Both Sides

Rev. Douglas Taylor

May 21, 2023

Sermon video:

Joni Mitchell’s music has had a big impact on my growing up. I appreciate our choir bringing one of her songs to us this morning. This song, “Both Sides Now” captures the wistful and nuanced layers of growing up, the disillusionment, and reimagining that can happen with adolescence and adulthood.

In the song, she opens with the early, romantic imaginings about life and love. Then she unpacks the jarring realities often discovered about pain and loss – the disillusionment; the sadness of it all that can lead a person to become jaded. But then, with a twist, she reflects back on it all and chooses the romantic options anyway, saying she really doesn’t know life or love at all.

Joni’s strength as a songwriter is not limited to her lyrics – but her lyrics are certainly a key component to her work. She lays such beauty out before us, showing the highs and lows of living with such poignancy.

Many of her songs have this layer of poignancy, a sorrowful yearning. In our reading this morning from the book Bittersweet by Susan Cain, we heard about how creativity is often linked with a certain sadness or melancholy. The piece we heard from the book began with the question: “Is creativity associated with sorrow and longing, through some mysterious force?”

At other points in that chapter, Cain writes about Beethoven and what he went through creating his 9th Symphony and particularly the section we know as the “Ode to Joy” – a piece of work so exultant and yet laced with sorrow. The author also wrote about the life of Leonard Cohan, the artist most associated with the song “Hallelujah” and whose life is certainly an example of a ‘broken hallelujah’ in many ways. Is the melancholy suffering a required cost for this level of phenomenal creativity?

Cain is quick to assure readers on this point. It is not so much suffering that is required so much as a bittersweet disposition.

We shouldn’t make the mistake of viewing darkness as the sole or even primary catalyst to creativity. [Cain writes early in the book] After all, plenty of creatives are sanguine types. And studies also show that flashes of insight are more likely to happen when we’re in a good mood. We also know that clinical depression – which we might think of as an emotional black hole obliterating all light – kills creativity. As Columbia University psychiatry professor Philip Muskin told The Atlantic magazine, “Creative people are not creative when they’re depressed.” (Cian, Bittersweet, p60)

The image of creative people as tortured souls simply is not accurate. And it is not what this book, Bittersweet, is about. I think it is more accurate to say creativity is less about sorrow and suffering and more closely linked to yearning tinged with a sadness – the sadness seems to be a necessary component, but not sufficient on its own. Susan Cain did not, after all, title her book ‘bitter.’

In her book, Cain is exploring the concept of ‘bittersweet’ as an experience and perspective. And this is not just about creative artists, it’s about all people. All of us experience grief and sorrow, loss and pain. The experience of the bittersweet is an acknowledgement of that sorrow and pain. But the goal is not to be sad. The goal is to take life whole. To allow sorrow a full share, but not the whole share.

In the Jewish book of wisdom, Kohelet – also known as Ecclesiastes – we hear that our lives are filled with beginnings and endings, with gathering and casting away, with breaking down and building up, with dancing and with mourning “and a time for every purpose under heaven.” Kohelet, like Susan Cain in her book about the bittersweet, calling us to take life whole, to not refuse portions because they are hard or laced with sorrow.

As Unitarian Universalists, we have this practice of sharing our joys and sorrows most Sundays. It is a common enough ritual among us as to be recognizable if you’ve been to other UU congregations. We invite you, share the ups and downs of your living – to recognize these happy and sad experiences as important and worthy of sharing in our worship together. One piece of the ritual I honor is that we don’t parse out the joys from the sorrows – they are all mixed together. It can be jarring to hear about a death or a grief and then swiftly move on to hear about a birthday or recovery. And occasionally someone will offer something that is both a joy and a sorrow. It is best to not draw to fine a distinction. It is best to allow all of the joys and sorrows to sit beside each other, jostling for attention and care. Because this is how life really is.

My point, Susan Cain’s point, Joni Mitchell’s point, the point of the author of Ecclesiastes is simply this: Sorrow should not be sequestered away as if it is something shameful. It is part of our living and indeed may opening us up to some of the more remarkable aspects of our living. In our sorrow, we reveal our compassion. I am, this morning, not offering an ode to sorrow. Instead, I am saying our sorrow is the signal that we care.

Consider: we have days of light and days of clouds. We live in the shadow of our losses and the bright light of new love. We all have both light and shadow. It is the way of nature and all life. It is the light we want, the joy we share with others; but sorrow and shadow are present as well. If we only see the clouds and shadows as negative, we are missing an important part of what is happening.

Think for a moment about the times you have seen sunlight, actually seen a ray of sunshine. Perhaps it was a photograph or an experience while out in nature. Can you recall? When the light shines out through a cloud bank or breaks through the trees or shines in the early morning through the window across the dust of your room; and you actually see the ray of sunlight? Have you seen that? It is as if the sun beam has a definite shape, a width and length you could measure.

