Sermon #6 (7th October 2012 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians)
In recent months – perhaps recent years – I’ve noticed myself using a certain phrase in conversation. I’ll be talking about some opportunity or event that’s coming up and I’ll say “I have a push-pull feeling about it” – whatever ‘it’ is. [I even noticed that I have a little push-pull gesture that usually goes along with it]. Another way of putting it might be “I want to and I don’t want to”.
And what sort of thing might bring this feeling on? Well, I’m quite shy really, so for me it would often be situations that involve human contact, meeting new people, making small talk, having to perform in some way, anything where I might be in the spotlight and end up embarrassing myself. Like leading a service, for example…
There are many variations of this feeling, I think, and maybe you can recall situations when you’ve felt this way – things that you feel simultaneously drawn towards and pushed away from – you want to have this new experience and yet something inside is holding you back. Sometimes it might be about a big life event – a new relationship, a change of job, moving home – and sometimes it might be about something less dramatic like eating yoghurt for breakfast.
In this sermon I’m going to focus on this push-pull feeling: identifying examples of it in our everyday lives, considering what deeper message it might hold for us, and what (if anything) we might want to do in response.
So when I first spoke of this feeling to a friend he said ‘oh, yes, ambivalence’ – but I usually think of ambivalence as meaning ‘I can take it or leave it’ – and the feeling I was trying to describe is a bit stronger than that. It’s got a bit of tension in it. It’s the feeling towards something you’d love to do – you *long* to do – and yet at the same time you have a sense of horror or dread about it.
Here’s something that happens to me quite often and I wonder if it rings any bells with you – I plan something or make a commitment more-or-less enthusiastically; as the day approaches I start to feel increasingly uneasy (and the unease may progress to outright dread); but if I manage to resist the urge to bail out (or not bother) then, when it’s over, I am glad that I’ve done it because my world and my sense of self is a bit bigger than it was before – I’ve broadened my horizons in some small way.
Sometimes we might be very conscious of the ‘pull’, the ‘yes’, drawing us towards an experience, but quite unconscious of the ‘push’ or the ‘no’ which makes us draw back and avoid it. Here’s an observation from my own experience. Not that long ago I was consciously feeling rather lonely and starved of human contact. But I noticed, somewhat to my horror, that whenever friends did go to put an arm around me or show affection in some other way, I physically dodged and swerved out of their way. I didn’t intend to. It was the last thing I would have consciously chosen to do. But I was sabotaging the thing I most wanted and I don’t know why.
At other times we might be more conscious of the ‘push’ or the ‘no’, steering well clear of certain sorts of activities, and whatever ‘pull’ or ‘yes’ or tiny amount of desire we have to try them can be well-hidden. I guess that’s how Fiona Robyn felt about yoghurt but on her holiday the urge to give it another try popped up unexpectedly. For most of my life I’ve felt this way about dancing, sport, drama or anything that involves me having to be physically adept. I tell myself and anyone who asks that ‘I don’t do dancing…’ or sport, or drama, or whatever. But there has always been a well-hidden bit of me that knows I am in some sense missing out and would like to change the story.
I invite you to focus on an area of your life where you are consciously aware of both the push and the pull. Is there something you’d love to do but you’re a bit scared about it? I reckon the tension of this push-pull feeling is something we need to pay attention to. It might be a sign that we’ve got some work to do. It can show us our ‘growing edge’. If, like me, you have a tendency to avoid this sort of tension and discomfort at all costs, then you might be ignoring a cosmic signpost and missing a great opportunity.
On the front of your order of service there are some pertinent words from Mary Anne Flanagan:
‘Growing edges are the places in our life we really want to be and live our life from, but are too scared to go there. We can stay away from our growing edge because we fear failure (or even fear success). Going to our growing edge means breaking through our fears… It’s going to places that might be uncomfortable… but not going there is even more painful. It’s showing up to life even when we feel scared, lonely, worried, and insecure. It is time to emerge… to go to your growing edge.’
Last week, after the service, we had one of our ‘Life’s Ultimate Questions’ workshops. For those of you haven’t been to one of these sessions before, here’s what happens: Me and Sarah pick a couple of questions from a long list of things that have been suggested by past participants – and we don’t advertise them in advance – so these tricky ethical, philosophical and theological dilemmas are sprung on the group and we spend an hour or so sharing our thoughts on them in a structured way. Last week we decided to go for one of the more ultimate Ultimate Questions: ‘what is the purpose of life (if there is one)?’ There were all sorts of answers but one thread that came up for quite a few people was ‘to learn/have experiences’, ‘to develop and grow’, ‘to live your life to the full’, ‘to fulfil your potential’. If you feel this way too – that developing, growing and fulfilling your potential are the purpose of life (or at least one aspect of it) – then I reckon it’s a spiritual task that needs life-long attention.
