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