“Acceptance and Action”

“Acceptance and Action”
By Doug Muder
Delivered October 9, 2016
At First Parish in Bedford


A Thought to Ponder at the Beginning:

Acceptance of what has happened is the first step to overcoming the consequences of any misfortune.

—William James

Opening words

Your job is to discover your world, and then, with your whole heart, to give yourself to it. – the Buddha

A Time for all ages

Once there was a skinny little country that sat between two big oceans. And the people who lived there thought that if they just had a canal, a big ditch full of water to connect one ocean to the other, then ships from all over the world would come to use their canal, and maybe then the country wouldn’t be so poor.

But somehow, no matter how much people talked about it, the canal never got built.

In that country lived four men. They didn’t know each other, but they had a lot in common. They were all diggers, and each one had his own shovel.

Now, the first man thought, “If I dig the canal, then for the rest of my life I’ll be famous as the Man Who Dug the Canal. And that will make me a hero to everybody.”

So one day he took his shovel and started digging. And he dug and he dug all day long, but at the end of the day what he had didn’t look anything at all like a canal. A canal would be miles long, and it would be wide and deep. But what he had made was just a hole.

So he said, “I’ll have to try harder tomorrow.”

And he did. The next day he got up really early and worked really hard. But at the end of the day, all he had was a bigger, deeper hole that still didn’t look anything like a canal. “Well tomorrow,” he said, “I’ll have to work even harder than that.”

And so that’s how his days went. Every morning he would get up a little earlier and work a little more frantically. And every night he would be a little more depressed, because deep down he was starting to realize that no matter how hard he worked and how long he stuck with it, the canal was just too big a job for one man, and he was never going to finish it.

So his days were full of frustration and failure.

The second man also thought, “If I dig the canal I’ll be a hero.” But he was a little more realistic than the first man. “I’m just one guy with a shovel,” he said. “I can’t dig a canal.” And so he did nothing.

But every night he would dream about digging the canal and being a hero. And every morning he would wake up and realize all over again that he couldn’t do it. So all day long he would sit and do nothing and complain to his shovel, as if it were all the shovel’s fault.

“Why don’t I get to be a hero? If I were a giant I could dig the canal. If you were a magic shovel I could dig the canal. Why do I have to just be an ordinary guy with an ordinary shovel? It’s not fair!”

And so his days were full of idleness and bitterness.

The third man was also realistic, and he also knew that the canal was too big a job for him, but he said, “I wonder what I can do?” So he wandered all over the country, looking for useful things that a man with a shovel could do.

And he found them. In the winter he shoveled snow, and in the spring he helped people dig their gardens. In the summer he dug holes to plant trees in, and in the fall he helped the farmers shovel their grain into bins. Every day he found something worth doing and he did it.

So his days were full of satisfaction and self-respect.

Now the fourth man also wandered through the country, finding tasks that a man with a shovel could do. And after he had wandered for several years, one day he came upon an army of men and women with shovels, and they were digging the canal. So he joined.

Every day he worked with that army of people. But digging the canal was huge job, even for an army. Years went by. And when it came time for the fourth man to retire from shoveling,
the canal was still only half done.

Years more went by and the fourth man got to be very old. And he thought, “Before I die, I want to take one more look and see how the canal is going.”

So he had some friends take him up to a high place where he could look from one ocean to the other. And from that place, he could see that the canal still wasn’t quite finished,
but it soon would be. And he looked at the people who were still digging, and he smiled with a sense of triumph. And he said, “We are heroes.”


Psalm 118, verse 4: “This is the day that the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.”

from “Sermon at Temple Israel of Hollywood” by Martin Luther King:

“Modern psychology has a word that is probably used more than any other word in psychology. It is the word ‘maladjusted.’ Certainly we all want to live the well adjusted life in order to avoid neurotic and schizophrenic personalities.

“But I must honestly say to you tonight my friends that there are some things in our world, there are some things in our nation to which I’m proud to be maladjusted, to which I call upon all men of goodwill to be maladjusted until the good society is realized.

“I must honestly say to you that I never intend to adjust myself to segregation and discrimination. I never intend to become adjusted to religious bigotry. I never intend to adjust myself to economic conditions that will take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few. I never intend to adjust myself to the madness of militarism and the self defeating effects of physical violence.

“And I say to you that I am absolutely convinced that maybe the world [has a] need
for the formation of a new organization: The International Association for the Advancement of Creative Maladjustment — men and women who will be as maladjusted as the prophet Amos who in the midst of the injustices of his day would cry out in words that echo across the centuries: ‘Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream’.”

Sermon: Acceptance and Action

Last March, Deb and I lit a candle here to mark our 32nd wedding anniversary. We met and got married while we were graduate students in Chicago. And in those early days we lived like graduate students: without a lot of stuff, getting by on our teaching stipends, occupying a small urban apartment where we fought a never-ending battle against roaches.

But we were happy living that way. So while it was nice to leave the roaches behind when we moved out here to take real jobs that paid real salaries, we were in no big hurry to upgrade our lifestyle.

In a very literal sense, we didn’t know what to do with all the money we were suddenly making. Higher education was cheaper in those days, so we didn’t have student debt to pay off. Neither of us had a dream house fantasy. We weren’t really into cars. We didn’t collect anything. And while we hadn’t yet definitely decided not to have children, we were in no hurry to start that either.

So we saved a lot, without any clear idea what we were saving for. This was in the mid-80s, at the start of the longest sustained bull market in the history of Wall Street, so the money we saved didn’t just stack up, it multiplied.

Obviously this was a rare and fortunate situation, and it seemed to demand an exceptional plan to take advantage of it. Eventually we came up with one.

We decided we would take a retirement period in the middle of life rather than put it off to the end. We would have no fixed address, but instead would travel the country and see its beauty. We’d take time to think and read. We’d re-establish contact with all our far-scattered friends.

And wherever we went and whoever we visited, we would try to bring with us the extreme luxury of slack. We would be the people who had time to listen and pay attention, who had time to pitch in when you were ready to start that project you’d been talking about. We’d take children on adventures, and give their parents a chance to rest and get to know each other again.

It was a beautiful vision.

By 1996, we were ready for a six-month trial run. We put our careers on hold,
and didn’t renew the lease on our apartment. We loaded up our car, stored everything we wanted to come back to, and got rid of everything else. And before setting out, we did one last round of check-ups and tests to make sure we were healthy and our prescriptions were up to date.

And so, on the last day of July, a telephone and I were the last things left in our apartment. I was sitting on the floor waiting for Deb to get back from her last day at the office so that we could get into our overloaded car and drive into the sunset.

And the phone rang. Deb’s doctor wanted to see her the next morning. When we got to that appointment, he told us that she had breast cancer.

So it was time to replan.

We had three weeks until the surgery and Deb had no symptoms we could notice, so we got back in the car and did a few of the things we had pictured: We housesat, we visited nearby friends, we camped in parks and climbed mountains. I remember telling someone: “Homeless people with cancer live in the moment.”

One evening up in Freeport, living in the moment got to be a bit too much. You know those parking lots that wind around behind L. L. Bean? We got confused by them, and so when we came out of the store to drive back to our campsite, we were convinced for about ten minutes that our car had been stolen.

Picture that. Not only would it mean we had no stuff at all, but I wasn’t even sure how to report the loss. The police would ask for an address and a phone number, neither of which we had. Where would the conversation go from there? So I was grateful and a bit humbled when we found the car.

It was still summer when the surgery date came, so while Deb was in the hospital I stayed in a tent in some friends’ back yard. It seemed to go well. The surgeon believed the cancer had been contained in the breast, so further treatment wouldn’t be necessary.

But the day after we moved into the apartment I had hastily found, the pathology report came back: The cancer had spread into some lymph nodes, and they weren’t sure the surgery had gotten it all out.

