Optimism won't save me...but neither will worrying about shit

Lessons from Jesus, and 2 former prisoners.

Here’s a video of me offering this message, in case you’re into that.

Here’s a confession:

I realize now that when this global pandemic all started, I think I was trying to be as optimistic as possible, believing it the best way to get through. So I told myself, It’s ok to spend a couple weeks at home, because after this we will be able to go to Holy Week Services!

Then it was, “Well…I still can't wait to preach Pentecost at the Cathedral at the end of May!”

Then it was “Well, at least my gigs in June will still happen.”  

Then it was “Well…ok not the June gigs, but the July ones for sure!” 

Then it was “Jeez…at least there’s that festival every September I love.”

Then a friend who is in music business mentioned that the concert promoters are all saying Fall 2021 is the earliest they think we can return to concerts, festivals, and big events.

And the exact same day I read a piece about how dangerous singing is. SINGING. And how even if we do get to go to church again this year . . . there can’t be singing. 

I had hooked my hope on something in the future and as each hope dissolved, I’d find another hook. Until finally, reality sunk in. 

And then I spent the rest of that day and most of the next alternately worrying about the future and watching about 62 hours of television. 

Now before you scold me, I know that Jesus himself said, who by worrying can add a single hour to the span of your life? So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today. But sometimes I have to have that shit confirmed over and over before I remember to believe it. 

So I wanted to share with you the thing that allowed me to get back to trusting what Jesus said. It was the words of two different men who spent a long time in prison, one 8 years as a POW in a North Vietnamese prison camp and the other 18 years as an inmate on death row for a crime he didn't commit.

Obviously stay at home orders and social distancing and the cancelling of events is not even remotely close to prison. But those who have grown as people and not devolved as people during incarceration might just have some helpful wisdom for us right now.

US Navy Admiral James Stockdale.

Having never read a business book in all my life, I was unaware of “The Stockdale Paradox” described in the popular book Good To Great, but I sure was grateful a friend told me about it this week.  (Most of what I know comes from conversations with friends who have actualluy READ THE BOOKS)

An Admiral in the US Navy, James Stockdale survived 8 years as a POW in a North Vietnamese prison camp. When asked who of his fellow prisoners struggled to make it out alive he replied, 

“The optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart….”

So the “Stockdale Paradox” is the ability to hold two opposing but equally true things at once:

You must have faith that you will prevail in the end

And at the same time you must confront the brutal facts of your current reality.

When I stop and check in with myself I must say - I believe we will prevail. As shitty as this all is, I have faith in the power of human love and creativity and resilience and kindness and humor. And I believe God to be the source of our love and creativity and resilience and kindness and humor, which means there is an eternal supply on which to draw when we just don't have what it takes. 

Also, I have faith that God is already present in the future we keep pinning our hopes and fears to so maybe it’s safe to let them go. 

Damien Echols. 

Echols is one of theWest Memphis 3 – about whom the documentary series Paradise Lost was based. As an 18 year old he was wrongfully convicted of murder.

Jason Flom interviewed Damien a couple weeks ago on his Wrongful Conviction podcast about what wisdom Damien might offer as someone who spent half his life on death row before being freed. Listen here.

What killed me was this quote from Echols: 

“The #1 thing that helped me stay sane was figuring out that I could not live for the future”

Well, shit.

“What it came down to for me [in prison] was having to create a life for myself, not making myself insane constantly wondering when is this going to be over? . . .Whether it’s news about the pandemic, or your possible upcoming execution date, you can’t sit around dwelling on that stuff or you are going to stew in fear and misery.”

Here’s what these two men taught me this week: I think I need to recalibrate.

Because: We will not get through this by setting our hearts on any events in the future.

And we will not get through this by setting our minds on any fears about the future.

To be sure, today has troubles of it’s own. Plenty of them. 

So its a waste of energy to import our imagined troubles of tomorrow that aren’t even true or real yet. 

It’s maybe not the healthiest thing for my happiness to be contingent on the future having to look a certain way.

So, here’s the thing - we can turn resolutely to these brutal facts and even so, we will prevail. There is a global pandemic, and we will prevail. There will be death, and we will prevail. There are long hoped-for events in the future that will not happen and we will prevail. There will be lost things and people and income and dreams and still, we will prevail. And all we really have is this day. And it is enough. It ends up, maybe Jesus was right.

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