Checking out, Falling back, Overwhelmed

Rev. Meg Barnhouse
November 12, 2017
First UU Church of Austin
4700 Grover Ave., Austin, TX 78756

At times it all gets to be too much. How do we learn to rest rather than quitting?

Call to Worship
Apache blessing

May the sun bring you new energy by day,
May the moon softly restore you by night,
May the rain wash away your worries,
May the breeze blow new strength into your being,
May you walk gently through the world
and know its beauty all the days of your life.

My Help Is in the Mountain
by Nancy Wood

My help is in the mountain
Where I take myself to heal
The earthly wounds
That people give to me.
I find a rock with sun on it
And a stream where the water runs gentle
And the trees which one by one
give me company.
So must I stay for a long time
Until I have grown from the rock
And the stream is running through me
And I cannot tell myself from one tall tree.
Then I know that nothing touches me
Nor makes me run away.
My help is in the mountain
That I take away with me.

These are notes only, and may bear resemblance somewhat to what is said.

One of my friends on social media said that she couldn’t feel anything after the shooting at the church in Sutherland Springs. All the usual outrage was posted, all the usual moments of silence and offers of thoughts and prayers went up, but she couldn’t muster any emotional response. So many of us are approaching that level of emotional fatigue. As Masha Gessen writes in the Washington Post, “we have settled into a constant, low level dread: a state in which one can function, but can hardly be creative or look into the future.” Yet we sing:

(sings) -by Holly Near
I am open
and I am willing
for to be hopeless
would feel so strange.

It dishonors
those who’ve gone before us,
so lift me up
to the light of change.

When I read about my friend who couldn’t feel anything, I was reminded of the study I read as a psych major about learned helplessness. I don’t want to describe the studies to you, as they are upsetting, but the conclusion was that if you randomly hurt a being for long enough without giving them any way to influence their situation, they will give up and surrender to the pain. After they give up, you can give them a way out of the hurtful situation and they won’t take it. They’ve lost their sense of being able to help themselves.

Many of us are feeling that way, faced with implacable politicians in thrall to the big donations of the gun lobby. We see former NY Mayor Bloomburg fighting, we see the Giffords fighting, and sometimes their efforts seem useless. Many of us are overwhelmed by the actions of people who seem to be ignoring or ignorant of the Constitution. We wake up in the morning like Captain Picard, asking for the Damage Report.

I’ve heard many of you say that you are having a hard year. You have been shocked, depressed, feeling constantly emotionally battered. Some sprang into action in the Resistance. Some woke up sick every morning, some stopped watching the news, trying to live by just paying attention to health, family, work. But we get tired, and still we struggle to sing

I am open
and I am willing
for to be hopeless
would feel so strange.

It dishonors
those who’ve gone before us,
so lift me up
to the light of change.

We get tired. We fight and fight, we make phone calls and write emails, we work on grass roots politics. When I got to Spartanburg SC I was 26; There was no women’s shelter. I went to a meeting about starting a shelter. “I’m too tired, said the social workers. “I’m not tired, I said, and we went to work. We started with people who were willing to shelter women and their children in their own homes, private safe homes. I remember arranging pick ups for women in parks, at the mall, at the police station. I remember one woman yelling “DRIVE!” when she thought she saw her husband behind us. He had a shot gun, she said. I was president of it for four years. During that time we hired a director and rented an old house in an undisclosed location. Now the organization has a huge budget and helps hundreds of people. After four years I was tired. Burned out. I hadn’t known that I could say no to being president. I got so I couldn’t even open an envelope from them. I had forgotten to rest. So I quit.

That is the shadow side of justice work. What do we do with that? It makes us want to withdraw, turn our head, give up, if we have the option to.

Contemplative RC author Thomas Merton writes:

“There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”

Last spring I was felled by something that could not be influenced by wit, intelligence, or force of will. For months I just had to go through it, one day at a time. I love consulting the I Ching, a Chinese book of wisdom. It has been one of my wisdom companions since I was in high school. When I consulted it about the infection in my hip appliance, it said things were not going to go the way I thought they should go. It said I should not have goals, but instead I should give all my attention to process. Just do what I was supposed to do, day by day. That has been valuable in fighting a sense of despair or overwhelm.

I am open
and I am willing
for to be hopeless
would feel so strange.

It dishonors
those who’ve gone before us,
so lift me up
to the light of change.

I know some folks who work in politics. Several of them embody the word “Steady,” which I’m reading about in Dan Rather’s new book. Their candidate wins, and they nod and go back to work on what’s next. They lose, and they nod and go back to work on what’s next. I admire that. It is more in some people’s nature to ride the rejoice and lament roller coaster. We need all of us to do what’s next. Then rest, then have a party with our friends, then come back and do what’s next.

Burn out is the shadow side of a big long struggle. The music this morning has been metaphorical, about wanting to be numb, not wanting to feel the tiredness, the overwhelm, the frazzle. It’s ok to rest. You don’t have to keep pushing 24 hours a day. There is no need for guilt if you fall back from the front lines, if you take an afternoon to have fun, if you find a way to laugh and dance in the midst of struggle. As Emma Goldman said, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” The postlude will be an opportunity to laugh and dance to a statement of truth. Sometimes we want to be sedated. We look that feeling in the face, we look the shadow side in the face and acknowledge its truth. To stay open and willing, we must pay more attention to processes than goals, faithfully stay in the struggle, rest, and we must not forget the joy.

– by Judy Brown

What makes a fire burn
is space between the logs,
a breathing space.

Too much of a good thing,
too many logs
packed in too tight
can douse the flames
almost as surely
as a pail of water would.

So building fires
requires attention
to the spaces in between,
as much as to the wood.

When we are able to build
open spaces
in the same way
we have learned
to pile on the logs,
then we can come to see how
it is fuel, and absence of the fuel
together, that make fire possible.

We only need to lay a log
lightly from time to time.

A fire grows
simply because the space is there,
with openings
in which the flame
that knows just how it wants to burn
can find its way.

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