Reality Squared

“Reality Squared,” Bob Ryder

Picture Snoopy – in your mind’s eye imagine the Peanuts character in his “World War 1 Flying Ace” persona and wearing his pilot uniform. He has the helmet and goggles resting on his brow. He wears a scarf billowing off his shoulders. And he has that walk, that cool gate striding along with his eyes closed, calm and confident as he makes his way onto the Aerodrome and toward his “Sopwith Camel” preparing for dawn patrol in morning’s first light.

The Peanuts were my favorite cartoon characters when I was a young, something close friends knew about me I guess, the way you know your friends’ favorite song and what kind of soda they like. Well, when I was graduating high school, a girl a couple of years younger than I gave me a present – a bronze keychain emblem of Snoopy in the described pose and outfit. Chrissy and I were in church youth group together, and she took the occasion of my graduating to say how much I’d meant to her – that I’d been the big brother she never had, that she wished me the best as I got ready to move away to college, and that she would miss me. As token of friendship gave me this little bronze keychain charm as a gift. It was the dearest thing. As I think about it, it was the most sincere and uncluttered expression of affection I’d ever received. Chrissy was like a kid sister to me, too, and it still touches me to remember the moment. And that little charm has been with me almost everyday ever since.

I had it in my pocket graduating from college and seminary. It’s been with me as I’ve climbed mountains, as I’ve met new friends, as I’ve fallen in love, and as I’ve said goodbye to loved ones who’ve moved away or died. It’s become a touchstone. Whenever something really important has occurred in my life, I’ve taken a moment to consider that little gift as a way of appreciating the moment, trying to understand what it meant, and to make certain I’d remember it. It was with me when I learned I had cancer, and when I was recovering from surgery as the doc told me he’d gotten it all. I with me every time Susan and I have adopted a dog or cat, and when they’ve passed. It was with me when Susan told me we were expecting a baby, and again when the miscarriage happened. It was in my pocket when I asked my soon to be father-in-law for his daughter’s hand, and when I proposed to Susan, and as I told my long time father-in-law as he was dying that he needn’t worry about his wife or daughter because I would always take care of them for the rest of my life. Snoopy has been with me during much what we all have been through together, too. The little guy means a lot to me.

Part of what I liked about him from the start was Chrissy’s observation that I reminded her of Snoopy because he’s cheerful and silly. That suits me fine – I hope it’s still true. And part of what caused it to grow on me over the years is Snoopy’s calm, confident demeanor on his way to face the Red Barron – just as he can be silly and cheerful, Snoopy is brave! I hope that might be true of me too.

Now, it’s come to pass that I haven’t seen that little Snoopy charm in the last couple weeks. I’ve misplaced it somehow and can’t find it anywhere. I’ve been all through the house, and retraced my steps to different stores and businesses I was in just before it went missing thinking maybe I set it on counter, but so far no luck. It might still turn up. There’s a chance I just set it down in an unlikely spot and I’ll come across it eventually – but perhaps not. It might be gone forever, and that makes me sad.

I tell you about this because it’s a good way to approach our topic for this morning, dual topics actually – “Acceptance” and “Letting Go.” Like the topics “Beginner’s Mind” and “Patience” I’ve reflected on recently, “acceptance” and “letting go” are both are cognitive-spiritual skills that can help us manage stress and cultivate a poised, thoughtful approach to living. To review, there are seven principles associated with the Zen Buddhist tradition of mindfulness including…

Beginner’s Mind: Approaching circumstances with curiosity and creativity, setting aside preconceptions, prejudice and bias;

Patience: Allowing things to unfold in their own time without pressure or interference;

Trust: Appreciation for the validity of one’s own knowledge, competence, wisdom;

Non-judging: Resisting inclinations to evaluate, criticize, approve or condemn. Things are as they are whether or not we approve;

Non-striving: Resisting inclinations to improve or achieve something, and instead simply experiencing one’s self and one’s circumstances as they are;

And the concepts I want to consider together this morning…

Acceptance: Acknowledging that things as they are; and,

Letting Go: Freeing ourselves of expectations about the way we would prefer reality to be.

Probably as good a way as any to understand these interrelated skills is to think about our willingness to acknowledge reality, our ability to function within it. When circumstances are agreeable, of course, this is no problem. When your team is winning by a comfortable margin late in the game – reality poses no distress. “Cubbies lead the series 3-1. Here we are in the bottom of the 9th, Cubs lead 12-1 in what has turned into a route of the New York Yankees. 2 outs no one on base, 0 and 2 is the count on Matt Holliday. Wade Davis takes the sign. Here’s the wind up, here’s the pitch… OH – it looked like he painted the corner but Jeff Nelson calls it outside and it’s 1 and 2 now in this game 5 of the 2017 fall classic. Len, I don’t know how Holliday laid off that curveball at this stage of the game!” Okay, 12-1, we’re fine. We can accept that call – instant replay shows it was just outside anyway. It’s 1-2 now, we can accept that and let go of the close call. We can move on, there’s no need to dwell on it – things are still looking good.

