Sermon #33 (6th January 2019 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians)
Here we are then: it’s the start of a new year. An opportunity to re-focus. And it’s also the start of a new monthly ministry theme at Essex Church. Throughout January we’re going to focus on the topic of ‘Choices and Decisions’. And this morning I’m going to offer just a few thoughts on one possible way that we might approach our everyday decision-making; for, after all, our days and lives are filled with countless small choices and decisions (and perhaps a few of these choices and decisions turn out not to be quite so small, in the end).
On the front of your order of service today is a quote from Kent Nerburn. He says: ‘Life is an endless creative experience and we are making ourselves every moment by every decision we make.’ Now, depending on what mood you’re in, that quote might strike you in one of several different ways. Like (excitedly): ‘Life is an endless creative experience and we are making ourselves every moment by every decision we make.’ That might sound, to you, like a wonderful gift – life is an adventure of infinite opportunity! We can – at least in part – invent ourselves through our own choices, through our own volition. On the other hand… (in a downtrodden voice): ‘Life is an endless creative experience and we are making ourselves every moment by every decision we make.’ …this notion might instead strike you as rather weighty, and burdensome. Rather tiring! There’s a certain pressure that comes with the thought that every choice we make will end up having a bearing (even if only a tiny one) on who we will become – a bearing on our very self.
It’s a bit like the phrase we heard in the first reading today, from Robert Walsh: ‘Nothing is settled. Everything matters.’ As he puts it: ‘It is true that you cannot escape the consequences of your actions or the chances of the world. But what is not settled is how the story turns out. What is not settled is what the meaning of your life will be… As long as you are alive the story of your life is still being told, and the meaning is still open.’
If we are aware of this – and it’s possible to almost be too aware of it – that too can go either way: If we’re a bit disappointed in how our life has gone up to this point then it can sound liberating. While there’s life, there’s hope. There’s still time to turn again, make new and different choices. Any day can be ‘the first day of the rest of your life’ (though, as an aside, I read recently that there’s evidence that it can be beneficial to choose special days such as new year’s, birthdays, anniversaries, or the first day of the month, or even the first day of the week to initiate lasting change).
Alternatively, though, this notion that ‘everything matters’ – that the meaning of our life is still open – if we take that seriously, take it to heart, it puts a lot of pressure on our future decision-making. We can find ourselves worrying endlessly about every life choice, every small fork in the road, agonising over which way is ‘right’ and which is ‘wrong’ (and what it says about our life’s meaning). I know this is something I’ve been prone to. And this attitude to decision-making can be paralysing. The weight of unforeseen and unforeseeable consequences weighs heavily on us.
Like Kathleen McTigue, in the second reading we heard today, most of us can’t rely on delegating our decision-making to someone else, a mysterious diviner, in the hope that they will intuit the right way to go – we generally have to make our own call regardless of how ‘huge, portentous, and muddled’ the life issues in question might be – though we might draw on the advice of wise friends or take it to God in prayer, as the saying goes. But, in the end, as Kathleen McTigue says: ‘We all come to some decision points when every option seems ambiguous, and we don’t have a clue which way to go. We arrive at a turn in the road that we can’t see around until we take the next steps forward, and we take those steps not knowing whether we’ve made the right choice.’
‘The right choice’. It is easy to fall into this way of thinking – to imagine that we’re always choosing between distinct options – this way is definitely right, that way is definitely wrong. I remember reading about this phenomenon many years ago in Susan Jeffers’ classic (and very helpful) self-help book ‘Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway’. Susan Jeffers talks about this view as ‘No Win’ decision making. If you tend to think about your life choices in this way, you are more likely to approach them with feelings of heaviness and dread, and spend a lot of energy and stress over them… and, whatever you decide, you are likely to look back at your decision thinking ‘what if?’ – forever wondering about the road not taken (and comparing your reality with an imagined alternative universe, where everything turned out better, that never came to pass because of your decision).
Susan Jeffers suggests that we try to switch to a ‘No Lose’ decision-making outlook instead. More often than not the options we’re choosing between won’t really be a clear ‘win’ and ‘lose’. Much of the time there’s not a distinct and unambiguous ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ to choose between. There’s no trapdoor that’s going to open beneath us, no sirens or flashing lights proclaiming ‘GAME OVER’ if we pick badly. As Jeffers puts it, whichever way you go, there will be ‘goodies’ that come to you: ‘opportunities to experience life in a new way, to learn and grow, to find out who you are, and who you would really like to be, and what you would like to do in this life’. And inevitably, whichever way you go, there will also be challenges, and other effects you could never anticipate. Sometimes decisions aren’t final – you might have an opportunity to retrace your steps – but other times life will just keep rolling on and the road not taken will indeed disappear from view. Opportunities will open up (and close down) depending on your decision… and that might well be OK. Now this is not an argument for not taking decisions seriously – after all, ‘everything matters’ – and of course there will be some situations which truly do come into the category of ‘life or death’ and where you would be well advised to give the weighing-up process maximum care and attention. But if you choose to accept – and adopt – this ‘No Lose’ attitude to decision-making, you might find yourself free to take your choices a little more lightly, to be more playful, experimental, in your attitude to life – you may find yourself saying more often: ‘why not?’
