What Does it Mean to be a People of Perseverance?
“People cry not because they are weak. It’s because they’ve been strong too long.” – Shane Koyczan
“This morning I have been pondering a nearly forgotten lesson I learned in high school music. Sometimes in band or choir, music requires players or singers to hold a note longer than they actually can hold a note. In those cases, we were taught to mindfully stagger when we took a breath so the sound appeared uninterrupted. Everyone got to breathe, and the music stayed strong and vibrant… So let’s remember the advice of music: Take a breath. The rest of the chorus will sing. The rest of the band will play. Rejoin so others can breathe. Together, we can sustain a very long, beautiful song for a very, very long time. You don’t have to do it all, but you must add your voice to the song.” – Amiee Van Ausdall
So, have you been strong too long?
It’s not the usual question when tackling the topic of perseverance. Most often we’re asked, “Are you ready to be strong?” The standard recipe is well known: Buck up! Grin and bear it! Keep pushing! Keep moving forward! Dig deep; you are stronger than you know! But maybe Koyczan is right. Maybe this typical roadmap isn’t the path to perseverance; maybe it’s just the path to breakdown.
And when we combine Koyczan’s quote with Van Ausdall’s invitation to breath, we suddenly see that balance plays a bigger role in perseverance than we often assume. As a people of perseverance, we are called not just to grit and strong wills, but to gentleness and self-care. Constantly pushing ourselves without also giving ourselves the gift of pause gets us nowhere. Digging deeper without making time to fill our wells is a recipe for self-inflicted pain.
All of which is to say that maybe vulnerability is the real secret to perseverance. Maybe admitting you’re tired and asking for help is the real strength that gets us through. That dominant myth of Sisyphus pushing his rock up that endless hill hasn’t done us any favors. We assume that Sisyphus is suffering because his work is endless, but maybe it’s his isolation and lack of a place to rest that is his true torment.
So, friends, this month, let’s not torment ourselves. We don’t have to give up those pep talks about digging deep and being stronger than we know. But right alongside that, let’s make sure we’re also doing the more tender work of propping each other up and reminding each other to breathe.
Rabbi David Wolf tells a story that we all should carry with us this month:
A boy and his father were walking along a road when they came across a large stone. “Do you think if I use all of my strength, I can move this rock?” the child asked. His father answered, “If you use all of your strength, I am sure you can do it.” The boy began to push the rock. Exerting himself as much as he could, he pushed and pushed. The rock did not move. Discouraged, he said to his father, “You were wrong. I can’t do it.” His father put his arm around the boy’s shoulder and said, “No son. You didn’t use all your strength – you didn’t ask me to help.”
What a gift to remember that perseverance isn’t a solo act. May that be the gift this month gives us all.
Our Spiritual Exercises
What Props Up Your Perseverance?
So forget that image of Sisyphus pushing his rock up the hill all by his lonesome. It is a myth after all. In real life we rarely push or carry our boulders on our own. Our perseverance is always propped up by something or someone. This exercise invites you to celebrate and share that which enabled -and enables – you to carry on through tough times.
But here’s the catch: In order to help your other group members expand their view of possible sources of sustenance, try to think of the unexpected thing that propped or props you up. For instance, maybe it was the relative you least expected that stepped forward in your time of need. Or maybe it was the person who gave you gifts of beauty when everyone else was telling you how they got through so you can too. In short, pick a surprising person, song, book, quote, insight, spiritual practice or experience that propped up your perseverance and come to your group ready to share its story. And if there is an object connected to it, consider bringing that in as well.
Let Beauty Birth Your Perseverance
“In my own worst seasons, I’ve come back from the colorless world of despair by forcing myself to look hard, for a long time, at a single glorious thing: a flame of red geranium outside my bedroom window. And then another: my daughter in a yellow dress. And another: the perfect outline of a full, dark sphere behind the crescent moon… until I learned to be in love with my life again. Like a stroke victim retraining new parts of the brain to grasp lost skills, I have taught myself joy, over and over again.”
