“So many of our dreams at first seem impossible, then they seem improbable, and then, when we summon the will, they soon become inevitable. If we can conquer outer space we can conquer inner space, too.”
These sentiments from Christopher Reeve explain the title of his second book, Nothing is Impossible.
But more importantly, they summarize a life by which we were inspired—an inspiration that helped to give us the courage to live our own lives by witnessing, close-up, the way he lived his own life, especially following the tragic accident that paralyzed him.
In an ironic twist his paralysis forced an intense focus on work will continue as a legacy.
May this time together today help us to enter that inner space so we can live our own lives in this real down-to-earth world with dignity, courage and the determination to do our little something to make the day better for our having been here.
Sermon—A Tribute to Christopher Reeve
Earlier this month, when we heard that Christopher Reeve had died, we were shocked, saddened and at least a little more surprised than we should have been.
After all, he had lived for nearly ten years with a major spinal cord injury—two years beyond what was normally expected.
But we expected more because Chris did not seem to fit into any of the normal categories—the actuarial charts were designed for mere mortals.
Christopher Reeve had become a mythic hero figure.
First, he was Superman: he leaped tall buildings with a single bound, he was faster than a speeding bullet; he saved Lois Lane and, single-handed, he rescued a doomed world from destruction. What a hero!
The mythic hero in religion and mythology is extraordinary, but the mythic figure is an inspiration for ordinary living. The mythic hero figure speaks directly to the heart, not the earth-bound rational mind that holds us down. The mythic hero touches something in us that is generally beyond our capacity to explain or describe; it’s a universal something, deep within.
The mythic hero figure brings hope and courage to the day-to-day, down-to-earth life that we mere mortals are living.
One of the great ironies is that the Superman character was eventually overshadowed by the mortal man—the man who suffered a paralyzing spinal cord injury and became a real-life hero; an inspiration.
We knew that the Superman character couldn’t really fly, but something in us feels too tied to the ground, too limited. Something in us wishes we could fly.
Dream analysts like Carl Jung have a lot to say about those flying dreams. (Have you had a flying dream, lately?)
We knew that the on-screen Superman character was not really invulnerable to the bullets that bounced off of him, but something in us feels so vulnerable to the bombs and bullets, to the diseases (like the flu) that we love the mythological character who is invulnerable—the hero. We wish we weren’t so vulnerable.
In one of the most ironic twists of fate Christopher Reeve sustained an injury on Memorial Day weekend in 1995, during an equestrian competition, while approaching a rather routine jump. Chris was thrown to the ground and broke his spinal cord very high up, completely paralyzing him. He was kept alive by a ventilator that did his breathing for him.
When he regained consciousness a few days after the injury he was told that he had a 50/50 chance to survive the surgery to re-attach his head to his spinal column. He was told that he would never walk again.
His initial response drove him into the depths—he had to go there, on his own. He called into question the very idea of continuing to live under those conditions. Before he could use his voice again, he mouthed words to Dana: “Maybe we should just let me go.”
We’re reminded of the Biblical character, Job, who endured so many losses until he finally said he wanted to die—and his wife agreed. “Why don’t you just curse God and die,” she said to him.
Chris had to enter those depths and to look into the heart of that ultimate question, the one posed by Hamlet:
To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune;
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing, end them: to die, to sleep
No more: and by a sleep, to say we end
The heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to: ‘Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep…”
Albert Camus put it this way: “There is only one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest—whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories—comes afterwards. These are games. One must first answer. And if it is true, as Nietzsche claims, that a philosopher, to deserve our respect, must preach by example, you can appreciate the importance of that reply, for it will precede the definitive act. These are facts the heart can feel; yet they call for careful study before they become clear to the intellect.”
As soon as he regained consciousness Chris confronted this basic philosophical problem head-on: to be, or not to be.
Unlike Job’s wife, his wife, Dana, listened, she let him know that she heard what he was saying—how he was feeling, and she asked him to give it just two years. If, at the end of that time, he chose to end it, she would support his decision.
She said, “You’re still you, and I love you.” He said that those words became a pivotal moment for him. He wrote a book titled, Still Me, in which he talked about the feelings that came out of those depths, and the remarkable transition that he experienced.
The great irony is that it was only after the accident that he acquired the status of a living, human hero, in the sense that he became an inspiration for living.
That’s what a true hero is: an inspiration; a spiritual guide, if you will; a motivation—a call to action.
Chris’s arms and legs were no longer working, but his mind was working overtime. He gained a new kind of consciousness. “I have never been disabled in my dreams,” he said.
It’s one thing to be conscious in the normal sense of the word; it quite another thing to gain a kind of consciousness that takes one out of the confines of a very limited self: the individual self is transcended…a new realization emerges—a new kind of consciousness, beyond the limits of his former self, which caused him to spend the rest of his life working to help people with all kinds of disabilities.
Senator Tom Harkin summarized it nicely in his eulogy on Friday afternoon at Chris’s remarkable memorial service. Harkin said that Chris turned his wheel chair into a bully pulpit—a pulpit on wheels.
