Robert bid on the “you choose the text, I’ll give a sermon on it” item I offered in last year’s auction at church. His “text” was in fact an experience: his experience of having a sudden, irreversible diminishment of the use of one foot. He wanted to hear about adjusting to a “new normal.” I am so glad he asked. Writing this was a profound experience for me.
I gave the sermon on August 19–with a reflection by Robert, and another by Melissa, both of whom I hope will also make their texts available online–and post it here.
The New Normal
given at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, CA, August 19, 2012
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
Jelaluddin Muhammad Rumi
When I was sixteen I got some unwelcome and upsetting news. The details escape me now, but I do remember that it was hard to be happy while thinking about it, and virtually impossible to think about anything else. I don’t know what my then-boyfriend had experienced to give him wisdom in these matters—he was no older than I was—but he had. He said, “It’s like a meteorite has crashed into your living room. And at first you can barely move around the room because there’s this huge rock in the middle. After a while you start to move around it, and put things on it, and then, eventually, you’re used to it, this big meteorite in the middle of the living room, and you hardly even think about it.”
You’ve probably had your own meteorites: unwelcome changes, which is to say, losses: losses of a person, a dream, an ability, an identity. When we’re trying to adjust to such losses, we often refer to our state as “the new normal,” not to be confused with the new television show of that name. What was once normal for us becomes a relic of the past and we have a new day-to-day reality, like Robert’s life with drop foot and Melissa’s unasked-for new home far away from what was familiar.
It’s a horrible term to anyone who’s just been hit with a disaster. We don’t want the new reality to become normal. We want to go back to where we were a moment before that thing crashed into our lives.
Another geological image comes to my mind. If you’ve never been to Craters of the Moon National Park, let me describe it for you. It is a place in Idaho where the earth once erupted in fire and flowed with melted rock. The formations left by the lava as it cooled are bizarre, and hard to walk on. And it is almost entirely devoid of life, except for the tourists who gingerly step out onto this desert. The rocks are so sharp that even through the soles of your shoes you feel the hostility of the landscape. It tears at the soles.
Adjusting to a new normal can be like walking across that barren land. We may know in some way that on the far side of pain and difficulty there is a new self in a new reality, and that that is where we need to arrive. We might know in the abstract that we won’t always feel as awful as we do at that moment. But we might not even want to adjust to the loss. In the most devastating cases, we may feel that we don’t even want to survive it. We wish we could just curl up and die rather than have to take one more step across that terrain of grief.
In Barbara Kingsolver’s novel Animal Dreams, a character suffers that kind of loss, and has a conversation with someone who is possibly the only person who has the standing to talk about it, because he’s suffered a very similar loss himself. His name is Loyd.
[He says:] “Listen, I know how this is. You don’t think you’ll live past it. And you don’t, really. The person you were is gone. But the half of you that’s still alive wakes up one day and takes over again.”
[And she says:] “Why should I look forward to that?”
. . . . [He replies,] “I can’t answer that.”
The seven words she utters are the cry of any of us who must suddenly look into a future devoid of a precious something or someone, and are told that one day we will find our pain bearable: “Why should I look forward to that?” To make the unendurable normal is itself an almost unendurable idea. And Loyd is right: no one can tell us why life in that normality might be worth living. We will answer it for ourselves, through faith and courage, as we pick our way over the soul-cutting rocks.
Sometimes, we spend a lot of time first huddling on one side of the desert, wrapped in denial, hoping that if we refuse to move, the pain won’t cut as deep. If we don’t think, don’t speak, don’t look our loss in the face, maybe we can just stay here, in some kind of no-man’s-land. That denial can get us through the shock. It’s a survival skill, and loving friends will give us the time to decide when we’ll take the first step across to our new, unwelcome selves.
When we get stuck there, though, it’s tragic. When Robert and I first spoke about this topic, his story struck me doubly because of someone else I have known (someone not associated with this congregation) who also had drop foot. She was so bitter about this irreparable loss that she could never move through it; she got stuck there, refusing completely to move into a new normal. Actually, the only thing I can think of that’s worse than having to adjust to a loss is not adjusting to it. And so I want to give the rest of this time to considering how we might wake up to that reality when we are in that place of just not even wanting to face that there is a new normal. What gives us the strength to see to the far side of the journey we have to make?.
A few years back, Nick Hornby wrote a beautifully humane novel about the struggle to adjust to a new normal. It’s called Slam. It’s a very apt title, because the main character, a teenager named Sam, is a passionate skateboarder. A slam in skating is a bad accident where you fall off the board and smash to the ground, and who knows what breaks. The story is about another slam that happens to him.
Hornby is not usually a fantasist. He writes realistic fiction about contemporary people. In this book, though, he uses a little bit of magic, a little science fiction, to show how we might adjust to the slams of life.