– Barbara Kingsolver
In the packet introduction, we talked about how perseverance requires a balance of self-care and a strong will. Digging deep is important, but unless one takes the time to fill one’s well, that digging will be useless. Barbara Kingsolver lifts up beauty as one of those things that fills our wells and makes our perseverance possible.
So this month, accept Kingsolver’s invitation: stare at one glorious thing each day for at least two weeks.
It can be the same glorious thing or you can seek out a different one each day. It’s the “staring” that is really the important part. Give it your attention long enough to sink in. You will know when you are done; your body will tell you. Just stare until you, like Kingsolver, feel joy starting to tingle at the edges of your skin and caress your face into a smile.
Come to your group and let them know the result of following Kingsolver’s advice.
The Perseverance that Birthed Your Beauty
Ahlaam Lala Abduljalil shares a raw, honest and moving poem about the many acts of perseverance that gave birth to her freedom and beauty. It’s called Open-Hearted Beauty and can be found here:
In her poem, Ahlaam introduces each of her acts of perseverance with the phrase “It takes…” This exercise invites you to use these “It takes…” phrases to reflect on what is has taken for you to birth your own hard-won freedom and beauty. Here’s a suggested approach:
- Listen to Ahlaam’s poem multiple times, maybe even playing it at a slower speed for a time or two.
- As you listen, identify the 3-4 “It takes…” lines that stick out to you. Listen for the lines that connect with and are similar to your own experience. Write them down.
- You now have two options.
- First, you can simply spend some time meditating and reflecting on those chosen lines and your own experiences they take you back to. Then come to your group ready to share how that reflective experience was for you.
- A second option is to write up your own “It takes…” list. Imagine that you, like Ahlaam, were to try to explain to others what has gone into your journey. Take the time to list the many forms of perseverance that it took to birth your own beauty. Come to your group ready to share what you are comfortable sharing.
Get The Obstacles Out of the Way
Yes, perseverance is often about the work of putting one foot in front of the other. It’s about keeping going. But sometimes the problem isn’t in keeping our feet moving; it’s an obstacle in the middle of our path. It’s about getting unstuck not so much keeping going. This exercise invites you to lean into this type of perseverance that is about recognizing and removing those obstacles.
Check out this article: http://upliftconnect.com/little-habits-happiness/. It’s about the barriers to happiness, but its list contains many of the same things that prevent us from moving forward, many of the things that prevent us from persevering. You can make your engagement with the article as simple or complex as you need. You can simply weave it into your meditation practice and use it to identify a place of stuckness that you might not have fully recognized. Or you can take it to the next level and actually work on removing your obstacle using the advice contained in the column.
As always, don’t treat these questions like “homework” or a list that needs to be covered in its entirety. Instead, simply pick the single question that speaks to you most and let it lead you where you need to go. The goal is to figure out what being a part of a people of perseverance means for you and your daily living. So, which question is calling to you? Which one contains “your work”?
- The saying is widely known: “Trees that bend in the storm don’t break.” Are you trying to stand tall and remain immovable, when life is asking you to bend?
- We all fall down. Very few of us pick ourselves up on our own. Perseverance is rarely a solo act. Who in your life needs a bit of help getting back up off the mat?
- What if the way through your pain is to feel it?
- It’s hard right now. The light at the end of the tunnel is still a ways off. You’ve remembered to just keep moving forward. But have you remembered to breathe? Have you remembered to be tender with and to take care of yourself, not just push yourself?
- Are you sure your strategy of “grin and bear it” is still working? What’s the worst that could happen if you just walked away?
- It is said that people who persevere don’t just struggle through their pain; they share and tell stories of their pain. Others then respond with their own stories of pain and struggle, leading to the discovery that we are not as alone as we thought. So is it time for you to be a storyteller, not just a survivor?
