Neighborhood Unitarian Universalist Church

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1 Part 1 Neighborhood Unitarian Universalist Church Good Morning Pasadena! We Are All Robin Williams Rev. Dr. Jim Nelson, Senior Minister October 26, N. Orange Grove Blvd. Pasadena, CA (626) One of my very favorite books is Lying Awake by Mark Saltzman, who I believe lives in La Canada. The story is about a young nun who lives in a cloistered convent here in LA. This all takes place I would guess in the 1970 s, so rather recent. She is prone to episodes of mystical visions in which she feels the presence of God so very closely. She writes poetry from these visions and they have found their way into the liturgy, the worship services, of the convent. What she writes is beautiful and inspiring and soon her work becomes widely known among cloistered orders and the convent sells her work to others, becoming an important source of income for them. Her episodes become more and more serious and she passes out a number of times, so the Mother Superior sends her to a neurologist to be examined. Remember, she is cloistered. That means there is no contact with the outside world. Ever thought that sounds good to be cut off from the noise and the busyness of this world, to live in a quiet community where people care for each other, where there was no violence, no driving on freeways and so on? Ever want to stop the noise of the world, all of the noise, the demands of modern living? One of Kathe s favorite children s book we would read to the girls was titled Five Minutes Peace. The world is too much with us goes the line of poetry. A cloister sounds wonderful sometimes. Seeking peace from the mania of the world or the mania of our own minds. I know I look for quiet, and because I do, I have a spiritual practice. I write prayers; I sit in meditation; I seek peace and quiet. That is what I have done on my Thursdays for ten years here. It has been my retreat day, the time to feed my soul by creating enough space in my life to hear that inner voice we all have. [Remember this when Hannah or your new senior minister takes time for themselves. I hope you will insist they take time for quiet and reflection.] Anyway, she goes to see the neurologist. It is quite an adventure for her going outside the walls of the convent. She is examined and told to come back in several weeks for the results. She does and her doctor is pleased with his findings. She has temporal lobe epilepsy and her particular case can be solved with surgery. He tells her You ll be good as new and you won t be disturbed by your visions or your seizures anymore. So, what to do? Have the surgery and lose the visions? Keep the visions and probably experience an increase in intensity, and perhaps serious damage?

2 It is thought that van Gogh and Dostoevsky had temporal lobe epilepsy. Chopin and Poe, Sylvia Plath and Philip K. Dick. Flaubert. Dostoevsky describes an episode like this: For several instants I experience a happiness that is impossible in an ordinary state, and of which other people have no conception. I feel full harmony in myself and in the whole world, and the feeling is so strong and sweet that for a few seconds of such bliss one could give up ten years of life, perhaps all of life. I felt that heaven descended to earth and swallowed me. I really attained god and was imbued with him. All of you healthy people don't even suspect what happiness is, that happiness that we epileptics experience for a second before an attack. It is sometimes called the mystical disease, as visions are common. Would you have surgery? What is the price we pay, or that some pay, for their gifts? The first LP [that is a record, long playing] I ever bought was a recording of Dylan Thomas reading his own poetry and parts of Under Milkwood. He suffered from deep depression and alcoholism he drank himself to death but said it was the source of his own particular music. Was that price worth it? Robin Williams. I think my very favorite Robin Williams bit is from Aladdin [though the stand-up take on the origins of golf is pretty close], especially when he first comes out of the bottle and does the amazing riff and series of impressions from Arnold Schwarzenegger to Ed Sullivan. Even William F Buckley! He was protean comedian, serious actor, child, adult, Popeye and Mrs. Doubtfire. He had multitudes in him. It is perhaps appropriate that the poet used most often in Dead Poets Society is Walt Whitman [and no accident, I believe, that Walt Whitman plays a role in Breaking Bad]. So this is what I mean: We are all like that. No one of is just one person, just one thing; we all contain characters of sorts, some at odds with each other. And I don t mean the different roles we play not as in I am a father and a husband, a minister and a golfer, a friend and a brother. Not that. We are all like Robin Williams in that we are all inhabited by characters that live side by side in us. Mostly they are at peace, and mostly get along. But sometimes not. As you know, I worked for over two years as a chaplain in a large psychiatric facility in Washington DC. Most of the patients there had lived there for a long, long time. The average residency on one of the wards where I worked was 47 years.

3 There were inpatient wards too. Lots of drug overdoes PCP was a real plague at that time, alcohol. There were people diagnosed with depression and schizophrenia; there were psychopaths and borderline personalities. There were good people and not so good people. We used to say the mentally ill were just like us only more so. So Robin Williams. He was more like us only more so. But we are all Mork ever feel like an alien? Mrs. Doubtfire ever feel like the other gender? We are Popeye and a grieving therapist, a mystery writer, murderer, a teacher, a genie. Ever felt those parts at war with each other, ever wished that there would be peace within? I have asked a number of people if they would like to be Robin Williams. No one has said yes. Part 2 Robin Williams often said that Jonathon Winters was his great inspiration, but the name that comes to my mind when I think of Robin Williams is Paul Tillich, the German Lutheran theologian of the mid-20 th century - in my mind the very best theological thinker in a long, long time. One of the central ideas in his thinking was that we live in an age of anxiety. This is as true today as it was in the middle of the last century when Tillich was writing. For Tillich, anxiety is different from fear in that it has no fixed object. He categorized anxiety in three ways The anxiety of fate and death The anxiety of guilt and condemnation The anxiety of emptiness and meaninglessness The last one he said was spiritual anxiety and this is the one we deal with most profoundly here, though we also deal with if we take our mission seriously the other kinds of anxiety, but the feeling of emptiness or meaninglessness is the particular target of the spiritual life. Tillich said that courage was the response to anxiety and that we have and need two kinds of courage. There is the courage to be as a self and the courage to be as a part of something larger. These are held in tension being a self separates us from others and being a part means mitigating the sense of the self. Courage is found when we hold these two elements of our life in a creative tension. Make sense? The task of the spiritual life is to find those ways and practices that help us find and strengthen our sense of self so that we can also be a part of something larger. But first the self. We are good at this we UUs. We worship the individual. Freedom of belief, freedom of expression, no creed, no dogma. These are all testaments to our belief in the self. We love the individual. We make an idolatry of it at times, but it is at the heart of our faith. It is Emerson all the way down.

4 But there is another point here to be a part and let me bring Robin Williams back in. Some of his genius was his ability to present publicly the self in a way that helped all of us experience being a deeper part of the whole. His obvious mania, the sheer physicality of his humor, the disappearance of the filters between us and the world we all use, but also the pathos and the hope, the deep feeling, the grief, the need for addiction and healing these were all public in his performances. Through him, we could experience ourselves as a part of a larger humanity. He was just like us only more so. He was all of us and we are him and together we become more human, a part of the whole, the self and the whole held in tension. This is one of the jobs of public people; they carry our anxiety and they display our courage if they can. Comedians who use the darker and more fearful, the crazier parts of their lives to show us those things can be faced. They do this for us. Politicians who tackle social issues in public, they do this for us and we see both the noble and dark sides of ourselves. Teachers who carry the hopes of their students. And ministers too. In two weeks you will meet your candidate for senior ministry, and I want you to remember that we are public people. I stand up here, and have stood in front of congregations for over thirty years now, baring my soul, showing my fears and my hopes in public. I do not think I am noble than that. It is the job. But it takes it toll being something for others. Hopefully, it has helped you connect not only to your self but to something larger. I understand, I think. Robin Williams suicide. This was not a failure or defeat on his part. There comes the time, over and over again, when you leave the stage, or the classroom, when you leave the sanctuary, that a deep and profound sorrow sometimes takes over. When the lights go down and darkness comes. Anxiety returns after the stimulation of being present. It is the anxiety of emptiness. Was I OK? Did anything I do make sense or reach people? Who am I to stand there and pretend I know something? There comes a time and maybe it did for Williams that he was done, that he was too tired of being everyone, of carrying so much of the human condition for us. Maybe his courage had run out; maybe he wanted to retreat into the only cloister he could imagine, that one that awaits us all. We will never know. But we do know, because of him, that anxiety can be met with courage and that it can be a whole lot of fun. He was a good actor but he was an astonishing comedian. He understood play, that pathos has its funny side and that humor has its dark side; that it is all mixed up in our lives. Imagine being the genie. All powerful but never free, having to live your life doing the bidding of others. Maybe that is just who Robin Williams was a genie. Powerful he was really something when he got going but never really free. He was not free of our expectations of him, not free of the drive to please, to play, to understand the demons that exist in all of us.

5 The thing about him is that he never seemed to think he was better than anyone. He never seemed arrogant. He was courageous he fought his demons. Sometimes they won and sometimes he won. But he persevered. We are all like that or can be. So, maybe the Whitman quote belongs here, from the end of Dead Poet s Society. Think of Robin Williams, and those like him who show us something special about being human. O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done, The ship has weather d every rack, the prize we sought is won, The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting, While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring; But O heart! heart! heart! O the bleeding drops of red, Where on the deck my Captain lies, Fallen cold and dead. O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells; Rise up for you the flag is flung for you the bugle trills, For you bouquets and ribbon d wreaths for you the shores a-crowding, For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning; Here Captain! dear father! This arm beneath your head! It is some dream that on the deck, You ve fallen cold and dead. My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still, My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will, The ship is anchor d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done, From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won; Exult O shores, and ring O bells! But I with mournful tread, Walk the deck my Captain lies, Fallen cold and dead.

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