If I Could Do It All Over Again

Sermon by Rev. Diane Rollert, September 14 2014

“What does it mean to seek a life of engagement?” As I thought about the overarching question of this month’s theme, Greg Brown’s song If I Had Known was the soundtrack that started to play in my mind.  Engagement is a broad topic:  the topics chosen as themes for each month of this church year are broad because they give us room to be creative and playful and thoughtful at the same time.  (That’s why we playfully listened to the full song through the church sound system as a set up to this sermon.)

There’s the internal engagement we feel within ourselves as we interact with our personal world.  Are we really here?  Are we present to our lives? Are we awake and aware and involved in our lives?  There’s our external engagement with the world.  How deeply do we engage others?  Are we passionately engaged in something that could make a difference?  Do we care about others, about climate change, about dialogue or about creating peace?  Where might we take one step toward deeper engagement in our lives?  

During the few weeks that we consider this theme, we’ll approach it from several perspectives.  Next week, you’ll hear from four members of the congregation who will speak about engagement in their lives. You’ll hear stories of a translator’s unexpected milestone moment, a student preparing to become a funeral director, a financial advisor finding ways to make a difference in the world, and a wise elder who has found a lifeline through Al-anon, the twelve-step program for family and friends of alcoholics.  Meanwhile, I’ll be in New York City at the People’s March for Climate Change, engaging with others from this community as well as Montrealers and UUs from around the world.  

During the last week of this month, we’ll look at engagement from the perspective of how we interact with each other.  What does it mean to share in compassionate communication? We have a special guest who is a coach trained in a method called ‘authentic dialogue’, who will engage us in an exercise during the service and then lead us in an afternoon workshop.  Everyone is invited, and a group has volunteered to make lunch for us. I hope you’ll join me because this is a tremendous opportunity for us to strengthen our skills in engagement as a community.  

Ok.  Back to the song.  In the first verse of If I Had Known, Greg paints a picture of himself as a young boy with a best friend fishing in a little creek.  The grownups of the town say, “There ain’t no fish in there!”  But the boys cast their lines one last time and out come two five-pound bass “makin’ grown men liars.”
Jimmy, if I had known,
I might have stopped fishing right then.
It's just as well we don't know
When things’ll never be that good again.

The second verse:  a first kiss on an autumn hayride.
And Jane, if I had known
I might have stopped kissing right then.
It's just as well we don't know
When things’ll never be that good again.

The last verse is about first love, an August night of meteorites and shooting stars, when the lovers go “on a ride through the sky that night.”  
And, oh, if I had known,
I'd do it all over again.
Some things just get better and better
And better than they’ve already been.

You can laugh as you fill in the blanks.  Please don’t be mortified.  Here we honour the fullness of positive human expression.  Our bodies are equally as sacred as our minds.  I’d say Greg is talking about adult experience, not so much about sex and romance but about the contrast between childhood’s first experiences, of early innocence, of the beginner’s perspective that can never be felt again, and the richness of life as it evolves, as we experience sorrow and joy, disappointments and satisfactions.

To paraphrase Aldous Huxley: Experience is not what happens to us, it is what we do with what happens to us.

As I followed this thought, I asked myself why Greg Brown’s song has always spoken to me.  To be honest, I don’t have a collection of wonderful early “first” experiences to compare with his.  No prize-winning fish, no prize-winning anything.  That first kiss?  Pretty rotten. There were no meteorites or shooting stars for me as I came of age.  But I can attest to a constant getting better and better in my life, and I can tell you stories of a thousand beautiful firsts from childhood:  the first strawberry I ever ate, the first avocado (so exotic at the time), the first fireflies on a summer night, the first hike in a forest, the first time I heard a favourite bedtime story, the first skate on a frozen pond, the first thrilling ride on the back of a horse that almost bucked me off while I held on for dear life.  

I can look back on the past and remember those things that will never be the same again.  The music that Sandra chose to play today is exactly that -– a collection of songs that sent her over the moon when she was young and played them for the first time.  She tells me that she still feels great affection for these pieces, but nothing compares to the way she felt that first time ‘round.  Now there is wisdom and appreciation in any music she approaches for the first time, but nothing like the young student’s sense of revelation that led her to become the great pianist she is today.

I think of the excerpt from the Walt Whitman poem you heard (in French!) earlier.  
There was a child went forth every day;
And the first object he look’d upon, that object he became;
And that object became part of him for the day, or a certain part of the day, or                                        
 for many years, or stretching cycles of years.

--Leaves of Grass

We may not be able to do it all over again, yet those first experiences of everything we encounter shape us and become part of us.  My question is whether, as we grow and age, do we remain as present to our experiences, as connected, as when we are young?  This, you could say, is the Buddhist’s call to be mindful in everything we do.  As great Buddhist teachers like Thich Nat Hahn would say, “Why be mindful only when we set a dedicated time to meditate?  Why not be present to each moment of our lives, from the beginning of the day until its end?”

Yet we can live with deep dissatisfaction from moment to moment.  Right?  If we are honest, we probably spend more time than we’d like complaining to ourselves if not to somebody else.  The room is too hot or cold, the radiator is buzzing, I’ve got too many things to do, I can’t stop obsessing about a troubling interaction with a friend, and so on.  The Buddhist would say that our desires lead to suffering.  And I wonder, does our desire for what once was get in the way of our appreciation of what is?  Do we look back wistfully to the past or do we look too far forward into what might be, forgetting where we are right now?

Do you remember The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff?  Hoff’s project was to write a book that could both explain the principles of Taoism through the children’s book Winnie-the-Pooh and Winnie-the-Pooh through the principles of Taoism.  And yes, when he proposed the book, his critics said it was the stupidest thing they’d ever heard.  But if you can set aside the adult critic you’ve become and return to the vision of your childhood innocence, the book is a joy to read – and brilliant.

Young Christopher Robin asks his bumbling, hapless teddy bear, “What do you like doing best in the world, Pooh?”
“Well,” said Pooh, “what I like best--” and then he had to stop and think.  Because although Eating Honey was a very good thing to do, there was a moment just before you began to eat it, which was better than when you were, but he didn’t know what it was called.

The Taoist says that there’s nothing like the anticipation of the goal or the sweet honey that you’re about to eat.  Once you have it, well, it just isn’t the same as when you were about to have it.  Rewards themselves are ephemeral – I admit I often think this as I eat chocolate or gelato.  Why can’t the experience of that sweetness last forever?  Why is it gone before I’ve remembered to truly savour it?  And that’s the trick.  You have to be present not to the anticipation before or the lack afterwards, but to be aware of the process itself, even if it lasts only an instant.   For the Taoist, this reaches beyond the sweet and the pleasurable in life.   Rather than turning away from the suffering or “the dust of the world,” we are called to “join the dust of the world,” to appreciate and work with whatever happens in everyday life.  When we focus on the process of our lives, both good and bad, and not the products, life itself becomes sweet.  Which, yes, I know sounds so simple.  So why is it so hard for us to practice?  Hoff says that foolish Pooh has it figured out better than most of us.  Here’s Pooh’s answer to the question about what he likes best:

And then he thought that being with Christopher Robin was a very good thing to do, and having [his companion] Piglet near was a friendly thing to have; and so, when he had thought it all out, he said, “What I like best in the whole world is Me and Piglet going to see You, and You saying ‘What about a little something?’ and Me saying, ‘Well, I shouldn’t mind a little something, should you, Piglet,’ and it being a hummy sort of day outside, and birds singing.”

Can some things get better and better?  I know they do.  I recently found this beautiful passage written by the poet philosopher John O’Donohue [from his book Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom.]  He writes:

“Old age is a time of second innocence.  There is the first innocence when we are children; but that innocence is based on naïve trust and ignorance.  The second innocence comes later in your life, when you have lived deeply.  You know the bleakness of life, you know its incredible capacity to disappoint and sometimes destroy.  Yet notwithstanding that realistic recognition of life’s negative potential, you still maintain an outlook that is wholesome and hopeful and bright.  That is a second kind of innocence.  It is lovely to meet an old person whose face is deeply lined, a face that has been deeply inhabited, to look in the eyes and find light there.  That light is innocent; it is not inexperienced but rather it is innocent in its trust in the good and the true and the beautiful.  You feel good and wholesome in that kind of company.”

I guess that’s what I’m aiming for in my life; to be fully present, to be aware, to accept that the past has shaped who I am; to make of this life what I can without regret but with growing wisdom gained from being here and now; savouring each moment, knowing that I can always be a beginner, and that things will always be different from the first time and the last time.  

May we each know with full awareness the sweetness of honey and the sweetness of friends within the messy contexts of our lives, and may we each be on a journey toward a time of second innocence.  

And, oh, if I had known,
I'd do it all over again.
Some things just get better and better
And better than they’ve already been.

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