The sunbeam in such an experience is clear because it is partly blocked by the trees or by clouds by the window. Unfiltered light shines everywhere; but we notice it, we see it, when it is flickering or when it is filtered through shadow, when it is a little obstructed. I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now. They are both the feathered canyons and that which blocks the sun. And really, both are worth it.

Here is the real secret. With Joni’s song we are invited to see both sides of life and love and clouds – both! We are invited to feel the joy and the sorrow, the give and take, win and lose. And the secret is the way it is presented as two options and yet the song calls us into the third option which is both. Not one or the other, but both.   

A few years ago, I bumped into and took great solace in a blog post by Richard Rohr. Rohr is a process theologian I find to be very accessible. He was writing about order and disorder through a metaphor of “three boxes.” We begin, our theologian claims, with order. We call it normal. That is his first box. We then experience a disruption, a time of disorder, something that upsets the way we want things to be. This is the second box. And, he continues, if we keep at it, we can find our way into reorder. This is not a return to who things used to be; it is instead a reordering of toward the future given what has happened. Richard Rohr wrote, “Whenever we’re led out of normalcy into sacred, open space, it’s going to feel like suffering, because it is letting go of what we’re used to.”

Essentially, he was advocating for the value of disorder. He could have as easily written about imperfection or suffering or grief. He picked a more neutral concept: disorder. The second box in his metaphor of ‘three boxes’ is disorder. You could equally think of it as the progression from thesis and antithesis into synthesis. Or perhaps: sunlight and clouds, and the sunbeams that arise from the interplay of light and shadow.

This is not meant as a moral judgment about light vs darkness, joy vs sorrow, order vs disorder. Instead, it is an acknowledgment of comfort and discomfort, and the values of each. “This is always painful at some level,” Rohr writes in his blog, describing the move from the first box ‘order’ to the second box ‘disorder’; “But part of us has to die if we are ever to grow larger” In John’s Gospel, Jesus says, “Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” (NIV; John 12:24)

Joni Mitchell’s song describes her child-like, romantic imaginings about life and love. She then reveals the jarring disillusionment and hurt, the sadness of it all that can lead a person to become jaded. That’s Rohr’s second box: the disorder. And Joni Mitchell’s song then, suggests not simply a return to the first perspective but an appreciation of the original romantic view through the lens of the lived heartbreak and sorrow.

The goal is never to remain in the grief or the jaded heartbreak. The goal is take life whole; to live all of it. Listen to this piece from writer and activist Adrienne Maree Brown.  

Put your attention on suffering – which is constant and everywhere – and it is all you will see. Joy will come, and laughter, but you will find it brief, possibly a distraction.

Put your attention on joy, being connected and feeling whole, and you will find it everywhere. Your heart will still break. You will know grief. But you will find it a reasonable cost for the random abundance of miracles, and the soft wild rhythms of love.

Brown is sharing here the same message I take from Joni Mitchell’s song. You can look at both sides now, from suffering and joy, and still somehow, it is the joy we will recall. In the song, Joni calls them illusions. Her early romantic versions of clouds and love and life are – according to her – illusions. This is the one big point on which I would argue with the amazing Joni Mitchell.

Yes, clouds are not really feathered canyons. Seeing them as angel’s hair is indeed a playful illusion. I will concede those descriptions of clouds as illusions. But to say the dizzy dancing way we feel when we are in love is a illusion is simply not true. It is certainly not all there is to being in love, but that exciting ‘falling in love’ time is not an illusion. And, I would argue, the counter part she offers of ‘if you care, don’t let them know – don’t give yourself away,’ is not to be commended as a better way to show love. That is more about protecting your broken heart than it is about the illusion of love. Certainly, your heart can be broken if you give it away – that part of what Joni is saying is true. But that’s what it is to love. That’s not naive or delusional, that’s just the risk we take when we love.

And so it is with life too. Life is meant to be a risk of love and faith. It is not something to be done shielded and in fear. The better way, living openly and with all the tears and fears that go with it is not an illusion. That is, as I say, the better way.

And when Joni ends each chorus saying she recalls the open and vulnerable way best – that is what Adrienne Marie Brown is saying too. Approach from the side of joy, Brown says, but be open and vulnerable to both the sorrow and the joy in life and all will be well. It will be bittersweet, to be sure. But that is how life is.

Consider the interplay of light and shadow, the dynamic interchange of joy and sorrow, the wild poignancy of your living. Be not locked into what has always been. It is not safety we find in being well-shielded from sorrow and loss, but stagnation and death. Release your fears, trust that the risks of sorrow and sadness are worth it more often than not.

In so doing, our lives will be both a little more bitter and a little more sweet. And what’s more – they will be whole. Let us have faith that such a life will lead us deeper into the fullness of living.

In a world without end,

May it be so.