Sermon: Escape, Engage, Persist: Finding Focus Amid Chaos by Ethan Loewi

2020 August 27
by DoMC

Escape, Engage, Persist: Finding Focus Amid Chaos

First Unitarian Congregational Society in Brooklyn

August 23, 2020

Ethan Loewi, Intern Minister

First U it is a pleasure to be with you as always, and a privilege to share some words from the pulpit. But this is not your average pulpit. See, I’ve been spending the summer  in Philly with my parents, at a largely unfurnished apartment. Which is why I’m preaching today on top of this modern art masterpiece. Yes indeed—that is a shoe box and a stack of board games. Little product placement there for Vans.

Let this so-called pulpit serve as a metaphor for life in quarantine. On one hand, it is undeniably less than ideal. From a certain angle, it might even appear to be a pile of garbage. But we are putting this garbage to work. We are fighting for solutions, cobbling together new ways of being. Clearly, it’s a long and messy process, but we are adapting. And God knows we need every ounce of adaptation we can find right now. Week after week our spirits have been tested by the COVID-19 experience—this labyrinthine swamp of uncertainty, anger, and sadness. The bad news just keeps coming, and it feels like we can’t escape it. We’re stuck inside, glued to our TVs and phones, unable to wake up from the nightmares in our news feeds.

When I say “we,” I specifically mean me and my parents. See, ever since we’ve been quarantined, the Loewis have a fun game that we play first thing every morning: it’s called “Drive Each Other Completely Insane with the News.” The way you play is, you sit around browsing Facebook and Twitter. Find the most terrible, stress-inducing headlines, and read them out loud. Cultivate your outrage. Dive face-first into the chaos and the noise. Most mornings I haven’t even put the coffee on before my dad tells me some distressing political news, like “congress’s new plan to help families is to send everyone some Twinkies and a scented candle.” Or “GOP necromancers have resurrected Nixon, and he’s already winning Florida.” After an hour or two of this game, we have completely shredded our mental and spiritual health, as well as our chances of doing anything useful with that day. It’s a terrible game, with no winners. You may have been playing it yourself, without knowing it.

It’s hard to process this deluge of bad news, much less thrive in the midst of it. In the spirit of conserving resources, and caring for the planet, I’m going to recycle a metaphor I used earlier this year: life 2019 felt like listening to five radio stations at once. Life in 2020 feels like listening to ten stations, and they’re all in foreign languages. Paradoxically it seems the more we see, the more we hear, the less we understand.

So almost everyone I know, myself usually included, feels overwhelmed. If I were going to run for president—and I still might, if we can raise 900 million dollars in this offertory—I would run on one issue, which to legalize public screaming. At any time, for any reason. Because people are pent up. We can’t process, we can’t focus. We feel angry and scattered and lost.

So the big question I’m asking today is how do we deal with chaos–what’s our spiritual response? How can we turn down the noise, and focus on what matters? The world has always held chaos on a grand scale. What’s different in 2020 is how much we see and hear it at all times. And staring at that chaos can be remarkably addictive. There’s a fun new word for this phenomenon: “doomscrolling.” It’s when we binge upsetting content, just to rub salt into our spiritual wounds. As it turns out, there’s a neurological basis for this curious masochism. According to psychology professor Graham Davey, our brains are wired to fixate on info that scares or unsettles us—a concept called “negativity bias.” And in the attention economy, where ratings and page views equal profits, outrage and bedlam can be a lucrative business. As an old TV news saying goes, “If it bleeds, it leads.” It’s like every day we watch a car crash, helpless to turn away.

And while news addiction may be good for the bottom line, it’s not good for us. More than half of Americans say the news causes them stress, and many report chronic anxiety or fatigue as a result. Sites like Facebook and Twitter have come to function like casinos: windowless rooms with no clocks on the wall, that will use every trick in the book to keep us there.

But fortunately—and here’s where things start to get better, in this doom and gloom sermon—there is timeless spiritual wisdom that can guide us through even unprecedented changes. In a time of clamor, the spiritual antidote is focus. Today let’s think on focus through a very UU blend of three sources–a transcendentalist, the gospel, and Greek mythology—that teach us to escape, to engage, and to persist.

Let’s look first at Thoreau’s famous escape to Walden pond. As you may know, since UUs love our transcendentalists, he sought to live deliberately—to transcend the emptiness and greed of the industrial age. His take on the excesses of technology and capital was incredibly prescient, 166 years ago. He said “We do not ride upon the railroad; it rides upon us.”

Thoreau thought 19th century American was so hectic and stressful that he said “Nope, I’m losing my mind, goodbye.” Keep in mind, this was before the invention of the telephone. Much less the internet, much less the smartphone which is always connected to the internet. Compared to the tech-overload of 2020, Walden is retrospectively hilarious. Oh I’m sorry Henry–you had to live near a few factories? That must have been so hard for you. And while the size of the disruption has grown in our lifetimes, his philosophy has lost no relevance. Thoreau exhorts us to “Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of the earth.”

Of course, we can’t all relocate to the woods, even if we wanted to. But maybe, by modern standards, pulling a Walden just means turning your phone off for a while. Living deliberately, which I take here to mean living with focus, does not mandate physical escape from our surroundings. Nor does it mean sticking our heads in the sand, pretending that everything’s just fine. Rather, it encourages us to slow down. To the extent we can, prioritize our health—mental, physical, and spiritual. Celebrate the immanent beauty in our lives. When we are our healthy and joyful, rather than bitter and overwhelmed, we have so much more to give.

And if focus can get us away from chaos, it can also help us fight it back. For our second source, let’s look at the gospels–Mark chapter 5, where Jesus heals a man possessed by demons. This man is an outcast from society, suffering and isolated. The scripture reads “Night and day among the tombs and in the hills he would cry out and cut himself with stones.” It’s a haunting passage. Not only does Jesus speak to this man when no one else will, he goes far out of his way to be of service. Jesus crosses a lake to get to him, to one person—then heals him, and crosses back over the lake.

Here we see Jesus as this paragon of active love—of direct engagement, willing to set aside all other concerns to do right by one soul. And it’s not Jesus had nothing else going on that day. He was a busy guy with some big plans. He had beatitudes to preach, and Pharisees to flex on, and merchants in the temple who needed a good smack. But he puts it all aside, crossing a lake twice to serve a totally ostracized person.

If he were here today, Jesus would be looking for one place to help, one struggling person who could use a friend. He would not be glued to the news, or arguing in comment sections. In my personal Christology, Jesus would be highly judicious about his social media intake. Jesus would be exclusively on Myspace—and possibly Neopets. But let’s focus back on focus.

In an abstract, unfocused way, the great crises in our world are completely unapproachable. But in a concrete, focused way, there is so much we can do to make a difference. It’s amazing how much better we feel when we take concrete steps to work for causes we care about. The problem is when we flay ourselves into a state of paralyzed anxiety over things we can’t control, to the extent that we don’t do the many things we can control. As Unitarian Universalists, our mandate is simply to do our part. For COVID safety, for eco-justice, for dismantling white supremacy, our job is to do our part.  And what social justice can we fight for, if we are pierced by ten thousand psychic spears?

Full disclosure: when I say we need to worry less and focus more, I am being fairly hypocritical. Focus is hard these days, it’s like swimming upstream, and I struggle with news addiction, doomscrolling, all these things. I guess I’m giving the sermon I need to hear. Because focus is worth fighting for. Its challenge and its power are proportionate. With enough focus, we can reshape our world—working with implacable persistence, like the rivers that carved out the Grand Canyon. As Olympia Browne put it, “Do not demand immediate results but rejoice that we are worthy to be entrusted with this great message. That you are strong enough to work for a great true principle without counting the cost.”

Olympia Browne was a trailblazer, and knew that great progress requires great persistence. August 18th, two days away, marks the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment, which won the vote for women. That victory, and every victory since, required vast fortitude and faith.  And the struggle for women’s rights is very much ongoing: it is a process of years, that calls for focus and commitment. Same goes for the Black Lives Matter movement, which has made huge gains recently. But it took years of dedication to plant the seeds that grew into today’s movement. And many more years of dedication are required. As BLM co-founder Alicia Garza said in an interview, “our job right now is to make sure that we keep this momentum going.” The unspoken concern in that quote is that people will lose focus, and the momentum will be lost. In the face of chaos and distraction, our challenge is to stay focused, stay tenacious, and keep working for change.

To look at one last facet of focus, let’s turn to Greek mythology–specifically, the saddest story in the whole canon. But it’s a great one, and it’s been on my mind a lot lately. I’m talking about the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice, a couple who make Romeo and Juliet look downright fortunate. Orpheus was a legendary musician, sort of the Eddie Van Halen of his day. One day his wife, the nymph Eurydice, is bitten by a viper and dies. Enterprising rock god that he is, Orpheus says “No way, I’m getting her back.” So he walks into the underworld, and gives a private concert to Hades, to convince him to free his wife. Hades says fine, on one condition: as you’re walking back to the surface, you cannot look back. If you look back at any point, she stays forever. And he almost, almost makes it. But a few steps from the exit, his anxiety overwhelms him. He stops, looks back for Eurydice, and loses his beloved. Orpheus would then go on to be struck by lightning, or torn apart by wild beasts, depending on what version of the story you prefer. There’s a reason why “Greek tragedy” is shorthand for elaborately terrible events.

It’s a classic story, with a million morals you could take from it. But today, I’m drawn to this one. “When you’re going through hell, keep going. Don’t lose faith, and don’t look back.” When you can’t escape the problem, like Thoreau, or engage with it head on, like Jesus, sometimes you just have to persist. Orpheus didn’t need to look—he needed to walk.

Escape, engage, persist. As we try to practice art of focus, these three can help us in different ways at different times. Some days you need to tune out, and take care of yourself—some days you can charge in and take on any challenge. Some days you just have to slog forward, and have faith. As I said before, focus is hard—there are no quick fixes here. Well, getting off the internet might be a quick fix. But however we find focus, be it through art or exercise or meditation, what matters is knowing that we are not helpless before the noise. We can refuse to let our brains be the chew toys of pundits, advertisers, and clickbait journalism, all fighting over them like hyperactive rottweilers. We have the power to say no—bad dog. And as with all lifelong spiritual disciplines, there will be countless times when we struggle and fail at this. I guarantee you that by 9pm tonight I will be arguing with some jerkwad in a Youtube comment section. But little by little, I will learn to do better. And in time, I will find the strength to stop doomscrolling, and give more of myself to the people and the work that are closest to my heart.

The Reverend Theodore Parker, later rephrased by the Rev Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., famously said that the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice. But maybe the moral arc of the universe is not an arc—because arcs are smooth. Maybe the moral progress of the universe, such as we can understand it, is a lurching, jagged path, that moves sideways and backwards and in spirals. May we have the courage and focus to walk it—first one with step, and then another. May we find a stillness in our souls—a place for peace, and joy, and righteous works.

Amen, ashe, may it be so.

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