Helpless

The Story of this Sermon

About 18 months ago, one of our church members, Mary Hill, “bought” the right to select the topic of a sermon from me at the church Auction. Usually when someone does this, they have a topic in mind – but Mary didn’t. 

But a couple months later, over dinner in downtown Denver, it came to her.  We were there because we were lucky enough to see the musical based on the life of Alexander Hamilton.  We were talking about the show, and our favorite parts – the inspiring ambition Hamilton had, his determination – all represented in his theme song that declares – I’m not going to throw away my shot.

That’s what I want my sermon to be about, Mary said, not throwing away your shot.

I nodded, and immediately tried to figure out who in the congregation could pull off that song’s rap.  

But then.  A few months later, life – happened. 

Mary got a crappy cancer diagnosis. Before long, her life was all about treatments and pain management. Which is when I started to think about her request a little differently.

I started to think about the double meaning of Hamilton’s song about his shot – as you might know from the musical or from high school history class, two literal shots -gunshots shift the whole course of Hamilton’s life.  First, a shot that killed his son Phillip. And then the shot that killed him, too early. 

What happens to our ambition, our will – when life doesn’t go the way we thought? It’s not that we threw away our shot.  It’s that the shot wasn’t what we thought it would be….life happens.  And we’re helpless to fix it.  

These questions – and also a little bit that I don’t think we have someone who can pull off that rap – are why I decided, instead of anchoring this service with the song about Hamilton not throwing away his shot, we should begin with another song, It’s Quiet Uptown.  

It’s in the middle of Act 2 when Alexander Hamilton’s son, Phillip, accepts the invitation to a duel.  Hamilton and his wife, Eliza, have been somewhat estranged – because Hamilton was obsessed with his work, and also he cheated on her, an affair she found out about when he publicly confessed. 

Hamilton had advised his son that no one really shoots in a dual, that he’d be fine.  

But it wasn’t true.  Phillip is shot, and dies with his father by him, helpless.  

This song, It’s Quiet Uptown, comes right after his death.  As Hamilton tries to make sense of this senselessness – and as the song says, learn to live with the unimaginable.    

Helpless

A few years ago, my mom decided to reclaim her attic, which resulted in a 3 box fedex delivery filled with remnants of my childhood.  

One of my favorite finds was small purple Hello Kitty diary which represented my 3rd and 4th grade years.  

Every entry is equally embarrassing and fascinating. 

One stand-out was an angry and frustrated tale of trying to teach my sister, who was two and a half years younger than me, how to ride a bike.

I was 8 at the time, so she was not quite 6.

Dear Diary,

My sister is so ungrateful!

I was trying to teach her how to a ride a bike today,

And she won’t listen.  

She was soooo cranky and stubborn.  

I was just trying to help!

I decided she was destined to never ride a bike. She was a bad listener, and she was mean.  And stupid.

This is how we all react, in the face of helplessness.

We get angry, or frustrated.  We blame.

Maybe we lecture, explain or criticize.

Help is about connection.  Helplessness cuts that connection off. 

We take helplessness personally. In my mind, my sister hated me.  Rejected me. Her inability to take my help was about me

Or, she was particularly stubborn, and mean.  I was helpless because of her.

Helplessness feels personal. Even though it almost always indicates that there’s stuff going on that has nothing to do with us.  

Like, a developmental stage that wasn’t yet ready to bike ride.

I start here because helplessness isn’t just a matter of life’s most extreme situations – losing a child, a cancer diagnosis…let alone a duel.  Helplessness is regular. Daily.  Familial.  

It’s our good advice our friends won’t take. It’s our aging parents.  It’s our own aging. It’s depression, and overwhelm, and stress. Helplessness is addiction. Illness. And debt. It’s job our partner can’t find. And it’s the scrolling through news on auto-pilot, seeing in an instant, one unimaginable thing after another. So much helplessness..

And helplessness is when the news gets personal – like with our compathe woman some of our members are companioning while she awaits a decision on her asylum application. So many experiences of helplessness.  

Helplessness is born in compassion – it starts in the hope to fix, to heal, to pick up all the broken pieces, find the glue, and get to work.  It’s why helplessness can be so painful, such a shock – because we come with all our good intentions, our blessing to offer – and we meet instead – rejection. We find the limits of what we can, and cannot control.  

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, I’m guessing many of us know this prayer written by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr in the 1940s. 

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

It became connected to the work of Alcohol Anonymous – as they embraced the critical step of sorting out of what is within and  beyond our control. The discerning work to not over, or under -estimate our personal power. 

