Giving Up

One of my favorite books is one of those collections of essays by David Sedaris. I know, I know, so original Rev. T. J.—you and the rest of the world. But the collection I like the best is the one called Me Talk Pretty One Day. A good portion of this book is devoted to David Sedaris’s time in France with his husband Hugh, a native French speaker. And part of David’s time in France is spent getting better at speaking French. And the result is pretty hilarious.

One essay is a discourse on the gender of inanimate objects in the French language. But a lot of the action takes place when David enrolls in an emersion French class. And one day in class a student from Morocco chimes in to ask the class made up of some Polish folks, an Italian nanny, David, a mean-spirited teacher and a few more, what Easter was all about.

The exchange begins with the Moroccan student’s question.

“Excuse me, but what’s an Easter?”[1]

It would seem that despite having grown up in a Muslim country, she would have heard it mentioned once or twice, but no. “I mean it,” she said. “I have no idea what you people are talking about.” The teacher called on the rest of us to explain. The Poles led the charge to the best of their ability. “It is,” said one, “a party for the little boy of God who call his self Jesus…”. She faltered and her fellow country-man came to her aid.

“He call his self Jesus and then he be die one day on two…morsels of…lumber.” The rest of the class jumped in, offering bits of information that would have given the pope an aneurysm.

“He die one day and then he go above of my head to live with your father.”

“He weared of himself the long hair and after he die, the first day he come back here for to say hello to the peoples.”

“He nice, the Jesus.”

“He make the good things, and on the Easter we be sad because somebody makes him dead today.”

Part of the problem had to do with vocabulary. Simple nouns such as cross and resurrection were beyond our grasp, let alone such complicated reflexive phrases as “to give of yourself your only begotten son.” Faced with the challenge of explaining the cornerstone of Christianity, we did what any self-respecting group of people might do. We talked about food instead.

“Easter is a party for to eat of the lamb,” the Italian nanny explained. “One too may eat of the chocolate.”

“And who brings the chocolate?” the teacher asked. I knew the word, so I raised my hand, saying, “The rabbit of Easter. He bring of the chocolate.”

“A rabbit?” The teacher, assuming I’d used the wrong word, positioned her index fingers on top of her head, wriggling them as though they were ears. “You mean one of these? A rabbit rabbit?”

“Well, sure,” I said. “He come in the night when one sleep on bed. Which a hand he have a basket and foods.” The teacher sighed and shook her head. As far as she was concerned, I had just explained everything wrong with my country.

“No, no,” she said. “Here in France the chocolate is brought by a big bell that flies in from Rome.”

I called for a time-out. “But how do the bell know where you live?”

“Well,” she said, “how does a rabbit?”

Not too surprisingly, the Moroccan student gave up trying to understand Easter. It was going to be impossible in a class equipped with limited vocabulary and minimal cultural sharing. It wasn’t worth the effort. And you can hardly blame her. This time of year, amid the many ways we celebrate new birth and renewal we find so many different ways of celebrating, of remembering. Just last week we filled this space with tables to honor the freedom from bondage of our Jewish forebears. And last night tables were set across the globe to celebrate the freedom of faith so many enjoy today in seders for Passover. This week, we also hear the story of Ostara. Many who recognize and celebrate this Earth’s pagan traditions enjoy this as one of the four central celebrations of the year, complete with colored eggs and rabbits. All over the earth today, our Christian siblings again renew a faith that celebrates what one among us did for love. And tomorrow we hope more and more people will join in celebrating again the very Earth we call home on Earth Day. Yes, there is so much going on this time of year, every year, it’s almost impossible to try to touch on them all…but we’re still gonna try.

See in our own community, in many Unitarian Universalist communities, how we gather here to seek the truth underlying a range of religious expressions is one answer to what might seem impossible: the celebration and recognition of many expressions all at once. One way of doing this is to try to develop a common language to talk about these faiths, and in this way we might learn to go deeper and understand fully, the messages ringing out, like a bell flown in from Rome, from the stories of the yearnings in the world’s religious heart.