Deb’s mother had died of breast cancer just a few years before, so we knew what this meant. Treatment has changed a lot in the last two decades, so if you or someone you care about is battling breast cancer now, don’t draw any conclusions from what I’m about to say. But in the 90s, there was a fairly simple rule of thumb: Cancer contained in the breast almost always got cured. Lymph nodes were a toss-up zone; you might live, you might die. But any spread beyond that — to the lungs, liver, bone, or brain — was virtually a death sentence. There were occasional miracles, but not that many. So there would be a second surgery, and a battery of tests, any one of which could come back with that death sentence.

While all that was pending, we drove up to Vermont for a weekend to get away from everything and plot our strategy. We came to three conclusions. First, we wanted to give Deb the best possible chance to live. The doctors had convinced us that our best shot was to keep nothing in reserve. Hit the cancer with every weapon in the medical arsenal: standard chemotherapy, radiation, high-dose chemotherapy … everything. So we decided to sign up for an aggressive plan of treatment that would last nine very difficult months.

Second, we had learned from watching Deb’s mom that treatment doesn’t always work, and that dying in denial is ultimately harder on everyone. So at the same time that we were fighting for Deb’s life, we would also be preparing ourselves and preparing each other to face her death, if it came to that.

And third, we had to decide how to look at the nine months of treatment. We knew they would be hard, so it was tempting just to write them off, to say: “Life will be bad for nine months, but it will be worth it because then things will be better.”

But there was a problem with that: We didn’t actually know that life would be better in nine months. No matter what we did, that death sentence might arrive any day. And if it did, those nine months might be a sizable chunk of all the time we had left together. Each day, no matter how bad it might look compared to the past, might also be the best day we had left. Wouldn’t it be a shame to write that day off?

And so we decided that there was no length of time we could afford to write off.

Fall was coming, maybe the last New England fall we would see together. And while that was a sad thought, it would be even sadder to miss that last chance because we were looking past it to a future that didn’t come.

That’s why we developed the following practice: Every morning began with a question — and I apologize for the crudeness, but this is exactly how we phrased it — “How is today not going to suck?”

Every day there was a different answer. Some days Deb felt almost normal, so we could do the kinds of things we had always enjoyed: take walks, go to restaurants, hear live music, visit with friends. Some days were harder, but we could still drive up into the White Mountains and look at the scenery. Some days that was too much, but we could sit on the couch together and watch cartoons. And some days the most we could manage was that she would lie in bed and I would read to her.

And there were some days that just sucked, no matter what we did. But a surprising number of them didn’t. Amazingly, on the whole, those nine months turned out to be happy ones.

Now, I realize that’s not everyone’s experience of cancer treatment, but it’s actually not as unusual as you might think. One of the reasons that so many people incorporate “cancer survivor” into their identities and join survivor groups is that there is something in the treatment experience that they value and do not want to lose sight of, even as they return to ordinary life in every other way.

And it’s not just cancer. People who survive any hellish situation, be it illness or privation or natural disaster, often develop a perverse form of nostalgia. They would never wish that experience on anyone or want to go back to it, but all the same they remember it fondly.

During that awful winter at Valley Forge, General Washington read to his men from Thomas Paine’s The American Crisis. “These are the times that try men’s souls,” it began. And it is easy to imagine those soldiers as veterans decades later, sitting in front of a fire with full belly and a pint of ale, proudly saying, “Ah, those were the times that tried men’s souls.”

I think that’s a mystery that deserves some thought. We spend our lives wishing for good luck. But often the times we reminisce over are times of bad luck. Why do we do that?

For me, I think the nostalgia of those nine cancer-dominated months comes from the fact that never in my life have my ambitions been so closely matched to what I could do. Without some special attention and effort, those days would have sucked, one after the other. But because we took that challenge on, day by day, they didn’t. It has never been quite so easy to see that my actions were making a difference.

Also, our day-by-day actions were closely aligned with our longer-term goals. Month-by-month, we were trying to win more time together. And day-by-day we were establishing why. We didn’t just want more life in some vague, abstract sense. We wanted more walks, more drives, more conversations, more music, more cartoons. We knew that if we were given more days together we would not waste them, because we were not wasting them now.

There were other things we weren’t doing. We weren’t counting on a future that might never come. We weren’t making ourselves promises that we couldn’t deliver on. We weren’t dwelling on the unfairness of it all or wishing that things could be magically different.

All those things that we weren’t doing, all those mistakes we weren’t making, all those lies we weren’t telling ourselves get summed up in that broad term acceptance. In order to fully appreciate our time together, we had to be fully present. In order to answer the question “How is today not going to suck?” we had to center ourselves in today. We couldn’t start with an abstract vision of a good day and impose it on this day. We had to accept today, as it was, with all its limitations and ask what we could do with it.

Each morning, we had to discover our world, and then, with our whole hearts, give ourselves to it.

But there’s another point to be made here, and that’s why I chose the Martin Luther King reading. Acceptance is not resignation. Just as King did not resign himself to segregation or militarism or injustice, we did not resign ourselves to Deb dying the way her mother did. And we did not resign ourselves to nine months of unhappiness. Acceptance is not just adjusting yourself to bad circumstances. It also means accepting your own role in the situation, your own possibilities, your own power to shape events.

That’s what the second man in my story does wrong. Yes, he accepts that he is just one man with a shovel, so he can’t dig a canal by himself. But he doesn’t take the next step: He doesn’t accept a man-with-a-shovel-sized mission. He hangs on to the notion that only something grand is worth his effort, and so he does nothing.

That’s an easy trap to fall into. It’s easy to focus on how enormous the world’s problems are,
and to think: “If I were just bigger, then I could do something.” If I were president like Barack Obama, I could do something. If I had billions to give away like Bill Gates, I could do something. If I had the inspirational genius of a Martin Luther King, I could lead the movement our country needs, and that would be something. If I had the medical genius to cure cancer, that would be something. If I had the literary genius of a Harriet Beecher Stowe or a John Steinbeck, I could write the Uncle Tom’s Cabin or The Grapes of Wrath that this generation needs, and that would be something.

But I don’t. I’m just me. You’re just you. What can people like us do? The insight of the third man in the story is to ask that same question, but change the emphasis: What can people like us do? And if we can do things, then let’s do them.

In the final years of my mother’s life, she had hurt her knee and was in a nursing home learning to walk again. If she could walk just far enough to get back and forth to the bathroom, then she could go back home with my Dad, and the two of them could survive there with a few hours of outside help each day. That was what they both wanted.

So that’s what she was trying to accomplish in the physical therapy room, as she used the parallel bars to shift as much of her weight to her scrawny arms as she possibly could, then slowly move one leg forward just a little, then the other.

One day I came in to cheer her on, and she walked what seemed like a trivial distance — less than I will pace back and forth dozens of times while my mind is somewhere else. But it was twice as far as she had walked the day before, and it gave her hope that she would make it home again, which she eventually did.

That was a good day.

So the question I’m trying to raise is: When we talk about acceptance, what exactly should we be trying to accept? I think it comes down to this: Whatever you do for the world or for yourself or for anybody, this life is the tool you will do it with. This body. This mind. These skills. These resources. This time. This place. You don’t get to be a giant. You can’t have magical powers. This is what you have.

The journey of the rest of your life doesn’t have to end here, but it does have to begin here, because this is where you are. From here, you may have another seventy years to work with. You may have a week. Whatever, that’s the tool you have. That’s your shovel. What are you going to do with it?

There will be times in your life when it makes sense to aim high and dream big. And I hope you do, because those are wonderful times and you shouldn’t miss them. But there will be other times when it will be a good day if you can cross the room under your own power, times where the far edge of your hopes, the absolute limit of your abilities, is that for you, and maybe for one other person, this day will not suck.

And if that is the size of your abilities, then that is the job you should be doing.

And let no one tell you that job is too small.