- Have you made friends with defeat? Do you still resent it? Or have you figured out the hidden gift, lesson or blessing of your defeat?
- So you think you’ve lost the struggle? Or could it be that you’ve just lost your illusions?
- Yes, it is important to gratefully acknowledge the shoulders of those you stand on. But how are you doing with the equally important work of offering your shoulders to others? Could it be that perseverance is something we pass on?
- It is said that mastery requires persevering through 10,000 hours of practice. If you are feeling like you are failing or not good enough, might it be time to consider that you are only 5,000 hours in?
- What’s your question? Your question may not be listed above. As always, if the above questions don’t include what life is asking from you, spend the month listening to your days to hear it.
Recommended Resources for Personal Exploration & Reflection
The below recommended resources are not “required reading.” We will not analyze these pieces at our small group meeting. Instead they are here to companion you on your personal journey this month, get your thinking started, and open you to new ways of thinking about what it means to be part of a people of Perseverance.
While perseverance literally comes from Latin per (thoroughly) + severus (severe), we could also turn to sustain, from the Latin roots sub (up from below) + tenere (to hold) or persist per (thoroughly) + sistere (to stand).
This morning I have been pondering a nearly forgotten lesson I learned in high school music. Sometimes in band or choir, music requires players or singers to hold a note longer than they actually can hold a note. In those cases, we were taught to mindfully stagger when we took a breath so the sound appeared uninterrupted. Everyone got to breathe, and the music stayed strong and vibrant… So let’s remember the advice of music: Take a breath. The rest of the chorus will sing. The rest of the band will play. Rejoin so others can breathe. Together, we can sustain a very long, beautiful song for a very, very long time. You don’t have to do it all, but you must add your voice to the song.
– Amiee Van Ausdall
To sustain a stay in a dry and barren desert, it is necessary to be about something great enough to be worth a lifetime of unrewarded effort. There are simply some divine cravings in life—the liberation of the poor, the equality of women, the humanity of the entire human race—that are worth striving for, living for, dying for, finished or unfinished, for as long as it takes to achieve them. No single capital campaign will do the trick. No one speech will change the climate. No single law will undo eons of damage. It will take a million lives dedicated to the long haul and heaped on top of one another. That’s why the Zen saying “O snail, climb Mount Fuji, but slowly, slowly,” is so important. If we are to persevere for the long haul, we must not overdrive our souls. We must immerse ourselves in good music, good reading, great beauty and peace so that everything good in us can rise again and lead us on beyond disappointment, beyond boredom, beyond criticism, beyond loss. Then life has vision again; then going on seems both possible and necessary.
– Joan Chittister
I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can only rest for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not ended.
– Nelson Mandela
Success is a little like wrestling a gorilla. You don’t quit when you’re tired. You quit when the gorilla is tired.
– Robert Strauss
If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito – The Dalai Lama
She stood in the storm, & when the wind did not blow her away, she adjusted her sails.
– Elizabeth Edwards
The universe always falls in love with a stubborn heart.
Big shots are only little shots who kept shooting.
– Christopher Morley
The road to success is dotted with many tempting parking places.
Still I Rise
Full poem found here: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/46446/still-i-rise
“You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise…”
Read by Maya Angelou:
Maya Angelou turned forty on April 4, 1968. She had planned a big party in Harlem, with many of the day’s black intellectual elite among the guests. History had other ideas; Dr. King’s assassination sent Angelou into a weeks-long depression. It was fellow writer James Baldwin who helped her dig out of it. Angelou recalls Baldwin’s assistance in her book A Song Flung Up to Heaven, where she writes that laughter and ancestral guidance got her through:
“There was very little serious conversation. The times were so solemn and the daily news so somber that we snatched mirth from unlikely places and gave servings of it to one another with both hands…
I told Jimmy I was so glad to laugh. Jimmy said, “We survived slavery. . . . You know how we survived? We put surviving into our poems and into our songs. We put it into our folk tales. We danced surviving in Congo Square in New Orleans and put it in our pots when we cooked pinto beans. . . . [W]e knew, if we wanted to survive, we had better lift our own spirits. So we laughed whenever we got the chance.”
