Hope in Absurdity

In the Shetland Islands, far off the northern coast of Scotland, the story is told of a widow names Mallie and her son. They lived together in a small, meager house, with only the burning peat – clumps of rich sod – in the fireplace to keep them warm through the harsh winters. Each year, before the start of winter, Mallie was able to store away one bushel of potatoes, one bag of oats, and one small barrel of herring, – which together needed to last them the whole season long. But while Mallie ate the same amount each winter that went by, her son was a growing child, and rightly hungry. So it was that there came to be a winter in which their modest stores of food ran out well before the arrival of spring. The cupboards, the jars, and the pots of their little home: all were bare. With nothing left to eat Mallie’s son asked her how they would survive. Doing her best to stay calm and hopeful for her son, she answered that they would have to turn to their neighbors for help.

After the first hungry night, Mallie sent her son to the cottage nearest to their own. He knocked on the door and told the old woman who answered the hard truth: he and his mother had run short of food. Would she share with her neighbors a bit of her own, so that they would not starve before spring? Over the old woman’s shoulder, the young man could see that there were goodly stores in the kitchen – not enough for a feast, perhaps, but enough that the old woman could share from her own and not go hungry herself. But she scowled at him, shouted that he should be ashamed at coming to her door to beg, and turned him away. He returned to his mother empty-handed. He raged at the selfishness of the old woman. Mallie said to her son, “Some folk are like that; be glad that we are different.”

That night, about the time when they might have had supper if any was to be had, there came a knock at the door. Mallie answered it, and saw there a tired, hungry-looking old man. He asked if she could spare a bit of food for a hungry traveler. She told him that there was no food to be had throughout the house, but offered him a fire to warm himself by, at least. After she brought in her guest she went to the herring barrel. There were no fish left, as she knew, but there was still a good bit of brine. And considering this, she went from this jar to that pot to that bowl and she scraped up every last bit of the tiny fragments of food that remained there. What she was able to pull together was a teacup’s worth of potato skin, gristle, and crumbs, and by mixing it with the brine and heating it over the fire she made a very small portion of salty, gray soup. There was enough for half a bowl each for all three of them, and as unsavory as it was, Mallie, her son, and their guest were each very glad and very grateful to have anything to eat at all. The traveler thanked them heartily. “It is a rare and special gift when someone shares the last that they have.”

Mallie apologized to the stranger again that she could not offer him a bed for the night, but told him he was welcome to spend the night in a chair before the fire – a kindness he gladly accepted. The next morning, Mallie rose to stoke the fire and found that her guest had departed early, before she or her son was awake. She picked up a hunk of peat to feed the fire with, and, deciding it was too big to burn all at once, she broke it in two with her hands. As the sod broke apart, something fell out of the middle of it and jangled on the ground: a single gold coin. Shocked, she picked up another and split it. And another, and another. Time and again, coins fell to the floor until every last bit of peat in the house had been pulled apart and Mallie and her son had enough money to live off of comfortably for the rest of their days. They had been rescued from starvation just as she had hoped, though in an unexpectedly dramatic way, from an unexpected source.

This sermon is the fifth in a monthly series on the Five Smooth Stones of Religious Liberalism, a distillation of the stream of religious thought to which Unitarian Universalism belongs originally proposed by James Luther Adams, one of our most influential theological thinkers. Adams had a habit of writing long, and writing dense, so that his ideas did not arrive pre-summarized. But, as a reminder, attempted to give you a one-line heading for each of them, as follows:

  1. Revelation is not sealed.
  2. The only just relationships are free relationships.
  3. Our purpose is to work towards a just and loving community.
  4. Actions, people, and institutions must be judged not only by their intentions, but also by their effects.
  5. It is possible to change the world for the better, therefore there is cause for hope.

Today’s subject is the fifth smooth stone: It is possible to change the world for the better, therefore there is cause for hope. This appears as a two-part thesis: first that it is possible, by human action, to make the world better than it currently is, and second that this fact, once established, is reason enough for hope. But these two seemingly separate components actually flow back and forth, informing each other. Because hope itself is, in fact, powerful enough to change the world.

          Consider this small story from the Warring States period, long ago in China, at a time when that land was made up of many different nations and all of them made war against each other. In that age there lived a great and clever general named Cao Cao. Cao Cao led a mighty army, and he won many battles, and it was on the way to one such battle that he and the soldiers he led found themselves with a very serious problem: they ran out of water.

          It was a hot summer, you see, and it had not rained for many weeks. The rivers and streams they crossed on their march had all run dry. The soldiers grew thirsty. They began to complain. Their pace slowed, and it seemed that they might not find the strength enough to reach their destination. Seeing that his army needed relief from their dry throats and parched mouths, the general Cao Cao rode his horse to the head of the ranks and he made an announcement.

He told his forces that from atop his horse, at the crest of the last hill, he had seen in the distance a forest of plum trees ahead. In the hot days of summer, those plums would be juicy and sweet enough to quench any thirst. Hearing this, the soldier’s mouths began to water, thinking of the delicious flavor of the fruit. This was enough to relieve them for a little while, and with new strength, they pressed on, and reached their destination.

Now, I can say with some confidence that none of us are, at this moment, marching through China in the sweltering heat. But I am just as confident that we all know what it is to be spiritually thirsty: to be weighed down with souls that are parched and dry, worn out and tired. When our hearts feel spent by the sorrows and disappointments of living, it can feel like all our rivers have run dry. But when we hold before ourselves and each other the promise of the sweetness of life, the hope that is ever a part of the world and springs anew again and again, something happens in us. We grow a little stronger, we regain a bit of our capacity for creativity and compassion. Our souls are refreshed from within just by anticipating the potential for love and truth and justice and peace that lies ahead of us in the unwritten future. The world itself gets better, simply by entertaining the possibility that it can.

