READING excerpt from Hope and Other Superpowers by John Pavlovitz
We all love to see superheroes being born in pages or on-screen. There’s something magical about those beginnings that moves us. . . . It’s thrilling to watch human beings mutating from nondescript, regular schlubs like you and me into the monumental stuff of legend, to see them struggle to comprehend the gravity of the moment, to recognize the responsibility of access to such great power—and ultimately to run, swing, or fly headlong into their destiny. Over and over again we line up to breathe in these mythologies, because we love the idea of being thrust into stratospheric glory instead of being stuck here on the ground with the rest of the mere mortals and gawking bystanders. We inhabit daily lives that tend to feel decidedly nonsuper, a repetitive cycle of mundane task and soul-draining busywork made of laundry loads, traffic jams, and dental appointments, and as we get older it becomes a lot easier to hope vicariously through someone else’s story than our own. We gradually lose our ability to dream.
. . . over time, we experience enough failure and rejection, we hear enough about our flaws and deficiencies, until we finally concede that this is our true identity, that whatever we are now is the best we can hope for. We begin to hear in our heads the voices of our critics and adversaries, of deceased parents, ex-spouses, and former bosses, and we ratify the gaslighter’s lie that we are far less than spectacular. This is why embracing your inherent and abiding superness isn’t about figuring out how to become anything but about realizing what you’ve forgotten about yourself since you were young, the truth you’ve lost along the way about who you are, what you’re made of, and your capacity to be great. . . . you, too, were designed to live wide open and to dance and sing and dream wildly. You simply need to remember the [butt]-kicking glory you were made for and to prepare yourself for the ever-present opportunities you have to still be super.
The American Trappist monk Thomas Merton said that “there is in all things . . . a hidden wholeness.” The Gospel of Thomas, one of the gospels that did not make it into the official Bible, teaches that “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”
What we don’t bring forth will squash our spirits. The world has a way of pulling at us, squashing our spirits even we aren’t attentive. The world can make us feel constrained, unworthy, insignificant, drained, and divided. It can make us feel out of touch with our dreams and hopes. It can divide us from who we are.
As Ralph Waldo Emerson claimed, “To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” Emerson lived in a time before all the technology and marketing that often gets blamed for trying to make us into something other than who we are. Those are certainly additional challenges we modern people face.
But throughout history humans have had to struggle to be themselves, to embrace their “inherent and abiding superness,” as Christian pastor and writer John Pavlovitz calls it.
Ancient and modern people alike face the struggle to bring forth what is within them, as evidenced by the words from The Gospel of Thomas. The struggles are things like other people’s opinions, judgments, and expectations as well as the busyness and grind of daily life. Too often other people’s opinions can hold a person back, daily life can wear them down, failures begin to be seen as defining, and one’s inherent worth and dignity gets forgotten.
I’m not suggesting the world isn’t joyful and glorious and that we don’t ever dream big dreams. Nor am I suggesting that we never make mistakes and should be self-satisfied. But I suspect that most of us lose track of what it means to be ourselves—at least from time to time—of our dreams and wishes that arise from the true, authentic depth of us.
And we may not even realize it. We may not realize how far we’ve strayed into forgetfulness or the mundane. Or how much time we spend seeking outside ourselves for ourselves. Until maybe one day we notice that we’ve lost our sparkle. That we’re feeling a little lost.
Maybe then our first thought is that we need to add something. That we have to improve ourselves in order to be whole. That who and what we are is somehow inadequate or unworthy. That what we need is not within us. Not right there within our grasp. This reminds me of the story of Hidden Treasure.
It’s a traditional story from Eastern Europe about Rabbi Eisik. The rabbi lived in a tenement flat in the Krakow in Poland. He lived in extreme poverty with his wife and children. One night he had a dream, and he believed the dream came from God. In the dream he had a vision of gold hidden beneath a bridge in the royal palace in Prague. When the dream recurred a second time and then a third time, he could no longer ignore it and he set off for Prague. There he found the bridge of his dreams. But it was guarded by sentries. He came there every morning and walked around until evening.
Finally, the chief guard asked him what he was doing in a non-threatening way. Rabbi Eisik shared his dream with the guard. The guard laughed heartily. He said, “Oh dear, you poor old fellow with your worn out shoes. You have tramped all this way for the sake of a dream! Well, that’s what happens when you trust a dream. I can tell you that if dreams were to be trusted, then I’d be on the road as well, because I once had a dream that told me to walk to Krakow and to search out a hovel in the poorest district, belonging to someone called Rabbi Eisik. There I was supposed to search behind the stove, where I could find hidden treasure. Just imagine how I was supposed to find that treasure in a strange town, where there must be hundreds of Rabbi Eisiks!” Eisik bowed graciously to the guard. Then he turned back home. There he found the treasure hidden closer to him than he could ever have imagined. (from 100 Wisdom Stories, ed. Margaret Silf)
After traveling far in search of hidden treasure, the rabbi must return home to discover it. It was right there all along.
