Dum Spiro, Spero
Rev. Douglas Taylor
December 10, 2017
A few years ago, I watched a friend’s life fall apart. After several fits and starts, my friend had landed a good job, settled down to a happy marriage, and moved to a new town. Then within a year all of those things imploded. Last winter I learned that another friend, one with a history of alcoholism, was dealing with a new addiction: prescription pain-killers. Another person I know is swept under by medical debt, barely managing the ramifications of the medical problems let alone knowing where to even start with the financial woe. Countless others in my circle of friends and family struggle with anxiety, chronic pain, and depression; and there are times when the pain and the depression hit a spike and become severe. It is painful to watch. It is painful to experience, I know.
Where do you turn when you begin to lose hope? Where do you see other turning when you witness them uncovering resources of hope to help them carry on in the face of difficulties?
The political turmoil we are experiencing, in our country and in the world, is unsettling. The mass shootings and the #metoo phenomenon weigh on my heart. I know several people who have expressed a growing despair or hopelessness for the trajectory we are on in terms of climate change, income inequality, colonialism and war, and racism and other injustices. If it is not personal trouble that tempts you to despair, perhaps it is the social or political climate that leads you to misery.
The phrase “Dum Spiro, Spero” is something I saw on one of my friend’s Facebook. It was in the midst of a time when everything was falling apart and another friend posted the phrase. My friend said it was a helpful reminder. “Dum Spiro, Spero.” It is Latin., meaning “While I breathe, I hope.” (And I have discovered the first word is D-U-M, not D-O-M – although both spellings seem to be all over the internet, strangely.) While I breathe, I hope. Where there is life, there is hope.
Last week I spoke about the power of hope. I reminded us that in the face of troubles both personal and global, there are resources available to us to counter all the bad things. Yes, the world is drenched with turmoil and strife. But that is not the whole story because the world is also ablaze with love and kindness, beauty and grace.
Last week, while taking about the power hope has, I reminded us that the love and kindness do not cancel out the terrible things and the suffering. Instead they ride alongside the terrible. All that is good and holy and beautiful deepens the well and strengthens the walls.
Therefore, hope’s power is not that the suffering and injustice can necessarily be cancelled out, but contained; not halted, but held. We can’t undo past pain or injustice, but we can respond so the future can be different. Hope’s power is that we can persevere and live. Dum Spiro, Spero.
That is hope’s power. So where do you turn when you begin to lose hope? How do you find hope when hope is hard to find? This is a deeply religious question and all the world’s religions have a response. “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.” Psalm 121 is a beloved answer, the assurance of God’s love and protection. Where do you turn for help, for hope, when things seem hopeless? The Psalmist responds:
I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth. He will not suffer thy foot to be moved: he that keepeth thee will not slumber… The Lord shall preserve thee from all evil: he shall preserve thy soul. The Lord shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in from this time forth, and even for evermore.
Hope is found in the Lord our God, as the Jewish people proclaim in the psalms and the Christian people echo in Jesus. Religions the world over declare that hope is available to those who have faith. Hope is found in mindfully following the 8-fold path. Hope is found in the correct performance of certain rituals according to Vedic Hinduism, or in trusting karma. As shown in the story from this morning (A Tent for the Emperor) Muslims read in the Qur’an: The outcome of all things is ultimately up to God. Where do you turn for help, where to do look for hope when things seem hopeless? Knowing the answer to this will help clarify what you believe and the root of your faith.
I have an answer to this question. I actually have three answers. They are my answers, I do not presume to say they are Unitarian Universalist answers or that they should be your answers. Instead I offer them as witness, hopefully as example for you each to do your own work in discovering the answer to our question – Where do you turn for help, where do you look for hope?
I have, as I said, three answers. My first answer is: community.
I shared some of this answer last week when I talked about covenant and beloved community. Growing up, I was bullied a lot. I felt like an outcast and a loser throughout my grade school years. I only developed a circle of school friends in the later part of high school. My church experience was what saved me, where I learned to make friends, where I experienced acceptance and encouragement in a social setting.
One of the biggest lessons which gave me hope then and continues to give me hope now is the lesson of agency – the lesson that I have some control over what happens in my life, some capacity to make a difference. And more importantly, that by joining with others, we can make a difference. I find hope in the awareness that I am, we are, participants in the unfolding story.
