What follows is a sermon I gave at Towson Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday, June 25, 2017. Included here are two readings which were part of the service.
“Yesterday’s just a memory, and tomorrow is never what it’s supposed to be.” –Bob Dylan
From Missing Out by Adam Phillips
The unexamined life is surely worth living, but is the unlived life worth examining? It seems a strange question until one realizes how much of our so-called mental life is about the lives we are not living, the lives we are missing out on, the lives we could be leading but for some reason are not. What we fantasize about, what we long for, are the experiences, the things and the people that are absent. It is the absence of what we need that makes us think, that makes us cross and sad. We have to be aware of what is missing in our lives — even if this often obscures both what we already have and what is actually available — because we can survive only if our appetites more or less work for us. Indeed, we have to survive our appetites by making people cooperate with our wanting. We pressurize the world to be there for our benefit. And yet we quickly notice as children — it is, perhaps, the first thing we do notice — that our needs, like our wishes, are always potentially unmet.
From “O, Synecdoche! My Synecdoche!” by Roger Ebert
The lodestars of John Doe’s life are his wife, his children, his boss, his mistress, and his pastor. There are more, but these will do. He expects his wife to be grateful for his loyalty. His children to accept him as a mentor. His boss to value him as a worker. His mistress to praise him as a sex machine. His pastor to note his devotion. These are the roles he has assigned them, and for the most part they play them.
In their own lives, his wife feels he has been over-rewarded for his loyalty, since she has done all the heavy lifting. His children don’t understand why there are so many stupid rules. His boss considers John Doe as downsizable, and fears he may also get the axe. His mistress asks herself why she doesn’t dump this creep and find an available man. His pastor has a pretty good idea what goes on during the other six days of the week.
Never What It’s Supposed to Be
A lot of people don’t like Bob Dylan. Yes, he’s critically lauded, and he sells out shows around the world. He’s won Grammys, an Oscar, and the Nobel Prize for Literature. He is a cultural institution. But, again, a lot of people don’t like him, and if you ask them why, they will tell you that he has a lousy voice, or that he’s a jerk for the way he handled his Nobel win, or that he has completely rearranged his classic songs so that when you go to his concerts they are unrecognizable.
In fact, Dylan has been letting people down for a long time. In 1966, he toured England, performing two sets each night. The first set featured his earlier, acoustic folk material. For the second set, he was backed by The Band, a group of stellar musicians who later recorded “The Weight” and other classics. That second set was full-on rock music, Dylan at the height of his powers, but some of the folkies in the crowd saw this new style as a sell-out move. At the show in Manchester, one particularly bold heckler interrupted the show by yelling, “Judas!”
I mention this not to downgrade Dylan or to mock the contrarians, but because I think Dylan’s career is a vivid illustration of what Roger Ebert was getting at in his “Synecdoche” essay. The people who dislike Dylan do so because he doesn’t conform to their view of his role as a singer, as a Nobel Laureate, as a purveyor of nostalgia, as the Voice of a Generation. A history of Bob Dylan is a catalogue of discarded identities and rejected labels. And while there are those who find his avoidance of convention frustrating and willfully perverse, I believe it is what makes him fascinating.
You can see Dylan’s unlived livee with clarity–he could have been a successful Brill Building songwriter too timid to commit his unusual voice to tape, or a classic rock has-been touring state fairs playing his greatest hits and pretending he’s still 25, or maybe a respected folk artist unknown outside of that niche market. He could have been those things, like hundreds of other musicians have, but he isn’t.
This sermon will not involve me explaining why that is. It’s not even really about Bob Dylan. It’s about you, and it’s about me. It’s about how we relate to each other and how we can come to terms with our own could-have-been and should-have-been thoughts. It’s about recognizing our own desires and preconceptions so we can improve our time together.
You might be surprised to find out that my own current life is not the one I imagined for myself when I was a kid. Blind, retired at 36, living in suburban Maryland? These were not my dreams. Around the time I was in 6th grade, I decided I was going to be a movie director living in Malibu with one of those houses where a wall of windows looks out onto the Pacific Ocean waves crashing, spewing foam onto jagged brown rocks and I’m in a bathrobe drinking Manhattans with my latest actress girlfriend while my Oscars sit nearby on the shelf.
A little later, there was the imagined life where I married my high school girlfriend. This one would have been quite different, because I grafted my dreams onto hers. We were going to live in southwestern Pennsylvania and teach. Every week, we would attend a fundamentalist Christian church and we would never watch the kinds of movies the first Me won his Oscars for because they’re just filth.
Or, as recently as two years ago, I imagined a life where things were almost exactly as they are now, but I was still teaching middle school. An assistant helped me with data entry and paperwork, and I ate lunch every day with my wife, who taught at the same school as I did.
None of these lives happened. A thousand things–choices I made, choices others made, accidents, missed opportunities, bad timing, good timing, genetics–turned the course of my existence in ways both traumatic and unnoticeable until I arrived here, at this moment, in this pulpit, speaking to you.
Your own experiences are vastly different from mine, but I feel safe in assuming they are as full of dreams deferred and wishes unfulfilled as mine is.
As Adam Phillips notes:
We refer to them as our unlived lives because somewhere we believe that they were open to us; but for some reason — and we might spend a great deal of our lived lives trying to find and give the reason — they were not possible. And what was not possible all too easily becomes the story of our lives. Indeed, our lived lives might become a protracted mourning for, or an endless tantrum about, the lives we were unable to live. But the exemptions we suffer, whether forced or chosen, make us who we are.
I would never presume to tell you that everything happens for a reason. I don’t believe that. But I do believe that our losses and how we handle them can help us understand ourselves. That doesn’t make it easier, but perhaps it can help us move forward.
Maybe you married a frog and hoped for a prince. You saw potential just under the surface, and you felt certain things would turn out. Sometimes, your frog grows into his crown. Other times, you have to take him back to the swamp.
For many of us, though, it’s neither of those outcomes. We’ve paired up with someone who displays occasionally regal bearing but still has a few easy-to-spot warts. They leave the toilet seat up or snore or watch TV shows we can’t stand. They can be so lovable, so charming, and yet…so infuriating! If only our partners would conform to our expectations at all times! But no, we are John Doe from Roger Ebert’s piece, and it’s easy to feel frustrated when that other person just isn’t acting as we expect them to. Or, more accurately, it’s easy to be frustrated until we remember that our significant other is John Doe, also. They had dreams that we’ll never come close to fulfilling and their lives are a tangle of frustration and loss, just like ours.
And the same thing goes for the person sitting in the row behind you now and the greeter who welcomed you this morning and that one person whose vision for our church you adamantly oppose.
What I’m saying is an obvious truth, but it bears constant repetition: We are all trying to bend the world to be what we think we need it to be, and we are all failing. Instead of responding to that failure by lashing out or by withdrawing, we need to acknowledge our part in our own disappointment: the roles we assign to other people that they would never have chosen for themselves, roles they probably don’t even know they’re playing. The roles we blame them for screwing up.
Too often, we expect someone else to change us, to make us better. In Synecdoche, New York, the protagonist (Caden) is a playwright obsessed with presenting the capital-T Truth as he understands it through a massive theater project. His theatrical production begins to imitate his life. At one point, a dear friend, the one Caden should have married, dies, and Caden stages a funeral as part of his theater piece. The presiding minister offers the following thoughts:
...And they say there is no fate, but there is: it’s what you create. And even though the world goes on for eons and eons, you are only here for a fraction of a fraction of a second. Most of your time is spent being dead or not yet born. But while alive, you wait in vain, wasting years, for a phone call or a letter or a look from someone or something to make it all right. And it never comes or it seems to but it doesn’t really. And so you spend your time in vague regret or vaguer hope that something good will come along. Something to make you feel connected, something to make you feel whole, something to make you feel loved…
If, as the movie posits, fate is what you create, if it’s the accumulation of your choices, relying on someone else to bring you happiness Is a recipe for misery. “I bargained for salvation,” the narrator says in ’Shelter from the Storm,’ “and she gave me a lethal dose.” You can spend years waiting for the realization that true salvation starts with you, with your choice to struggle toward wholeness and happiness.
Use your fraction of a fraction of a second wisely. Do not allow your life to become a protracted mourning for or endless tantrum about dreams that didn’t come true. Consider how the missed opportunities, mistakes, and roads not taken have shaped you. Remember that the exemptions you’ve suffered make you who you are. Recognize that you are pressurizing the world for the fulfillment of your own needs, and dial that pressure down. The people you know will never fall neatly into the parts you’ve written for them, and they shouldn’t have to. They have their own needs.
And you don’t have to play the role they’ve assigned you, either. Think about Bob Dylan. Remember that moment I described, where the angry British folk aficionado called Bob “Judas” during his electric set? Dylan responded by launching into a furious version of “Like a Rolling Stone,” practically daring the grouch not to enjoy it. That heckler almost certainly felt vindicated in his assessment, but to the audience members open to new possibilities, it was amazing. And Dylan keeps being whatever version of himself he wants to be, fifty years later. May we all be that lucky.