Which it turns out, we aren’t always great at. Our brains trick us to believing we can fix something we actually can’t; and just as much, we can believe we have no agency or power when actually there’s a lot we could do to help.   

“Learned helplessness” is a psychological term for those times or situations where we feel helpless, but we actually aren’t. Learned helplessness can be the result of trauma – where we experience something extremely painful that we didn’t have control over, and then we apply this feeling of powerlessness broadly.

It doesn’t have to be from trauma though – one study I read talked about how students who don’t do well on math tests, as an example, come to experience a feeling of helplessness with any math-related task. Learned helplessness is an overgeneralization of our our sometimes-real-helplessness – it’s a flawed reading of reality, and even more, it’s a breakdown in our imagination.

We can’t imagine all that is possible, all the ways we might act, all the ways that life remains available to us, that life is still becoming.  Life constricts, we constrict. Pessimism has a strong correlation to feelings of helplessness.

Writer Parker Palmer talks about being caught in this sort of helplessness as a major component of his depression.  No matter what he did, or what help others tried to offer, he could not pull himself out of this dark place. He says people would come to him and say “why are you sitting here, being depressed? It’s beautiful outside.  Go feel the sunshine.  Smell the flowers.” Or, “You’re so successful, you’ve written so well. Why are you depressed?”

Next week, for our Easter service, we’re going to explore more about offering help that is actually helpful. But spoiler alert –it’s not usually helpful to try to argue someone out of their pain. This kind of admonishment often only makes us feel worse.

As Palmer says, of course, he knew “intellectually, that it’s sunny out and the flowers are lovely and fragrant, but [he couldn’t] really feel it in [his] body.” He started to feel like a fraud. Which of course made him feel even more helpless. I imagine his friends and family were also feeling pretty helpless during this time. This incredible person, who they loved, with so many gifts to offer the world, was caught and disconnected – they wanted to do something to make it, make him better. They needed him.  The world needed him. They had to be able to fix it.  Or convince him to fix it. 

It isn’t really a thing as far as I can tell, but it seems like we should call this learned over-helpfulness.  Because we are taught these things too.  We are conditioned to save, to fix, or at least to keep trying to fix – far beyond what it is actually ours, to fix, or control.

Hardly any of us are taught to give up – taught to accept things as they are – to let go of the struggle.

We aren’t taught to pause, to wait in the midst of the struggle. To be patient.  To see what happens that is not through our own doing or our own fixing.

The experience of helplessness is often a practice of patience. Realizing that help doesn’t always come on our private timetable.  Or in the way we’d like it to come.

Helplessness invites us to be present and open to all we do not know. Open and present to the other, to their suffering – to grow in empathy. And helplessness invites us to be open and present to ourselves, to our own suffering, and struggles. 

Often when we are trying to help someone else, especially over-help someone else our own pain is at play.  Some feeling is at risk that we don’t want to feel, some experience we don’t want to experience. A deep need that is just ours.  A need to be needed. To do. Whatever it is that we’ve unconsciously connected to our own worth.

Only when we pause, and get in touch with these feelings, can we breathe into the letting go. Breathe into the love that holds us, regardless of our doing, our fixing, our saving regardless of how helpful, or helpless we are.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Palmer did eventually receive help that was helpful during this time – from a friend who didn’t offer him anything that most folks would call “helpful.” Every afternoon, his friend would sit with him, and with his permission, take off his socks and shoes, and massage his feet. He hardly ever said anything. He offered no advice.  No encouragement.  Only occasionally he would say something like, “I can feel your struggle today.” He would simply report, from time to time, what he was intuiting about how Palmer was doing.  

We cannot be argued out of our helplessness. But we can be seen in our struggle, in our suffering.  And in being seen – fully we can begin to see more fully. Being accepted in our helplessness helps us to see more fully the help that is available, both within, and beyond ourselves.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.

Actually, it’s not actually about knowing the difference. In my experience. Sorting out of what things we can change, and what we cannot –it’s not really about knowing.

Not in the usual way we mean knowledge, at least. It’s not facts, information, reason.

Because sometimes we can know exactly what we cannot change, and yet refuse to know.  Sometimes the knowing is too much, we close off, we shut down. And sometimes the too much overtakes us and we go the other way.

Helplessness leads to surrender, and we fall into the arms of whatever might be there.   

And we pray.

Like Alexander Hamilton, and his wife, in those days following their son’s death, we surrender to the quiet where we try to learn to live with the unimaginable. In these moments, I have come to think of the task of helplessness as less a matter of knowing, and more as a matter of forgiving.

