Sermon #17 (3rd April 2016 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians)
‘In making a life, we’re all cooking with leftovers from childhood… The longer we’re at it, the more leftovers there are… [Each day] you open the door, and you are faced with the question, “What can I make of it?”’ (so said the Unitarian Universalist minister Gordon McKeeman in the reading we heard earlier: http://www.uua.org/re/tapestry/adults/life/workshop7/159342.shtml)
In all of our lives, by the time we are old enough to start shaping our own destiny in any significant way, all sorts of external influences will already have acted upon us, shaping our sense of what’s possible, beginning to form our outlook, our identity, setting down those deeply-rooted habits of thought and behaviour which sometimes serve us well… and sometimes not so well.
Many things which we never had a part in choosing have a huge impact – for good or ill – on the way we have turned out: At the most basic level, the random shuffle of genetic inheritance deals us a certain hand, a collection of physical attributes and dispositions. Then, the virtues, vices, and peculiar quirks we picked up from our families and caregivers in early life will, to some degree, influence the way we operate later on (not to mention the effect of any stories they might have told us about ourselves while we grew up – stories we might still be carrying with us).
And the times we were born into – the political climate and prevailing social attitudes that surrounded us in our formative years (and the environment in which we find ourselves now) – these will have affected not just our opinions and world-view but also our life opportunities. We may have experienced this influence in a positive way or a negative way – at times each of us may have benefitted from the prevailing systems of privilege – at times we may have found ourselves being discriminated against and disadvantaged; We may at times have been swept along with the majority view and conformed with it – or we may have reacted against it and defined ourselves in opposition to the masses. Either way the larger political and social tides will have played a part in shaping who we are (like it or not).
So, to some extent, it might be said that we are conditioned by our family and society, while we are still very young, before we have any conscious say in the matter whatsoever. These early experiences and processes store up plenty of leftovers for us which we might well spend the rest of our lives trying to work with.
On top of this, as time goes by, most of us start to accumulate leftovers more intentionally. Opportunities arise and we make more-or-less conscious choices about whether or not we take them on. Over time these decisions will most likely have consequences we didn’t originally forsee. People come into our life – usually by chance – and some will become more significant to us. They might bring us new ideas and challenges, or they might encourage us and lift us up. We might strive to broaden our horizons, to learn new skills, to cultivate good habits perhaps. To do all those things that make our life a little bit bigger and open up new possibilities.
And along the way, life will just keep on accidentally adding to our personal stash of leftovers, piling stuff on – bringing us new experiences (some joyful, some sorrowful) each day – until we find ourselves right here in this very moment, opening our metaphorical fridge door, surveying the contents, and asking ‘what can I make of it?’
There’s a well-known quote that kept coming to mind as I thought about this topic of ‘leftovers’ – it’s attributed to the American tennis player and activist Arthur Ashe and I bet a number of you are already familiar with it – he said: ‘Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.’ Perhaps that’s the message of this whole service, in a nutshell. The very essence of making a life from leftovers, like we all have to. ‘Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.’
(I hope you will indulge me now in an extended exploration of the metaphor of the fridge!)
Imagine opening the door of your metaphorical fridge – the fridge of your life. First things first: You need to have a proper look at what’s there. What ingredients have you got to work with? What’s still good? What’s a bit past its best but still salvageable? What’s gone off, maybe gone a bit furry, and just needs to be chucked out? I reckon we’d all benefit from taking a closer look at our leftovers from time to time; from being more conscious about the factors that are shaping the course of our life.
Sometimes when we take a look in the fridge what we find there is so very unappetising that we simply can’t face doing anything with it and we’d rather go to bed hungry (and, once in a while, that’s OK). And sometimes in life the circumstances we find ourselves in, or the state of mind we find ourselves in, these are so unmanageable that all we can do is opt out of engaging with life altogether and hide for a while (hopefully this is temporary). Sometimes our resources are low, and we just have no capacity to cope, let alone be creative.
At other times we might open the fridge door and find a slightly more promising set of ingredients to work with (or maybe it’s the same fairly unappetising set of leftovers but we’re in a better frame of mind to face them this time). On days like this we might manage to put together a decent-enough dish – probably not something especially imaginative or tasty – but something that is more-or-less edible. It fills a hole and keeps us going. And sometimes in life we’re just about able to put one foot in front of the other and get by. Our circumstances might seem pretty unpromising but somehow we’re managing to carry on.
