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Don’t Panic! – 3/8/2015

On June 24th, 1982, a British Airways 747 was on a routine trip from Kuala Lampur – the capital of Malaysia – to Perth, Australia. The plane’s course over the Indonesian archipelago took it through a cloud of ash from the Galunggung volcano, and this seems to have been the cause of all the trouble. One of the plane’s engines began to surge and then stopped altogether. Another followed suit, and then the last two gave out together. The craft was left soaring through the night without functioning engines, over the dark water of the ocean, seven miles up.

Without thrust from its engines, a 747 becomes a glider – a really terrible glider. All of the advantages of jet technology and the innovations that make possible the miracle of powered flight turn against such a plane – and its passengers. For every fifteen miles of distance the suddenly-powerless plane was to cover, it would have to fall one full mile down. With a wide stretch of ocean and a line of tall mountains between it and the nearest hope of a runway, the outlook appeared dim. Still, the crew began to steer towards an emergency landing, all the while trying over and over again to re-start any of the engines. The air pressure inside the cabin fell low enough to trigger the emergency oxygen masks, which fell from the ceiling. But inside the cockpit, something else went wrong: the co-pilot’s mask was broken. The crew had to take the plane down even faster, to reach a height where it was possible to breathe fairly normally without assistance.

The spectacular ending of the story is this: that the quick-thinking and astonishingly calm and collected crew of that plane managed – at nearly the last possible moment – to get the engines going again. They managed, with failing instruments and almost no visibility, to climb back up enough to get over the mountains, and to land their plane in Jakarta with everyone aboard alive and – physically, at least – well. But before that happy conclusion, somewhere in the midst of this crisis and the very real threat of catastrophe, the pilot made an announcement to his passengers which is now somewhat famous in the history of aviation. He said, rather matter-of-factly,

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. We have a small problem. All four engines have stopped. We are doing our damnedest to get them going again. I trust you are not in too much distress.”

It is not an easy thing to remain calm in the midst of a crisis. When the energy of the moment is disordered and chaotic, it’s hard to resist matching it with emotional chaos of our own. And here’s the thing – there are powerful voices, both ancient and modern, telling us that the world exists in perpetual crisis, and if we listen to them there can be no easy escape into calm. The modern news media, the rhetoric of political campaigns, and the internet’s hyper-active drama cycle all focus on strife and threat and anger and fear in ways that I think should be familiar to most of us. But long before our species had the means to know with instant speed and picture-perfect clarity the quantity of famine, disease, disaster, and war scouring the globe at any given moment, the message that all is not well was already deeply ingrained in our collective psyche. It is an essential element, in fact, of nearly all of the world’s religious teachings.

For example: ‘Life is suffering,’ declares the first noble truth of the Buddha. Christian orthodoxy makes a similarly gloomy assessment of the human condition, seeing sin as a defining characteristic of all human beings and their societies. While our tradition as Unitarian Universalists challenges that view that sin is inherent to life and the universe we inhabit, our teaching is not simply that everything is hunky-dory. For we know that systems and structures of evil persist in our world, that they can be both formed and fed by human action and inaction, and that their power to diminish and destroy life is all-too-terribly real.

If the world is in a state of perpetual crisis – as CNN, and St. Augustine, and the Buddha all agree – then we have two choices. We can match the external chaos with our own, or we can seek to cultivate what the Buddhists call uppekha: equanimity. This is the capacity to remain calm in the midst of crisis; to maintain balance within ourselves when we are surrounded by imbalance. If all is not right in our lives; if all is not right in our communities; if all is not right in our world, then we cannot possibly begin to correct what is wrong by simply reacting without consideration or control.

In the last decade of his life, the great science-fictionist Arthur C. Clarke was asked by an interviewer what his advice would be to the whole of humankind. He replied that he felt the best piece of advice had already been given by his colleague Douglas Adams: “Don’t Panic.” That phrase was the motto of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the imaginary interstellar travel guide which gave its name to Adams’ most famous science fiction series. It’s counsel remains just as solid no matter where in the universe you happen to find yourself. Because those systems of evil, those structures of injustice and oppression which I mentioned earlier, which damage and destroy life and meaning, by which all of us are diminished and in which all of us are implicated – those collective evils are depending on us to panic. War has never been begun except by fear; exploitation has never been maintained except by rage. Panic – the unexamined, unconsidered reflex to fight, flight, or freeze – is just energy flailing wildly in search of a direction, and if we do not take responsibility for directing our own energy, then the existing patterns of wrong in the world will put our energy to use in maintaining themselves.