At the start, Sam’s life is going pretty well. He’s a smart, college-bound sixteen-year-old. In his room hangs a poster of the god of skateboarding, Tony Hawk, and he talks to this poster and Tony talks back, offering him all sorts of life advice. When Sam realizes, knows, that his girlfriend Alicia is going to tell him she’s pregnant—actually, she’s his ex-girlfriend, as he’s just broken up with her, but that’s no help—and before she can deliver the news that he knows she’s going to say, he tries to run away. He tries to stop time by turning off his mobile phone (in fact, by throwing it into the ocean) and living his life, insistently, as if nothing has changed.
But then something inexplicable happens. In the place he’s run to to hide, he goes to sleep, alone, and wakes up next to Alicia, in bed, with their infant son in a crib in the same room. He’s been picked up and dropped into the future, the future that he knows awaits him but that he’s trying so hard not to enter.
He blames Tony Hawk, who, he says, has magically forwarded him to the future. All through the book Tony Hawk whizzes him back and forth, giving him little glimpses of the future. It’s full of trouble: college plans put on hold, a baby he just isn’t ready for, two sets of parents who are disappointed and angry.
And worst of all, the person he experiences there just isn’t him. The first time he goes into the future, and wakes up beside his girlfriend, she of course assumes he knows how to take care of a baby, because in her reality, the future, he’s been doing it for a few months. He says, in his narration to the reader:
The trouble was, I wasn’t that Sam. I was the old Sam. I was the Sam who’d turned his mobile off so that he wouldn’t find out if his ex-girlfriend was pregnant or not. (91)
Well, that’s the new normal in a nutshell. You’re a new you. You’re not the old you anymore, even though you may want to be. But the old Sam already isn’t working out so well, because the future is here. Time did not stop when he threw his cell phone into the ocean. And thanks to being whizzed into the future, the old Sam takes a deep breath and faces his new reality.
It reminds me of one of my favorite moments in my favorite Harry Potter book, . . .The Prisoner of Azkaban, when Harry works a powerful, life-saving piece of magic that he’s never been able to do before. He too is able to do it because he’s seen the future–literally seen it, because that can happen in a magical world–and there he has seen a strength in himself that he didn’t previously know he had.
I said his spell saved lives. Actually, to be precise, it saved souls. And it’s our souls that are on the line when we struggle to accept a new normal. If we can do it, we can remain ourselves, even grow into a greater self, despite our loss, despite our pain. The walk across the desert of knifelike rocks cuts at us, but not nearly as much as the refusal to cross it would do.
Now, I have to make an important acknowledgement about Sam and his slam. On the scale of life disasters, having a baby at 17, many years before you want to, isn’t the worst. Hornby acknowledges that too; it’s clear that Sam adores his son and that a lot about being a father makes him happy, so he has an enormous consolation. People endure far worse.
But it is still far from a happy situation. Thinking about how to rate his new life, “marks out of ten,” Sam says, “I’m afraid I couldn’t go any higher than a three. This isn’t what I had in mind. How could it be?” (304)
And yet he can cope. He can cope because he’s glimpsed the future, and while he doesn’t know what steps will get him from the present to there, he knows that somehow he will take them. From the present, it looked impossible, but from the vantage point of the future, the place Tony Hawk whizzed him to, he knows it’s possible. Hard, but possible. And that is enough to give him the courage to keep moving over that land of pain.
Most of us don’t have a magical poster of Tony Hawk on the wall, so when we are plunged into an unasked-for, painful new reality, we have to call on something else to get us to accept it and begin to thrive. And we sang of some of them. We might feel it in this great burst of energy as in singing to the power of the strength within or maybe we’ll hear it as a still, small voice that some people hear as God within them. We might call on imagination, on hope, on faith. The evidence of the people all around us who have endured what we consider unendurable. One of the great gifts of life in a community like this is that we can see other people, ordinary people just like us, who have been dropped into a reality that no one wants, least of all them, and yet they step forward with courage and grace.
What I wish for you when you face loss and unwelcome changes is that that magic might work in your heart just enough to show you a future you can endure. Not one that will be just as it was. Not such a rosy future that you will in time be glad of the sorrows that came into your life, although that happens sometimes, with some losses, even very deep losses. But just that you will be able to see yourself, a new version of yourself, living fully in a future that you have fully entered.
For each of us, in some form, there’s a magical poster to bring us that special gift. We may take hope from a plant just emerging from the earth, that shows us the promise of the future; we may derive faith from the sun’s rising each morning, even when a part of us wishes it would hold still and let us stay fixed in time. The tide pouring over the beach again and again may give us determination by reminding us that the unstoppable forces of life do not just overtake us but also flow from of us, as the beauty that we make, as the love that we share. And we can find that window into the future in each other and be that window for each other. From our own courageous acceptance of whatever guest’s life brings into our guesthouse, we can show each other a new reality and the strength to accept it.
May it be so! Blessed be.
(c) 2012 Amy Zucker Morgenstern. Rumi poem translated by Coleman Barks.