I smiled to myself, thinking about this pulpit—the only other pulpit I know of that’s on wheels! I remembered that this pulpit was donated by Norman Cousins, who demonstrated the same kind of determination to live in the face of a debilitating illness—the same kind of determination demonstrated by Chris Reeve.
“…a philosopher, to deserve our respect, must preach by example.” Do you know a better example than Chris Reeve?
We use the word hero very loosely in our culture. Sometimes it’s even used by politicians for personal gain, calling someone you sent into the line of fire a hero because he was killed doing what you told him to do. The word hero is used instead of the more appropriate word: victim.
The word hero is used by clergy to promote their religion.
Chris carried the movie-star hero figure with a smile; but he became deadly serious about his task as a quadriplegic; deadly serious about the need to open the doors for scientists to find a cure for spinal cord injuries, to find cures for diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, and Alzheimer’s disease, and lots of other deadly diseases the cure for which millions of people are waiting for us to discover.
Chris saw the possibilities of stem-cell research, but in a more general sense he saw the possibilities in our ability to get over the idea that it’s not possible; he saw the possibilities of science, which simply means our ability to think things through, to figure things out, and not to be prevented from thinking by those with limited vision, those who can be blinded by a kind of idolatry that imposes some worn-out notions about what God wants and in a strange theological twist prevents us from becoming what we’re capable of becoming!
That’s why Chris titled his second book, Nothing is Impossible.
Dana let Chris know that she heard what he was saying in his initial response to paralysis. She did not deny the depths of his pain—that would only isolate him all the more, frustrate him all the more. She promised that she would help him to let go of this world—to ‘shuffle off this mortal coil,’ if he would just give two years to the transition process his paralysis required.
He agreed, and in a lot less than two years he made that transition—which turned out to be a transformation of heroic proportions, beyond the myth to the man—the real, down-to-earth mortal man. That’s when Chris became a real hero.
Joseph Campbell, who wrote about the myths we live by, who understood the depth of the concept of hero, said, “The hero is a man of self-achieved submission.”
In mythology the hero figure first survives a crisis by which he or she moves to a higher spiritual plane and willingly takes up the new work that is required of him or her.
There is a heroic quality to each of our lives; we must survive the various crises, the changes and challenges that confront us. Chris reminded us, by his living, that heroism is a built-in fact of life for every one of us. A myth, remember, is a truth story: a good myth is about you and me—it’s the truth about living life.
The first step in the journey of the hero is to withdraw, to detach from the normal day-to-day life. We all have to do it—it’s the inner journey, the inner life—it’s about that thing we loosely call our religious life, or our spiritual life.
Take the well-known legend of the Buddha: he leaves the sheltered life in his father’s castle, where he was protected from even seeing illness, poverty, old age and death.
The journey of the Buddha is meant to be the universal story of a every one of us, using as a hero figure the young prince who adventures boldly out of his father’s castle—he leaves the safety of the known. He sees a beggar for the first time—he learns about poverty. He sees a man who is ill and another who is bent over with old age and another who has died along the road—he learns about illness and death.
He’s knocked off his feet; he wants to understand what it all means; he eventually withdraws by sitting under the Bo tree for forty days until he receives enlightenment—a new kind of consciousness–he breaks through the limits of his former, day-to-day mindset. He sees something deeper. He gets it!
This is pure mythology. It describes the inward journey we all take when we leave the old comfort zone; limited consciousness.
The hero motif can be found in all the mythologies. It’s the story of Adam and Eve being evicted from the Garden—the paradise they lost. It’s the story of Noah weathering the forty-day storm.
It’s the story of Moses who was raised in the Pharaoh’s home, protected from the realities of slave labor—he was even protected from his own Hebrew identity, raised as an Egyptian. Then the crisis occurs and he has to withdraw from Egypt, only to return after his encounter with the burning bush.
It’s the story of Jesus who withdrew into the desert for forty days.
It’s your story, when you ‘get it.’ It’s my story, when I ‘get it,’ and certainly it’s the story of Christopher Reeve who faced a terrifying crisis that transformed his life, forcing him to rise above the limitations of his injury by attaining the self-achieved submissionto which Campbell referred.
Submission is a word with some spiritual connotations, too. It has to do with the humility that exalts: who humbles himself will be exalted. It can sound like giving up, especially to those of us who put such emphasis on self-reliance. But there needs to be a balance, and submission can be a word that conveys a kind of heroic acceptance of what is, rather than wishing things weren’t really the way they truly are.
Chris said, “I will walk again!”
It’s tempting to say that he failed to live up to that prediction. But it wasn’t really a prediction about some future event—it was, I came to realize, a statement about the attitude he acquired when he emerged from the depths into which he had been plunged by his paralysis.
“I will walk again,” is an indication of an attitude we all need to have–a positive attitude we have to have when we’re thrown from whatever horse we’ve been riding—a determination to face the adversities life delivers.
Again, Shakespeare said it: “Sweet are the uses of adversity!” (As You Like It)
Never was there a sweeter use of an adversity than the one we witnessed in Christopher Reeve.
