This morning we welcome the Neighboring Faiths Class from the Unitarian Church in Danbury. Dylan Dempsey wrote a brief essay for Tufts University, where he is now in his second year. He wrote:
“When I was twelve, my parents switched churches, from a white-steepled Congregational edifice to a glass-walled Unitarian wonder. They switched so I could participate in a 7th-grade program called ‘Neighboring Faiths.’ I was dubious, but I did it – and within a few weeks, I actually began looking forward to church. Here’s how it worked: we spent two Sundays on each religion, the first one studying a particular belief system, the second experiencing the real thing. We visited churches, temples, synagogues, even a Native American sweat lodge; we combined a philosophy of acceptance with an open and inquiring mind. That year changed my life. I evolved from a kid who’d grown up believing that his faith was THE faith to a teenager who understood Mahatma Gandhi. (Here’s a favorite Gandhi quote: when someone asked him if he were a Hindu, he answered ‘Yes, I am. I am also a Christian, a Muslim, a Buddhist and a Jew.’) But it wasn’t just about religion. As I got older, I realized: this open-minded approach, this mix of tolerance and compassion with intellectual hunger could be applied to LIFE. I now use it daily. It helps me with academic and ethical choices; it helps me explore differences and embrace diversity. It helps me be a better me.”
Dylan’s essay fits nicely into this week’s sermon on ‘a successful life.’ But I want to offer a paragraph from Albert Schweitzer’s Memories of Childhood and Youth to provide a kind of post script to last week’s sermon on lying. Hopefully it will balance lies of omission.
We are each a secret to the other. To know one another cannot mean to know everything about each other. It means to feel mutual affection and confidence and to believe in one another. We must not try to force our way into the personality of another. To analyze others is a rude commencement, for there is a modesty of the soul which we must recognize as that of the body. No one has a right to say to another, ‘because we belong to each other as we do I have a right to know all your thoughts.’ Not even a mother may treat her child in that way. All demands of this sort are foolish and unwholesome. Give what you can of yourself and accept as something precious what comes to you from others.
One of the reasons we lie is to protect our privacy…thus Schweitzer’s statement about being ‘a secret to one another.’ Notice, he’s not saying we need to keep secrets – that’s a separate topic…but he’s acknowledging that we are a secret, even from ourselves.
We reveal ourselves to others when we feel a sense of trust; and it takes time to build that trust…dipping your toe into the water…little by little…moving toward authenticity; and maybe moving back from time to time, as needed.
Which leads us into today’s topic: A Successful Life. So we ask: when you come to the end of it, how would you describe ‘a successful life?’ When you are living it, how would you describe ‘the good life?’
What are the overlapping pieces of the good life and a successful life? It has to do with acknowledging the seven deadly sins, brought to you by Augustine and Aquinas – they are things that can destroy us, or ‘kill’ the spirit: pride, envy, anger, greed, lust, gluttony and sloth. They are balanced by the virtues which comprise ingredients of a good person or a good life: honesty, self-control, generosity, patience, work ethic, kindness and humility.
So, what does it mean to live a good life, to be a good person? How would you summarize ‘a successful life?’ According to Matthew, Jesus summarized it with the famous lines: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me and in prison and you came to me. And they responded, ‘when did we see you hungry, thirsty, naked, sick or in prison? And he answered, as you have done it to one of the least of these, my brethren, you have done it unto me.”
Doing a kindness to anyone is doing a kindness to the Messiah, the Christ. Kindness is our Christ nature, or what Lincoln called ‘the better angels of our nature.’ (“When you understand the concept of the Messiah/Christ, you’ll know it’s the person next to you.”)
In 1904 Elisabeth (Bessie) Stanley wrote a brief description of what she considered a successful life for a contest by Brown Book Magazine – the competition was to answer the question ‘what is success?’ in 100 words or less. She succeeded – she won the first prize of $250. She wrote:
“He has achieved success who has lived well, laughed often, and loved much;
Who has enjoyed the trust of pure women, the respect of intelligent men and the love of little children;
Who has filled his niche and accomplished his task;
Who has never lacked appreciation of Earth’s beauty or failed to express it;
Who has left the world better than he found it,
Whether an improved poppy, a perfect poem, or a rescued soul;
Who has always looked for the best in others and given them the best he had;
Whose life was an inspiration;
Whose memory a benediction.”
In 1990, Ann Landers, advice columnist (aka Ruth Crowley) misattributed the piece to Ralph Waldo Emerson. She later acknowledged her mistake. (The Ann Landers Encyclopedia.) It has also been misattributed to Robert Lewis Stevenson.
I was introduced to the somewhat different version which was misattributed to Emerson. Someone question/doubted that Emerson wrote it, so I searched Emerson’s writing, as best I could…which is now easier because of the internet and Google.
This is the version I heard:
“To laugh often and love much. To win and hold the respect of intelligent persons, and the affection of little children. To earn the praise of honest critics and to endure, without flinching, the betrayal of false friends. To appreciate beauty always, whether in earth’s creations or men and women’s handiwork.
To have sought for and found the best in others and to have given it oneself. To leave the world better than one found it, whether by nurturing a child or a garden patch, writing a cheery letter, or working to redeem some social condition.