As in: can we forgive life for not going completely according to plan?  Can we forgive ourselves for not being able to stop it, or fix it, or save it – whatever it is? Can we forgive our own limitations? Our own humanness? Can we forgive everyone, everywhere for their being human too? 

This sort of forgiveness is a practice psychologist and Buddhist teacher Tara Brach describes as the beginning of a radical acceptance. 

Which is not the same as saying everything is ok, that we’re good with it. This is important because we can get stuck here – thinking if we accept the unimaginable – then we are condoning it.  But acceptance is not the same as agreement.

Acceptance is a practice that invites us to release ourselves from judgment, release ourselves from disconnection, from the hardening and shutting down to life. Acceptance frees us into compassion, radical compassion. Acceptance, and the forgiveness that brings us to it is a practice of softening, rather than hardening our hearts, so that we can free ourselves into life’s blessing that is still available – still there.

And so we can be fully present to the gift of life that is arising even…now.

Just over 13 years ago, my partner and I brought home a 2-day old baby girl from the hospital. It was what they call, a high risk placement.

Her birth mom still had parental rights. Which meant, we were extremely aware of our own helplessness. Every call that came, we thought was the call saying she couldn’t stay.

The way we dealt with this helplessness was by taking up the very important and serious task of – worrying.

Sometimes worry works like this – like a proxy for being able to do something when we know we can’t do anything. Like a task that signals to ourselves and the world – we may not be able to stop the bad thing from happening, but we can worry about it.  

We lived a little on edge – all the time.  We wouldn’t let our friends buy us anything. And we didn’t want to name her, or act as if she was going to stay.  Imagine the heartbreak, we thought, if she has to leave, and we are left with all her stuff.  We couldn’t.

A couple weeks after we picked her up, I was talking to my sister – the same one who refused to take my help to learn to ride a bike – I was telling her how we knew that she might not get to stay, we were being careful not to love her too much. 

She responded with a real sisterly love, “That is so stupid.” 

“To her, you’re already her moms.  You can try to be all distant, but you’ll miss out on what’s happening right now, and if she doesn’t stay – your hearts will still be broken.”

And then she made me deal. “How about if I take your worry for you? I’ll worry for you, every day.  So you know it’s taken care of. But then you don’t have to do it.  And instead, you can just love her, and name her, and be her moms – now.”

Some call this invitation my sister made me, a “worry fast.”  When we actively choose to not worry – for some period of time, we just choose not to.  Worrying keeps us locked in the future that may or may not arrive – and it keeps us disconnected from what’s happening right now.

Letting go of worry, we accept what is – regardless of whether we can control it, or change, it or fix it. We accept this moment just as it is, we forgive and accept ourselves just as we are, and open ourselves to the beauty and the grace that has been there all along.

Even without someone else willing to take on your worries – anyone can go on a worry fast – for an hour a day, or more, or less. Whatever break you’ll let yourself take – so that you can be fully present to all of this.  A couple days after that call with my sister, we held our little baby at the kitchen table, and lit a candle, and named her.  

Gracie Ella. It means, she who is a gift.  

Everyday, in ways sometimes catastrophic, but more often, casual, life offers us these moments where we get to experience our helplessness. These chances to practice giving up. Giving up, and letting go, and forgiving – everything.

This chance to stop worrying and to radically accept life – as it is right now.  Even when we find ourselves face to face with the unimaginable.  

And, in the giving up, we have the chance to receive the gift, the grace – the help that holds us always, and connects us. The help that as Anne Lamott says – is always on the way.

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About Rev. Gretchen Haley

Gretchen Haley is relentlessly curious about most things, especially the big stuff of theology, the beauty of creation, the magic of collaboration, and the great joy of pop culture (reflected in this blog by random posts on Beyonce, Taylor Swift, Scandal, Orphan Black, or the latest Marvel movie). She has an audacious ambition for the liberal church, believing in its capacity to transform lives and our world by way of hyper-local relationships and partnerships that inspire the unleashing of courageous love. She's all in on adrienne maree brown's emergent strategy, and finds solace in the trails in and around Fort Collins Colorado where she serves with the brilliant Rev. Sean Neil-Barron as one of the ministers of the Foothills Unitarian Church. She and her amazing partner of 19 years, Carri, have 2 children, Gracie (13) and Josef (11) who both relish and resent being PKs, and who keep her grounded, frustrated, inspired, and humbled, everyday. She is basically obsessed with her puppy, a large sized mutt, Charlie.
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