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Monday, February 8, 2010

The Solitude of Individuality, a Sermon

A while ago, feels like years, the minister at the church I'd attend somewhat regularly, Rev. Mike Morran at First Unitarian Society of Denver, challenged me to write a sermon. I put it off for a long time, putting it on the back burner, avoiding it or neglecting it for whatever reason, but tonight, I just sat down and wrote down a first draft. I don't have a title for it yet, but it's based on a blog I wrote in March of 2008 called "The absense of control/The sweetness of solitude". I emailed it to Rev. Morran tonight, and I thought I would share it with you as well.


Have you ever been in a place in your life where you suddenly discovered that everything you thought you knew was absolutely false? The easy answer would be to say that some point after your teenage years, you understood things a little differently, as most people do. Some people are late bloomers. I was. I’ve fallen victim to what John Mayer calls the “quarter-life crisis”, something akin to a “mid-life crisis”, except at a younger age, where people are still very spiritually and emotionally malleable. Maybe it’s because there’s a socially accepted point in time where we have to decide that everything we have left to experience is a family and a career, kids and a house, and the crisis comes when we’re faced with this settling… and it scares us. Maybe we don’t want to settle down. Maybe we’re not ready for the family or the house or the job. Maybe we’re not done exploring.

Should we ever stop exploring? Do we really ever stop?

There were times when I was younger (and I freely and proudly admit that for me, younger is a relative term), I can remember going on vacations with my family or starting new jobs or going to college or Basic Training. I remember with all of these events that the overall impression in my head was overwhelming. I felt almost like I was the first person to see any of this, like a stranger in a strange land. Sure, I knew that plenty of other people had seen and done the things I was about to do, but to me, this was all new and exciting. With some places I’d gone more than once, every other time I went there I always got a warm, nostalgic feeling.

I was lucky enough to stretch this feeling of discovery far beyond my adolescent years. I got to live in a small mountain town and go rafting and hiking and off-roading and snowboarding every weekend. I met friends and was able to go to Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine to visit them, jumping in the ocean for the first time in my life. I even got to go to General Assembly in Boston in 2003, where I attended lectures by the Rev. Forrest Church, Julian Bond, and Dan Savage. Then I moved to Denver. And I started to settle. I got caught up with great girl, and we had a beautiful little boy. And that boy, my son, lost his life to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome when he was just 4 months old.

For a couple of years there, I was lost. In many ways, I still am. I came to church sporadically, and would go through very brief phases of involvement and long stretches of neglect and spiritual avoidance. I had no way to capture that old feeling of excitement, that feeling of seeing new things with young eyes. And I felt like if had found that quickening of my pulse, I was supposed to feel guilty for not being able to share it with another life, a life that was supposed to be growing and learning too.

A while back, I took up blogging. I think it was my way of digging subconsciously into my soul, although I kept it pretty superficial. After all, having the courage to really get involved with my emotions has never really been my strong suit. I started writing about all of the adventures I was continuing to do, although my own perception of these events was that they were as mundane as work or grocery shopping. I wrote about trips to the Utah desert, trips to the mountains of Wyoming, to my hometown during their annual whitewater rafting festival. None of these things seemed to really phase me at the time. I was just going through the motions.

Then one day, more recently than I would care to admit, I had a look back at some of those blogs. I found things about my recent life that I wasn’t present for at all, even though I was there. I missed out on a lot of things. Friendships. Romance. Spiritual connections. Introspective existentiality. I showed up, but, like the Broncos do so often, I didn’t REALLY show up.

We grow from these experiences. We learn, and more often than not, more often than what is probably considered necessary, we learn from our past experiences and mistakes. A great mountaineer once said “Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment.”

Towards the end of our periods of self-discovery, our crises that arise in our lives when we start to feel stagnant and stale, we begin to learn that we do have hopes and joys and goals and dreams. We begin to re-discover our will and our motivation and our willingness to learn and take risks. We dare ourselves to do things to please ourselves and start to worry less and less about the consequences. We persevere. We survive the fire that burns away our excess baggage. We grow, blossoming into a taller and stronger tree than we ever knew we had the potential to be. We see on our trunks the scars of our growth, the places where the bark has been scored or scraped away by passersby or by nature’s ever changing forces. We look upon these wounds, not as scars, but as simple parts in the definition of who we are and where we have come from.

The world is an interesting place. In staying with the tree analogy, it’s a forest of trees, all competing with each other for the sun’s attention. I think the reason we have our life-crises is that we don’t want to simply live in the forest with the other trees. We have a natural drive to stand out, to be unique. We know that the entire forest of civilization is made up of individuals, with their own worth, their own rights, and their own goals. But, we also know that while a single person is usually smart, a group of people is usually harder to convince that your dreams are not crazy fantasies. They’re harder to convince that you haven’t even had a meltdown. They believe you’re nuts, and sometimes they make you believe it, too. The crisis comes when we start to remember that we were, and still are, something special, something worth saving, someone with ideas and drive to make those ideas a reality.

I guess what I’m proposing to you is that a mid- or quarter-life isn’t a crisis at all, at least not for you. Sure, to the people in your life who aren’t close to you, you’re freaking out, losing control, going off the deep end. But you and your friends and family know that you’re just discovering yourself again. Don’t be afraid.

l’ll close with these words from Ralph Waldo Emerson:

What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think. This rule, equally arduous in actual and in intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness. It is the harder because you will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it. It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after your own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”

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