Sometimes, when there doesn’t seem to be much in the fridge, we might be in a position to pool our resources with a friend or neighbour, and put our respective leftovers together to make something nicer than either of us could have cooked up alone at that moment. That sort of mutual support in life, from those around us who are often struggling too, that can often enable us to make something better even in the worst of conditions.
Occasionally we might open the door of our fridge and, regardless of what we find there, we seem to have the extra resources, time, and energy to make something a bit more exciting. Maybe we have a brainwave about how to combine the leftovers with some spices or some stodge from the back of the store cupboard that we almost forgot we had. Maybe we have heard about some recipe or learned some technique we can try out. Perhaps we have built up a decent repertoire of dishes we can rustle up effortlessly. Maybe, if we are lucky, we can afford to splash out on some extra special ingredient from the corner shop which will liven the whole thing up without much thought.
And in our lives? Well, occasionally we will have the oomph to do more than just get by. There will, with a bit of luck, be times in all of our lives when we have the drive and the strength we need to transcend our circumstances and limitations (both real and perceived). We won’t necessarily have a lot of say in this – sometimes energy and creativity just seem to come and go – and we will all have ‘bad fridge days’ from time to time – but sometimes when we look at our life and ask the question ‘what can I make of it?’ we might just ask that question with a greater sense of possibility and hope.
And perhaps there are things we can do to help tip the balance a little more in favour of ‘good fridge days’. We can slowly work to assemble and maintain our metaphorical store cupboard – building up our resources, strategies, and skills – establishing decent support networks. We can perhaps consciously deepen our connections with friends and neighbours, sharing our struggles, and what we have learned, and giving each other a hand when times are hard.
I’m sure many of you have already discovered the little worksheet-handout-thing tucked into your order of service today on a creamy-coloured piece of paper. It’s got the title ‘what can I make of it?’ and it’s intended to be something you could use, if you’d like to, to have a good look at your own leftovers, to think about what you’d like to make of them, and to ponder what you’d need in order to make your next steps. That might be something for you to look at now, or on the journey home, or over coffee. On the front of the sheet you’ve got space to jot something down about your own leftovers. The key life experiences that have influenced the outlook and opportunities you have today. Of course you could write forever on this but I encourage you to just observe what comes up. I’ve just made a few suggestions of areas you might want to consider but use this as you wish. At the bottom – stuff you’ve picked up from your family and the larger society in childhood. On the next shelf up – stuff from the world around you, political and economic forces. On the top shelf – stuff you’ve had a bit more agency in, your choices, things you have learned. Take some time to think about things that have shaped who you are, your circumstances now.
Then on the other side of the sheet there are some questions for you to ponder further. Given the person that you are and the circumstances that you are in, right here, right now… with that very particular set of leftovers that you have ended up accumulating over the years: think of that question ‘what can I make of it?’ What would you like to make of the life you’ve got? It doesn’t have to be a masterplan. You might just be asking ‘what’s next for me?’ Or you might be asking yourself something much more searching like ‘what do I want my legacy to be?’ or ‘what do I want my life to have meant?’
Given those leftovers, and that sense of what you would like to make of them, there’s a further question about what you might already have in your store-cupboard (in terms of resources, skills, support, and so on) to help you make something good of it all? Each one of us will have some resources already and it’s worth appreciating that in ourselves. And beyond that: are there more things you need in order to take the next steps? Are there ways in which you can boost your store-cupboard, add new recipes to your repertoire, or learn new skills?
Remember, every one of us has to deal with life circumstances we didn’t choose, and on top of that, we are doing so with a set of reactions and responses, habits and patterns, a bunch of psychological ingredients that were laid in store before we had any say in the matter. It can be reassuring to realise that many of our leftovers are in a sense ‘not our fault’… but it’s also encouraging to remember that our leftovers are ‘not our destiny’ either. Or at least they don’t necessarily need to be. It is often possible to make something nice enough out of them. Having a good look – and a compassionate look – at who we are and what our situation is may well be the first step to seeing our lives in a different way and transcending our inheritance.
As we come to a close I will share some brief words by the Unitarian Universalist minister, Leslie Takahashi Morris. She says:
‘All that we have ever loved / and all that we have ever been
Stands with us on the brink / of all that we aspire to create:
A deeper peace, a larger love, a more embracing hope, a deeper joy in this life we share.’
As we each rise to the challenge of cooking with the leftovers of our lives Let us be as kind as possible to each other and to ourselves. It’s not always an easy task. ‘Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.’
Sermon by Jane Blackall
An audio version of this sermon is available: