(c) Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved
Professor Randy Pausch, of Carnegie Mellon University, wrote a book in 2008 entitled “Last Lecture.” He had recently been diagnosed with metastatic pancreatic cancer and was given, at the most, six months to live. It’s a tradition at Carnegie Mellon to have professors, at the end of their career, deliver a final lecture to students and colleagues. Randy’s last lecture was so moving, so upbeat, and so full of wisdom, that the YouTube video of it went viral. Millions around the world watched it. He then turned it into a book which was published after he died.
In his remarkable lecture, Professor Paush apologized for not being morose and depressed, given his condition. “If that disappoints you,” he laughingly said, “I’m sorry.” His lecture is full of life lessons that had served him well. To be lucky in life, he said, is simply matching hard work with opportunity. We are all dealt a symbolic hand of cards in life. Some get a lot of aces. Others get too many deuces. But the success and well-being we find in life, he said, does not depend on the cards we are given, but in how we play them.
Professor Paush was a big advocate of positive thinking. Whining and complaining are not practices he endorsed. Indeed, he believed that if people spent the time and energy they use to complain about a problem to instead figure out a solution, they’d be surprised at how much they could accomplish.
After he was diagnosed with terminal cancer, he and his wife resolved to enjoy one day at a time and not think about the future. What helped him be positive throughout his life was to regularly practice a gratitude ritual – one where he spent a focused hour reflecting on the good in his life. As he said, everybody – no matter how seemingly bad their circumstances – still have countless things for which to be grateful.
For me, Professor Paush’s thoughts and practices are appropriate ones for Unitarian Universalists on Easter Sunday. Many of us, me included, don’t quite know what to do with this holiday. It’s an explicitly Christian one that has mostly avoided becoming secularized like Christmas. People all around us celebrate Easter and yet its central idea, that Jesus was miraculously resurrected from death, does not resonate with those who honor human reason and ideals of compassion and charity over ancient religious stories.
But as a story or myth, Easter offers an important lesson much like Randy Paush’s last lecture. From the horror and shock of Jesus’ crucifixion comes the unexpected surprise of Easter morning. Life triumphs over death. Morning light breaks the darkest of nights. Good overcomes evil. Ultimately, joy emerges from the depths of sorrow.
Indeed, Professor Paush’s terminal condition at age 47 was like all of our conditions – only sped up. We are each, if we think about it, dying. We just don’t know when. And we are each, in the meantime, experiencing challenges, heartaches and disappointments. To use Jesus’ story as an analogy, we too suffer the beatings and tortures of life. And ultimately, our Cross awaits us.
But Easter offers us something surprising. Paush’s “Last Lecture” book says the same. In the midst of dying, there is renewal, life abundant and a type of resurrection. There is work to be done, families to raise, people to love, charity to extend, gratitude to be shown and, most of all, joy to celebrate. It might seem that life is a series of so-called Good Friday periods of suffering, but we are wrong. Living is about Easter attitudes of changing ourselves, contentment and gratefulness.
My message series this month has been on the topic of rituals that define us. As regularly practiced actions, rituals are full of symbolic meaning. They are markers for major life events like a baby dedication, a graduation, marriage or memorial service. They are weekly practices we do here – to honor our heritage, unity, and commitment to serve others. Rituals can also be fun practices like family meals, a ridiculous family dance created by yours truly, or our regular social events. They are also holiday practices we do at Christmas or, today, for Easter. Rituals are not unthinking routines with little meaning. Rituals, instead, define our beliefs and who we are.
For today’s purposes, rituals define us in how we live. Do we endeavor to be like Randy Pausch – people who understand what it means to really live? Are we Easter people – those who pluck something good out of bad, who persevere in spite of challenge, who continually renew themselves in order to become better?
To be spiritual, in my mind, is to explore the great questions of life. Why are we here? What purpose do we serve? How can we somehow make a difference in the world and thereby symbolically live forever? And all world religions therefore practice rituals that provide their answers to those spiritual questions. Christians ritually practice communion in which they symbolically express the ideal that with sacrifice and service comes greatness. The Jewish people annually celebrate Passover rituals of a Seder meal in which justice and hope are remembered. L’chaim – to life – is more than just a Jewish exclamation. It captures the joy Jews feel at the abundance one has – love, life and good cheer. Muslims practice the ritual of Ramadan fasting to purify their hearts and minds as a way to inspire personal renewal. Buddhists do the same with their ritual of mindful meditation. Hindus practice ritual samskaras throughout their lives honoring birth, coming of age, marriage, illness and death.
What links each of these many spiritual rituals is their affirmation of life renewal. Today’s Easter holiday is no different. Christians celebrate it in memory of Jesus’ resurrection. We celebrate it in it’s broader meaning – one that can apply to everyone. No matter the pain one might feel, no matter the challenges faced, there is hope and joy in the morning.
Too often we get stuck in what some psychologists call a negative mental loop. For instance, someone might complain: life is so unfair – my boss does not recognize my abilities, I don’t make enough money, my dog doesn’t like me, wah-wah-wah. He or she then becomes sad and upset. Work and relationships suffer, and a repeat of the same negative thought loop occurs.
But a daily ritual to give thanks for the good one has, the Sunday rituals we practice here to symbolize commitment to unity, compassion and truth, or a seasonal rituals to celebrate the renewal of nature, these are life enriching and life defining practices. They remind us that life is not about us, our desires, and negative thinking.
Life is instead about acts of kindness and service to others. It’s about building a better world for future generations, and it’s about deep love for those in our midst – friends and family who support us, children in whom we pour ourselves, or the partner who holds us and lies by our side.
I understand the complexity of mental health. For some, it is not about changing the way one thinks, but about serious chemical imbalances in the brain – things not easily corrected. For the rest of us, however, the solution to our problems is not external, but internal. The solution is in having a type of Easter mentality – that we can transform the inevitable pains of life into something meaningful and good. It’s living as if we are like Randy Paush – or Jesus for that matter – people who exult in every moment of life even as they are dying.
Will we spend the finite time we have to complain, be angry, unforgiving, selfish, and small-minded? Or will we build legacies of goodness – empowering and encouraging others, giving generously, loving lavishly, and laughing out loud at whatever comes our way? As Professor Pausch asked in his last lecture, are we an Eeyore, or are we a Tigger?
Martin Seligman, a famous psychologist and author of many books on positive thinking (and, by the way, a frequent collaborator with our own Tom Lottman) says in his most recent book “Flourish”, that psychology is incorrectly focused on addressing the negative. In other words, it is usually concerned with ways to eliminate depression, anger, or anxiety. It is reactive instead of proactive.
Psychology, he writes, ought be more about fostering overall well-being and emotional health. The goal should be to encourage living at peace with ourselves and others. Are we fulfilled, engaged, and in mutually supportive relationships at home, work and play?
To find that all encompassing life satisfaction and thereby renew ourselves, Seligman says we should undertake personal rituals to 1) identify our individual strengths, 2) find the good in life, and 3) feel gratitude.
In order to know our strengths, Seligman’s first suggestion, we should remember and then write about a time in life when we literally flourished – when work, love and play all went well. What were the successful things we did during that time? What did we specifically do at work that made us feel fulfilled? What about in our love lives – were we especially giving, attentive and romantic? How did we play and recreate during that time? What acts of kindness did we undertake that made us feel good?
Once we remember and identify our strengths – the things that help us feel like we are flourishing, we can better re-introduce them into our lives now – and thereby renew ourselves.
Second, Seligman says we can find the good in life by ritually every evening writing down three things that happened to us that day which went really well. What task did we successfully accomplish? What sense of intimacy and empathy did we build with another person? What episode made us smile and feel enriched?
By keeping such a diary, ritually writing in it and ritually reading past entries, we’ll foster contentment in our minds and souls. We will have no need to obsess over disappointments because we will have adopted a positive mindset. No matter how bad things may be for any of us, there are good things in our each of our days. Just getting up in the morning is a good thing. Seeing the sunshine, laughing at a funny TV show, or eating a food we enjoy – these are small but rewarding joys. We need to daily remember them and write them down to remind us in the future.
Finally, Seligman suggests we regularly – as a type of ritual – practice an act of gratitude. We might not only thank someone, but then we should specifically tell them how and what they did that prompted our thanks – they cooked a particularly delicious meal, made us laugh with a good joke or showed us love with an action or gift. We could, as Randy Pausch did, ritually reflect on life’s blessings – no matter how small or trivial. Finally, I try to pay forward the good that I have been given. Basic gratitude prompts us to recognize all that we have. True gratitude guides us share our blessings with others.
Even thought celebrating Easter can also be a life renewing ritual, I don’t believe its story is literally true. Indeed, from what I’ve studied about early Christians, many of them (like the Gnostics) did not believe Jesus’ resurrection to be fact. Its story was for them much like a fable – one intended to inspire. My hope is that instead of rejecting this holiday as based on fiction, we will embrace Easter for its symbolism that reminds us about renewal, hope and the triumph of good.
I hesitate to say this, but there is much more beauty in pain than we realize. It’s an ironic truth, but adversity can build in us the kind of character, humility and gentleness that transforms us into ironically powerful people. That power comes not from any strength we find, but in our ability to figuratively resurrect ourselves.
Personally, I am blessed beyond merit. I have two beautiful and compassionate daughters, a man I love, parents and siblings who care for me, a job that deeply fulfills me – and all of you whom I count as dear friends. I must honor and remember those blessings by becoming an Easter person – someone full of hope, gratitude and joy. I hope you will join me in that endeavor.