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“beginning the spiritual life with insight into our wholeness. . .”

Filed under: Sermons — Jess at 1:32 pm on Thursday, July 17, 2008

Sometimes insight can come from the most unexpected of sources, as the Rev. Joshua Pawelek found when he explored the work of Harvard professor and psychologist Tal Ben-Shahar, whose best-selling book is titled Happier. Rev. Pawelek discovered a resonance with his own vision of Unitarian Universalism in what he had dismissed as mere pop-psychology, exploring the idea of being joyfully determined in the way we live our spiritual lives.

You can also find an essay by Rev. Pawelek, who serves the Unitarian Universalist Society: East in Manchester, Connecticut, in the just-released Reverend X: How Generation X Ministers are Shaping Unitarian Universalism, from the Jenkin Lloyd Jones Press.

To Be Joyfully Determined

by the Rev. Joshua Mason Pawelek

Recall a time when things weren’t going well for you, when you didn’t feel quite right, didn’t feel quite like yourself; a time when you couldn’t hear the still, small voice, or when its song was faint; a time when there was some emotional or mental dissonance in your life; a time when you felt disconnected, depressed, anxious, weak, subdued, out-of-whack, broken; a time when your sense of purpose and meaning waned, and you sought help. You sought help from a therapist—a psychologist or a psychiatrist or some other mental health professional; or you talked to a social worker or school guidance counselor. Maybe you attended a twelve-step group, or an affinity group for bereavement, divorce, cancer. Maybe you talked to a minister, priest or rabbi; maybe your doctor. Maybe you turned to a self-help book or a friend you could trust to give good advice. I assume most of you have been in this situation at some point: you’ve sought help when something didn’t feel quite right.

Put that memory aside and recall a time when things were going great, when you felt exactly like yourself; a time when you could hear the beautiful, compelling still, small voice melody; a time when you felt emotionally and mentally healthy; a time when you felt joyful, happy, inspired, powerful, whole; a time when you had a potent sense of purpose and meaning, and you sought help. You said to yourself, “Wow, I feel so good I need help immediately! I need help to figure out what I’m doing right so I can keep doing it; so I can do it more, do it better.” We’ve all had that experience too, right? No, we haven’t. My guess is there are few people to whom that thought occurs. We don’t typically approach our lives this way. At least in the United States, it’s fair to say we spend an awful lot of time and energy looking at what’s wrong with us, what our diseases are, what our weaknesses are, how to overcome them. We don’t spend as much time and energy looking at what’s already right with us, what gives us joy and fulfillment, what our gifts are and how to use them well. To the extent I understand it, focusing on what’s right is the essence of Positive Psychology.

Happier is the title of the bestseller by Tal Ben-Shahar. With its bright yellow cover and vivid red lettering, with its seductive new-age style messaging (“Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment”) it has all the trappings of a cheesy self-help book at which I automatically snub my jaded, pious, Generation X, Masters of Divinity nose. However, this past January, in search of continuing education credits, my wife Stephany enrolled in “Positive Psychology 1504″ at the Harvard University Extension School. “Positive Psychology 1504″ is the most popular class at Harvard these days with an enrollment of over 1400. The professor is Tal Ben-Shahar, author of Happier, the bright yellow book with the vivid red lettering at which I snub my nose.

Steph and I share an office. Since January, every night as I’ve been catching up on email and preparing sermons, she has been listening to Ben-Shahar’s lectures over the internet three feet away. Thus, I have been listening to Ben-Shahar’s lectures and realizing this isn’t your standard new-age snake-oil self-help happiness class for overstressed Harvard students in search of an easy A. This is a very well-integrated survey of an increasing body of scientific studies of the nature of happiness and well-being. The more I listen, the more I realize Positive Psychology’s emphasis on the quest for well-being, fulfillment and happiness resonates with Unitarian Universalism’s historically positive view of humanity. The more I listen, the more I sense my ministry and our shared ministries can benefit from a dose of Positive Psychology. The more I listen, the more I realize Ben-Shahar’s prescriptions for happier lives compose and require a disciplined spiritual practice and, at least for me, help further answer the question I’ve been asking all year, “How shall we live?” This jaded, pious, Generation X, M.Div. nose-snubbing isn’t working. Ben-Shahar makes an important, if obvious-sounding point: So often we focus on what is wrong, and we let that focus determine the course of our lives. What if we choose instead to focus on what is right, on what makes us happy, on what fulfills us? What if we choose instead to be joyfully determined?

