At times our light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us. -- Albert Schweitzer
You may not always have a comfortable life, and you will not always be able to solve all of the world's problems at once. But don't ever underestimate the importance you can have, because history has shown us that courage can be contagious, and hope can take on a life of its own. -- Michelle Obama
Most of the time, some ceiling or roof blocks my view of the sky: in my apartment, my car, in stores, offices, churches, and just about anywhere else I go. Even when I’m outside, I don’t always remember to look up. Occasionally I check what the weather is doing or how much daylight is left. I might admire a beautiful sunset, or the Moon, or the stars on a particularly clear night. But I look at them the way I look at paintings in a museum. I contemplate them for a while and then I move on.
So while I am well acquainted with the sky, I don’t live with it the way my father did when he was farming, and certainly not the way ancient peoples did. Not many of us do anymore. And so it can be hard for us to grasp what the Winter Solstice must have meant centuries or millennia ago, when our culture’s mythic intuition was forming.
Our calendars tell us that the Solstice is about a week away, and of course we notice that days are shorter this time of year. But ancient peoples who lived with the sky as a constant companion would have seen much more than that. Even children must have noticed that the path the Sun takes across the sky was dropping ominously towards the horizon. And every child, at some time or another, must have asked the obvious question: "Is it going to keep dropping, until someday the Sun won’t bother to come up at all? What will happen to us if the Sun never comes back?"
Today, that question sounds even more childish, because are educated: We know about the solar system and the Earth’s tilted axis. We understand that the Sun’s shorter path across the sky does not mean that it is getting weaker or lazier. In the Southern Hemisphere, we know, days are bright and long now, and the tropics are as hot as ever. In short, the Sun is doing fine, however it might look from our angle. The Earth is in its usual orbit, and everything is right on schedule. The fear that the Winter Solstice might fail this year never really crosses our minds.
Millennia ago, it probably did. If you were that questioning child, no doubt your elders would reassure you: “The Sun always turns around about now. Wait a week or two, and you’ll see for yourself.”
But I wonder just how reassuring that was. I doubt it communicated the clockwork certainty we feel today. Probably it sounded like those somewhat less convincing reassurances we all get from time to time, like: “That fault line is stable.” or “People with your credentials always get good jobs.” or “America would never elect someone like that.” — reassurances that may have been true in living memory, but which come with no guarantees. “Maybe it has always been that way,” you think, “but is it going to be that way this time?”
So I imagine that ancient peoples of all ages watched the sky this time of year with a certain anxiety, believing, but not completely certain, that the age-old pattern would hold, and a cosmic catastrophe would be averted once again.
But of course, the pattern did always hold. Every year, the Sun’s arc across the sky stopped sinking and began to rise, the days got longer, and Spring eventually came. But no matter how many times you lived through it, I imagine that the Solstice never really lost its miraculous quality, because the mechanism behind it remained invisible.
And so it became that rarest of events: a predictable, regularly occurring miracle. In time, the Solstice came to represent something a little more abstract than just the promise of Spring: It was evidence that miracles were still happening. It symbolized the lesson that you should never lose hope, because situations that just seem to get worse and worse every day can turn around, even if you don’t see exactly what is going to turn them.
Over time, symbols and stories and holidays of hope clustered around this time of year: The Temple lights that should burn out, don’t. The Golden Child who will change all of our lives — whether it is the hero Mithras or the savior Jesus — is born. Even our secular Christmas mythology reflects this hope that things can turn around: Scrooge gets back his humanity. The Grinch’s heart grows three sizes. George Bailey discovers he actually is living a wonderful life.
And every year, we are encouraged to bring that hope into our own lives: Maybe an old friendship can be rekindled. Maybe that ancient family quarrel can be patched up. Whatever part of your life seems stuck or broken, you should give it one more try, because this is a time when things might turn around, even if you don’t necessarily see how. This season of darkness is also a magical season, a season of hope.
But what can Unitarian Universalists do with all that?
Hope is fine, I guess, but we don’t put much stock in magic, or in things that are supposed to turn around for no particular reason. We want to see the mechanisms.
We are also skeptical of saviors. When I was growing up Lutheran, we called this season Advent, and we sang:
O come, O come, Emanuel.
And rescue captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.
That tune is still in our UU hymnal, but we changed the words. Because we are a proud people, a people of action, and we don’t plead helplessly for someone to come save us, not even God.
