdays With Morrie. He makes an important point here - that your initial reaction does not have to govern your long-term response to pain or loss. Acceptance is the key to the ultimate quality of your experience, whether you are encountering the reality of your own death, or one of what Kubler-Ross called 'the little deaths' that are scattered throughout each of our lives that can help prepare us for our ultimate encounter - the final stage of our own lives.

What is this quality of acceptance? Most simply, it is understanding that whatever it is - illness, an accident, an act of nature, an act of cruelty - whatever it is simply is. You cannot change the circumstances, you cannot rewrite the script, you cannot pretend that an alcoholic or addict is not an alcoholic or addict, you cannot pretend that it doesn't hurt or matter. The it - the source of your sorrow - simply is. Melody Beattie, who made co-dependency and the dysfunctional family a household name in the 1980's says this. "To accept our circumstances is another miraculous cure. For anything to change or anyone to change, we must first accept ourselves, others, and the circumstances exactly as they are." In a sense, Beattie is addressing the ultimate futility of one of those penultimate stages of grieving - the bargaining. We've all done it; we've all made bargains with God, even those of us who don't believe in God. If you'll just save my marriage, I'll be a better person. If you'll just make that huge credit card bill go away, I'll never overspend again. It never works; that is why when the bargaining stage finally exhausts itself, depression ensues. People often feel at this point that they are out of options, but in fact that is when the most healthy and hopeful option finally occurs to them - the option of simply accepting the circumstances that have made them so sad.

So the first part of acceptance is. It just is. The second movement in the acceptance process is more challenging. It is to understand that what you accept as simple fact or circumstance is also not personal. It didn't happen to you for a reason; there is no explanation, no divine purpose at work in your misery. I said that sorrow is personal, and it is. But the causes of sorrow are not. Certainly there are aspects of personal accountability in our losses. A relationship falls apart because of actions and words on both sides. Cancer is related to life-style. Carelessness causes accidents. But not everybody who smokes gets cancer. Not everybody who is unfaithful to their spouse ends up divorced. Not everybody who gets behind the wheel of a car after drinking alcohol has an accident. It can make you absolutely crazy to try to make sense out of the capriciousness of life. It can also make you a really, really bad theologian.

Take for example the article in Friday's Washington Post called "Seeking the Hand of God in the Waters." According to the chief rabbi of Israel's Sephardim, "This is an expression of God's great ire with the world. The world is being punished for wrongdoing - be it people's needless hatred of each other, lack of charity, moral turpitude." Now I would agree with Rabbi Amar that all of these things are bad things and that we could do better. But I cannot agree with his vision of an angry God drowning hordes of innocents in random fashion to get the message across. In India, some have suggested that the tsunami was divine retribution for the arrest of a Hindu religious leader. And my favorite, Bill Koenig, an Alexandria resident and Christian triumphalist, posted on his web site this explanation for the tsunami. "The Biblical proportions of this disaster become clearly apparent upon reports of miraculous Christian survival . . . what happened, and we see this happen over and over again, was that Christians, supernaturally, have been able to escape from harm's way." Didn't we just hear something about divine retribution for needless hatred and lack of charity?

I am appalled when ministerial colleagues preach the will of God in natural disasters. The path of the twister spares a particular church, and people assume it is the will of God. This means it was also the will of God that a school lay directly in the path of death and destruction. Martin Marty, one of the eloquent voices for liberal theology in America today, commented on this tendency to attribute to a deliberate God the capriciousness of nature. "In each act of nature - your insurance calls it an act of God - when people are precise in knowing that this is God's will, they are creating great trouble for themselves and others. You have to say that God is playing favorites."

The alternative to this bad theology is to reject the "Why" question as irrelevant to transcending the sorrow. The novelist Reynolds Price, in his memoir of illness and healing, wrote, "Some vital impulse spared my needing to reiterate the world's most frequent and pointless question in the face of disaster - Why? Why me? I never asked it; the only answer is, of course, Why not? You may want to try at first to focus your will on the absolute first ground-level question. Again that's not "Why me?" but "What's next?"

What's next? If I accept the reality of the circumstances that have brought sorrow to my life, and if I accept the further reality that I cannot indulge in the self-pity of taking those circumstances personally, what is next? How do I transcend this feeling of pain and despair? What Beattie and Price and many others emphasize over and over again is that there is, at this point, an act of will involved. You have to decide to survive. And to transcend. You have to decide to be intentional about seeking meaning in your experience, not the nonsensical meaning that God is picking on me, but that each of us has, in our minds and hearts and souls, the freedom to choose happiness, the ability to seek happiness, and the strength to find happiness on the other side of sorrow. Nobody knows this better than the psychiatrist Victor Frankl, whose studies on the human capacity to endure and find meaning began during his imprisonment in a Nazi concentration camp. "The experiences of camp life show that man does have a choice of action," Frankl wrote. "Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress. We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms - to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way. In the final analysis it becomes clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone. I became acquainted with those martyrs whose behavior in the camp, whose suffering and death, bore witness to the fact that the last inner freedom cannot be lost. It is this spiritual freedom which cannot be taken away - that makes life meaningful and purposeful."

What Frankl taught us is that the inner dimension is ultimately the most important. When we feel most vulnerable, most like a victim of circumstance - that is when we have the greatest opportunity to exercise that inner freedom that for most of our lives we ignore. That is when we find our true spiritual selves; when we fulfill our human potential for meaning-making. We can move beyond blaming others, including God and other powerful leaders. We can move beyond helplessness and anger and vengefulness. We can move from "why" to "what's next" - which may be the single most powerful move any human being can make. In that one move we do, ultimately, transcend sorrow. And in that transcending moment we find life, perhaps for the first time, in all its glory and splendor.

It is hard to believe, when you are standing amid the rubble of what you thought was your life, that your real life is just beyond the ruins. That is why community is so important. Communities of faith help individuals to maintain or regain perspective. This week global communities of faith are more important than ever. Let's each do what we can to help the people affected by the tsunami to survive - first with financial and physical assistance - and ultimately by adding our voices to the chorus of prayers and to the conversation about ultimate meaning. Don't let the prophets of revenge, the preachers of punishment, and the screamers of sectarian triumphalism prevail.

Sorrow is personal, but survival is communal. Both alone and together, we can do the work of transcendence. Let us begin.