Loving the Journey

2020 January 5
by Rev Ana Levy-Lyons

Loving the Journey

Ana Levy-Lyons

January 5, 2020

First Unitarian, Brooklyn


The philosopher Martin Buber wrote, “Every journey has a secret destination of which the traveler is unaware.” I want to invite you to think back for a minute on your own life journeys so far and see if this rings true for you. Can you think of a time when you thought you were headed one way and you wound up somewhere else? Or maybe a time when you didn’t even know you were traveling, but looking back you realize you covered so much ground? Bring that story to your consciousness.


We’ve all heard tales of people who are in PhD programs and get to the ABD stage (“all but dissertation”) and get sick or they can’t get their topic approved or they even write the thing but then their research doesn’t show what they thought it would and so the whole thing crashes and burns. Or people whose lifelong dream is to climb Everest or Kilimanjaro and they’ve finally raised the money and trained for a year and they go and they climb only to be turned back by a storm when they’re almost at the summit. Or, more commonly, someone whose kid has a learning disability and works really, really hard in school to do well and get into a good high school or good college, and yet they don’t get into a good school.


At times like these people are apt to get philosophical. Where they were totally goal-oriented before, when faced with the disappointment, they start sprouting inspirational quotes like, “the journey is the destination.” If their friends are kind, the friends will quickly chime in and pivot from “you can do it! You go!” mode to, “You still did succeed, you know, because the journey is the destination.” And mutual affirmation will be exchanged. But you often get the sense that they are trying to convince themselves of something that they don’t really believe. There’s a half fake smile that comes with it. What they actually feel is that the journey is the consolation prize. They wanted the destination; they deserved the destination. And they didn’t get it.


This is the cold calculation of American culture. We live in a winner-take-all world where the message that we get, warm and fuzzy platitudes aside, is, “This is a meritocracy. If you work hard enough and are talented enough, you will be able to reach your destination. You should be able to set goals and achieve them. And make money in the process. Because money is life’s report card. If you can’t, you’re a bit of a failure. Sad.” New Year’s is the high holiday of this mindset. At New Year’s we’re encouraged to make resolutions – plans for the future that assume an empowered individual controlling their own destiny. We are to be resolute. Our only struggle, we’re told, is with our own will. Of course only 8% of New Year’s resolutions are actually kept, but the myth persists. Because the myth is vital to our consumer society and the American way.


What’s at stake in this myth? It’s not only the self-esteem of privileged people who fail to climb Kilimanjaro. Much more consequentially it casts a false image of American opportunity. The poor and working class of this country are taught, along with everyone else, that anyone with enough gumption can succeed. And so when you don’t succeed, it’s your own fault. It keeps the focus on the individual, to feel shame at their own shortcomings, rather than critiquing the broader system where the very few get to play ball with opportunity. These few get to enjoy the perspective that the world is one’s oyster and we can all charge into the bright future, making decisions about what to do with our lives. The world will respond to our dreams. I’ve been one of these lucky few at times in my life and I know some of you in this room have as well. And there’s nothing wrong with optimism, and hard work, and a sense of agency. These are good things.


But ask many immigrants, people of color, or people who grew up poor whether they have the luxury of assuming that the world will respond to their dreams and you’ll hear a very different story. And more and more these days, it’s not just these historically marginalized groups feeling despair about the future. It’s young people who can’t find work, can’t afford housing, and are watching an ecological collapse that is threatening the very foundation of their world. It’s elderly people who are finding that the social safety nets are full of holes and they can’t even afford their medication. It’s writers and artists and architects and filmmakers who are finding that the subtle arts they have worked so long to develop are no longer valued by a culture that demands cheap thrills and quick returns.