For more background on Positive Psychology I read a few articles on Stephany’s syllabus. In the Review of General Psychology, Shelly Gable and Jonathan Haidt write that “in the second half of the 20th century, psychology learned much about depression, racism, violence, self-esteem management, irrationality, and growing up under adversity but had much less to say about character strengths, virtues, and the conditions that lead to high levels of happiness or civic engagement. In one metaphor,” they write, “psychology was said to be learning how to bring people up from negative eight to zero, but not as good at understanding how people rise from zero to positive 8.” They also describe how a majority of psychological studies from this era focus on how to diagnose and treat mental illness and dysfunctional behavior, while almost never asking how to diagnose and enhance well-being. For example, “many studies have examined how couples respond to each other’s misfortune or bad relationship behavior…but little is known about how couples respond to each other’s triumphs or good relationship behavior. There are volumes of work examining how couples and families resolve conflict but very few studies examining them having fun and laughing together.”

Martin Seligman says the aim of Positive Psychology is to catalyze a change in [the field] of psychology from a preoccupation only with repairing the worst things in life to also building the best qualities in life…. Psychology is not just the study of disease, weakness, and damage; it is also the study of strength and virtue. Treatment is not just fixing what is wrong; it is also building what is right.” To be fair, in my experience there are many psychologists who already approach therapy this way. And to be clear, no one in the Positive Psychology movement is suggesting that psychologists ought to stop studying and treating mental illness, dysfunctional families, alcohol and drug abuse, etc. The Positive Psychology movement is simply appealing for balance—not only a focus on how we reduce the negative, but how we enhance the positive.

We can bring the same appeal to the religious life. So much religion focuses on human brokenness, sinfulness, disconnection from the sacred—our spiritual pathologies. I brought this very focus to my recent series of sermons on the Unitarian Universalist principles. I said the principles have to take into account our human capacity for evil. I still think this is true, but I never want us to forget the importance of beginning the spiritual life with a proclamation of what is right and good about humanity, with an affirmation of the inherent worth and dignity of every person as we do in Unitarian Universalism. I never want us to forget the importance of beginning the spiritual life with insight into our wholeness, into our embeddeness in the sacred—rather than our brokenness or our separateness from the sacred.

Ben-Shahar says what we choose to see determines our reality. “Our experience of the world is heavily influenced by where we place our attention.” He shows a slide with a myriad of colorful shapes. He asks students to look at the slide for thirty seconds and see how many shapes they can identify. After thirty seconds he asks, “How many children are on the school bus?” Sure enough, in the middle of the picture is a school bus full of children. But nobody can say how many children are on it. It’s a set-up, but a point well-taken. When we look for certain things, we miss others. If we look for evil and brokenness we will find it. If we look for goodness, dignity, human worth and wholeness, we will find these things too. If we see our mistakes as embarrassments or signs of weakness, we will feel embarrassed and weak. If we look at our mistakes as opportunities for growth, we will grow. Happiness and fulfillment, says Ben-Shahar, come from what we choose to see and seek, what we choose to focus our attention on.

