Laughing at Ourselves
Rev. Amy Russell
March 9, 2014
Have you ever gone on a business trip, opened your suitcase at the hotel, only to find that you brought one black shoe and one brown shoe?
Have you ever shown up at a friend’s house for dinner right at 6:30 when you were invited only to have her come to the door in her bathrobe? Apparently, you came on the wrong Saturday?
Have you ever introduced your sister to a friend using your own name instead of her name?
We all do stupid and embarrassing things and while they seem at the moment to be so stupid you just want to curl up and hide, you get over it and live to laugh about it another day.
So often we compare ourselves to others and think that they are thinner, better-looking, more competent, more popular, and smarter. We often see ourselves as inferior to many around us. There are times in life when we feel like we’ll never be good enough in so many areas to be actually be acceptable let alone be loved by others. This is why Wavy Gravy, the comedian and political satirist of the sixties said that “we’re all just bozos on a bus.”
Elizebeth Lesser, one of my favorite authors, who wrote a book called, Broken Open, takes a hard look at this way we have of looking at ourselves. She says, “We are all just half-baked experiments- mistake prone beings, born without an instruction book into a complex world…This, in my opinion, is cause for celebration. If we’re all bozos, then for God’s sake, we can put down the burden of pretense and get on with being bozos. “ (Broken Open, Lesser, p. 28)
Lesser suggests that once we accept ourselves as people with flaws, people who are imperfect, people who in fact, are laughable, we’ll get over trying to impress others, and we’ll just be ourselves.
I have to admit to feeling like a bozo often when I’m with a group of UU colleagues in ministry. They all seem to be so much smarter and more well-informed and certainly more “in the know” than I am. Being a UU minister is sometimes a difficult job when you see these extremely smart, funny, easy-going people who seem to have to all figured out. At least that’s what I felt when I first entered UU ministry.
When I accepted my first call to a congregation in Germantown, MD and started attending meetings with the many UU ministers in the DC area, I felt overwhelmed by so many of them. They all seemed to have figured this job of being a minister that at the time, I felt was overwhelming.
After a couple of meetings with this group, feeling very much like a bozo on a bus, I decided that I would just over get over this feeling and make some effort to make some friends in this group. So, very tentatively, I approached the woman minister whose church was near mine in a suburb in Maryland. I explained to her that I was new to this area and new to ministry and would love to pick her brain about her ministry. I suggested that perhaps we could meet for lunch someday. She sighed and said, “Oh, sorry, I don’t eat lunch. I just don’t have time.” Then she walked away.
I kid you not. I have never felt more humiliated than I did at that moment. In fact, I had to excuse myself and hide in the bathroom for a few minutes to recover. I decided then and there that I really didn’t belong in that group. I started skipping meetings. I doubted that I really had it in me to become a part of that august group. While I loved my ministry, I started avoiding my colleagues.
Once when I got up my courage to attend another meeting of colleagues, a man who was minister at one of the big churches in the area came over and welcomed me to the area. He said that he had been meaning to ask me to have lunch so that we could get to know each other. I was amazed. Here was someone who actually thought I might be worth knowing. Maybe I wasn’t such a bozo after all.
We went to lunch and talked for a long time about ministry. He shared with me how many mistakes he had made early in his ministry. How he had offended a member who was a long- time leader in the church. How he had forgotten to take his sermon text with him one Sunday and had to make up his sermon as he went along. All of his stories said one thing to me. That he was a bozo on a bus, too. That everyone feels inadequate at some time during their lives. And that I needed to learn to accept myself as I was, realizing I wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but that no one’s perfect.
What a relief that was to me.
Wanting to feel “normal” and as competent and self-assured as we think other people are is for many a life long journey that goes nowhere. So many of us hold onto the idea that there is a “normal” state of life that we can reach someday. A place where the bills get paid on time, our children are happy and well-adjusted, and we finally come into our own and feel satisfied with ourselves and our lives. Certainly many of us get to a state where we experience happiness in our lives. But to always feel “normal’ is something that many of us have totally given up on. Especially Unitarian Universalists. Many of us have always felt a little out of step with the rest of the world that we have grown used to it.
But it takes a while to get to that acceptance. Elizabeth Lesser describes how she came to this acceptance. After her divorce, she felt so out of step with the world, like she was broken and didn’t know how to find that normal life again. One day as she sat staring into a fire, she settled into her sadness. She says,
I sat there, letting these cold facts chill my heart as the fire warmed my face. In the stillness, with nothing to distract me, an all too familiar feeling of despair descended and hijacked my heart. But instead of getting up, washing the dishes or calling a friend, I let myself sink into the thick soup of shame and sadness. Tears pooled in my eyes and fell down my cheeks. “How long do I have to feel like this?” I asked myself. I laughed, threw up my hands and announced, “I give up. I am not normal, I’ll never be normal again… May I toss my yearning for normal into the flames?” I asked the Phoenix in the fire. “Will you burn it to bits and show me a new way?” (Lesser, Broken Open, p. 150)
She soon reconciled herself with the fact that there wasn’t a normal. That being divorced and worrying about her kids through the process was just another journey in life that many people lived through. That she would emerge through the flames of this experience to become who she was, not normal, but very much herself.