And for others, we might sit back, look at a world of supernatural stories, and wonder whether it’s really all worth much at all. It would be better to stick to science or psychology or the human needs that gave rise to faith in the first place.

Both of these approaches, and others, are fine. And both of these approaches have a name. It’s a clinical term that comes to us from the annals of psychology and the prescribed treatment of some important psychological afflictions. You might want to write it down. The term is: giving up.

See, giving up is a solution suggested by clinicians to two separate afflictions of the mind. The first affliction is referred to as ego depletion, or more commonly as willpower fatigue.[2] The theory is that if a person focuses mightily, powerfully, obsessively on one, and only one primary goal, then other areas of life slip by untended in ways that overwhelm or overpower the person. The psychologist Raj Raghunathan explains that if a person is using a ton of willpower to study for a test, research shows that the studier becomes susceptible to falling short of other goals that require willpower, goals the studier normally can meet from the store of willpower they have.

After that long session of studying, the cleanliness of their home goes a little. They skip their regular jog. They indulge in sweets, like chocolate rabbits. All things they might not do otherwise. And one remedy for overdoing it with this kind of single-minded achievement seeking, is to learn when to give up. The real problem doesn’t come from studying for tests or training for a physical feat—things that are temporary. This remedy is best employed when the objective is objectively impossible. It is in those situations where psychologists have to tell their patients to consider giving up, or risk being overcome by what goes untended.

But this important spiritual principle is the cure for something else—something familiar to some of us here. Giving up is sometimes the only way out of what is called hyperopia.[3] And for those eye doctors among us, I don’t mean the physical condition more commonly referred to as farsightedness. Rather this psychological condition shares a root with its twin, myopia. Myopia describes someone who acts in a way that is shortsighted or impulsive. And conversely, a person with hyperopia, tries to take so many factors into balance, to think so long-term, that it’s impossible to enjoy anything at all in the present moment. Taken to extremes, hyperopia leaves people unsatisfied with their present life, hoping, hoping, hoping that the sacrifices they make today will pay off way in the future. And the cure for hyperopia, the route to some happiness in the present moment: giving up.

And don’t we know, we are absolutely beset, with all of the many, many, ways we are supposed to achieve, to overcome, to strive, to succeed, whether focused wildly on one goal, or widely on many, like fables woven as badges of honor, we try to live up to examples set by whom? Forbears, founding mothers and fathers, progenitors, ancestors, saviors, Goddesses, birds, and bunnies. It’s impossible to name them all, let alone live up to them.

You pick a name of someone we’re supposed to live up to, and I’ll show you someone who had to give up, too. Because it’s not possible.

There are only so many pinnacles to scale, so many pedestals to clamber upon. Guess what, we didn’t all get there, And guess what, we’re all right here, together.

Friends, this time of year is holy for many. And it holds some of the greatest accomplishments recorded in some of the faiths of our world, including faiths that gave rise to our own faith community here. I get that. But look at what else happened.

Ostara’s bird friend wasn’t getting better, wasn’t fulfilling what a bird was meant to do, so she gave up and changed him into something that could. The Christian scriptures detail the many ways that Jesus gave up his freedom, his power, his dignity in service to those he loved most in the world. And in the end he turned his head heavenward to give up his very life. The Pharaoh gave up on trying to keep the earliest Jewish community captive any longer, clearly outmatched by a God beyond his understanding or power. And tomorrow, so much of any progress we can make to heal our hurting world, means giving up…and not just our orders of service. Much of the world’s science suggests vastly more must be given up by humans even to begin to heal this world. All that we look toward today remembers or envisions a way that someone must give up. And even some psychologists are giving up…on giving up.

Over the past year or two, one of the ailments giving up is supposed to heal, ego depletion, has been called into question in psychological circles after nearly two decades of widespread acceptance.[4] But, if we focus too much on what giving up means, if we myopically train our sight on this one idea, we lose sight of the most important part of the phrase: giving.

Many, many, many of us in Unitarian Universalist communities, even before they had that name, knew well what it could mean to be in a place, to be with a people, to be so surrounded by a push to a single end, that those places, those people could not see the failings of their faiths and institutions all around them, failings so corroding and pernicious, that they threaten to swallow faiths whole.