These days it’s difficult to see goodness, dignity, worth and wholeness, let alone bring it into our lives. In a world facing potentially catastrophic climate change; in the midst of two tragic land wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and a more amorphous and supposedly unending war on terror; in the midst of an economic recession with increasing housing and job insecurity, food and energy inflation; in the midst of a first world culture focused on material consumption and addicted to corporate media—in the midst of all these negatives, all this breaking and brokenness, all these generators of fear, anxiety and numbness in us, all these demonstrations human shortsightedness, arrogance, selfishness, and sinfulness—how do we, without denying or minimizing any of these things because they are very real and profoundly impact our lives, how do we focus on what is working well, on what brings joy, on what brings happiness and fulfillment? Tal Ben-Shahar says, “Practice.” Yes, all these things may be going wrong in the world; and things may be difficult in our lives—I’m mindful in particular of those of you caring for aging parents or living with chronic illness—none of it may be going away but I contend, even so, none of it has to determine our lives for us. Let us practice determining our lives the way we want to determine our lives—let us practice seeing and seeking what we long to see and seek—let us practice hearing the call of the voice still and small—let us practice witnessing, as our opening hymn said, “the beauty in a life that illumines honor anew, that models wise and gracious ways” —let us practice in this way and thereby cultivate in ourselves a greater capacity to confront the things which challenge, frustrate, sadden and overwhelm us. I’m reminded of a quote from Howard Thurman: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

What do we practice? Start with joy. Ask yourself: What brings me joy? Ask this every single day. Notice the answers. Remember the answers. And be joyful

Then gratitude. Ask yourself: For what am I grateful? Ask this every single day. Notice the answers. Remember the answers. And offer thanks.

Then praise. Ask yourself: What in my life is worth praising? Ask this every single day. Notice the answers. Remember the answers. And offer praise.

Then strength—don’t shy away from strength—don’t shy away from being strong and powerful. Ask yourself: In what ways am I strong? Ask this every single day. Notice the answers. Remember the answers. And be strong.

Then meaning and purpose. Ask yourself: What gives my life meaning and purpose? What makes me come alive? Ask this every single day. Notice the answers. Remember the answers. And come alive!

Then, because our memories fade, because our lives are full and hectic, because the pressures of life in this often toxic culture will compete ruthlessly with our ability to hold onto the answers to these questions, turn them into rituals. The things that give you joy, the things that fill you with gratitude, the things that are meaningful, the things that make you come alive: turn them into rituals so they become anchored in your life. Ben-Shahar says “it could be working out three times a week, meditating fifteen minutes every morning, watching two movies a month, going on a date with your spouse on Tuesdays, pleasure reading for an hour every other day, and so on.” If civic engagement brings you a sense of meaning and purpose, make it your ritual. If working with your hands or numbers or people is one of your strengths, make it a ritual. If watching birds at the feeder gives you joy, make it a ritual. Anchor it in your life. Ben-Shahar quotes Aristotle: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence . . . is not an act, but a habit.”

Ben-Shahar points to a range of studies that show in a variety of ways how, as we create and maintain an intentional practice of asking ourselves these questions, remembering our answers, and anchoring them in our lives through ritual, a new identity begins to emerge in us—a happier, more fulfilled identity; one more willing to trust and honor itself,; one more aware of its worthiness, more healthy, more self-determined, more joyfully determined and more able to deal effectively and creatively with life’s challenges from the personal to the global.

I struggle with whether such practice is really just a privilege of the elite, of the mentally well, of the unaddicted and unafflicted. Tal Ben-Shahar doesn’t address this question. But in my reflections I find this capacity of striving for happiness and fulfillment is a human capacity. It is universal. Certainly poor people can answer these questions, experience joy, discern strengths—and it would be insulting to suggest otherwise. Certainly people with mental illness can answer these questions, experience joy, discern strengths, and it would be insulting to suggest otherwise. This practice is not a privilege for the few. Everyone can engage in it. Everyone can come alive. There’s an old gospel hymn in our hymnal called “I’ve Gotta New Name.” Everyone can claim a new name. Let us sing, then, trusting there is a path that can get us to name of joy, to the name of well-being, to the name of strength, to the name of gratitude, to the name of praise, to the name of meaning. Amen and Blessed Be.

Source: “To Be Joyfully Determined” by the Rev. Joshua Mason Pawelek, minister of the Unitarian Universalist Society: East in Manchester, Connecticut, preached April 13, 2008.

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