One of my first jobs as a teenager was as a salad girl at the Candle Glo Restaurant. My job was to stock the salad bar in the kitchen with all the various side salads that might be ordered, such as cole slaw, red beets, apple sauce – standard Central Pennsylvania fare. Then as orders came into the kitchen, I also dished them up for the wait staff to pick up. I was a conscientious and sensitive 15-year old, and I worked hard and dutifully. I had worked there for a few months when I came in for the dinner shift one night only to find that the person before me had left without doing any restocking of the salad bar. So I worked my hardest but could not keep up with filling orders while also trying to restock all at the same time at the busiest time of day when the restaurant was packed.
The woman in charge of the kitchen flow came and basically bawled me out in the kitchen. I was speechless and didn’t even know how to defend myself. I was just so caught up in feeling how unfair this was and I was embarrassed too. Later that evening I overheard someone else telling her how hard I had worked and what a mess I had been left with. And I heard her say something like, “well why didn’t she just say something.” I think what bothered me as much as anything else was that she didn’t stop to think about her responsibility.
I quit that job and never went back. I was just so angry and humiliated. Quitting was the easy way out for me. At the time, it seemed like the only way. I was just so emotional about it. I soon got another job and that was that. Maybe. I suspect I would have benefited from sticking it out, rather than running away, partly in shame, but also in righteous indignation. I did not stand up for myself. As it turned out, my next boss was just as bad, probably worse, and so I soon and sadly discovered I was going to have to find some ways to persevere.
Each of us at some point in time feels they cannot carry on. It is just too much, too hard, too overwhelming—or perhaps it may even seem pointless. If we try, we may find ourselves like Sisyphus, pushing that proverbial rock up the hill. In the myth of Sisyphus, Sisyphus was rather rebellious. He gave the gods a pretty hard time. They finally had had enough of his antics, and he was consigned for all eternity to push a rock up a hill only to have it roll back to the bottom before ever reaching the top. This was his punishment. Never would he be able to get the rock to the top of the hill. Always he would have to start over pushing the rock upward. Over and over and over again.
This morning I want to talk about the times when persevering is the best path forward or perhaps the only one. There are of course times when we really do need to quit, if we can. There are times when persevering feels like a punishment but in fact is the very thing we are being called to do. How do we do that when things seem so overwhelming or futile? Because even though I quite that job as a salad girl, I still needed to figure out how to stand up for myself. And we do not always have the luxury of quitting, and we and the world may lose out if we do not learn how stay in and move forward on the things that matter most to us.
Think about the value of trying to learn to play a musical instrument and after years of what seems like slow progress having your first recital, or playing on a sports team that never won the super bowl and finally seems poised to win, or seeing one’s tireless work to further democracy eroded by decades of gerrymandering and voting barriers and then seeing the potential for a whole new redistricting. I think most of us can call to mind occasions like these when we have found ourselves pushing that proverbial rock up the hill, knowing or fearing we will never succeed in getting it to the top, but knowing or sensing that’s exactly what needs to happen.
Writer and religious leader Joan Chittister says that our ability to be sustained through those feelings of weariness relies on having a goal or passion worthy of unrewarded effort. She says we have to be in it for the long haul, and not overdrive our souls. Perseverance—the long haul—can be best sustained when it is fueled by passion and self-care.
The story of the tortoise and the hare is a great story of what it means to be in it for the long haul, whether the long haul is justice work, relationships, the spiritual life, getting an education, or life itself. That tortoise just keeps on going, just doing what it does. That means finding ways to sustain oneself over the course of time. But, guess what?—even the tortoise is eventually going to need to take a break or sleep or eat. That is part of the long haul. Maybe the problem with the hare isn’t that they took a nap but that they were arrogant and over-slept.
I recently got hooked playing solitaire online. I started as a break from intense periods of work to get recharged. Ironically it has also become its own unexpected lesson in perseverance. I had not played in years. I soon discovered that solitaire is a lot harder than I remembered. And there are a lot of different versions. So I had a lot to learn. I decided to complete a daily challenge, which includes five different card games ranging from easy to expert levels. There is a game from yesterday’s challenge that I was not able to complete. I played that game I don’t know how many time. I played every scenario I could think of. I was persistent but not successful. Something I’ve discovered is that when I reach a certain level of frustration and single-minded determination—even with this activity that is supposed to be a break--I know that I’m going to need to need a break from the game.
And even when I’m pacing myself like the tortoise, I do not always win--right away or ever. Sometimes I have to wait a few days and go back to a game. Sometimes I’ve had to practice at easier levels to discover some new strategies. Sometimes I just need to move on to the next challenge, knowing that I am building my skill level. And it is supposed to be fun afterall! The thing is, playing solitaire isn’t important. I mean, it isn’t life-saving or important in the grand scheme of things. Not exactly. But it is teaching me things about how my mind works, and about my own levels of persistence and how I respond to failure. These are helpful insights that I can carry with me into other more critical areas of life, places where my willingness to persevere can have a life-altering impact. It helps me see how to stay in it for the long haul even when there are temporary setbacks.
The long haul means having some resources to tap into. It takes tea and meditation. It takes prayer and having other people in your life who love you and also having people who disagree with you. It takes a connection to the divine and to cherished values. It means learning to break the rules, to let your heart be broken, to stumble and be willing to get back up, to ask for help and to claim your voice. It takes mistakes and forgiveness and letting go of ego and a willingness to risk and to fail. It means loving the world when it doesn’t seem to be loving you back. It means finding a moment of joy—catching a glimpse of an incredible super blue blood moon, like the one this week—or holding a grandchild in your arms for the first time. It means breathing and trusting that breathing is okay, that others will continue the work if you need to take a break. Writer and novelist Barbara Kingsolver says:
In my own worst seasons, I’ve come back from the colorless world of despair by forcing myself to look hard, for a long time, at a single glorious thing a flame of red geranium outside my bedroom window. And then another: my daughter in a yellow dress. And another: the perfect outline of a full, dark sphere behind the crescent moon . . . .
It takes looking at something beautiful for a long time. It takes refilling the well by reading, immersing in nature, laughing or creating art. Immersions in what nurtures and sustains us makes it possible to carry on.
All of these can keep us going when we find ourselves feeling lost or hopeless or unable to go forward. In fact, these are the very things that make it possible to do so. Resilience, gratitude, faith, beauty can all fuel the ability to persevere.
Consider this story. There was a woman who was speaking to her six-year old niece at the end of a particularly frustrating day. She had spent the better part of the day trying to get a new printer installed. Nothing had worked, and she was exhausted and very frustrated. On the phone with her young niece, she described how frustrated she was. Her niece asked her: “Did you try hard?”
“Yes,” the woman said, “I tried hard.”
“Did you try really really hard?” asked her niece.
“Yes, I did,” replied the woman.
“Well then,” said the six-year old, “now it is time to go out and play.” (From Perseverance, Margaret Wheatley)
So friends, if you have been persevering at something, if you’ve tried really really hard, maybe it is time to go out and play. Take care of yourself. Find ways to fill your spiritual and emotional well. Who knows what might arise if we turned our attention elsewhere. Isn’t that too part of what it means to be in it for the long haul, to be steadfast, and persistent? Whole new worlds might emerge, or at least a new way forward. Perhaps taking a breath or a break is exactly what is needed to keep on the path to taking one more step, saying one more word, praying one more prayer, or singing one more song. I wish for each of you the passion and the soul-care until every song is shared and there is peace for everyone. May it be so. Amen.