And many of us knew well the teachings of faiths that promise salvation someday, for going, doing, being without so much, for so long, for so many today.

Whether by depletion today or by fixation on tomorrow, by keeping one thing in mind, or so much in sight, there is only one answer to seeking supernatural perfection in a natural world. And it’s a blessing so many of us have found it here.

For many of us, we did what we had to do. Giving up a quest for perfection isn’t always a virtue or a remedy. Sometimes it’s what we have to do to survive, to get through. Sometimes it’s what we get to do.

I was living in New York City and the call came in. A few days earlier, one of the people I loved most in the world died suddenly. She was in her first year of college. She was one of the most gifted actors I had the good luck to know: wise beyond her years, a voice from heaven, professionalism I’ve rarely seen since, and a sharper wit than anyone should have the right to claim.

There was going to be a memorial that weekend, so two of my best friends from high school who’d known her better than I did packed into a car, and we drove up to Rochester, New York where the memorial was going to be held. Our choir teacher arranged a vocal rehearsal for the songs we’d sing in the memorial, and we were racing across the state to get there. But to pass the time, my friends and I took turns during the ride reading aloud from a book I’d just bought, Me Talk Pretty One Day.

And the peels of our laughter mingled with the tears that streamed down our faces as we read. My belly hurt. My ribs hurt. My heart hurt.

I’m sure the pain we felt at losing our friend was part of why our bodies were giving up so much of the laughter all that afternoon.

I’m sure that walking into the choir room where we’d all given up years of our lives together was part of why I felt so comfortable taking my place among women and men I could swear were only children a short time ago.

And I’m sure that any one of us would have given up anything we could to have our friend back with us again.

But giving up isn’t always an option that works. It can be a lot of things: a remedy, a spiritual practice, a way to start a religion, a way to save the world. But it’s something else, too: it’s a gift, literally. Some people think that a faith that tries to find a language to talk about a single truth at the root of all knowing is giving up. And I say: Yeah, you bet it is.

Because as much as some of us are here because we think we are right, I swear to you that a gift of our faith is giving up the need to be right. Because as much as some of us are here because we think this is a better way, I swear to you that a gift of our faith is giving up the need to be better than anybody else. Because we give up those lessons of dominance over others taught too well by faiths of the ages, we give up hyper-fixation on what’s to come at the expense of what we hold dear, we give up proving or disproving the impossible. And that is what I call a new life.

Hatching out with vibrant colors into a new Eden of our own making, streaming out like laughter peeling from a bell clanging in our all-too-human heart, giving, giving, giving of ourselves to our siblings on this earth, siblings bound in captivity, aching for renewal, and searching for a place to call home.

So some do say dayenu, it would have been enough.

Some do turn to the four directions and call forth springtime under a moon made full, loping like a great rabbit across the sky.

Some do cry out “He is Risen Indeed” and shout “Hallelujah” ‘cross the mountains made low and valleys raised high.

And some do say we may love our Earth a little more tomorrow.

We sit in a room, students hoping to understand how we can talk to one another better, giving up what we think we know.

Children hoping to learn, how we can sing again without who we were forced to gave up.

Siblings hoping to share, what we did for the love we want to show one another and how we can hold all of this on our journey, packed together as we are on the road, holding sacred what others gave up so that we can be here together today, and knowing fully what we must give in return…and laughing, laughing, laughing on the way.

And may it ever be so.

 

[1] David Sedaris, Me Talk Pretty One Day (New York: Little, Brown & Co. 2000).

[2] Raj Raghunathan, “The Art of Giving Up: The importance from disengaging from goals,” Psychology Today, April 19, 2011.

[3] Raghunathan.

[4] Christian Jarrett, “’Strongest evidence yet’ for ego depletion—the idea that self control is a limited resource,” Research Digest: The British Psychological Society, December 14, 2017 (available at https://digest.bps.org.uk/2017/12/14/strongest-evidence-yet-for-ego-depletion-the-idea-that-self-control-is-a-limited-resource/). The blog entry explains the current state of many studies in the field.

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