Terror and Abundance: An Advent Reflection

(So much of this is stolen from or inspired by Steve Antil, Peg Downing, the general energy of all the St. Joseph Central High School community, and my family and friends. If you like it, thank them for the message. If not, you can blame me for the packaging!)

We are gathered here together during the season of Advent, in which Christians prepare for the coming of Jesus on the holiday known as Christmas. There is a philosophy in Christianity called “Neoplatonism” (actually, it is a philosophy found in Judaism and Islam as well) that may be helpful for understanding Christmas. I won’t get into all the details, but basically Neoplatonism holds that God is superabundant, so full of love and goodness and beauty that God overflowed God’s self and that is how the universe came to be. Some Christian thinkers used this as a way to understand the significance of Jesus, that God was so overflowing with love for the world that God spilled over into the world, becoming a person like you and me. This might be a helpful image of the Christmas story, a story of the overflowing abundance of God’s love and goodness and beauty.

I want to talk today about abundance. Not because I live this way all the time, but because I struggle to live this way. Abundance might seem like a strange thing to talk about in light of all the tragedy we are experiencing in our world. But for me, the big tragedies in the world are not special. I am not going to minimize them, but I am going to recast them in this way: The major tragedies are reminders to us of all the suffering that is going on in the world all the time. The suffering of even one starving child is unconscionable to me. Irreconcilable with my sense of what the world should be or could be. But the problem of suffering is more than that, more, even, than all the starving children of the world. What about the toddler out front of Jettie’s ice cream shop, who licked her ice cream cone and it toppled over onto the ground? She is sitting out there, wailing and screaming because her ice cream is on the side walk. This is a major tragedy, at least to that little girl. We may be tempted to compare her suffering to life’s “real” problems and then to laugh it off, but who are we to diminish the suffering of another human being? Viktor Frankl said that suffering is like a gas; it expands to fill whatever container it is in.

Something strange happened to me on the way to work today. I was driving my usual route to work and I came to a four way stop. And, in typical fashion, a person who came to the intersection after me neglected to stop and then took his turn ahead of me. I am sure all of you have witnessed something like this. That’s when something snapped in me. I was so fed up with the discourteous habits of DC drivers that I let him have it.

When I say “I let him have it,” I mean that I let him have the turn. Of course, he was going to take it anyway! But something shifted in me, and I realized that if I let him have it, then he can’t take it from me. If I stop thinking of it as “MY turn,” then it becomes impossible for him to steal it. So I said to him, in my mind, “Yes, here, you go first.”

How was this small miracle able to happen in my life? I think it was in response to a story that came out of France two weeks ago. As you know, terrorists in France killed one hundred and thirty people, injured hundreds more, and left huge holes in the lives of countless friends and relatives. A 35 year-old man named Antione Leiris lost his wife, leaving him to be a single dad to his one year old son. This is an excerpt from what he posted to Facebook, which has since gone viral:

“Friday night you took away the life of an exceptional human being, the love of my life, the mother of my son, but you will not have my hatred.”

“I saw her and I felt I had to force myself to write what I wrote — I didn’t have a choice if I wanted my son to grow up as a human being who is open to the world around him, like his mother, to grow up as a person who will love what she loved: literature, culture, music, cinema, pictures.

“If I had given in to hatred, he might grow up to do the same, and then I would have brought up a person who was just like the terrorists.

“If we stand free, if we stand here with a zest for life, with happiness … then [the terrorists] don’t win.”

Another terror survivor named Viktor Frankl exhibited this attitude as well. Frankl was a psychiatrist who survived a Nazi concentration camp during World War II. What he found there surprised both him and the other prisoners of the camp. They were emaciated, starving, trudging through the snow to do manual labor all day with no food. They had lost everything, including their family and friends. And yet, to their surprise, they would sometimes look up and see the sun shining through the trees or sparkling on the early morning snow, and they would stand there, dumbstruck, in awe of the beauty and goodness of the earth.

Frankl said, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

These two people were able to separate the horror that was being done to them from the ultimate goodness and abundance of life. This is what I want us to think about today: Living out of an attitude of abundance rather than scarcity.

How are people able to make this choice, even in the worst circumstances? What makes the difference?

I believe we can see something similar in the stories we heard a moment ago. In the Book of Samuel, the ancient Hebrews were facing an unstoppable giant named Goliath. All the great Hebrew warriors said “Look at how big Goliath is! We could never hit him!” Then Little David came along and said “Look at how big he is – how could I miss?”

The same thing happened to Jesus in the Gospel. Crowds of people were hungry and tired and irritable, and the disciples wanted to turn away with their few loaves and fish. But Jesus said, “Give them to me!” and started passing them around. Before you knew it, everyone had eaten their fill and there was more to spare.

There are many miracles described here today: defeating the giant, feeding the multitudes, conquering terrorism, surviving the Nazis. And yes, maintaining sanity in rush hour traffic. We are good at telling stories about miracles. But we don’t spend so much time on how they happen. Are they just a mystery? Or can we perform them ourselves, or at least be open to them. I think we can, and I believe it has something to do with a shift in attitude, what I am calling an attitude of abundance.

