“It’s whether you say yes or no to the serpent, to the adventure of being of alive.” ~ Joseph Campbell
Last week I attended a beautiful Vespers service at my church. Dimmed lights, silent reflection, and quiet music set the mood for a meditation on the 23rd psalm. The minister took the image of the cup that runneth over as the focus of his talk. He read a quote from Martin Luther that I haven’t been able to track down, but it spoke of the grace that comes when we stop resisting the troubles and difficulties that are a part of life, when we stop saying ‘No’ to hardship. There is a Grace that is deeper than that No, says Luther, if only we are able to affirm all that happens to us, good or bad.
In the quote, Luther describes his own experience of being “crushed in the spirit.” By enduring his anguish, by surviving it, but, more than this even, by saying Yes to it and affirming his suffering, he discovered that Grace awaits on the other side of such pain, and he knew the experience of the overflowing cup talked about in the psalm. Listening to this meditation, I was moved by the idea of a Grace deeper than No, which I take to mean that to resist a part of life is to resist the whole of life, and that pain and sorrow are not barriers to living, but are also bearers of life’s secret.
When I was in theater school, we would take classes in improvisation. One of the cardinal rules of improvisation is that you can’t say No. That doesn’t mean that you can’t actually use the word no, but that you must avoid blocking the suggestions made to you by the other actors. So, if someone says, “Gee, your sex-change operation went really well,” you can’t say, “I didn’t get a sex-change operation!” You would have to go with the suggestion. In other words, you have to adapt. But it is about more than that. To say No is to cut off the creative possibilities of the moment. As Keith Johnstone, an improvisation teacher and the creator of Theatresports, once put it, “There are people who say Yes and there are people who say No. Those who say Yes are rewarded by the adventures they have, and those who say No are rewarded by the safety they attain.”
Saying No, or blocking, is not just a problem in improv, it is a problem in life. In many ways, we have become people who are unwilling to suffer any kind of discomfort, let alone pain and suffering. Our collective mantra has become “I can’t deal with this,” or sometimes, “I don’t need this right now.” And yet we don’t always get the option to decide whether we will deal or not.
There have been many times in the past two years when I have been confronted with the question of whether I could deal, whether I was willing to face pain and loss. After my wife, Allison’s, cancer treatment was done, and she began to look and feel healthy and whole again, I realized I was having trouble opening up to her and allowing myself the emotional intimacy that was always so easy and natural for us. I had come too close to losing her and I recognized that in opening up to her, I was recommitting myself to the possibility of experiencing that agony again.
I have experienced something similar with my sister, Carla, since she was diagnosed with ALS. Beside the instinct to be near her and get every moment I can with her, there is a counter instinct in me to stay away. Pain in this situation is not just a possibility. It is a certainty. And something in me wants to run far away from it. With both Allison and Carla, there is a strong No in me that does not want to have to feel my grief. But, the thing is, the alternative is unacceptable, because it would mean not having the experience of loving and being loved by these two incredible people in my life. It would mean saying No to happiness and joy. I believe that there is a Grace deeper than No.
In my work as a psychotherapist, and in my personal experience, it has become ever clearer to me that one of the most important qualities a human being can develop is the willingness to tolerate pain and suffering. I have found that a person who has a capacity for grief usually has an even greater capacity for joy.
To deny pain and suffering is to deny life. It is to choose a less than human life. Because there is no life that will be free of difficulties, that will be spared the encounter with sorrow. To accept this is not to give in to despair. Quite the opposite. It is to develop an important strength, a strength born of an honest vulnerability. And this becomes a doorway to joy, because when we are faced with loss we remember that each moment is a gift. Life is a gift. Love is a gift.
This is not just a nice idea. It is literally true. We do not and cannot will life and love into existence. They are given as part of the condition of existence and it is our task to learn to receive them. And this is the heart of the matter. To receive these gifts means that we agree one day to let them go, to give them back, to lose them. This is what it means to say Yes to the adventure of being alive. Yes is a small word, but its implications are immense. To accept love means to accept loss. To fully accept life means we must fully accept the fact of death. But the opposite is also true. If we accept loss, we will know love. If we allow death, we will truly be alive. It is only in saying Yes that we finally come into the fullness of our true being.
Saying Yes takes courage. It takes courage, says Paul Tillich, simply to be. It can be a trial and a sacrifice, but the reward is great. Deeper than No is Grace. Passing through pain we discover joy.
At Vespers, as the minister spoke, I knew that this was a service I needed to hear. I knew as I heard about the Grace beyond No, that I was blessed to know love that caused me pain, and to know pain that taught me also about joy. At the end of the service, the sanctuary was lit only by candlelight. Everyone lingered a while in that glow, in the still silence, before, one-by-one, we each got up to leave. I wandered out into the cold, dark
If you had asked of me anything that night, I would have had only one answer: Yes, yes, yes.