In his reading, Mark Nepo captures the moment of trust, when he is able to let go completely, surrendering to the mystery of life, like a duck bobbing on water. This is a life-affirming experience. It is learned first in childhood. As children, we learn that we’ll be cared for and comforted when we need to be.
When we learn to trust as children, we are learning that there is solace and comfort available to us. The world is understood as trustworthy. We know what to expect. As children and as adults, people need to believe that they’ll be okay. The ability to trust seems to come more naturally to individuals who have trusting experiences as children. But even those who grow up feeling love and comfort from parents and families inevitably experience times of discomfort and insecurity.
The events of our everyday lives can lead to a sense that we are on shaky ground. We lose a friend to death. A family member moves across the country. We lose a job or start a new one. We grow older. Someone betrays us. Global and national events can undermine our sense of stability. School shootings, mall shootings, climate-related disasters, and acts of terrorism can lead to deep-seated distrust in the fabric of life and uncertainty about whether things really will be okay.
People disappoint us. Life disappoints us. What was rock solid becomes quicksand under the feet. When the world seems uncaring and scary, even hostile, it is hard to know with whom or with what to place our confidence. (Perseverance, Margaret Wheatley) It’s understandable that we become confused, cynical, even despairing, at times. Our lives are in such flux. Just when things get to the way we want them, there they go again, changing. This can be especially the case during those times in our lives when things are changing too rapidly and in painful ways. Or, as sometimes happens to me, when things are going well, I begin to think this is the way it is meant to be and expect it to continue forever.
All of this can be really disconcerting. It can lead us to see life as untrustworthy if we haven’t cultivated confidence and conviction in things that are dependable and realistic, if we haven’t come to accept and understand the ebbs and flows that are part of the very nature of our existence.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, who is known for his work in the area of mindfulness, describes trust as “confidence or conviction that things unfold in a dependable framework with order and integrity.” But what kind of order? What kind of integrity?
Having a sense of grounding or dependability doesn’t offer a guarantee that life will be free of problems or that we will always get what we want. It doesn’t mean that the light will turn green for us when we are in a hurry. In fact, we can be certain that we will confront difficulties and that this is part of the framework of life. Trust doesn’t prevent pain and sadness. Our problems arise when we want life to be other than it is, when we fail to honor the rhythms and cycles that underpin all existence. This doesn’t mean we need to be skeptical and distrust everything and everyone. It just means we need to figure out where to place our trust.
Trust isn’t blind. That’s naïvety. We make ourselves targets for disappointment and disillusionment when we place our trust in things that are foolish. Margaret Wheatley who studies organizational behavior calls this “idiot compassion.” If someone repeatedly exposes our confidences but we keep trusting them with our secrets, we’re likely to get hurt.
If we trust in a divine force to protect us, we are going to need to reconcile our understanding of being protected with all the times we aren’t shielded from problems. If we don’t modify our understanding, we’re going to be blindsided and hurt. Most of us, even Unitarian Universalists, find ourselves asking: why me, why did God do this to me, why did God let this happen. I’ve even found humanists asking these questions.
Rather than a guarantee, trust is a sustaining force. It is based in a realistic understanding of the world in which we live - and a hopefulness. The ability to observe, to be open, to reflect on experience, and to grow and learn allows us to deal with whatever arises. We need to be grounded in an understanding of the world. We need to know the pitfalls. We need to do the inner spiritual work to know where we find courage, where we get stuck, where we find our terra firma in the bad times as well as in the good times. We need to be honest about the cycles that underpin life.
Jeanne Harrison Nieuwejarr, in her book about the language of faith, says it well. She writes:
God and life are to be trusted – not trusted to shield us from pain and loss and confusion, but trusted to sustain us through such passages, to provide us with all we need to endure till another day. If we can remain open and trusting, if we feel comfortable, we can see that all we need is here. Our Unitarian Universalist theology affirms a deep and sustaining faith, which, from its simple affirmation of goodness and hope, gives us strength to move through whatever challenges life may bring us. (Fluent in Faith: A Unitarian Universalist Embrace of Religious Language, Jeanne Harrison Nieuwejaar)
The song Turn Turn Turn expresses these cycles and the hope that gives us strength to continue on despite what sometimes seems meaningless in life. The lyrics come from the Hebrew scriptures, in the Book of Ecclesiastes. Ecclesiastes means Teacher and the book contains wisdom the Teacher gleans from the world and points often to the absurdity of life as a way to reach its deeper meanings. Life’s journey, we learn, leads to acceptance of life’s frustrations and uncertainties.
