First Unitarian Universalist Church of Berks County

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Finding Your Edge

March 5, 2017
Rev. Sandra Fees

“Moderation in all things” is pretty common advice. This saying seems practical. It suggests that finding middle ground will bring balance. By practicing moderation, people can avoid being controlled by excessive desires and extremes – such as greed, addictions, over-working, overuse of technology and electronics, or bingeing on chocolate!

Moderation means getting just the right amount of food, sleep, exercise, even spirituality. But moderation can also mean playing it safe. And sometimes what is most needed is not moderation but extravagance, excess, boldness, bravery. Sometimes I need to devote extra hours to work. Sometimes I need to take a clear and bold position on an issue. Sometimes I need to take a chance.

In fact, moderation can be harmful in some cases. An addict knows that moderation in all things is not a viable option. For an addict, the only healthy choice is abstinence. Getting and staying sober is crucial.

The truth is the middle can be bland and boring, as well as ineffective. Lisa Martinovic offers this warning: “Lose the edge and all you’ve got is middle … And you’re dribbling along in the uncooked vanilla pudding of life … watching reruns of somebody else’s life.”

That is why she says “the edge is where I want to be.” The edge is the place where skills are honed, attention is focused, and intelligence is cultivated. The edge is what animates, inspires, and makes us fully alive and fully engaged. You might even say we are not truly living at all if we are not dancing on the edge of something.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “The purpose of life is not to simply be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.” I for one am not sure it is possible to be happy and live well without any of those other things – compassion, usefulness, honor, making a difference or taking risks.

Taking risks moves us to the edge of insight into ourselves and to the edge of our commitment to core values and principles. Finding our edge is about risking ourselves in some new and important way. Some people love thrill-seeking – chasing tornadoes or jumping out of airplanes. There may be a benefit to them in doing this. But the key to risking ourselves in the world has to do with taking a risk for something that matters.

Poet David Whyte says: “We are here … to risk ourselves in the world. We are meant to hazard ourselves for the right thing, for the right woman or the right man, for a son or a daughter, for the right work or for a gift given against all the odds.” So finding our edge has to do with finding that right thing or those right things we are meant to hazard ourselves for. This has also been called a noble risk, a term derived from Socrates. Not just risking for any old thing. Not just risking for the sake of taking a risk. Not to be reckless. But taking a risk for the right person or cause. For what is life-giving. For what we care about and believe in.

African American novelist and poet James Baldwin described risk-taking in terms of such commitment. He wrote that “To act is to be committed, and to be committed is to be in danger.” And Martin Luther King Jr. talked about courage as “the determination not to be overwhelmed by any object, however frightful,” which “enables us to stand up to any fear.” We need courage and determination in order to live on the edge and in order to live our principles.

In this morning’s story “Spite Fences” we are introduced to a neighborhood where fences are erected to insulate people from new neighbors who bring new smells. I have to admit that when I hear this story or other stories about walls or fences being built, as in the story “Spite Fences,” my mind immediately goes to national borders and immigration. Or I start thinking about our current national inability to talk with people who voted differently from us or who think differently on some basic policies and laws in our country.

But putting up fences is not anything new. The challenge to interact with people who are different from us is not new. This story provides a useful metaphor for the way we try to protect ourselves against trying something new or coping with change. It raises questions about how willing we are to step outside our comfort zones and get to know new people or give up our old habits. Are we willing to take chances – physically, emotionally, and interpersonally? Or is it just easier and more comfortable to wall ourselves in? When new neighbors show up and create new smells, is it better to be open to something new or build a wall high enough and thick enough to keep change at bay?

More and more communities are in fact choosing to keep change at bay by self-segregating. Economist Tyler Cowen finds that more and more communities are self-segregating by income, race, and education. In his book, The Complacent Class, he says that this trend is causing our country to stand still. People are clinging to the status quo. According to Cowen, “People have grown more risk averse and are reluctant to switch jobs or move to another state …. and the desire to innovate — to grow and change — has gone away.”

This reluctance leads to complacency and stagnation. We often think of ourselves as being open and free of such problems. But Cowen’s findings apply to Unitarian Universalists every bit as much as to others. Cowen says:

[I]f you cease being challenged and you think your way of life is the only way, ultimately that way will become weak, it will be subject to less improvement, you will enter a kind of bubble and continually be surprised by the challenges the outside world keeps on throwing at you. But you're not very well-equipped intellectually to handle them. (www.npr.org/2017/03/02/517915510/americas-complacent-class-how-self-segregation-is-leading-to-stagnation)

Cowen points to the need to get out of our bubbles. Staying in our bubbles will not prepare us for the many shifts, changes, dilemmas, nuances, and challenges of life.

Taking risks, on the other hand, keeps us in motion – in a positive way. It fosters resiliency, creativity, and growth. And the way to cultivate that ability is to practice integrating risk-taking into our daily lives. So often we focus on the major dramatic risks people take, especially the ones that our heroes take - people like Martin Luther King Jr., for example.

The risks we take that are woven into the fabric of our daily lives are just as significant. My Unitarian Universalist colleague Rev. Scott Tayler says:

Risk, bravery and boldness aren’t once-in-a-lifetime things done in uniquely daring moments, but instead make up a way of life that must be lived out each and every day. Yes, there are those stories of someone pulling a stranger from the burning car. Yes, we should sit in awe of the civil rights workers who put their life on the line for justice or the soldiers who are willing to give their lives for others. But in addition to such dramatic acts that alter history, there are daily choices that prevent history from altering us. … Ordinary risk is what stops us from disappearing, losing ourselves or becoming small.

These ordinary risks are not so ordinary when we stop to think about it. They give our lives meaning and depth and purpose. Ordinary risks are things like being willing to meet new people, to risk sharing our stories with each other, to risk being hurt by someone else, to be more honest in our interactions, to have the difficult conversations that we often try to avoid, to hold each other accountable, and to see things from another person’s perspective when we don’t agree.

Ordinary risks are things like forgiving someone or asking for forgiveness. It might mean going back to school or quitting your job. It could mean getting married or getting divorced or choosing to be single or coming out as transgender or gay or bisexual to your family. Loving someone can be a risk. It can be the riskiest thing we ever do. Treating people fairly, using democratic processes, acts of conscience – even small ones – believing in someone’s inherent human worth, all of these are acts of bravery and commitment. Just doing simple things in different ways can feel enormously risky.

Ultimately, we are called to live boldly and courageously every day. Taking risks is not merely a matter of episodic acts of courage. Instead it has to do with a whole way of understanding how we do this thing called living day after day after day. It has to do with how we live with integrity carrying our principles and values into our family lives, work lives, social lives, church lives.

Like Martinovic, I find that “the edge is where I want to be.” I am not always sure what is over that edge. I am not always able to get to the edge. But I know that when I do take risks I get closer to the edge and I go places I never thought I would go, places that make life worth the living. That sounds a little like Dr. Seuss: “Oh the places we’ll go.” Those places make life more interesting and more honorable and more worth the living. As Martinovic says:

The edge is change
It’s what you don’t see coming
Sure, the middle’s safe
It’s safe like hot cocoa, life jackets and training wheels
If that’s how you want to live
  
If you don’t ever want to break the rules
Take risks
Grow up
Past your precious fears and life-strangling limitations
 
But if you’re tired and weary and battered
If you can’t take one more [person]
Riding herd on your wild and precious life
If you’re mad or sad or bored enough
To wake up and do something
If you’re ready to feel the pain of the great
gaping wound your life has become
Then
Quit your job
Quit smoking
Quit whining
leave that jerk
Write that poem
Go dancing
Get sober
Take a road trip – a dare – a spin – a lover – a chance
Honey, break down and cry if that’s what it takes
Then pick your[self] up
And for all you’re worth run
Don’t walk

May hope for each of us is that we run not walk to the edge. Friends, may you find your edge.

Bless be. Amen.