To have played with enthusiasm, laughed with exuberance, and sung with exultation. To go down to dust and dreams knowing that the world is a little bit better, and that even an single life breathes easier because we have lived well, that is to have succeeded!”
Bessie Stanley won a prize for her essay ‘on a successful life.’ The most well-known earthly prize for living a good life, or, at the end of it, the prize that is a mark of having had a successful life, is the Nobel Peace Prize. It was, of course, named for its founder, Alfred Bernhard Nobel.
You may remember the story: Alfred Nobel was born in Sweden, in 1833 – he was a chemist, engineer, innovator, and the armaments manufacturer who invented dynamite. He owned a major armaments factory which had started out as an iron and steel mill owned by his family.
Alfred Nobel held 355 different patents, dynamite being the most famous and the one that made him an enormous fortune.
The story behind the establishment of the Nobel prizes tells us that one morning, back in 1888 when he was 55 years old, he was reading the morning paper when he was shocked to find and read his own obituary.
The story in the paper painted him as the ‘dynamite king’ who had invented explosives and manufactured armaments. The headline in the French newspaper he was reading said, “The merchant of death is dead.”
The paper had made a mistake, of course Alfred Nobel’s brother Ludvig who had died in the accident. What horrified Alfred was the way he was depicted – the picture of the person in the obituary, the legacy he would leave, what he’d be remembered for. It was not a pretty picture.
That’s the precise moment he decided to dedicate the lion’s share of his fortune from dynamite to creating five annual prizes for those who’d made outstanding contributions in physics, chemistry, medicine, literature and peace.
The story behind the establishment of the Nobel Prize for Peace is one of the most ironic tales – his fortune came from the invention that killed his younger brother at the family’s factory when they were still working to develop dynamite that could be more user-friendly.
It’s a great irony, of course. His invention is used today by suicide bombers while Alfred Nobel is most remembered for the peace prize in his name.
Most of us don’t have the financial resources to establish a foundation that would encourage work that advances the causes we believe in. Most of us have to settle for a simple legacy that will be noticed only by those closest to us – our relatively small circle of family and friends – the influence we’ve had on them.
A successful life is not the one with the least mistakes, but one where something is learned by mistakes; it’s not the one without failure, but the one that bounces back from the failures. Therefore, a successful life has something to do with the way one interacts with others, including learning how to apologize effectively…since none of us is perfect.
There are key ingredients to an effective apology. Saying, “I’m Sorry,” isn’t adequate. Saying, “I’m sorry you felt offended,” is worse because it implies a fault in the other, who should not have been offended.
An effective apology is not complicated: it requires that you name the offense so that the recipient knows that you understand what it was: “I know you felt hurt when I said (thus and such) and I’m sorry I said that.” Stop. “It’s not what I wanted to say or do, and my intention is to avoid it in the future…” Something like that.
A couple of weeks ago I quoted Rabbi Hillel, who said; “When I was young I admired clever people; when I got older I admired kind people.”
Later, it occurred to me that he was talking about himself; he was saying, “When I was young I valued being clever – being right; when I was older I valued being kind.”
I imagined him explaining: “When we’re young we need to prove ourselves so we can get into the nursery school our parents picked for us…or get accepted at the college we want…and win the approval of a particular life partner…we need to compete for the job we’d like. When we’re older we can lighten up the competitive part of ourselves and we can be more kind…more humble…we can laugh at ourselves (often)…and laugh at the silliness in the world and be who we are, accepting our own faults, flaws, limitations and the accumulation of mistakes we’ve made. In other words, we can be ‘liberated.’
When I was a young man I tended to take myself very seriously…that’s not a confession, it’s just a fact of life, a fact of my life. If I was going to make a confession it wouldn’t be about taking myself too seriously, it would be more about arrogance…but, as I said, this is not a confession. Somewhere along the line I realized that I needed to lighten up…that’s where humor comes in: ‘to laugh often and love much.’
We don’t always have a choice to ‘lighten up,’ but usually we do. “We create ourselves by our choices.” (Kierkegaard)
A good life – a successful life – is one without random acts of violence, which brings us back to the topic of guns and gun control. Last week I ranted about guns – the insanity of allowing anyone and just about everyone to own automatic weapons, which I called ‘weapons of massive destruction.”
Jim Perry told me that he just read about a poem by Carl Sandburg that was recently discovered, with which I’ll close.
The Revolver, Carl Sandburg
Here is a revolver
It has an amazing language all its own.
It delivers unmistakable ultimatums.
It is the last word.
A simple, little human forefinger can tell a terrible story with it.
Hunger, fear, revenge, robbery, hide behind it.
It is the claw of the jungle made quick and powerful.
It is the club of the savage turned to magnificent precision.
It is more rapid than any judge or court of law.
It is less subtle and treacherous than any one lawyer or ten.
When it has spoken, the case can not be appealed to the supreme
court, nor any mandamus nor any injunction nor any stay of
execution come in and interfere with the original purpose.
And nothing in human philosophy persists more strangely than the
old belief that God is always on the side of those who have the