In our fear of not being normal, we try to control everything around us as an effort to appear normal. We go out of our way to hide whatever we are experiencing, because if we showed that we were having a rocky time, we’d confirm our worst fears- that in fact we’re not normal and never will be.
When people are having a difficult time, sometimes they need to show a brave face to the world just to keep from losing control. I understand that this is often true. When we feel so out of control is the time when we think we mustn’t show it. And that’s okay, as long as we find a way to express our fears and insecurities to someone. Sharing our fears and our difficulties can often be the way we discover that we are not alone. That someone else has experienced what we are going through. When we see that the other person appears normal, has in fact, lived through a crazy time and is okay, sometimes that is when we see the light at the end of the tunnel. We can begin to realize that “normal life” is a falsehood that doesn’t really exist. Our craziness may be different from others, but we are not the only crazy ones.
Realizing that we have no control over a situation sometimes allows us to let go and just laugh at the situation. Eleanor Wiley writes about a friend of hers, Sandra, who house burned down. It certainly was not a laughing matter. It was tragic, she had lost everything. Her friends gathered around her to comfort her and to help her go through the devastation and see what could be salvaged. As friends would find little objects that they thought she might want to see they would bring them to her. Eleanor found a statue of “Quan Yin” the Buddhist Goddess of love and compassion. The head of the statue had been knocked off. She took the statue to her friend knowing that it had been a favorite treasure of Sandra’s. Sandra took one look at the headless goddess and laughed saying, “I guess that it’s a reminder that nothing is permanent. You really can’t control anything, try as you might.” (Wiley, Eleanor, There are No Mistakes, p. 49-50) Nothing is permanent and as we constantly try to make things stay the same, stay what we consider “normal”, it’s like trying to stir wet cornstarch. The more we push, the more resistance we encounter.
When I was a new widow, I wanted to get back to my “normal life” as soon as I could but this thing called “grief” kept getting in the way. I remember one day going to the grocery store, thinking I’d be safe there, away from my grief. Going to the grocery is a sign of getting back to a “normal life”. But when I turned the corner of an aisle to look for cereal, then realizing that I was looking for the cereal that I had bought just for my husband, my knees buckled and my overwhelming sense of loss returned. I ran out of the store, abandoning my half-filled cart, just trying to flee my feelings. I felt so out of control that it took me several more days before I could return to do my shopping.
It wasn’t until I joined a widow’s support group that I heard from so many other women the same kind of experience that I realized that I could get through this. That life may never be normal again, but that I could feel okay again.
Being out of control is a scary place to be. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve told someone who was grieving a loss just to allow themselves some time to be “out of control”. Crying, throwing things, even yelling out your anger and frustration at the situation is a way to express our out of control feelings. We feel that nothing is in our control and that life will never be “normal” again So, why not complain about that? Loudly. Being out of control ourselves is an expression of how out of control our lives feel.
Buddhist monk, Chogyam Trunpa, talks about how we could deal with our constant anxiety. He says that when we are feeling very anxious about something, we should allow ourselves to feel that. Then to feel the sadness about what we are anxious about. Then the tears come naturally. With the sadness and the tears that we then can feel some clarity peering through the sadness. The understanding that life cannot be sanitized, that it’s always messy and we’re always going to have anxiety. We don’t need to run away from our fear, we can accept it and sit with it until it becomes acceptance of life as it is. (From Broken Open, Lesser)
If we are as Elizabeth Lesser says “mistake-prone beings, born without an instruction book into a complex world…”, then we have to realize that making mistakes, being out of control, feeling not normal is itself – “normal”. That in fact, most of us spend a great deal of time in this place. And it’s okay.
Accepting our inability to figure it all out now is the greatest gift we can give ourselves. Knowing how much we don’t know and being okay with that is a true sign of maturity. Accepting that life is ever-changing and therefore, we can never really be in control is probably one of the highest spiritual states that we can reach. We may only reach this state of acceptance for a short time, and then we may fall back into our desire to be normal and in control. Perhaps we can remind ourselves again and again, that we are only “bozos on a bus” and so is everyone else.
I want to end today with a poem by Hafiz, a fourteenth century Persian poet.
Two Giant Fat People
God and I
Have become like two giant fat people living
In a tiny boat.
We keep bumping
Into each other
To me this poem says, I am as holy as the divine, just as I am. And I need not take myself so seriously.