– Kenny Wiley, from Nights Can Be Tough
Heartbreak is how we mature; yet we use the word heartbreak as if it only occurs when things have gone wrong: an unrequited love, a shattered dream, a child lost before their time. Heartbreak, we hope, is something we hope we can avoid; something to guard against, a chasm to be carefully looked for and then walked around; the hope is to find a way to place our feet where the elemental forces of life will keep us in the manner to which we want to be accustomed and which will keep us from the losses that all other human beings have experienced without exception since the beginning of conscious time. But heartbreak may be the very essence of being human, of being on the journey from here to there, and of coming to care deeply for what we find along the way… If heartbreak is inevitable and inescapable, it might be asking us to look for it and make friends with it, to see it as our constant and instructive companion, and even perhaps, in the depth of its impact as well as in its hindsight, to see it as its own reward. Heartbreak asks us not to look for an alternative path, because there is no alternative path. It is a deeper introduction to what we love and have loved, an inescapable and often beautiful question, something or someone who has been with us all along, asking us to be ready for the last letting go.
– David Whyte
More and more I have come to admire resilience.
Not the simple resistance of a pillow, whose foam
returns over and over to the same shape, but the sinuous tenacity of a tree: finding the light newly blocked on one side, it turns in another. A blind intelligence, true. But out of such persistence arose turtles, rivers, mitochondria, figs — all this resinous, unretractable earth.
Repair your universe.
Let it hurt.
Let it bleed.
Let it heal.
And let it go.
– Nikita Gill
Do not let the world
make you hard.
Do not let pain
make you hate.
Do not let bitterness
Steal your sweetness.
– Kurt Vonnegut
Go all the way
“If you’re going to try, go all the way.
Otherwise, don’t even start.
This could mean losing girlfriends, wives, relatives and maybe even your mind.
It could mean not eating for three or four days.
It could mean freezing on a park bench.
It could mean jail.
It could mean derision…
If you’re going to try, go all the way.
There is no other feeling like that.
You will be alone with the gods, and the nights will flame with fire.
You will ride life straight to perfect laughter.
It’s the only good fight there is.”
Inspirational video reading: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k6_QUhUPrF4
Rev. Rudy Nemser, UU minister
You find them in churches
when you’re lucky;
other places too, though I mostly
only know ecclesiastical varieties.
Long haul people
upon whose shoulders
(and pocketbooks and casseroles
and daylight/nighttime hours)
a church is built and maintained
after the brass is tarnished and
cushions need re-stitching.
They pay their pledges full and on time
even when the music’s modern;
support each canvass though the sermons aren’t always short;
mow lawns and come to suppers;
teach Sunday School when
there’s no one else and they’ll miss the service.
Asked what they think of the minister,
or plans for the kitchen renovation,
or the choral anthem, or Christmas pageant,
or color of the bathroom paint,
they’ll reply: individuals and fashions
arrive and pass.
The church—their church—will be here, steady and hale. For a long, long time. It will.
For long haul people bless a church
with a very special blessing.
Much protest is naive; it expects quick, visible improvements and despairs and gives up when such improvement does not come. Protestors who hold out longer have perhaps understood that success is not the proper goal… Protest that endures, I think, is moved by a hope far more modest than that of public success: namely, the hope of preserving qualities in one’s own heart and spirit that would be destroyed by acquiescence.
– Wendell Berry, “On Difficult Hope”
Full poem found here: https://wordsfortheyear.com/2014/11/01/defeat-by-kahlil-gibran/
“Defeat, my Defeat, my self-knowledge and my defiance,
Through you I know that I am yet young and swift of foot
And not to be trapped by withering laurels.
And in you I have found aloneness
And the joy of being shunned and scorned….