The horse-riding accident resulted in a radical transfer of emphasis from the external world, the world in which Chris Reeve had such success by the world’s standards, into the internal world. His very survival depended on it, and so does yours, and so does mine.
At his memorial service Robert Kennedy said that Chris was not a religious man, in the traditional sense, but he was the ‘most spiritual man I’ve ever known.’
That was the place where I met Christopher Reeve: the deep spiritual place, the internal world, and in another strange twist it was there that Chris Reeve ministered to me more than I could possibly minister to him; but I realize that it’s always a two-way street. We traveled a portion of it together, and for that journey I will be forever grateful.
I heard many a sermon from his pulpit on wheels—sermons that inspired me to continue my own work, my own life, in my own way; sermons he gave to people I took to meet him in his home, and sermons I learned about that he gave in the oval office and in the Senate chambers, and in the halls of Congress.
I marveled at the way Chris adjusted, maintaining his role as father and husband; expanding and deepening his role as friend and mentor.
Chris came to the Unitarian Church to find support for the inner journey—his own journey.
I was taken by surprise when I first saw him in the courtyard as he operated his wheelchair with his mouth. My first response was to simply introduce myself, to welcome him as I hope to be able to do with any new person, and then to give him whatever room he needs.
After he and Dana had been attending for a while, it became clear that it was time for a visit in his home.
I’ll never forget the first time we sat together for more than two hours; it didn’t take long for me to forget that he was in a wheel chair; he was one of the brightest, informed, alert, sensitive and caring men I’ve ever met.
He smiled quickly, easily and frequently.
He told me about his life and asked me about mine—the external part; and he talked with me about his internal life, and asked me about mine.
He told me that he had flown a plane, solo, across the Atlantic, twice. He told me about his sailing days.
At the first memorial service at his home, I recited the John Masefield poem, which I had wanted to memorize for some time, and now I had the perfect reason:
Sea-Fever, John Masefield
I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky, and all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by, and the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking, and a gray mist on the sea’s face and a gray dawn breaking.
I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied; and all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying, and the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.
I must go down to the seas again to the vagrant gypsy life. To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife; and all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover, and quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.
After that first meeting we visited many times, and I brought several people to see him. He was always gracious and knew how to lead the conversation to suit the needs of the visitors.
For example, he talked with Bill Sinkford, our UUA president, about the need for a better relationship between science and religion, and what our role as Unitarian Universalists might be. As a result of that conversation some good things are happening which you’ll hear more about in the months ahead.
When I brought Dave and Pam Driscoll, who bid on the ‘tea with Chris and Dana’ at a fund-raiser for our ABC (A Better Chance) house, he talked at length about films on which he was working, including The Brooke Ellison story, which he completed just days before he died; and he talked about his first attempt at an animated film about baseball. We spent 2 ½ hours with him that day.
When a friend of one of our members suffered a serious spinal cord injury in an accident on route 95, I asked Chris to call the young man, which he did, but only after learning some details that would help him to make what he referred to as ‘a support call.’ He made many of those calls.
In some very real and effective ways, Chris took on the role of a combination of a minister and therapist. He was good at it because it came so naturally to him. His bully pulpit on wheels was also a pastoral-ministry chair.
Carl Jung said, “The hero is the man or woman who has been able to battle past his or her personal and historical limitations to the generally valid, normally human forms.”
“The hero has died as a modern man; but as eternal man—perfected, unspecific, universal man—he has been reborn.”
“His solemn task is to return to us, transfigured, and teach the lesson he has learned of life renewed.”
Chris Reeve entered that realm and returned from it to teach us the ‘lesson of life renewed.’ He could say with e e cummings; “i who have died am alive again, today…this is the birthday of life and of love and of wings…now the ears of my ears awake/now the eyes of my eyes are opened.”
Chris was only 52 years old when he died suddenly on October 10; but he lived a rich, full life, influencing so many.
He was an inspiration.
I was honored to participate in his remarkable, inspirational memorial service two days ago at Julliard. It was the most powerful service I’ve witnessed, or am likely to ever see again.
Speakers included his twelve-year old son Will, and his wife, Dana; his older son, Matthew—whose memorial film was shown; and his daughter Alexandra, who is a student at Yale.
Some of his nurses and care takers spoke; Tom Harkins thanked Chris for helping him keep his seat in the U. S. Senate; other friends spoke: Robert Kennedy; Glenn Close; Meryl Streep and his dear friend Robin Williams; the caste from The Lion King sang Circle of Life.
The auditorium was filled with dignitaries, including former first lady and current Senator Clinton and the possible future first lady, Teresa Heinz Kerry.
For my closing words I used Carl Sandburg’s perfect little poem, Stars, Songs, Faces:
GATHER the stars if you wish it so.
Gather the songs and keep them.
Gather the faces of women.
Gather for keeping years and years.
And then …
Loosen your hands, let go and say good-by.
Let the stars and songs go.
Let the faces and years go.
Loosen your hands and say good-by