Making the world a better place is not solitary work, it is not done in isolation. Community is a key ingredient. Communities like this one save lives. We change the world. We make life sweet and rich and beautiful.
We teach our children to think positively, to look on the bright side, to find the silver lining. And at our best we teach them the reality that bad things do happen, yet in the face of trial and trouble, injustice and heartbreak, life is still worth living.
I discovered there weren’t just bright sides to difficulties, there was a brightness within me, as there is within you – a brightness that can transform the world. Communities like this one, like this congregation with our covenant and our loving, stumbling attempts to be good people – here is where I always find hope.
What communities have fed you and given you hope? It might not be a religious community. What circles of family or friends, groups or organizations show you your power, call forth that capacity to make a difference? Where do you find hope?
Community is my first answer to that question. My second answer is the perspective afforded me by time. I’ve been thinking about this a lot. I’m not sure I’ve articulated this second answer quite the way I mean it to be but for now I say: my second answer is time.
One place I find hope is simply in the knowledge that things are always changing, nothing is static and nothing has only one meaning. Therefore, despair is usually a premature stance. Looking back on my own personal history I see what I have survived, I see the seeds of how I have overcome and grown into who I am today.
A cousin posted an inspiring comment on his wall this week. He marked the anniversary of his motorcycle accident in which he lost one of his legs. The post was recognizing the gifts of his life today against that moment from a few years back. He made a point to be clear: he wasn’t thankful for the accident, he was thankful for where it led him over the years to where he is now.
In the long view, no matter how bad things get in your life, everything changes and therefore there is always a way forward. And that is a source of hope.
That resonant line from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. shows this to us as well. “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Looking across the history of our country and indeed the history of civilizations as a whole, there is cause for hope. We can, as Unitarian minister Theodore Parker put it, “see a continual and progressive triumph of the right.” Parker’s comments predate King by more than a century, but King said it more succinctly. Parker’s quote was:
I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. …But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.
Thus, time is a source of hope for me. The long view helps me keep perspective on my troubles and the troubles I see in our nation and our world. This does not, I think, give us license to sit back and simply await the arrival of justice – we must act, we must do our part to bend the arc.
The power of hope leads us to work for a better world. And it is a source of hope. Hope is a source of hope … which is a little circular. Or maybe that is just my slightly confused way of articulating this second answer of mine that time is source of hope for me. Is it so for you? In what way does history or perspective give you hope when you are tempted to despair? Where do you find hope?
Community, time, and nature: my third answer is nature. Nature is an ever-reliable source of hope for me. It is a source of self-revelation, a source of spiritual renewal, and a source of centering for me as well. All of that, plus –
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I do what Wendell Berry does. Well, not exactly what Wendell berry does. If I did exactly as Mr. Berry does then I would –
… go and lie down where the wood drake rests
in his beauty on the water,
and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.
I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light.
For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
What Douglas Taylor does is go wander among the hillside trees or down by the banks of the Chenango or the Susquehanna. I travel I up to the wilderness of the Adirondacks when possible or, more often, whatever patch of wilderness is at hand. I do not find blue herons, but I do find groundhogs and the common duck; I do get the still water and the day-blind stars. We all get those, do we not?
The peace and calm of nature carries me through my trouble and drains my despair of its power. It restores my hope. Likewise, the sea storms and the wind that break the trees behind my house is grand and humbling, and that natural power affects me as well. In a way, nature does for me something like what I was describing about time – it gives me a perspective. It doesn’t take my problems away, it simply frames them in a different way. I find hope for my life and for our world when I spend time in nature because in so doing I tap into the rhythm of life itself.
What are the sources of your hope? Where do you turn for help, where to do look for hope when things seem hopeless? Knowing the answer to this will help clarify what you believe and the root of your faith.
Remembering that hope is not about escape – it is not found in turning away from the realities of injustice and heartache. It is in facing these things with clarity knowing that we have the resources to make a difference. Hope’s power is not in undoing past pain or injustice, it is in seeing the possibility of a different response so the future can be different. Hope’s power is that we can persevere and live.
Where there is hope, there is life. While I breathe, I hope. Dum Spiro, Spero.
In a world without end,
May it be so.