Are you familiar with ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ stories? I’ve asked a few people about this in the last week and it seems they’re not as well-known as I’d thought so let me explain, just in case: When I was a kid you could buy ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ books, aimed at young people, which would start off like any other adventure story, but typically written in the first person, with you, the reader, in the place of the hero. After a few pages you would be faced with a choice. Something like: are you going to (a) try to fight the villain or (b) run away? So you’d either turn to page 10 to find out what happened if you fought or page 20 to see what happened if you ran. And the story would divide, and divide again, every time you made a choice of some sort, into many different timelines resulting in completely different endings to the story. It seems to me that many Choose Your Own Adventure authors used to relish sending you to numerous different disastrous fates but only gave you one shot at weaving your route through all the choices to find a happy ending. I used to love these interactive stories, usually about plucky crime-fighting teenage sleuths, and remember saving up my book tokens for special trips to WHSmith in the summer holidays. Since then, technology has moved on, and there is a whole genre of ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ video games too. Completely coincidentally, it’s been in the news just last week, the hit TV show ‘Black Mirror’ has released the first ever feature-length ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ film, ‘Bandersnatch’.
In these stories – whether books, games or on TV – a lot can seem to hinge on a little decision (What did you choose for breakfast – Sugar Puffs or Frosties? It can have drastic consequences, apparently). For the sake of maximising tension, ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ stories tend to be written from a ‘No Win’ perspective, playing up the dramatic dilemmas and disasters that await our protagonist at every turn. But real life need not be like that. And a ‘No Lose’ attitude can help us dial down the everyday drama.
This service is called ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ because I had a playful, frivolous, thought: Why not adopt it as a little motto, or maxim, for the New Year? Choose – Your Own – Adventure. A reminder to bring lightness and play to our everyday decisions. Let me unpack this a little…
Firstly, ‘Choose’: to remind us that, whatever our circumstances, we almost always have some choices available to us, even if it is just the choice of internal attitude we bring to a situation, such as ‘No Win’ versus ‘No Lose’. Of course we are each constrained in various ways – physical, practical, and financial constraints are just a few that might be hard to overcome – and we mustn’t deny those factors which limit our available options and our ability to act entirely freely. But some apparent constraints are a mirage – rooted in the stories we tell about ourselves, or that society tells about us – who we think we are, who others think we are, or who we used to be – and we can still choose to throw off some of those constraints, to reinvent ourselves, discover surprising aspects of our personalities, and maybe do things that we thought were beyond us.
The second part of the motto, ‘Your Own’ – as in ‘Choose YOUR OWN Adventure’ – reminds us that our adventure should truly be our own rather than somebody else’s. Wherever we look there are glossy images portraying lifestyles of the rich and famous – those whose lives are successful by the standards of the rampantly capitalist society we happen to live in – and which implicitly set the template for what the ‘good life’ looks like, what we should aspire to. If you’re a more spiritually-minded type – let’s assume you are, seeing as you’re here this morning – you might be more interested in the lifestyles of the saintly, the creative, the inspired – great moral exemplars, we might call them. We might well be inspired by other people’s lives – that’s a good thing, I think – but it’s probably not so wise to compare our unfolding stories, our messy work-in-progress lives, to someone else’s ‘highlights reel’ held up as an ideal. Let’s identify OUR OWN highest values and make them the guiding principles that give our lives purpose and direction.
And thirdly, the last part of the motto, ‘Adventure’: ‘Choose your own ADVENTURE’. Adventuring doesn’t have to mean a trek to the South Pole, or up a mountain, or down a cave, or anything terribly perilous involving those hobgoblins or foul fiends that we just sang about in the Pilgrim’s Hymn (unless they’re metaphorical ones). An adventure is, according to the dictionary, ‘an exciting or remarkable experience that is typically a bold, sometimes risky, undertaking’. Another way of putting it might be to say: ‘an adventure is a new experience that broadens our horizons and enlarges our experience of life’. For you, an adventure might be learning to dance, internet dating, public speaking, travelling solo, volunteering as a warden of a nature reserve, or a night shelter, dying your hair purple, wearing silver shoes – why not?
So as we step out into 2019, and brace ourselves for whatever it may throw at us, I invite you to play with the idea of Choosing Your Own Adventure (even if it’s still a fairly modest, cautious sort-of of adventure, at least to start with…) And I’ll close with a blessing for all of us everyday adventurers, to go with us on the journey, adapted from words by Jean M. Olson:
As you take the next step on your life’s path now,
setting your intentions, choosing your direction,
as you boldly venture into another new year,
May you speak your deepest truths,
knowing that they will change as you do.
May you sing the music within you,
composing your own melody,
playing your song with all your heart.
May you draw, paint, dance, sculpt and sew,
showing the world your vision.
May you write letters, poetry, biography,
slogans, tweets, graffiti, the great novel,
laying bare your words to love and hate.
May you be brave enough to expose
your aching woundedness
and reveal your vulnerability.
May you love even though your heart
breaks again and again.
And until the end of your days,
may your life be filled
with possibilities and courage. Amen.
Sermon by Jane Blackall
An audio recording of this sermon is available: