After the Storm

The Rev. Susan Milnor
November 12, 2017

This fall, one storm followed another, battering those in its path.  After fierce hurricanes swept through Texas, the Caribbean Islands, and Florida, Dante-esque fires ravaged California, and a terrible earthquake shook Mexico.  When the weather forecast raises your blood pressure as much as the news, you know times are stressful.  That doesn’t even take into account the cultural storms causing the social barometer to show that Americans believe we are at the lowest point in American history. Times are stressful. 

One day, just when I needed it most, an online video caught my attention.  In Houston, after Hurricane Harvey, a man was trapped inside an SUV submerged under flooding waters. As the driver with the camera approached, it seemed clear that the man would drown.  But other travelers had seen him, stopped, and now, led by the first one who made it to the vehicle, they grasped each other’s hands in the water to form a human chain.  They got the man out of the car and passed him from one person to another until he reached safe ground.   What is it the old hymn says, “From hand to hand, the blessing flows. . .? “

Even if you have not lived through a hurricane, nearly everyone in this room has experienced the trauma of a close death, illness, medical treatments, financial loss, divorce or family estrangement, violence or harassment. Yet look around you.  We are here.  We carry on. Most often we recover and become stronger. Somehow, we are resilient enough to find the courage to live in this terrible but wonderful world.  As Vanessa Southern says in today’s reading, we hang onto the threshold frame “until the world stops shaking, and we have our new-world legs under us.

Resilience, it seems, has become a self-help subject; we want to get it for ourselves or our children.  And the research is interesting. People who, in the literature, “bounce back” after trauma apparently have core sets of beliefs or values, strong support networks, good role models. One interesting bit of research showed that even mindfulness meditation can help develop resilience.

That’s all fine and good.  But something about the profoundly spiritual nature of resilience is missing, and it centers on the fact that resilience exists because of give- and- take bonds between people.  It exists when we witness each other’s humanity and come more deeply into touch with our own.  Indeed, when a psychologist studying resilience wrote the Dalai Lama to ask if he could study Tibetan Buddhist monks to see how meditation changes the structure and function of their brains, the Dalai Lama said, yes if the scientist devoted “as much time to studying the effects of kindness and compassion on the brain.”

The roots of the word compassion mean “suffering with.” Compassion isn’t pity or indulgence; it’s feeling with others, meeting them where they are. It’s a critical function of religion and one of the most fundamental reason we are here on this New Member Sunday or on any Sunday at all.

That, above all, has come to mind and broken many of our hearts in these past few weeks with the “me too” hashtag [#metoo] that went viral and elicited story after story by women, and some of other genders, of sexual harassment and abuse. Online I have “listened” as women have spoken of the storms that have battered us – rape, abuse, intimidation, diminishment -- and left us wondering what will come next as we try to heal the devastation in the days and years that follow.  As a tradition of faith, what do we do with that? We could today speak of statistics, showing how many women report such events, and how many, many more never do because of fear, shame, or isolation.  Tales of the social and economic ramifications of speaking up and the spiritual and psychological effects of staying quiet could occupy hours. And do we doubt for a second that we are called to justice because surely anyone who is vulnerable because of gender wants this climate to change?   I have had “#metoo” events in my own life, and I could spin out for you the years it took me to get head, heart, and soul together.

But what strikes me as most amazing is the resilience I have witnessed.  You see, for some people resilience is not about bouncing back from one or two traumatic experiences over decades, which is the way the literature often makes it sound. Instead, it’s a way of life.  That’s what the history behind last week’s jazz service embodies for people of color. It’s true when it comes to gender as well. If it’s not your experience, then try to imagine it.  Imagine the need always to be aware of the footsteps behind you on a street or automatically to search for the next doorway into which you could duck for protection.  Can you envision having to worry whether it’s safe to “take a meeting” at work or whether the hotel room you are given on a business trip is too near an unregulated entrance? What about being a young woman wondering if you should accept a drink that a date puts in front of you?   Imagine losing a promotion because you did not go along with the boss’ overtures.  In the past few weeks, I have learned that nearly every friend and most of my female colleagues have had these experiences.  These stories are not just out there, in the news; they are in this room.

But look around you.   We are here.  We carry on. When we have a core belief in our own worth, and in the equal worth of other people, we come back to ourselves.  When we get to know people who live their truth honestly, even in the swirling hours after the storm strikes, we begin to see the future in new ways.  When we live in community with others who hear our stories and tell their own, people with whom we share belief and respect, we grow stronger than we ever foresaw. Everything the experts say about resilience is true when you dive into the daily waters of people who live it and see it not as a response to aberration, but as a life long journey we make so that, at the end, we can say, simply, “Yes, me too.  I found life good too.”

These matters are not easy to talk about; I understand the vulnerabilities on all sides.  In the past weeks, I have also “listened” as men I know have been shocked by the quake of stories from friends and colleagues.  It’s one thing to read about disturbing acts of Hollywood moguls, politician, or magazine publishers; it’s another to hear the truth from those you respect, and about those you respect.  It’s hard to reflect on your own words and actions.

But breaking the barrier of silence serves us well if we want the world to change. Think of the potential of communities like ours to be the safe thresholds of resilience for our people. As a faith tradition, we are committed to compassion, as expressed in our Second Unitarian Universalist Principle: “We agree to affirm and promote justice, equity and compassion in human relations. Our willingness to listen and understand and even feel the suffering of others becomes a source of resilience for us all.  Our words count. And it’s extremely important for you to know that I welcome hearing your stories confidentially if you need to speak them. From mouth to ear the blessings flows.

Along with the video from Houston, another captured my attention this week.  It was, oddly, a Ted Talk by Emtithal "Emi" Mahmoud, a young woman of incredible resilience who was born in Dafur and grew up learning what it takes to survive as genocide rages and knowing that as a person of her race and gender she was supposed never to speak about it.  By age fourteen she was living as a refugee in Philadelphia, where a teacher offered her the opportunity to speak.  After she began, another student asked her not to continue because her stories made the rest of them uncomfortable.  But with the teacher’s encouragement, she continued, and that’s when what she calls “the magic” happened. People listened, and nearly everyone spoke. Now a poet who won last year’s International Poetry Jam and met with then President Obama, Mahmoud, who is concerned for vulnerable people everywhere, reminds us how much all our lives are deepened by such honesty: 

When someone is standing in front of you, mind, body and soul, saying ‘Witness me,’ it's impossible not to become keenly aware of your own humanity. This changed everything for me. It gave me courage. Every day I experience the power of witness, and because of that, I am whole. And so now I ask: Will you witness me?”

Dear Ones, I will witness you.  We can witness each other. That’s how we build resilience. It is how we survive the storms and how we grasp, sometimes awkwardly, for that hand outstretched to us in a human chain of compassion. Or is it we who are reaching for the other’s hand? Well, no matter.  In the end, it is all one.


TED.  A young poet tells the story of Darfur.  Mahmoud, Emtithal, 2016.
Oaklander, Mandy.  “How to Bounce Back,” Time Special Edition:  The Science of Happiness, September, 2017.