Embracing the Unexpected
July 8, 2018 Sermon at Mt Diablo Unitarian Universalist Church
“It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
Tolkein’s advice to a hobbit is humorous, and more than a little bit true.
It’s summer, a big holiday week full of travel, family vacation, and some glorious fireworks.
I remember those big family vacation trips growing up, luggage stacked high on the car, the seats all filled with my siblings, Mom and Dad up front, and traveling across the country guided by one of those TripTik sets of maps. We knew how many pages of those maps we could drive across in a day, and Dad had called ahead to make hotel reservations for each night.
Then the unexpected happened. There wasn’t a page for Utah. In adding up the mileage for the next day’s drive, the time to our next stop was underestimated, by about one state’s worth. It was going to take far longer than we planned to reach our day’s goal.
Naturally, we were upset at spending so much time strapped into our seats in the car. We were children, impatient and not given to understanding the unexpected complications life can throw at us. We were impatient as we drove past Echo Lake. We didn’t notice when we drove by Mt Aire and Grandeur Peak. We barely paid attention to Salt Lake City, and driving along the shore of the Great Salt Lake and across the Bonneville Salt Flats meant nothing to us. We were focused only on that destination, a nondescript hotel in the middle of Nevada.
Our trip was planned out in detail, and this unexpected turn of events was not going to derail our plans. Through sheer brute force and endurance we ignored all that we passed that wasn’t on our predetermined agenda, and, arriving at the hotel exhausted and hungry, we were once again on schedule, where the plan called for us to be that day, precisely in the middle of nowhere. We kept our feet, and were not swept off…
In retrospect, sticking to our plan, in spite of everything, might not have been the best move. By pushing on, we ignored an opportunity to see and explore places we had never been, and were unlikely to return to for years, if ever.
There’s an old Yiddish adage that translates as “Man Plans, and God Laughs”. Despite our most careful planning, the Universe has a way of tripping us up, defeating our finest strategies with unexpected new vistas to explore and unforeseen roadblocks, sometimes in the same package.
Oh, we try our best to minimize the chance of bad stuff happening. We plan and plan some more to make sure we keep our schedules, reach our preplanned destinations, and avoid upsetting surprises. Yet, in spite of this effort, well, “Hello, Universe! I see you’ve left your calling card in my carefully crafted plan again!”
As with all things, though, this too shall pass. We may be upset, or have some terrible feelings, but we can gather our thoughts, bring our strengths to bear, and overcome our obstacles. We may adjust our plans, tinker with our schedules, and perhaps recognize new opportunities within this disruption that we can gather, turning those feelings to joy.
There is a term in physics that describes how well a material can absorb energy by deforming, and then release that energy by returning to its original form. This is called resilience. This is different than strength, a measure of ability to withstand an applied stress without failure.
Resilience is also a measure of how well we can deal with and recover from adverse or unexpected events in our lives. Jamais (Ja May) Cascio, a local author and futurist, writes “Resilience is all about being able to overcome the unexpected. Sustainability is about survival. The goal of resilience is to thrive.”
Resiliency isn’t just survival, or stubborn persistence. Resiliency asks us to look at what is troubling us, and that we respond, a sort of feedback process. Resiliency lets us continue living and thriving in the midst of adversity, taking that disruption, figuring out what it means to us, and processing it in a way that lets us grow. In strength without resilience, there’s no feedback process, no growth. Exceed the limits of strength and failure results. Pure strength is not adaptive.
Facing reality and finding meaning in it is at the core of building resilience. We can find the courage and flexibility to deal with risk and adversity, only if we face reality with some appropriate tools.
A wonderful book on all this is titled “Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back”, by Andrew Zolli and Ann Marie Healy. The authors define resilience as the capacity of a system, enterprise or person to maintain its core purpose and integrity in the face of dramatically changed circumstances.
The most resilient systems, according to the authors, can reconfigure themselves continuously and fluidly to adapt to ever-changing circumstances, while continuing to fulfill their purpose. A resilient system senses its circumstances continuously and feeds this information back to control it’s actions, what is called a ‘tight feedback system’. A resilient system is diversified, with multiple sources of required supplies and modular structure that allows quick reconfiguration or adaptation.
A dear friend of mine embraces the unexpected. She doesn’t care to plan, but often takes off on extended road trips, with just a direction in mind. She takes whatever roads look interesting, and stops wherever she feels the need. She generally heads in the direction of friends or acquaintances she feels like visiting, and is quite happy to sleep on a couch, or even in her truck pulled into a safe driveway.
Roads in the right general direction are easily found, and sleeping accommodations, whether a car seat, a couch, or a guest room, are readily adjusted for in her plans. Her approach to these road trips shows remarkable resilience, and she comes through these travels refreshed, happier, and more energized than when she left. Oh, she may be physically exhausted at the end of her travels, but her state of mind seems better than ever to me.
When she was first here for a visit with me, she invited me to join her on the road. I thought about appointments I had, meetings coming up, and various other tasks, and I declined the offer. It was unexpected. It would be disruptive to my life.
I was being stubborn, strong in that rugged individualist sense, and refusing to even consider altering my preset plans. I was not particularly resilient.
Afterwards, I mentioned this to a few friends, and they unanimously said that I should have gotten in the truck with her when she left. I can learn to be flexible. I can learn to adjust plans and schedules. I can learn to be more resilient.
Should I get in the truck with her the next time she leaves? Yes, of course I should.
This resilience isn’t just a property of individuals. Resilience can be found and cultivated in groups. Resilience in a family or community relies on trust and cooperation, and the ability to collaborate between people to handle those unexpected obstacles or opportunities. People build networks of collaboration, cooperative approaches that are more resilient.
Developing this trust and cooperation is a change of mindset for many of us. Isn’t it nice, then, that we have such flexible minds, that can learn new patterns of thought and new ways to work together?
Regularly introducing diversity plays a part in this. A more diverse membership here, for example, provides a more diverse range of life experiences, perspectives, and wisdom. Adding more of all kinds of diversity improves the resilience and so the health of our community.
We can see that human resilience has several characteristics:
- Tight feedback loops that let us alter our actions when confronted with obstacles or opportunities
- Diversified sources, to keep us going
- New habits of mind, open to trust, cooperation, and collaboration
- Increasing diversity to provide a wider range of life experience, perspectives, and wisdom
Ours is a faith of hope, of questions, of diversity of beliefs and perspectives. We are focused on the journey and not the destination. We welcome change, are open to new learnings and insights, and we share authority and find wisdom. Ours is a faith of resilience!
None of this comes easily or automatically, though. I’ll leave you with the final paragraphs from Zolli’s book on resilience:
“Resilience must continuously be refreshed and recommitted to. Every effort at resilience buys us not certainty, but another day, another chance.
Every day is day one.”