Defeat, my Defeat, my deathless courage,
You and I shall laugh together with the storm,
And together we shall dig graves for all that die in us,
And we shall stand in the sun with a will,
And we shall be dangerous.”
Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any misery, any depression, since after all you don’t know what work these conditions are doing inside you? Why do you want to persecute yourself with the question of where all this is coming from and where it is going? Since you know, after all, that you are in the midst of transitions and you wished for nothing so much as to change. If there is anything unhealthy in your reactions, just bear in mind that sickness is the means by which an organism frees itself from what is alien; so one must simply help it to be sick, to have its whole sickness and to break out with it, since that is the way it gets better.
– Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
She who has not been tried,
what does she know?
She who has been surprised
abounds with vigilance.
Betrayed, she recognizes what is true.
Scarred, she finds her resilience.
Her illusions gone, she deepens.
– MJ Abell
Life’s reality is that we cannot bounce back. We cannot bounce back because we cannot go back in time to the people we used to be. The parent who loses a child never bounces back. The nineteen-year-old who sails for war is gone forever, even if he returns. You know that there is no bouncing back. There is only moving through.
“What happens to us becomes a part of us. Resilient people do not bounce back from hard experiences; they find healthy ways to integrate them into their lives.
The Long Haul
I promise to love you through it all.
Through all the pain and distance
Through the emptiness and fear
Through the nothing that feels like everything
And through the everything that feels like love
I will love you
I’m making my shoulders strong for the young to stand upon,
stepping lightly on the backs of those
who hold me up.
It’s a chain of life unending,
ever new and ever bending,
– Susan Osborn singer/songwriter
The Three Stonecutters – a parable about the secret to perseverance
A man came across three stonecutters and asked them what they were doing. The first replied, “I am making a living.” The second kept on hammering while he said, “I am doing the best job of stonecutting in the entire county.” The third looked up with a visionary gleam in his eye and said, “I am building a cathedral.”
When you feel like quitting, think about why you started. – Aly Juma
In my own worst seasons, I’ve come back from the colorless world of despair by forcing myself to look hard, for a long time, at a single glorious thing: a flame of red geranium outside my bedroom window. And then another: my daughter in a yellow dress. And another: the perfect outline of a full, dark sphere behind the crescent moon… until I learned to be in love with my life again. Like a stroke victim retraining new parts of the brain to grasp lost skills, I have taught myself joy, over and over again.
– Barbara Kingsolver
won’t you celebrate with me
won’t you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model.
born in babylon
both nonwhite and woman
what did i see to be except myself?
i made it up
here on this bridge between
starshine and clay,
my one hand holding tight
my other hand; come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.
Clifton reading her poem: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XM7q_DUk5wU
Songs and Music
Time Will Tell
Gregory Alan Isakov
“Time, she says,
“There’s no turning back,
Keep your eyes on the tracks”
Through the fields, somewhere there’s blue
Oh, time will tell, she’ll see us through…”
Love is the Water that Wears Down the Rock
by Maya Angelou and sung by Ben Harper
East To The West
“To the east to the west
To the north and south
To the east to the west
One love people never gonna stop…”
Nahko and Medicine for the People
“At a time in our country where every 28hrs a black or brown person is shot by a police officer, it is imperative to call on our white allies to stand in solidarity with those that face state violence every day. where is the justice? in this song, we ask our allies to remember that to be color blind is to be system blind. “
Somebody’s Hurting My Brother
“It’s gone on far too long…and we won’t be silent anymore…”
Higher Ground – Songs Around the World
Get Up Stand Up – Songs Around The World
Don’t Give Up – Peter Gabriel
Covered by Herbie Hancock, P!nk, John Legend
Eye of the Tiger
https://www.youtube.com/watch?reload=9&v=gCTlBvAY-Ag (listen through brief song by children first)
Survivor’s rock classic transformed by Jenn Grant’s cover
“Went the distance, now I’m back on my feet…It’s the eye of the tiger. It’s the thrill of the fight. Rising up to the challenge of our rival…
I Won’t Back Down (Tom Petty cover)
Never Give Up
Sia – cover by Matt Johnson
Love (A Song for Valentine’s; Try not to smile!)