How shall we live in a new year of such a world? One thing that’s clear is that the model of the New Year’s resolution – that imagines the lone cowboy going out there and grabbing life by the you-know-what – is no longer viable for almost anybody. We need to evolve to a new place – more shared, more communal. We’re recognizing that we don’t do things alone, we do things together, in communities like this one. We’re recognizing that, although individual will and determination is a beautiful thing, it is sometimes no match for the great social and ecological forces of our time. Sometimes when we fail to reach a goal, there is truly nothing we could have done about it. Sometimes when we do reach our goal, we owe it to something larger than ourselves. And so we need to bust this New Year’s myth of success and failure and we need to replace it with a story of meaning that leaves room for mystery.


For this we have to look to, yes, the journey itself and the secret destination that Buber talked about. Because in all our obsession over goals and resolutions, in all our chasing after the metaphorical Kilimanjaro’s, we often fail to notice the miraculous life we are living right now. We think to ourselves, “If only I can achieve this one thing – whatever it is – then I’ll be happy; then my life will really begin. I’m just on hold until then.” But that’s a fallacy. The travel writer Heat Moon said, “The traveler who misses the journey misses about all he’s going to get.” This is such an interesting insight because it suggests that even if your reach your goal, but missed the journey, you missed most of what you could have gotten. Meaning is made in the cumulative drip, drip, drip of the day to day and that is true whether you are rich or poor, whether you keep your resolutions or you don’t. Life is in session already and if you miss that, you miss about all you’re going to get.


This is our real life; right here, right now. And that might be really scary to admit, especially to those of you who may sense that you’re meant to be so much more than you are today. But if there’s one thing that 47 years on this earth have taught me it’s that we cannot know what the future holds. There’s no resolution that’s going to chart a predictable course from A to B. My life has had many secret destinations of which I, the traveler, was unaware. Setting goals can sometimes be a helpful device, but what’s even more powerful is investing in the present; in the life we have right now. And trading in some of whatever we have – the swashbuckling American ego or the sense of shame and inadequacy – trading it in for a touch of humility – a surrender to the mystery that we just don’t know. We are being guided by forces beyond our understanding.


This does not mean that we shouldn’t have aspirations or try to grow and change. I don’t want anyone leaving here saying, “Rev. Ana preached this bummer New Year’s sermon where she told us to settle for whatever crap life we already have.” Let the record show, that’s not what I’m saying. But I am saying that there is a magical thing that happens when we stop always craning our necks for the next thing and apply our unique gifts to the current thing; when we do what we’re doing as well as we possibly can; when we give as much as we possibly can now, not saving ourselves up for some imagined future. And there’s a power that comes from resting in the knowledge, taught by Unitarian Universalism and many religious traditions, that we are worthy of love just as we are. We can sit and mediate and know that we don’t have to accomplish anything, we can just watch ourselves breathe and that is enough.


When we let go of the straining, we invite actual, deep flow into our lives. When we open ourselves to the mystery, we invite possibilities we couldn’t have imagined. Today we’re going to continue our annual New Year’s tradition of writing letters to ourselves. If you did this last year, you should have received your letter back recently. The idea is that we each write a letter to our future self to read a year from now. If you put your letter in the envelope that you should have and address the envelope, we’ll mail it back to you.


You can write whatever you want to yourself, of course; nobody ever has to see this. You can set an intention or goal – even a resolution if you must. But as part of it, I want to invite you to write yourself a letter of acceptance – remind yourself that you are worthy of love, regardless of what you did or didn’t achieve this year. Accept your future self, accept your path and the mystery of its unfolding. Hindsight is 2020, they say, and you will know things at the end of 2020 that you could not possibly know now. “Every journey has a secret destination of which the traveler is unaware.” Maybe tell yourself that story from your life that you thought of at the beginning – the one where you were unaware of your destination. In your letter, give yourself loving permission to be wherever you are a year from now. Remind yourself to love the journey.


You should each have a sheet of paper and an envelope. If you need one or you need a pen, just raise your hand and the ushers will help you get what you need. We’ll take only about 5 minutes to write, so it can’t be a novella. Just write something simple that’s in your heart — something kind to yourself. When you’re done, please address your envelope and seal the letter inside it. The ushers will come around and collect them. You can begin writing whenever you’re ready.


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