In Praise of Maybe

As we continue our exploration on the spiritual theme of "Possibility," this Sunday Rev. Peter, DRE Chrissy Bushyager and Worship Associate Josie Cressler reflect on the possibility that we're wrong. Or at least consider what it might mean if we were more open to uncertainty. What possibilities does that open up to us? 

Sermon: "In Praise of Maybe"; Rev. Peter Friedrichs

Since receiving the Soul Matters packet for the month of January on the topic of “Possibility,” I’ve been mentally wrestling with a poem that the packet contains. It’s a poem by Federico Moramarco, who is a Professor Emeritus at San Diego State University where he taught American Literature and Creative Writing. The poem is titled “One Hundred and Eighty Degrees.” I’ll read it to you:

Have you considered the possibility
that everything you believe is wrong,
not merely off a bit, but totally wrong,
nothing like things as they really are?
If you've done this, you know how durably fragile
those phantoms we hold in our heads are,
those wisps of thought that people die and kill for,
betray lovers for, give up lifelong friendships for.
If you've not done this, you probably don't understand this poem,
or think it's not even a poem, but a bit of opaque nonsense,
occupying too much of your day's time,
so you probably should stop reading it here, now.
But if you've arrived at this line,
maybe, just maybe, you're open to that possibility,
the possibility of being absolutely completely wrong,
about everything that matters.
How different the world seems then:
everyone who was your enemy is your friend,
everything you hated, you now love,
and everything you love slips through your fingers like sand.[1]

I say I’ve been wrestling with this poem, and I don’t mean I’ve been wrestling with it the way I do with some impenetrable piece published in The New Yorker magazine, where I can’t even understand what the poet is getting at. Here, Professor Moramarco’s meaning and intention are clear and unequivocal. So it compels me to wrestle not with the meaning as much as with the import and the impact. I thought this morning I might invite you to join me in my wrestling.

“Have you considered the possibility that everything you believe is wrong? Not merely off a bit, but totally wrong, nothing like things as they really are?” Whew! He hits us right between the eyes with those first lines. And I wonder: have I considered this possibility? Have you? Are we even willing to consider considering the possibility that everything we believe is wrong? My first reaction when I thought about this was, “Hell, no!” I mean, why would I? Why would I even want to venture down that path? What I believe in is what works for me. It provides me comfort and confidence. More than that, it’s what makes me me. It’s what makes us us. What we believe is an essential ingredient – maybe the essential ingredient – of who we are. Why would I even consider the possibility that my identity is grounded in falsehoods, in baseless assumptions, in misunderstandings and misconceptions?

And so, I wonder if that’s the first point of this poem. It invites us to look at how tightly we hold onto our beliefs. How much we need them, sometimes to the point of desperation. Our level of resistance to this notion that everything we believe is wrong, how hard we’re holding onto our beliefs. And that, in turn, compels us to confront the question of whether we want our beliefs to be cast in concrete. Unassailable. Impenetrable, like some fortress. It also makes us to ask whether we have moved from being absolutely certain and set in our beliefs to the point where we become close-minded. And do we want to be that way?

Conventional wisdom and traditional science tell us that, as we age, we become more set in our ways. We’ve all heard the adage that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. And certainly with age comes experience, and we need to integrate those experiences into our belief systems as we get older. It’s called “maturing.” Imagine what a mess we’d be in if we all were stuck in our 17 year-old minds! But when do we slow down or even stop this process of integration? When do we become so set in our ways that we become sticks in the mud? Recent research tells us that it does not need to be so, that in fact, old dogs can learn new tricks. Developments in neuroscience have proven that brain plasticity – our ability to learn new things and to integrate new experiences – is biologically sustained throughout our lives. We all have the physiology, the brain chemistry, the biological capacity to continue to learn and to grow no matter what stage of life we’re in.  We can avoid becoming set in our ways. We don’t need to become close-minded curmudgeons. So, aging is no longer an excuse.

All this is to say that how tightly we hold onto our beliefs, and, conversely, how open we are to new ideas, is a choice we can make.  You’ve heard that old saying, “Minds are like parachutes: they only function when open.” And it makes me wonder how willing, how prepared we are, to keep our minds open. Speaking for myself, I’ll admit to not so much, at least on some things. If the past two years have taught me anything, it’s that I’m pretty intolerant of those who don’t share in my liberal belief system. I’m not open to being convinced that some of the people who protested in Charlottesville are good people or that we should build a wall along the border with Mexico. If you proclaim that you’re a Christian and you want to ban abortions but aren’t prepared to subsidize health care, I find it really hard to find any common ground we can stand on. In these kinds of things, I’m willing to respect your right to be wrong, but that’s about as far as I’m willing to go.

But let’s get back to the poem, because this is where it really challenges us. Let’s see what happens when we really engage with this possibility, as the poem says, that we are “absolutely completely wrong, about everything that matters.” Where I go first with this line is to ask, “What matters?” What makes a difference? What is essential in our lives? What beliefs, understandings, principles are vital and indispensable parts of who we are? Because it’s easy to consider that we’re wrong about inconsequential things. So, what is it that matters most to you? What are the beliefs, understandings and principles that you hold most dear? For me, it’s a belief that love overcomes hate. That violence only begets more violence. That human beings are inherently good, perfectly imperfect. I believe, as Judith Hanson Lasater says, that compassion is the answer to every question. That we have more in common than that which divides us. That, no matter who we are, we’re all equally worthy and deserving of the abundant goodness this world has to offer. I believe that love, in all its forms, is true and beautiful. I wonder what your list of the most essential things might include.