A lot of us don’t believe in God, and even those of us who do probably don’t believe in the kind of God who steps into history and fixes things that humans have screwed up. At most, we might believe in the upward tilt of Progress, or in the Theodore Parker line that Martin Luther King liked to quote: “The arc of the moral Universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Many of us don’t even believe that much. The universe simply does what it does, and whether it ultimately bends towards Heaven or Hell is beyond our knowing. Our so-called “progress” may lead to annihilation rather than paradise. Rather than grant us freedom, it may enable a tyranny more all-encompassing than even George Orwell could have imagined. Rather than evolve into an interconnected global village, the world may fragment into echo chambers that are increasingly suspicious of one another.
Instead of adventure and innocent fun, the literature of our young people is full of dystopian wastelands and zombie apocalypses and heroes who hope for little more than to survive with a few of their friends. And who can blame the young for dwelling on such dark scenarios? Aren’t they just bringing into popular culture the private fears their elders are reluctant to discuss?
So we can see the darkness, but where is this hope we are supposed to celebrate?
In order to present that hope to Unitarian Universalists well trained in doubt and skepticism, I’m going to need to take advantage of something else we do well: appreciate subtle distinctions. UUs can split hairs like nobody else, and I’m going to split a really important one right now.
So far I’ve been using the word hope interchangeably with the belief that things will get better. But those two notions aren’t the same at all. Believing that things will improve isn’t hope, it’s optimism. The opposite of optimism is pessimism, the belief that things will get worse. But the opposite of hope is something far more devastating than pessimism, it’s despair. To be in despair is to believe that it’s useless to try, because your actions don’t matter. Nothing can be done.
So here’s the hair splitting: Optimism and pessimism are beliefs about the future. Hope and despair are attitudes towards the present.
Pessimism is going to the plate in the ninth inning when your team is behind, assessing the situation, and concluding that you’re probably going to lose. Despair, on the other hand, would tell you not to bother taking your turn at bat, or if you do step into the batter’s box, to let the pitches go by without swinging, because what’s the point? What difference could it possibly make?
Hope is the opposite of that. Hope is that feeling deep within you that you are alive, and that in this particular time and place, the only thing you need to concern yourself with is what you do next. Hope means refusing to prejudge the situation, it means doing whatever you can think to do and then whatever happens will happen.
Optimism and pessimism both claim to know something, but hope thrives on the unknown. It focuses on those parts of the future that remain undetermined, and it says, “Let me see what I can do.”
Once you appreciate that distinction, I think you’ll agree that while some UUs are optimists and some are pessimists, we are, at our core, a hopeful people. We don’t claim to know the future. We throw ourselves into the unknown and we act, because we have a deep, abiding faith that actions matter.
People sometimes ask me, as they probably ask you, why Unitarian Universalists bother to form congregations at all. Why do we set our alarms on Sunday mornings, make ourselves presentable, and show up? After all, if you’re going to make up your own mind about the Big Questions and follow your own conscience, can’t you do that just as well at home? No UU Hell is waiting for the unchurched. No authority is going to condemn you if you sleep in. So why bother?
I suspect that these last few weeks, you’ve known exactly why you bother. We are now in a season of darkness in more ways than one. The values Unitarian Universalists cherish are challenged today in a way they have not been in my lifetime. We are told from the highest levels to fear the stranger, and blame our misfortunes on those least able to defend themselves: on immigrants and refugees and the poor. Those who are different are presented to us as threats to our well-being and our very way of life. Science, we are told, is just another bias, and compassion is weakness. Those we might previously have seen as victims are in fact just losers, people unworthy of our concern.
In the middle of this immense darkness, if all you can see is the small candle of goodwill that you carry yourself, then you may well fall into despair. Because no matter what you do or how hard you try, you cannot light the world. If you worry that your candle might really be the only one left, then you might do well to hide it, for fear of those who would snuff it out.
Or you could bring it here.
On the Sunday after the election, I was speaking in the place where I grew up, a small Midwestern town in a rural county that voted three to one for Trump. The Unitarian church there is small, but we drew a good crowd that day.
I don’t think people came to church that morning because they wanted to be jollied back into optimism. We gathered together for reassurance, but not the kind that says everything is going to be OK. (A lot of things are not going to be OK in the coming years. I think we all know that.) No, the reassurance we were looking for that morning, that I think many of us are still looking for, is to be in the presence of people who are not surrendering to despair.