This abundance has been called the power of positive thinking. But some people call it faith. I don’t think they are very different. I know people who have mastered the miracle of positive thinking without a belief in God. But I also know that it can be helpful to have that belief. It might be easier to be positive if you have this belief in a God who will ensure a positive outcome.

We are so often confronted with images and messages of the scarcity of our existence. That there isn’t enough money, food, energy, or clean water. But this is false. There is always more money, more than enough food, energy, and water. We have the potential to grow enough food to feed everyone on this earth, several times over. It has been often proven that hunger is not a problem of resources, it is a problem of will power. The same goes for water, and energy, and money. I hear a lot of talk about the growing world population. But very few people point out that that number will top off at a certain point, and then it will begin to recede.

This attitude of scarcity, of only telling half the story, affects our daily lives. When we see our friend get an “A”, we think “She took my A!” We forget that there are an abundance of A’s, and that our friend just proved to us that they can, indeed, be earned. And when our friend gets into a college, we think “She took my spot!” But we forget that sometimes a school accepts a whole cohort of students from one school, as a prestigious school did a couple of years ago here at NCS. Those five students got into their school as a team, not as individuals. The university didn’t say “We can only take one of these girls; they said “Look at how awesome these five girls are! We don’t just want to pluck the best one out of the group. We want that whole group to come here and continue their collaborative success.

I had a principal named Peg Downing who used a basketball analogy with me once, to point out our interconnectedness. She told me, “You know, it isn’t the team with the best starting five who wins the championship.” “How is that?” I said? She replied, “It is the team with the best five players on the bench.” “The benchwarmers?” I asked, “What do they have to do with the championship?” She replied, “The team with the best five players on the bench will always win, because it is against those bench warmers that the starting five play against day-in and day-out in practice. So the starting five is only as good as those they practice with.”

That is why when a team wins a championship, it is the whole team who gets to celebrate. It’s not just the Most Valuable Player, or the starting five. Even the players who never play one minute of a game are a part of that championship.

It’s the same thing here. For those of you who don’t know it yet, at the end of the year here at NCS, we take the flag off the flag pole and we award it to the student with the highest grade point average. But this flag really belongs to all of us. This is not to take away from all the hard work the flag winner did. She earned her distinction. But she also became so good within the environment of teamwork and competition here at NCS, sparring and scrimmaging with all of you who surround her.

Living out of a sense of abundance doesn’t mean we live in denial. We still acknowledge when things are sad, tragic, lousy. We need to see the sad stuff, because that is the occasion for turning it around.

Living out of a sense of abundance doesn’t mean you don’t admit when you’re beat. I know a 92 year old woman who just started attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Most people would say, “Why bother?” This woman has a different idea. She knows she is at the end of her life, but she wants to live out that end in a dignified way, free of her addiction. Positive thinking isn’t about denial of suffering or death. It’s about how we approach suffering and death. “The last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

I would like us to be defiant in our sense of abundance. We should provoke each other with our positive thinking.

So when you get a “C” in Math and your friend gets a “B,” don’t despair. Well, you can despair for one minute, but then you should smile. Smile because you know now who to go and ask for help. Ask your fellow student if you can study with her. You might even make a friend.

And teammates: when your teammate scores a goal, don’t be jealous, as if there were only so many goals to go around. Even if the enemy scores a goal, be happy for them. And then go and score two goals. There are always more goals to be scored.

I am very serious when I place these small daily moments on the same level as huge, life-changing experiences. Viktor Frankl also noted the relativity of suffering. It is all the same. He said that before the Holocaust, a toothache was the worst tragedy in his life. Then the Holocaust happened, and toothaches were the least of his problems. But then, after the holocaust, a toothache was the worst tragedy in his life again. When we triumph over any suffering, big or small, catastrophic or miniscule, it is a victory of the same magnitude.

Mel brooks said it just as well: “Tragedy is when I cut my finger; Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.” It’s all about perspective.

I want to leave you with an image of abundance. Let’s close our eyes and picture ourselves at the age of three or four. You wake up before anyone else in the house. You creep downstairs to watch cartoons, and a minute later you get hungry. You run to the kitchen, your feet slapping against the floor the way little kids’ feet do. You spy the cookie jar on the counter, so you grab a chair from the table, push it all the way to the counter, climb up, pull the jar toward you, lift the lid, and then…

“WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” comes the booming voice from your mother, who has just come down the stairs. “You can’t have cookies for breakfast!”

Now rewind the video a minute. You wake up, you go downstairs. You spy the cookie jar, and so you drag a chair across the kitchen. You climb up, pull the jar toward you, lift the lid, and then you hear a whispering voice. It’s grandma…

“Hey kid! Grab one for me while you’re in there, will you?

Like that grandmother, let’s live our lives out of a deep abiding sense of abundance. Let’s keep our eyes peeled for ways in which we can make this shift in attitude, whether it is in school, on the playing field, in traffic, or in any part of our lives. I think the season of Advent, of preparation for an outpouring of abundance, is a perfect time to practice just that.

Amen.

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