So what should we do when we feel a push and a pull?
I guess that many of you will be familiar with the book ‘Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway’ – a bit of a classic of the self-help genre – written by Susan Jeffers some 25 years ago. The whole point of this book is to get people to overcome the fears which are holding them back from fulfilling their potential. If you haven’t read it I really recommend it – I read it about 10 years ago – and it gave me just enough of a push to take a few small but life-changing steps.
Jeffers wrote this description of her very first ‘Feel the Fear’ class for a night-school prospectus:
‘Whenever we take a chance and enter unfamiliar territory or put ourselves into the world in a new way, we experience fear. Very often this fear keeps us from moving ahead with our lives. The trick is to feel the fear and do it anyway. So many of us short-circuit our living by choosing the path that is most comfortable. Together we will explore the barriers that keep us from experiencing life the way we want to live it.’
In the first chapter she describes a typical ‘Feel the Fear’ class where she invites people to list the things they are scared of. Firstly, the life events, large and small – changing career, making new friends, public speaking… She then peels away the layers – what are they *actually* scared of? At a deeper level, there are the feelings and states of mind that might result – rejection, embarrassment, vulnerability… Finally, she suggests that the one fear that underlies all these stated fears is “I CAN’T HANDLE IT” And her strategy is to help people develop a sense of trust that they CAN handle it (whatever ‘it’ is).
Jeffers says: ‘The richer our lives, the more likely we are to experience the pain of loss. The more we are able to reach out into the world, the greater the likelihood is that we are going to experience “failure” or rejection. But those who are living rich lives wouldn’t change them for a moment. They delight in the opportunity to taste all that life has to offer – the good and the bad. Those who lead rich lives intuitively know the secret of saying YES to the universe. Those who say NO usually withdraw from life, choosing symbolically to hide under the covers, to keep themselves from becoming victims – ironically ending up victims of their own fears.’
As Fiona Robyn said, ‘Aversions might be keeping you from enjoying your life or holding you back from success. We turn down opportunities, we say ‘no’ when we’d really like to say yes, and we justify our decisions to ourselves in roundabout ways. Our lives narrow.’
So, let’s try reaching out into the world a bit more, taking a few more risks in the name of growth.
Like David Rankin said in the reading earlier: ‘Everything worth doing in the world is a gamble, a game of chance, where nothing is certain… if I refuse to risk myself, if I refuse to throw the dice, I am never really alive.’
I will add a small caveat, though, in the interests of health-and-safety! Some years ago the comedian Eddie Izzard had a routine in which he spoke about an insight he had – being a transvestite, as he is, had forced him to face his fears, to go out and be himself in a world that was rather hostile – to paraphrase, he said that this experience of facing his fears had been the making of him – it had done him so much good that now, rather than running away, he ran towards things that scared him… however, he went on to add that this didn’t include *everything* that scared him, such as running towards the edge of a cliff, and jumping off onto a big spike, for example. So, you know, there are limits… (risks which support your personal growth, and don’t harm others, are the ones we’re talking about)
Jeffers suggests that: ‘each day you do something that widens your comfort zone. Call someone you are intimidated to call, ask for something you want that you have been too frightened to ask for before. Take a risk a day – one small or bold stroke that will make you feel great once you’ve done it - even if it doesn’t work out the way you wanted to, at least you’ve tried. You didn’t sit back, powerless.’
[If you want some really practical strategies for working on all this then do go and investigate the book]
So try to notice next time you feel ‘a push and a pull’ – that sense of ‘I want to and I don’t want to’ – and see if it is alerting you to a ‘growing edge’ that needs your attention. And I invite you to ponder a step that you can take – maybe even one you can take today – that will nudge at the edge of your comfort zone and make your life just a little bit bigger. Maybe something quite small – yoghurt-sized! – maybe something more substantially life-changing. What would that be for you? I encourage you to identify one small step, and maybe share that with someone at coffee-time after the service, you could check in with each other about it again at a later date.
One final thought: on the wayside pulpit outside we have a quote from James Luther Adams:
‘Church is a place where you get to practice what it means to be human’.
At its best, this church can also be a place of transformation, where we are invited to break through our limitations, and supported in the life-long project of fulfilling our potential – the spiritual task of becoming all that we can be.
Sermon by Jane Blackall
An audio recording of this sermon is available: