Because We All Have Wings

Rev. Douglas Taylor


Brené Brown says we are ‘brave and brokenhearted.’ She reminds us that we rise, not in spite of our brokenness and adversity, but in many cases because of it. Often, our struggles become part of our identity. The point is not that being broken or hurt is somehow a good thing for us. No. The point is simply that it is a reality we all experience in varying degrees. At some point in our lives we will lose, we will fall and fail and make huge mistakes. Our hearts will get broken. We will lie and be lied to. We will run up against a larger adversary. We will trip up and land hard. Each of us, at one point or another, or at many points along the way, will break.

Our struggles are not good, getting hurt and heartbroken is not good. It’s simply reality. The point is that it’s possible to fall down and rise up again. The point is that it’s possible, and in fact it is something we do a lot. The struggles we survive become part of our identity. Rising up from the heartbreak and trouble is what how we are resilient. Brené Brown says we are ‘brave and brokenhearted.’ Our stories are littered with examples of our resilience. As Helen Keller is remembered for saying; “Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it.”

I’ve approached the topic of resilience several times over the years. It is a central theme in spirituality and life. It is something I have tried to understand better, to live more fully, to offer to others. I’ve read about it and thought about it quite a lot. Lately it seems when I look up the word, there is some reference to pillows. “This pillow is resilient. It will spring back and hold its form over the years. Buy this pillow.” 

So, our pillows ‘springing back into their original form’ is seen as a mark of resilience … for pillows. Our lives, our spirits, have the quality of, not springing back, but springing forward. After living through adversity or heartbreak, we don’t ever return to what had been, never back to our original form. Instead we emerge changed yet still true to our original form.

Consider the example of baseball superstar Jackie Robinson. In the 1940s and ‘50s Robinson demonstrated remarkable resilience in the face of adversity. As the first African American to play in the major leagues, he persisted through relentless harassment from fans and fellow players alike. He did not ‘spring back to his original form’ after the slurs and abuses. He sprang forward, he emerged changed yet true. And that example led the sport and eventually the country to also move forward, changed yet true.

We do not spring back to our original form. We spring forward, changed yet still true to that original form. And we rise. We rise because we have fallen.

This is worth remembering not just for personal difficulties. Resilience is a communal quality as well. Social change and the vagaries of politics can be disheartening. I have been frustrated and angry about much of what is going on in politics lately. The impeachment process ran its course pretty much how I expected it would. But even outside of the partisan aspect, there are concerns I have about the health of our democracy now that I did not have 4 years ago. I certainly hope our nation is resilient. I certainly hope we rise from this, because I am weary of all this falling.

Like the adversity Jackie Robinson and other African Americans have experienced, like the devastation of the stonewall uprising, like the heartbreak and slander the suffragettes suffered, may the time in which we now live also prove to be a turning point toward greater progress and resilience.

Last week in our service I emphasized the natural aspect of resilience. I said it is a capacity we all have within us naturally. But that doesn’t mean it is easy. At a major turning point in my life I discovered this quote from Maya Angelou. She says: “No one knows what it costs the bulb, the onion bulb or the tulip bulb, to split – to crack itself open – to allow the thin tendril of life to emerge.” (Restoring Hope, Cornell West)

Was anyone else surprised by the ending of the children’s story? (After the Fall: How Humpty Dumpty Got Back Up Again by Dan Santat.) It’s a nice retelling with a good message. Humpty Dumpty overcomes that fear of heights, I saw that coming. He is terrified as he climbs the wall again but he climbs it anyway. I saw that coming, too. That part was predictable. It was good, I loved it; and it was predictable. But I was surprised at the end when the egg cracked and Humpty Dumpty spread his wings and flew. But of course, there would be a bird inside the egg. Of course.

Because we all have wings. But oh, the cost. The cost of cracking yourself open, to allow the wounded places to both heal and break wider. Oh, the cost to open oneself and allow the tender tendril of life out into the harsh world. Resilience is hard. When we most want to curl up and protect what is precious, the way forward is to paradoxically both heal and break wider. Resilience is the art of how we move forward through heartbreak and adversity that we may rise.

And as I said last week, it is natural. How do we overcome? What does it take to be resilient? One answer is that resilience is natural capacity we all have within us. And at the same time, it is a quality we can enhance and practice and become better at. There are skills that we can develop, ways we can practice our resilience. Companion qualities we can encourage.

One of the things I’ve noticed is that resilience has a lot to do with perspective. Resilient people tend to understand that there are things over which we have little control. You are not in charge of other people’s actions. Situations come up which you cannot stop from happening. What you can control is how you respond. As a child I was not very resilient. I always felt like I was not in control of my life, like I suffered at the whims of other’s kindness or cruelty. Bullies were a regular feature to my school life and the unpredictability that comes with alcoholism was ever present at home. It took me years to uncover my own sense of agency and control. People who are resilience have a good perspective of what they are in charge of, and what is out of their control. Resilient people do not expend their energy trying to control others or complaining about things beyond their control. They focus their attention on what they can control: their responses to what is going on within and around them.

Another quality of resilient people is playfulness and imagination. Serious people don’t bounce. Think about the way most of us get when they are faced with a significant trauma in life, we tend to over value the power the event holds. Having a sense of humor, or better, a sense of life’s absurdity, is important. It is the experience of “Oh, wow!” instead of “Oh, no!”

Alexander Fleming left some dirty petri dishes on his work station and went away on a trip. When he got back, he was not surprised to find most were contaminated. He was sorting through them to see what he could salvage, which was not much. But he noticed something odd in one dish … and perhaps you’ve heard this story, he discovered penicillin from his sloppy lab. Instead of saying “Oh, no!” he said “Oh, wow!” There are stories like this for the inventions of pacemakers, air conditioners, and post-it notes. Imagination and playfulness can help us see possibilities where others see only obstacles and adversity.

Let me offer you another quality of resilient people. They keep perspective, they can be playful, and they are persistence. Persistent people keep plugging away at the problems in life and thus, tend to accomplish some pretty positive things. I bumped into the story of one child helping their younger sibling learn to jump into the swimming pool. The younger one kept hovering at the edge, “but I’m scared,” she would cry. Her older sibling would try to comfort her, “You’ll be okay. I’m right here. You don’t need to be afraid.” But nothing worked until an older lady at the pool swam by and said, “It’s okay to be scared. Do it anyway. Do it scared.” That proved to be helpful advice. Instead of ‘don’t be scared;” “Do it scared.” Persistence is not about perfection. It’s not about having it all together and keeping it all together along the way. Persistence is about doing it anyway; and to keep doing it even if you’re scare, even if it’s not working yet, even if others don’t join in. It is about falling down and getting back up again, and again, and again.

You don’t need to be perfect, all you need is to have failed or fallen down or gotten lost or broken. Resilience is about rising up again and again; with perspective, with playfulness, and with persistence. Add a little prayer and amazing things are possible. We all can be resilient like Jackie Robinson or Alexander Fleming or Maya Angelou. Because we all have wings. Like Humpty Dumpty, all of us can fly; but sometimes we have to break to discover it. Do not fear failure or falling down – or go ahead and fear it, but don’t let the fear stop you. Don’t run from mistakes or heartbreak. Love boldly. Reach for the impossible. Throw yourself into it. Fly.

Perhaps some of you know what Douglas Adams said about flying. In his classic book The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, he said there is a knack to flying. “The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss.”

This quote always reminds me of something my kid’s Aikido instructor told us about falling. This was years ago when the kids were little. Mr. Cuffy was explaining how a central and basic skill in Aikido was learning to fall without getting hurt. It involves having an awareness of your body and of physics, and developing certain skills.

He described slipping on the sidewalk one icy day. It was one of those cinematic slips, when both feet were in the air before he started actually falling. Someone came rushing over to help him back to his feet and see if he needed to go to the hospital. But Mr. Cuffy had landed with a roll, dusted the snow off his pants, and walked on. He said, it’s a surreal feeling to slip like that and, while you’re falling, to know that you are going to land okay. He knew that because he’s spent years training himself how to fall well.

Do you know how to fall well? Maybe not literally, as Mr. Cuffy could do. But metaphorically. Can you fall well? Maybe when you fall, unlike Mr. Cuffy, you do get hurt. So maybe you don’t fall well. But do you know how to rise after the fall? Do you rise well? Brené Brown reminds us in our reading today; “There is no greater threat to the critics and cynics and fearmongers than those of us who are willing to fall because we have learned how to rise.”

There is hope in knowing this. There will always be people who revel in seeing someone else fall down, seeing someone else suffer; ‘the critics and cynics and fearmongers’ Brené Brown calls them. We’ve been socialized to think that falling down reflects poorly on us. But truly the rising up is where the power resides, and you can’t rise up if you haven’t fallen down a time or two. Rising up is what we all can do; it is what we all actually do quite a lot. It is the heartbeat of social movements and social change. Resilience is not just about your personal capacity to respond well to adversity. It is also our communal capacity to usher in change at a societal level when faced with injustice or tyranny.

Historical scholar Howard Zinn offers this remarkable insight:

“When you have models of how people can come together, even for a brief period, it suggests that it could happen for a longer period. When you think of it, that’s the way things operate in the scientific world, so why not socially? As soon as the Wright brothers could keep a plane aloft for 27 seconds, everyone knew from that point on that a plane might be kept aloft for hours. It’s the same socially and culturally…

 “If true community can stay aloft for 27 seconds, it is only a matter of time before such a community can last for hours. Only a matter of time before a beloved community, as Martin Luther King, Jr, spoke of, can come into being.” (H. Zinn, 2006, “The Common Cradle of Concern”)

There are thousands of examples of this in history and contemporary affairs. We can rise, we do. We can support each other in communities of hope and resilience. I’ve seen it. And I know we can do it really well for at least 27 seconds at a go. I’m sure of it. With practice, we extend the length of that grace over minutes and hours. Each time we respond to failure and brokenness with perspective, playfulness, persistence, and a little prayer, we extend the length of time we can keep our resilient selves and this resilient community aloft.

It’s okay to be broken or cracked or flat out, fallen on the ground. It’s okay, because you are resilient. We all have wings. It’s okay, because rising up again comes after the falling down. And if you can only rise for 27 seconds, it will be enough. And we know that it’s only a matter of time before we all have our wings unfurled like a ‘network of mutuality’ to rise and bless the beautiful world together.

In a world without end

May it be so.