I led the congregation in a responsive reading of the UU Principles, just so we could hear each other and hear ourselves say out loud what we stand for: the worth of all people; justice, equity, and compassion; acceptance of one another; the search for truth; democracy; world community; the interdependent web.
We’re not ready to give those things up, or to hibernate for a few years and let them take care of themselves. We don’t all have a plan yet. We don’t know exactly what we’re going to do. Most of us are still casting about, trying to figure out what we can do, what roles we can play, where we might make some kind of difference. But UUs across the country are determined to do something, because we are a people who believe that our actions matter. We are a religion of hope.
We are also a religion of faith. Not necessarily faith in some perfect world after death. Not necessarily faith in an all-powerful God who makes our stories come out right. Not even faith that some great leader will ride in with the cavalry to save us in our hour of need. But we do have faith that the potential for human goodness is far more widespread than it often appears. That flame you feel inside yourself, that desire to live in a more just and compassionate world, that willingness to make an effort and take some chances to help bring that world about — it also burns inside other people, including many you would never suspect. An old-time Universalist like Hosea Ballou would tell you that if you could look deeply enough, you would see that flame burning somewhere inside everyone.
You can never predict when or how it will shine through. Several years ago, I was worried about my wife, who was facing a life-threatening cancer she eventually recovered from, and so I did not notice that I had picked up a virus myself. It hit me suddenly one afternoon in our local mall, and I dragged myself to Food Court to sit down and try to recover enough energy to drive home. But instead I just felt worse and worse. Looking around, I saw only strangers, no one I could ask for help. So I decided to make a run for the bathroom, hoping to be sick there rather than in front of everyone.
But when I stood up, I keeled over, and woke up a minute or two later on the floor with people all around me. The man at the next table had caught me as I fell, and an impromptu emergency response team had formed around me. Mall security had been notified, 911 had already been called, and an ambulance was on its way.
When I had looked around at all those strangers, I had not seen that level of caring, that willingness to get involved and help. But it was there.
That is a story of personal caring, but history is also full of moments when caring for the public good has burst forth, seemingly from nowhere: when crowds have faced down armies, when workers have stood together in unions, when citizens have marched together in support of civil rights or against war, and very recently when Native Americans and their allies from across the country — including a sizable contingent of UU ministers — came together at Standing Rock.
Hope thrives on the unknown, and we do not know what depths of goodness and courage might be hidden inside the American people. During this past year, it has been hidden pretty well sometimes. Sometimes I have felt that I didn’t know this country at all. But it is the faith of a Universalist that human goodness does not die just because it is hidden, any more than the Sun dies when it sinks behind the horizon.
If we are honest with ourselves, we have to admit that our own goodness is hidden sometimes. We haven’t always done what we could have done. We haven’t always spoken up when we should have. In hindsight, I suspect, most of us can look back at times when we were on the wrong side of some important issue. (I know I can.) But the goodness inside us didn’t die in those moments, it was just obscured by ignorance, or by fear, or maybe just by exhaustion.
It is the faith of Universalist to give others the same benefit of the doubt that we need for ourselves. And it is the faith of a Universalist to believe, as Michelle Obama said, that actions of courage, of generosity, and of inspiration are contagious.
The challenge of a season of darkness is to start such contagions and to spread them. If you step forward, you do not know who will follow you. Maybe it will be people you never would have expected.
In terms of optimism, I can offer you only the vaguest reassurance. Human history shows that things do not go on getting worse forever. Eventually they turn, and the moments when they turn are hardly ever obvious at the time. Even decades later, historians are usually still arguing about them. Right now, we could be closer to a turning point than anyone suspects, or it could still be a long way off. I don’t know.
One thing I can guarantee you: In a season of darkness, whatever you can think to do will seem totally inadequate to the immensity of the situation. What does it matter if I wear a safety pin? Or correct that fake news story my friend posted to Facebook? Or put a Black Lives Matter sticker on my car? Or sit next to that kid who’s being bullied? Or call that congressman? Or go to that demonstration? Or work for that candidate? Or run for that local office? How is that going to turn the world around?
And the answer is: We don’t know. By itself, nothing you do will turn things around. You cannot light the world.
But we also do not know how much hidden goodness is out there, and how it might reveal itself. If you do that thing that it occurs to you to do, you do not know who will see it and be inspired by it, or what you yourself might learn from it, or what either of you might go on to do next.
Here, in a time of darkness, we choose to act, but we do not know what will come from that action. We cannot know. And so, we hope.