In the well-known passage we read from earlier and which is the basis for the song, the Teacher reflects that there is a time for everything and a time for every matter. A time for joy and a time for sorrow, a time for birth, and a time for death, a time to destroy and a time to create. When Pete Seeger wrote the song using words from the scriptures, he added two things. He added the last line, “I swear it’s not too late” and the title “Turn, Turn, Turn.” Both of these additions emphasize the importance of our ability to persevere, to trust that things can change for the better, that things will turn, can turn to goodness, that it’s not too late for peace, for justice, for us.
Change can make us feel so vulnerable. But change also means that things are still possible. Change creates opportunities – both good and bad. New beginnings emerge from past losses. As some dreams come to an end, the excitement of new ventures arises. Failed ideals lead to new aspirations. The atrocities in the world call for compassion. Trust means realizing how to embrace these opportunities and make something of whatever situations confront us. It’s in this way “we learn that life itself can be trusted.” (Wheatley) Or as the Christian mystic Julian of Norwich said, “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”
Jeanne Harrison Nieuwejarr, writing about Unitarian Universalists, says “life and the universe are to be trusted. All will be well. Comfort and strength are available to us.” She goes on to say that faith is a profound, existential sense of trust. It is a ‘primal sense of promise.’ It is a sense of safety and coherence, a sense of serenity, of courage, of loyalty, and comfort, a sense of feeling at home in the universe.”
And what’s more, this sense of trust and wholeness lies at the center of our liberal religious way. (Fluent in Faith: A UU Embrace of Religious Language) In Unitarian Universalism, we affirm the inherent goodness in life and in each other, even as we have to acknowledge the reality of pain and suffering. We do not perfectly express that goodness or always respect it in each other. But our recognition that the universe bends toward justice acknowledges our own goodness and the goodness in others.
It is a value we aspire to live. Our lives are grounded in things beyond ourselves – in faith, love, awareness, to what calls us outside ourselves, and to that which calls us to participate in life more fully.
There’s a Buddhist story about a herd of cows that comes to the bank of a wide stream. The mature cows don’t hesitate. They wade right across it. They are like fully enlightened beings crossing the stream of ignorance and suffering. The younger cows get to the shore and stumble around. But eventually, they cross the stream. The calves are the ones who really struggle. They tremble with fear. Some of them just learned how to stand. Crossing a stream is scary stuff. Yet even these tender young calves manage to get to the other side of the shore. They get there by following their mothers’ voices. Hoping to be reunited with their mothers, they follow their mothers’ voices. They cross the stream (story excerpted from Sharon Salzberg).
Crossing the stream is a metaphor for the act of trust – trust in the mother or the father, in the fabric of life, in the power of Love, in God, the Spirit of Life – trust in the power of life that propels us forward. It’s isn’t blind trust following life over the cliff, but placing trust in what sustains us. That sustaining force is what calls us ever onward, forward into life and love and onward on our life’s journey. It gives us the comfort we need to persevere. Trusting in life, we remain open as participants in this great web of life. It matters that we trust. Without trust, we will too easily fall into despair and disappointment, too easily lose our zest for life, be unable to cross life’s rivers. It matters where we place our trust.
Where will you place your ultimate trust? In God? In Nature, the universe, the cycles of life? In community? In justice? In Beauty? Will you place your trust in your convictions, in ideas, in ideals, in the ground of all being, in goodness, or the Spirit of Life? In your Unitarian Universalist faith? In what are you willing to place your confidence?
In writing about the little duck bobbing on the water, Mark Nepo recalls when he was struck with cancer. He says he:
somehow fell from the ledge of [his] fear and entered the operating room like this little duck. It as the threshold to the other side. When lonely and afraid to reach out, I have somehow collapsed repeatedly into the ocean of another’s love, and it has cleansed my weary heart. And in my search now for wisdom to live by, I stumble at times and surrender what I think I know, so completely, that I find myself adrift in a deeper way that is neither wise nor unwise, but simply life-affirming.
May we too learn to trust the mystery of life. May we give ourselves to that which is life-affirming and life-sustaining - and know that all will be well.
Blessed be. Amen.