However, when reality is not so agreeable, acceptance and letting go become more difficult. Two words… Steve Bartman. The following is from an article in Wikipedia…

“The incident occurred on October 14th, 2003 in the eighth inning of Game 6 of the NLCS, with Chicago ahead 3–0 [in the game] and holding a three games to two lead in the best of seven series. [Left fielder] Moisés Alou attempted to catch a foul ball off the bat of Marlins second baseman Luis Castillo. [Die-hard Cubs fan] Bartman reached for the ball [as it fell just barely into the seats], deflected it, and disrupted the potential catch. If Alou had caught the ball, it would have been the second out in the inning and the Cubs would have been just four outs away from winning their first National League pennant since 1945. Instead, the Cubs ended up surrendering eight runs in the inning and losing the game, 8–3. When they were eliminated in the seventh game the next day, the incident was seen as the “first domino” in the turning point of the series.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steve_Bartman_incident)

Reality check – besides the fact that there were at least 3 other fans reaching for that ball and many more pressing in affecting the physics of the thing, there is a LONG list of factors and incidents that contributed to the Cubs being eliminated in that post season. Yet Steve Bartman was singled out and abused sorely by Cubs fans for a very long time after that season. And setting aside the absurdity of asserting that this one fan contributed even significantly let alone predominantly to the Cubs’ defeat, it’s a perfect example of what it looks like when we humans can’t accept an unpleasant reality and let go of feeling entitled to a better outcome. We multiply and prolong our suffering, and worse we project it as delusion and hatred. It was not Steve Bartman’s fault the Cubs didn’t make it to the World Series in 2003. He most certainly did not deserve the abuse and hatred inflicted upon him by Cubs fans driven insane by their argument with reality. And even if somehow it had been his fault, the blame and hatred directed toward him could not have changed the outcome or made victory more likely next season. Acceptance and letting go are as important for our collective peace and justice as they are for personal mental health. They are skills befitting mature adults.

It’s one of those things you can miss about yourself even though it’s obvious to everyone around you. Early in my career during a hospital chaplaincy internship, I was falling all over myself trying to make a good impression – on patients I’d visit, on my supervisors, on other staff in the hospital, and in the process I was having precisely the opposite effect. The internship was part of a program almost all clergy go through early in their careers called Clinical Pastoral Education – a fairly stressful “trial by fire” immersion into pastoral care with all the extremis people experience around the health issues that bring them there. Part of the experience is intense group psychotherapy, in which your insecurities and all other manner of neurosis are exposed and analyzed by your supervisor and peers. Sign up for a unit, if you have a chance – it’s fun. Anyway, there was a perfect moment of clarity for me when one of my supervisors observed during a group therapy session, “Bob, your father is NEVER EVER going to tell you he’s proud of you. Let it go.” It isn’t as if I became a new person the very next day, but that was the beginning of some really significant personal growth, and the point for our purposes is that I didn’t even realize until that moment that I had been hanging on to an unrealistic version of reality in which I could make my dad be proud of me. You can’t let go of something that’s tripping you up until you stop deluding yourself and accept reality.

Back to Snoopy. It hurts that I can’t find the little guy. I’ve associated him with a lot of very meaningful experiences and relationships over the years, and I grieve. Yet, it occurs to me that once – and not all that long ago – I might have suffered more for losing it, might have obsessed about it, might have wasted a lot of time searching for it beyond any reasonable expectation of finding it. Dear as it is to me, and much as I hope it will turn up, still I’ve been able to accept that it’s missing. I’ve been able to acknowledge that I cannot find it. And I’ve been able to let it go. If indeed it is gone forever, I can move on with my life. Everything I’ve learned and experienced and attached to that little charm is still real and true, and I would betray those commitments and learnings I attached to it if I were to chase my tail scrambling to find it at all cost or bemoaning its absence from my life. That would be conduct unbecoming a World War 1 Flying Ace, now wouldn’t it. I’m sad, I’m frustrated, I don’t like it one little bit, but it’ll either turn up or it won’t. Meanwhile, I have a family and friends to love, talents to develop, adventures to pursue, careers to service, silly cheerfulness to share, and challenges to face bravely. Acknowledging that my cherished possession is gone helps me prepare for the next chapter of reality, and all the chapters after that, for all my relationships are impermanent. It is a lesson to love and rejoice and be courageous while we can, for this too, shall pass. Amen.