Iktsuarpok is a word that comes from the Inuit language family – the tongues spoken by the native peoples of Greenland, northern Canada and Alaska. There’s an old chestnut that says the Inuit have more than fifty words for snow. That’s almost certainly an exaggeration, or at least it depends on what your meaning of the word ‘word’ is. In any case, iktsuarpok has nothing at all to do with that white fluffy stuff that we usually see more of this time of year.

Sometimes on a Sunday morning, if things are sort of quiet and reasonably well in order before the service, I’ll step out the front door and look outside for a moment. I’ll look up and down Cabot Street, and greet whoever happens to be walking by. This, it turns out, is iktsuarpok: the feeling of anticipation of someone coming to visit you that is so great, that you keep looking out the window or going outside to see if they’re on their way yet.

Sound familiar? Certainly, you have seen this behavior before if you’ve ever lived in the same house with a dog. Running back and forth, hopping up on furniture to look out this window or that: who’s there? Is anybody there? There’s some of that same spirit in every one of us, though, and not just when we are hosting a dinner party and everyone is late. Living is hard, so hard we cannot do it all on our own. The soul yearns for company – now, it doesn’t always like company, and it doesn’t always want the company that it gets. But even in a crowd, on a bus, or walking down a busy street, it is easy to feel alone. So our inner self scrambles from one corner of our mind to the other, jumping up onto our egos to look out through our eyes: who’s there? Is anyone there? And just as much as for company, we yearn for lives which have meaning and a palpable sense of value. And that yearning can make our hearts behave like a frantic puppy, bounding about in energetic anticipation of the possible. That itksuarpok of the heart is the buoyant, exuberant manifestation of hope.

The great Czech playwright, revolutionary, and ultimately politician, Vaclav Havel, struggled creatively and imaginatively against totalitarian communism in his home country – what was then Czechoslovakia – for most of his adult life. For decades, the iron curtain that enveloped his nation and most of its neighbors seemed completely immutable. But then, in short order, the unflinching regime collapsed. Prisons were emptied, elections were held, and something that Havel found truly baffling occurred: he was swept into office as arguably the first playwright to become the leader of a modern nation state. This was particularly absurd to Vaclav Havel because of what transpired just a few months before he came into office. After a bonfire with some artists friends in the countryside outside Prague, an entirely sober Havel was helping one of his more inebriated friends find their way home, down an unlit road in the dark. Somehow, the future head of state fell into an open sewer; one which was rather full of the sort of material one fears, but expects, to find in a sewer.

Suddenly submerged in a pool of – well, a word that I’m not going to use from the pulpit – Havel was in trouble. Some friends began to scramble around the edge of the hole with flashlights, making different attempts at a rescue, while he focused his energies on trying to swim. It was a good bit of time before anyone had the wise idea to run and fetch a long ladder. The situation was momentarily a hopeless one – few things will suck the hope out of you like being trapped in a lightless sewer pit. But hope still managed to reach into that forsaken place – hope is, Havel said,

a state of mind, not a state of the world. Either we have hope within us or we don’t. Hope is not a prognostication — it’s an orientation of the spirit. Each of us must find real, fundamental hope within himself. You can’t delegate that to anyone else.

Hope in this deep and powerful sense is not the same as joy when things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but rather an ability to work for something to succeed. Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It’s not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out. It is this hope, above all, that gives us strength to live and to continually try new things, even in conditions that seem as hopeless as ours do, here and now. In the face of this absurdity, life is too precious a thing to permit its devaluation by living pointlessly, emptily, without meaning, without love, and, finally, without hope.[i]

In the Shetland Islands tale of Mallie and her son and the story does not end with the arrival of the magical gold coins. For their neighbor, the unkind old woman who would not share her abundance to rescue them from hunger, saw their wealth and was jealous of it. She spied on their little house for a time, and saw Mallie and her son break up the peat to let the coins roll out. And that night, as they slept, the unkind old woman snuck into their house and stole off with as many armloads of peat chunks as she could carry. She took them back to her own home and began to break them apart. But inside each one, instead of a gold coin, she found a living mouse, which fell to her floor and scampered off to her kitchen. Possessed by greed, she kept up the same process, hoping for a different outcome, until all of the peat was broken apart and her home was filled with hungry mice, who quickly ate up all her stores of food.

So it was that, hungry and destitute, the old woman came to knock on the door of the house where Mallie lived with her son. The son answered, and the woman begged, and the son reminded her of how cruelly and callously she had treated him, when their situation had been reversed. He made to send her away empty, but from behind his shoulder, Mallie reminded the young man, saying, “Some people are like that, yes. But didn’t I teach you to be glad that we are different?” And so they welcomed their hungry neighbor into their home, to share in what they had.

There are two types of miracle in this story. There is the wondrous, startling gift of the gold coins, and there is also the entirely possible but no less wonderous miracle of returning cruelty with kindness. I’m glad for both sorts, in the world we share – certainly, lives can be saved by either means. But my hope is in the second sort: the every-day wonder that in a wounded and ailing world, we may still reach out towards each other with generous souls.

[i]From “Never Hope Against Hope,” Esquire Magazine, October 1993: http://www.esquire.com/blogs/politics/vaclav-havel-hope-6619552