It’s important to draw a line here about what panic is and is not, and perhaps point to what the acceptable bounds of equanimity might allow for. I don’t mean that we should never be angry, and I don’t mean that we should never feel afraid. Again, those feelings are just energy, and they are normal, reasonable, indeed, necessary responses to facing the way things are. That energy can drive us in a number of directions, including towards changing the thing that made us angry or afraid in the first place. Denying ourselves or anyone else this full range of emotion is a tried and true way, intentionally or unintentionally, of maintaining the status quo. The voice of Jeremiah, recounted in the Hebrew Bible, laments of false leaders: “You dress the wounds of my people lightly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace./You declare, ‘All is well, all is well,’ when nothing is well.”[i] And equating spiritual wisdom with a lack of outward emotion is not born out by the examples of sacred stories. One of the most famous incidents in the Gospel accounts of his life, the teacher Jesus, for instance, is said to have driven the money changers out of Jerusalem’s temple, upending their benches and booths and castigating them as thieves. That story prompted one of my colleagues to observe that, if you’re ever inclined to ask yourself the question, “What Would Jesus Do?” it’s important to remember that shouting and flipping over tables is one of the possible options.

The danger comes when anger gives way to outrage, when fear dissolves into terror. Now, I’ll grant that none of us has perfect control over when this happens – but we do have more ability to shape our emotional responses than we usually credit ourselves with. One of the key choices at play is the matter of which truths we will entertain – and how much of them we will bite off at any one time. As Unitarian Universalists we are big on the truth: on the hard work of discovering it and the harder work of living by it. But we can, just as easily as anyone else, fall prey to equating the truth with bad news. This is a perverse sort of self-congratulatory attitude which confuses a myopic focus on everything that is horrible, painful, or wrong in life with a devotion to looking clearly, honestly, and unflinchingly at the truth of the world. But if you can look at this life, or any part of it, and see only sorrow – or only joy, for that matter – then you must be ignoring at least half of what there is to see.

Uppekha, again the Buddhist virtue most commonly translated as equanimity, can more literally be rendered as, “to look over.” I might rephrase that slightly as, “to look beyond.” And this is exactly what we need to practice doing in order to better shape our reactions, so that our actions can better shape our circumstances. We must look beyond whatever moment we are in. Beyond temporary ease and comfort to the injustice still woven into our society, and beyond the suffering and the hurt of the immediate present to hope and the wonder that fills the world and springs anew again and again and again. I spoke with one of you recently as you have been struggling through a hard time in life, and you mentioned that you have been collecting glad thoughts and joyous ideas. Not to distract yourself from your own pain, but so that you can have some help in remembering that life and the world is bigger than the one place where you are right now. We all need such reminders from time to time: that suffering is part of life, but it is not the whole of life’s story.

I cannot let the whole of this service go by without mentioning the anniversary we have just marked this weekend. Fifty years ago yesterday, a group of marchers set out from Selma, Alabama, headed for Montgomery, to protest the vast, racist conspiracy in that state and too many others designed to rob black people of their constitutional right to vote. That first group of marchers, nearly all of them African American, were attacked, beaten, tear-gassed and turned-back before they’d left the city limits half a century ago. That unconscionable violence against a non-violent assembly drew many more marchers, and there were two more attempts to make the journey, the last of which finally reached its destination. The campaign led directly to the passage and signing of the Voting Rights Act, a landmark in establishing and protecting political rights for people of color in this country. It also saw the murders of three protestors. The first, Jimmy Lee Jackson, was a young, black activist, shot down by state police before the first march, whose death helped to galvanize the campaign. The second was the Rev. James Reeb, a white Unitarian Universalist minister who came to Selma from Boston for the second attempted March, and was beaten to death by a group of local white men who targeted him and the other ministers he was walking with as ‘outside agitators.’ And the third was Viola Liuzzo, a Unitarian Universalist lay woman from Michigan, shot by members of the Ku Klux Klan as she helped to drive protestors back to Selma following the successful completion of the march. All of this is, of course, now a major motion picture, one which I am very happy to endorse – even if the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is not.

I would mention all of this today no matter what I was preaching about – it’s history that needs remembering, and a moment in time that we are irreducibly bound to by ties of tragedy and blood. But on the specific matter of equanimity, two connections seem obvious to me. The first is that the disciplined practice of non-violence, which the protestors in Selma were engaged in, requires a prodigious cultivation of equanimity. To confront your enemy and refuse to meet their violence – the outward manifestation of their own internal panic – with your own; that is an incredibly difficult thing. It required practice, and training – again, not to obliterate anger or fear, but to control them, and channel them into energy for work that needed to be done.

And the second connection is that all of this history makes me powerfully angry and powerfully sad. It should never have required the public beating of peaceful people to receive some guarantee from their government for their voice in determining that government. It should never have been necessary for three people to die in order that enough of their fellow citizens might pay attention to their plight and force their congress and their president to act. And it should never have been possible that most of the power in the legislative victory all that blood won, would be stripped away by a court ruling, as it was just two years ago. It makes me angry and it makes me sad. It makes me feel like I do not want to live in a country where such sacrifices are necessary and where the sudden loss of the gains won by them is possible. And so, if I want to live in a better country than that, it is up to me to work at remaking the country where I live.

Life is not all and only sorrow, nor is it all and only joy. But even on the clearest of days, from time to time, life’s engines stop. When you find yourself in such a predicament, whatever you do, don’t panic. Feel the anger, the fear, the grief – all the things that it is natural for a human being to feel in time of crisis. And then put those feelings to work, and do your damndest to get those engines going again.


[i] Jeremiah 6:14 (two different translations)


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