Nat King Cole – Cover by Mister Kanish
Instructions for a Bad Day
A stunning and inspiring guide to perseverance!
“In modern life, Sisyphus has become a metaphor for laborious futility. We call Sisyphean the task of, say, replying to messages in an exponentially overflowing inbox. But residing in Sisyphus is also something invisible to the pitying or scornful cynic’s eye — not the foolishness of his plight, but its fundamental hopefulness. Inherent to doing a task so self-defeating over and over without losing heart is the elemental belief that it can be done. Rather than letting his crushing despair crush him under the collapsing rock, Sisyphus presses on and on and on. He may be a tragic hero, but he is first and foremost a hero, precisely for this unrelenting faith in the possibility of accomplishing the impossible. His optimistic tenacity renders him the epitome of the creative spirit captured in Steinbeck’s assertion that a great artist “always works at the impossible.” In this beautiful Oscar-nominated 1974 animated film, Hungarian graphic artist and animator Marcell Jankovics (b. October 21, 1941) brings to life the myth of Sisyphus in a minimalist, maximally evocative black-and-white visual narrative.”
A Conversation About Growing Up Black – The New York Times
(Connecting Perseverance and African American History Month)
“My parents would tell me – especially my mom – she would tell me “You have to endure. You have to muscle through it. It is part of being a person of color in America…”
(Connecting Perseverance and African American History Month)
The cost and perseverance of beauty…
How Do You Mend A Broken Heart? – Soul Pancake
When Facing Adversity, Which One Are You: Potato, Egg or Coffee Bean?
For Random Acts of Kindness (Feb. 17)
Give a little love, get a little love…
Five Ways Science Says to Handle Difficult Times
Kira M Newman
How To Bounce Back From Failure — Over And Over Again
Rising Strong: The Reckoning, The Rumble, The Revolution
“This is a book about what it takes to get back up.”
Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy
Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant
“From Facebook’s COO and Wharton’s top-rated professor, the #1 New York Times best-selling authors of Lean In and Originals: a powerful, inspiring, and practical book about building resilience and moving forward after life’s inevitable setbacks.”
Article about the book found here
Endure: The Power of Spiritual Assets for Resilience to Trauma & Stress
Daniel D Maurer
Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back
Andrew Zolli & Ann Marie Healy
Review: “Provocative, optimistic, and eye-opening, Resilience sheds light on why some systems, people, and communities fall apart in the face of disruption and, ultimately, how they can learn to bounce back.”
Podcast related to the book: https://onbeing.org/programs/andrew-zolli-a-shift-to-humility-resilience-and-expanding-the-edge-of-change/
The Impossible Will Take a Little While: Perseverance and Hope in Troubled Times
Paul Rogat Loeb
A review: “What keeps us going when times get tough? How have the leaders and unsung heroes of world-changing political movements persevered in the face of cynicism, fear, and seemingly overwhelming odds? In The Impossible Will Take a Little While, they answer these questions in their own words, creating a conversation among some of the most visionary and eloquent voices of our times. “
“127 Hours” is the true story of mountain climber Aron Ralston’s remarkable adventure to save himself after a fallen boulder crashes on his arm and traps him in an isolated canyon in Utah… A visceral thrilling story that will take an audience on a never before experienced journey and prove what we can do when we choose life.”
Five-year-old Saroo gets lost on a train which takes him thousands of Kilometers across India, away from home and family. Twenty-five years later, armed with only a handful of memories, his unwavering determination, and a revolutionary technology known as Google Earth, he sets out to find his lost family and finally return to his first home.
They Will Have to Kill Us First
A documentary celebrating the courageous and creative use of music as a form of resistance. Set in Mali where jihadists have banned all music-making. