Monday, April 6, 2015

On Hope: Can suffering lead to more and not less?

From: The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
Setting: Inmates eating in Shawshank Prison

Andy: That's the beauty of music. They can't get that from you... Haven't you ever felt that way about music?
Red: I played a mean harmonica as a younger man. Lost interest in it though. Didn't make much sense in here.
Andy: Here's where it makes the most sense. You need it so you don't forget.
Red: Forget?
Andy: Forget that... there are places in this world that aren't made out of stone. That there's something inside... that they can't get to, that they can't touch. That's yours.
Red: What're you talking about?
Andy: Hope.
Red: Let me tell you something my friend. Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane. It's got no use on the inside. You'd better get used to that idea.

I’ve been thinking a lot about hope recently--I think prompted by the recent deaths at MIT. While we can never fully know or understand what was going on for Matthew or Christina, it seems to me that a person would not choose to end their life unless they are truly feeling hopeless.

But as Red from the Shawshank Redemption points out, hope is a dangerous thing. I wholeheartedly agree with him. This is something I experienced at MIT.

When I showed up to MIT as a freshman, I was filled with hope. MIT was my dream school. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life, but MIT represented limitless possibilities. And beyond just academics, I was experiencing friendships on a new level, finding exhilarating connections with all these amazing people. I entered into a long-term relationship and it dwarfed my previous romantic experiences. And to my surprise, I found myself on a sports team, and for the first time in my life, was filled with hope for what my physical body could be. I was on a seemingly never-ending gravy train of hope for the the first half of MIT.

Then, on Reg Day at the beginning of my Junior year, I got a phone call from back home in Texas. There had been a car accident. My father had been killed. Obviously, that’s devastating news for anyone to receive and it certainly was for me. Immediately I was on a plane to go home and be with my family. We had the funeral and time together, but pretty soon I was faced with the inevitable question: “now what?” Do I go back to school? Do I stay at home for a semester? What would I do with myself at home? I had no framework for addressing questions like these.

But I knew that if I was going to go back, I needed to do it soon. I had already missed over a week of school and falling behind is never a good idea at MIT. I decided to come back. I reasoned that my Dad would not want me to miss out on my life. And I didn’t want to miss out either.

The next couple of years were a blur. A constant frenzy of unceasing, frantic activity. Subconsciously, I had chosen a simple strategy for dealing with grief. Avoid it. Leave no room for it. Be so constantly busy every moment of everyday that there is no mental or emotional bandwidth for grief. It won’t surprise you to know that MIT was rather accommodating to this strategy.

And this strategy actually worked pretty well, at least externally. My grades went up, I was elected to be president of my fraternity, I was competitive in a very demanding varsity sport.

But, increasingly, my internal world was falling apart. By the time I graduated, I was emotionally bankrupt. All that hope that had been propelling me forward was gone.  My passion for science had gotten crowded out or tainted somehow. My friendship circle was getting smaller and smaller. My dating relationship which I had assumed was heading toward marriage was actually headed toward ruin thanks to my emotional toxicity. Even the sport I was doing, which I loved, had somehow become an unhealthy addiction. I was quickly becoming very isolated. I was bubbling over with anger and bitterness and my life felt void of purpose. In a word, I felt hopeless.

All of this was the context for a very unexpected spiritual journey that I was about to embark on. I don’t have time to tell all of that story right now, but, spoiler alert, it ends with me becoming a chaplain and the happy, healthy individual you see standing here today. Hope has played (and still plays) a very important role in that journey. Strangely, hope was both the destination and the road that took me there. The end and the means.

Hope gets a lot of attention in the Bible. Looking back, I can see some of the Bible’s insights on hope borne out in my own story in pretty striking ways. So, for instance, there’s this really famous, inspiring-sounding line about hope in the New Testament.

It’s in a letter this guy Paul, who was an early faith entrepreneur, wrote to some faith communities in Rome. It’s printed on your sheet, but I have to warn you, it risks sounding too good to be true and feeling disconnected from reality.

Romans 5:2b-5
...And let us rejoice in hope of the glory of God. And not only that, but let us also rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

I won’t be able to unpack all of what’s here, but I’ll offer a few comments.

First, this passage confidently asserts that hope DOES NOT disappoint us. I wonder how you feel about that? Does that ring true? I have a somewhat visceral response to this. Especially if I’m in the mindset of those first few years after losing my dad. I can feel that this has got to be a typo because hope ABSOLUTELY disappoints us. It is in fact because we hope that experience disappointment.

So maybe this contradiction means we just need to dismiss these ideas altogether. But, there’s another possibility too, which I hope you’ll consider. It’s the possibility that Paul is talking about something different here. This passage seems to indicate that hope is much more than a feeling, much more than the greeting-card sentiment that I tend to regard it as. The hope that’s described here is not particularly easy to come by. It’s more rare, more valuable, more robust and more powerful than we might expect. It’s the final product of a long and difficult process. So you can see this idea of hope being the destination, where we want to end up.

But I think hope is also the path that we take to get there. And it’s an unexpected, maybe even “hidden” path. We get the first clue when Paul says “let us rejoice in our sufferings”. Seriously? Who does that? If we can pull of rejoicing, is the suffering really that bad?

But this supremely counterintuitive act of choosing joy and gratitude in the midst of suffering--to whatever degree we can pull it off--I think will start us down this path that is hope.

We see the path starts with suffering, then endurance then character and then, finally, hope. I’m not precisely sure how all those steps work, but one thing seems clear to me. This is not our typical human response to hardship. This seems to suggest somehow resisting that overwhelming temptation we all feel to avoid pain in one way or another.

So maybe the endurance described is not just surviving difficult, painful circumstances, but it’s actually enduring the suffering, experiencing the pain brought on by those circumstances. It’s not masochism, but it is fully facing up to the suffering that’s coming at us, not dodging it.

In his most famous teaching, Jesus says,
Matthew 5:4
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

and I think he’s talking about this same kind of approach to suffering. Instead of going with our first instinct to avoid the pain, we mourn it, we actually feel it. Then we will experience comfort. But if we try to dodge it, we’ll just end up in limbo, with the suffering still lurking in the shadows and no experience of comfort.

You know, there’s a youtube clip that illustrates this point way better than I do. I thought about showing it, but we’re not really set up for that. It features the modern-day philosopher and sage: Louis CK. This clip is so well worth your time that I’m taking an unorthodox step for Tuesdays in the Chapel and putting the link on your handout.

Link #1 - Louis CK Hates Cell Phones (YouTube)

So mourning leads to comfort, but, I think Paul is promising something even better than comfort. He says that hope does not disappoint us because “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit” which I think simply refers to an intimate experience of God’s love, a deep connection. I know this can sound exclusive, only applying to those who believe in God, but I don’t think it is and I’ll speak to that in just a sec.

My brief 36 years on this earth has convinced me that all of life boils down to relationships, to connection. Our connection with other people, our connection to ourselves and our connection to God or the universe or reality or whatever may be out there that’s bigger than us.

So while our circumstances are always uncertain, always holding the potential for all kinds of pain, there’s a way in which suffering is not only NOT a threat to our connection, but can actually enhance, strengthen and even supercharge that connection, which is perhaps our deepest desire. And when it does, disappointment is no longer a threat.

And speaking of connection, this paradoxical response to suffering of simultaneously rejoicing and mourning is pretty hard to pull off alone. It’s the sort of thing where the help of trusted friends and a higher power if you believe in one is really indispensable. So similarly to hope, connection is both the destination and the means to get there.

But, clearly, not all of us at MIT believe in God. Well, more and more I’m coming to see that the benefits of hope and connection are not limited to those with a particular set of beliefs. So I’m very much hopeful that anyone who’s so inclined can experience these dynamics.

To this end, maybe we can borrow a page from the Alcoholic’s Anonymous playbook. Looking to a “higher power” for help is an essential, non-negotiable element of the 12 steps. Yet many secular folks who don’t subscribe to the idea of a higher power have been immensely helped by twelve-step programs. They’ve been given a very generous latitude to interpret that higher power in the way that feels most true and honest to them--even if it’s in a thoroughly non-theistic way. For some, it’s an undefined metaphysical goodness. For others it’s simply the universe or reality as it is. For some, it is the community offered by AA or the fellowship and goodwill of humankind.

So I’m hopeful you can figure out a way that this works for you. If you’ll indulge me again, here’s one more link to check out. It’s a post from the MIT Admissions Blogs where an MIT student tells her story of a very powerful experience along these lines.

Link #2 - IHTFParadise - A Journey of Depression at MIT (MIT Admissions Blogs)

Inevitably, there will be painful moments ahead for all of us. I wonder if walking down the path of hope, rejoicing and mourning with whomever will join us, will take us to a place of deeper hope and deeper connection than we would have thought possible.

Adam Reynolds
The Vineyard

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

A Winter Word

Winter Remembered

Two evils, monstrous either one apart,

Possessed me, and were long and loath at going:

A cry of Absence, Absence, in the heart,

And in the wood the furious winter blowing.

Think not, when fire was bright upon my bricks,

And past the tight boards hardly a wind could enter,

I glowed like them, the simple burning sticks,

Far from my cause, my proper heat and center.

Better to walk forth in the frozen air

And wash my wound in the snows; that would be healing;

Because my heart would throb less painful there,
Being caked with cold, and past the smart of feeling.

And where I walked, the murderous winter blast
Would have this body bowed, these eyeballs streaming,

And though I think this heart's blood froze not fast

It ran too small to spare one drop for dreaming.

Dear love, these fingers that had known your touch,

And tied our separate forces first together,

Were ten poor idiot fingers not worth much,

Ten frozen parsnips hanging in the weather.

A Word for Winter
February 24, 2015

Martin Marty, a church historian at the University of Chicago, now semi-retired,  holds that winter is a season of the heart as much as it is a season of the weather. He cites the poem we have shared this morning as an effort by the poet John Crowe Ransom to tie the two winters together as “two evils, monstrous either one apart, that possessed him.”

We are experiencing the reality of the winter of the climate in its full fury. A friend posted on face-book this morning a picture of the school door where his children attend with the light above the door and the walls of snow towering on either side above the height of the door: “school is open” the caption read.

We know the evil of winter weather too well as February draws to a close. All the records for snow and continued cold weather are broken and we lean toward the solstice that declares that winter is over.  Before that when we meet on the 10th of March we will be able to have enjoyed two days of daylight savings time.  Ten days later the spring equinox will arrive.

As difficult as the winter is, Marty argues that the winter of the soul is even more difficult. We have learned that cold wears on us and wears us down. We have gotten more use out of our long underwear this year than in any winter in memory but it is the winter of absence that tears at the heart: ”A cry of Absence, Absence in the heart.” His reflections were shaped by the loss of his wife and he turned to the Psalms for comfort and direction.

Our reading of Psalm 90 speaks of transience, of things passing away.  This psalm sketches the passage of time from autumn to winter as the movement into the time of absence. The Psalmist writes of God: You turn us into dust. We are like the grass that flourishes and then is burned up. Our life times are to be measured in years spend in toil and trouble.  Some of us have reached three score and ten, but all of us have a sense of how fast things progress. Years are soon gone and we fly away. To put it more bluntly, life if short and then you die. And in the cold of winter that seems easy to believe.

The Psalmist does not talk of simple solutions to this complex problem. He does not propose some hereafter where things will be set right. Some may live in perpetual summer never seeing the dark clouds or feeling the wintery wind. That is not our lot,  that is not our experience. And it is not simply an issue of weather.

Some of you watched the Oscars on Sunday night and the most poignant moment always comes when they note the passing of great men and women in the entertainment business.  There were the names: Robin Williams, Mike Nichols and who could not smile remembering the pleasure each brought to us in the exercise of their craft and now only absence, absence.

The ritual I go through each year is the ritual of updating my address book noting those who have passed away. I remember Dan Langdale who had such influence on our admissions office here at MIT and who led the office at Cal Tech. Dan enjoyed playing softball more than he enjoyed admissions but he enjoyed  even more cajoling me with the responsibilities we assumed when the admissions work was done: “We screen ‘em; you Dean ‘em” he would gleefully tell me and I remember his pleasure at one member of the Random Hall community who arrived here in Boston on a train from Dallas where he had just been released from prison.
I remember Danielle Guichard-Ashbrook who, over the course of her time here, taught us all how to better understand the wider world we live in. She had most recently calmly given me a lesson in Russian geography and politics when I had  asked about whether we had information on Chechen students. “A cry of Absence, Absence in the heart/ And in the wood the furious winter blowing.”

The antidote to winter and to loss is not to be found in prescriptions although the edge of depression can be dulled with medicine. In the depths of winter we are buoyed by the beauty of the sun rising low on a cold morning. Our kitchen in Rockport was built to take advantage of the earliest light and our pleasure at seeing the light above the oaks is only matched by the warmth of seeing it from Cambridge as it rises above the Prudential. Beauty prompts wonder and wonder gives hope in the depths of the winters of the weather and of the heart. 

Martin Marty repeats the old story of a theologian who took his child out one night to see the stars early in the age of  satellites and the boy asked “Which ones did we put up there?” We know the answer to that question: very few.  

The words of the Psalmist come to mind: “And when I look at the  heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established, what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them. Yet you have made them little lower than God and crowned them with glory and honor. ” 
Ps. 8:3-5

Wonder lays the groundwork for hope and in the depths of winter, wonder at the beauty that surrounds us even in the dark of winter gives way to hope. Viktor Frankl found hope in the camps where death seemed to reign and so it seem to me that we can find hope in the depths of the winter of both weather and the heart.  May it be so.

Psalm 90
Lord, you have been our dwelling 
In all generations.

Before the mountains were brought
or ever you had formed the earth
and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting
you are God.

You turn us back to dust,
and say, "turn back, you 

For a thousand years in your sight
are like yesterday when it is past,
or like a watch in the night.

You sweep them away; they are
like a dream,
like grass that is renewed in the
In the morning it flourishes and is
in the evening it fades and withers.
For we are consumed by your
by your wrath we are

You have set our iniquities
before you,
our secret sins in the light of
your countenance.

For all our days pass away under 
your wrath;
our years come to an end like 
a sigh.

The days of our life are seventy 
or perhaps eighty, if we are
even then their span is only toil
and trouble;
they are soon gone, 
and we fly away.

…so teach us to count our days
that we may gain a wise heart…

...…O prosper the work of our hands.
Robert M Randolph
Chaplain to the Institute

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Our Differences Connect Us

A Minor Bird
I have wished a bird would fly away,
And not sing by my house all day;

Have clapped my hands at him from the door
When it seemed as if I could bear no more.

The fault must partly have been in me.
The bird was not to blame for his key.

And of course there must be something wrong
In wanting to silence any song. 
-- Robert Frost

Our Differences Connect Us

The theme for this year is “one thing that is most important.”  If someone had asked me this in my youth, I’m sure I’d have talked about music, my first great passion and my undergraduate major.   I still care a lot about music but today my answer is different.  Two things happened to me in midlife, one large and one small, which permanently changed the way I saw myself and the world around me.
The big thing that happened was my husband and my taking up residency in an exotic and alien land.  I’m not referring to the year we spent overseas when he had a Fulbright grant, although was fun too.  No, I’m referring to the rare opportunity we had to live for an extended period among people who were truly different from us:  the residents of Random Hall.  Now you might think that at least we shared a language and many customs with most Randomites, but in many cases you’d be wrong.  As undergraduates Chris was a poet and I a singer; at Random, we came to live among students whose lives were centered on math, electrical engineering, and physics.  The residents and their new housemasters didn’t always understand each other’s jokes, idioms, or cultural references.  I’ll never really understand the work our students do; but in the years among them I have learned to appreciate the beauty of mathematical concepts, laws of physics, and elegant feats of engineering, even without truly understanding any of the details.  I’ve come to understand that discovery, invention, and innovation are, in a sense, just music different from my own.

The small thing that happened took place before we moved to Random Hall.  In those days we lived in the Lower Mills section of Dorchester.  It was a long commute, especially the last four years when I shared the trip with our son who attended a daycare center in Harvard Square from the time he was about a year old.  Commuting with a toddler who was not especially easy-going was a challenge.  If I was lucky he’d nap, and he usually enjoyed a nice bottle of milk, and if all else failed I would read to him – pretty much anything to keep him from disturbing all our fellow passengers.

One night, something kept me very late at MIT and my husband must have picked Simon up from daycare.  At about 10 PM I was standing alone on the platform at Ashmont Station, waiting for the Mattapan trolley to come.  In 1992 that neighborhood was a little iffy, and I was nervous standing there that night; my heart sank when someone came over to me and said “Excuse me…”  The man who addressed me was tall and dark-skinned, and spoke with a Caribbean accent.  Most of us white middle-class women, when we’re alone late at night in a location of questionable safety, and a tall African-American man comes over and strikes up a conversation, are going to feel some alarm.  We’re also going to feel extremely ashamed of ourselves for feeling alarmed; and in a split second we’re going to be wondering where good street smarts end and plain old racism begins.

“Excuse me,” said the man.  “But aren’t you the woman who sometimes reads to a little boy on this train?”  “Why yes,” I stammered, “I am.”  “I saw the two of you on the train a few months ago, and I will never forget the look on your son’s face as you read to him.  I couldn’t take my eyes off him, and when I got home I told my wife, ‘I don’t care how tired I am; from now on, I am going to read to our children every single night.’  I have kept that promise, and I promised myself that if I ever saw you again I would tell you, and thank you for changing my life.”  That happened over twenty years ago, and that night at Ashmont Station that man changed my life.  He showed me that the smallest, simplest, most ordinary thing we do may be the thing that changes the world.

In the musical Fiddler on the Roof,  the Jews of Eastern Europe (my ancestors) are compared to someone standing on a rooftop, trying to scratch out a simple, pleasant tune without breaking his neck, and relying upon tradition to keep his balance.  In my youth I’d have said that the tune was the thing that most mattered, and indeed it’s the work of youth to define one’s own simple, pleasant tune and to make that tune the most beautiful we can.  What I have learned is that we are all fiddlers up there on that roof together; the problem is that each of us is scratching out a different tune.   I still try to make my life’s music the best it can be, but I’ve learned to treasure the unexpected beauty that happens when my tune mixes with the music made by everyone around me.  And I’ve also learned that the traditions and values that help each of us keep our balance can, if we don’t pay attention, become prejudices that threaten to silence someone else’s song, or cause our neighbors to lose their balance.

So today, I’d say that the important thing is how our differences connect us.  That might sound contradictory but it doesn’t have to be: the unique features that define each of us can also enrich and connect all of us.  This is a connection that takes its strength not just from our big moments and our significant achievements, but also from how we live together and treat one another, every day.


Something big splashed, quietly, in the distance, and the splash echoed into the vastness.  He squinted, but could see nothing.  It was too dark.  And then, from the direction of the splashes, a ghost-light glimmered and the world took form: he was in a cavern, and in front of him, mirror-smooth, was water.

The splashing noises came closer and the light became brighter, and Shadow waited on the shore.  Soon enough a low, flat boat came into sight, a flickering white lantern burning at its raised prow, another reflected in the glassy black water several feet below it.  The boat was being poled by a tall figure, and the splashing noise Shadow had heard was the sound of the pole being lifted and moved as it pushed the craft across the waters of the underground lake. 

The boat’s pilot was tall, and very thin.  He – if it was a he – wore an unadorned white robe, and the pale head that topped it was so utterly inhuman that Shadow was certain that it had to be a mask of some sort: it was a bird’s head, small on a long neck, its beak long and high. 

The boat came close to the shore.  The pilot leaned on its pole.  Its head turned slowly, until it was facing Shadow.  “Hello,” it said, without moving its long beak.  The voice was male, and, like everything else in Shadow’s afterlife so far, familiar.  “Come on board.  You’ll get your feet wet, I’m afraid, but there’s not a thing can be done about that.  These are old boats, and if I come in closer I could rip out the bottom.”

Shadow took off his shoes and stepped out into the water.  It came halfway up his calves, and was, after the initial shock of wetness, surprisingly warm.  He reached the boat, and the pilot put down a hand and pulled him aboard.  The reed boat rocked a little, and water splashed over the low sides of it, and then it steadied.

The pilot poled off away from the shore.  Shadow stood there and watched, his pants legs dripping.

“I know you,” he said to the creature at the prow.
“You do indeed,” said the boatman.  The oil lamp that hung at the front of the boat burned more fitfully, and the smoke from the lamp made Shadow cough.  “You worked for me.”  The voice was fussy and precise.

The smoke stung Shadow’s eyes.  He wiped the tears away with his hand, and, through the smoke, he thought he saw a tall man in a suit, with gold-rimmed spectacles.  The smoke cleared and the boatman was once more a half-human creature with the head of a river bird.

“Mister Ibis?”

“Good to see you,” said the creature, with Mr. Ibis’s voice.  “Do you know what a psychocomp is?”
Shadow thought he knew the word, but it had been a long time.  He shook his head.

“It’s a fancy term for an escort,” said Mr. Ibis.  “We all have so many functions, so many ways of existing.  In my own vision of myself, I am a scholar who lives quietly, and pens his little tales, and dreams about a past that may or may not ever have existed.  And that is true, as far as it goes.  But I am also, in one of my capacities, a psychocomp.  I escort the living to the world of the dead.”

“I thought this was the world of the dead,” said Shadow.

“No. Not per se.  It’s more of a preliminary.”

The boat slipped and slid across the mirror-surface of the underground pool. 

“So I’m dead,” said Shadow.  He was getting used to the idea.  “Or I’m going to be dead.”

“We are on our way to the Hall of the Dead.  I requested that I be the one to come for you.”


“You were a hard worker.  Why not?”

“Because…” Shadow marshaled his thoughts.  “Because I never believed in you.  Because I don’t know much about Egyptian mythology.  Because I didn’t expect this.  What happened to Saint Peter and the Pearly Gates?”

The long-beaked white head shook from side to side, gravely.  “It doesn’t matter that you didn’t believe in us,” said Mr. Ibis.  “We believed in you.”

-- Neil Gaiman, American Gods

~ Nina Davis-Millis, Head, IT and Discovery Services, MIT Libraries~