I am prepared, at least as a thought experiment, to consider the possibility that I am “absolutely, completely wrong” about these things. That, contrary to my belief, nature is all red in tooth and claw. That we should trade an eye for an eye. That we’re inherently selfish and spiteful beings. That life is a competition and they who die with the most toys win. “How different the world seems then,” as the poem says: “everyone who was your enemy is your friend, everything you hated, you now love, and everything you love slips through your fingers like sand.” And thus the poem forces us to ask: Is this the world that we want to live in? The notions that our enemies become our friends and what we hated we now love have their enticements, certainly. They have something of a “lion lies down with the lamb” quality to them. They take the message of Jesus to love not just our friends but also our enemies a step further. The poem seems to present this all as an encouraging possibility. A potential for a new world, a peaceable kingdom.

But where I end up with this poem is saying, even screaming a loud and determined “No. No, thanks.” I don’t want to let everything I love to slip through my fingers like sand. I don’t want to live in a world where the things I hold most dear are proven to be untrue. I do not want to trade places with my enemy, even if it means that they trade places with me (because that would be part of the deal, wouldn’t it?) I don’t want to walk an inch, much less a mile, in their shoes. It’s too much. This poem goes too far.

And yet. And yet. This poem has something to teach us. And it’s not just how much we value our values, our principles, our beliefs. This poem cracks us open. Maybe not to the extent of the last few lines, maybe not to the point where we are willing to allow all we hold dear to slip away and be replaced by the things that are repugnant to us. But perhaps it cracks us open to the “maybe” of our lives. To holding onto those things we hold dear a little less tightly. To perhaps seeing that the walls between us and them aren’t entirely impenetrable. To allowing for the possibility that maybe our certainty can be a little less certain. That we can hold onto our beliefs in a way that’s perhaps a little less judgmental and superior.

What this poem does, besides reinforcing the depth with which I hold onto my beliefs and principles, is to remind me that maybe, just maybe, I have some biases. That, because my beliefs and principles come out of my experiences, and those experiences are particular to me and my particular social location, they’re not the only true and real beliefs and principles out there. Where this poem takes me is to a place where I am reminded of my own blind spots. You know what blind spots are, right? When you’re driving your car, they’re the areas around the car that you can’t see when you look in the mirrors. We know, from our driving experience, that cars, people, animals – dangers of all sorts – can be hidden in those blind spots. And we know that if we’re not diligent about checking our blind spots we’re in danger of causing an accident, causing harm.

I think the same thing applies to our beliefs, our understandings, to those things, as the poem says, “that matter.” To whom or to what are we or have we been blind through our own personal experience, which is by its very nature limited? What have we failed to learn, where can we grow, how might we be changed if we explored those blind spots, those inherent biases that come from our own experiences? How might we consciously expand our experiences, our interactions, our limited range of motion within our liberal bubbles to incorporate different perspectives that may or may not reinforce our beliefs and understandings about the world and our place in it? Are we open to being changed, transformed in unexpected ways, or are we so set in our ways that we aren’t even prepared to admit that we have blind spots?

How might we break out of our black/white, yes/no, right/wrong dualistic mentality to make room for the “Maybe?” For the possibility, yes, that we might be wrong – as hard as that is to admit. But more so to other possibilities. That there are ways of thinking and being that are complementary to our own. That we can expand our horizons beyond our current vision and be the better for it. That we don’t need to let go of what we hold most dear, but that maybe there are new ways of holding onto it. Ways that enhance it, deepen it. That make it more available to others who have been left out or left behind. I reject the premise of this poem – that everything I believe might be wrong – but I am grateful for the journey it took me on and the destination it led me to, which is a place where I might embrace the possibility of “maybe.”

I want to leave you with the words of another poet, Puerto Rican activist and teacher Aurora Levin Morales. In her poem “V’ahavta,” she writes:

When you inhale and when you exhale
breathe the possibility of another world
into the 37.2 trillion cells of your body
until it shines with hope.
Then imagine more…  
Don’t waver. Don’t let despair sink its sharp teeth
Into the throat with which you sing.  Escalate your dreams.
Make them burn so fiercely that you can follow them down
any dark alleyway of history and not lose your way.
Make them burn clear as a starry drinking gourd
Over the grim fog of exhaustion, and keep walking.
Hold hands. Share water. Keep imagining.
So that we, and the children of our children’s children
may live.[2]
May it be so. Amen.




Closing Words

Our Closing Words today come from author and illustrator Judy Clement Wall.  She writes:

“I’m becoming a fan of 'the pause.’ Between notes and pages and words and breaths, between thought and voice, between action and reaction. In that momentary stillness, in that space between before and after, there is possibility, a  myriad of paths that can be taken, a dozen different versions of me.”