And so it is that the Gospel of Thomas claims that “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you.” And sometimes, like the Rabbi, we might have to travel around—even great distances—to be reminded to look at home. And sometimes we might have to envision that hidden treasure.
In the story of “The Woodcarver,” the master carver envisioned the bell stand within the tree. The carver envisioned the bell stand hidden with the tree. He could see the hidden potential. (Chuang Tzu, The Way of Chuang Tzu by Thomas Merton)
But you know, in order for that bell stand to get carved out of that tree, for that hidden potential to be realized, something else had to happen. Some things needed to be left behind. Including the tree. Bringing forth what is within us means embracing a vision and also leaving some things behind.
It sometimes means unbecoming, as Albert Schweitzer calls it. We may need to leave things behind—the parts of ourselves that aren’t true to who we are, that are no longer true or never were. Ideas, beliefs, habits, attitudes, relationships, old ways of seeing ourselves that got built up over time and need to be released.
Albert Schweitzer wrote that “The path of awakening is not about becoming who you are. Rather it is about unbecoming who you are not.” So sometimes we have to untangle from all those layers that have been placed on us that have masked what is our truest nature.
Letting go of religious beliefs that keep us divided is one example. Some of us left the church of our childhood, including me. I know what it means to unbecome who I was religiously speaking. I have had to unravel what I do not believe—about God, Jesus, heaven and hell, the Bible, sin, and so much more—in order to discover what I do believe.
I grew up in a Christian family, attending a United Methodist Church. Part of that unbecoming for me was spending my young adult years unchurched, spiritual but not religious, as they say. That vacuum was uncomfortable. It took me many years to find my way to Unitarian Universalism. Then I stumbled into Unitarian Universalism and ministry. I began to be able to bring forth what was within me.
I felt fortunate. My parents and family were very accepting. And my mother, in particular, was very proud of me being a minister. She attended my graduation from seminary, my ordination to ministry, and my installation here as your minister, along with my father. She was always quick to tell people about her daughter, the minister.
But my mother also once told me she wished I were a Christian minister. Yes, that stung a bit. But I understood what she meant. I didn’t take it as a criticism. I realized that when we love someone we often want to share what we love most with them. My mother loved her church. I think that my choice to be Unitarian Universalist must have felt like a rejection of what was important and meaningful to her. And it was, it was a rejection of sorts. Not of her, of course, but of the teachings I could not accept.
For me, unbecoming meant leaving behind the church I grew up in so that I could find my inner Unitarian Universalist. Unitarian Universalism has helped me to be whole, to better integrate the various parts of who I am. It is where my inner self and my outer self are in greatest alignment.
You see, to discover our inner wholeness, that hidden potential of ours, is to begin to live a life of integrity. It is to have a consistency between who we are inside and how we present ourselves to the outside world. It is to live from “the still small voice” of one’s own conscience and one’s own truth.
In other words, to be in touch with the inner life—to know who we are from deep inside—is to live an undivided life rather than one in which we are separated from our true selves or one in which we feel we need to conceal parts of who we are.
And when we embrace our own definition of who we are, we begin to embrace our superness, as John Pavlovitz calls it. We learn to risk our own superness rather than celebrating distant superheroes for theirs. We learn to value and thrust ourselves into our own superness and claim our own superpowers. (Hope and Other Superpowers, John Pavlovitz)
You don’t have to be able to scale tall buildings or have super strength, invisibility, or telepathy. That would be really cool though, wouldn’t it? But to live a life of wholeness does require that we get in touch with our own superpowers—whether that’s kindness, listening, parenting, or creativity.
What matters is that we each embrace that “glory [we] were made for” and embrace “the ever-present opportunities [we] have to still be super.” (Pavlovitz) When we do that, when we name our own truth—of belief, identity, superness—a strange and wonderful thing happens. The bell stand gets crafted.
What is the secret? To allow the work of the spirit. To encounter the hidden potential in the wood. To have a lived encounter with oneself and the other. To create something of beauty.
“There is in all things . . . a hidden wholeness.” There is in you a wholeness. “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you.”
May it be so. Blessed be.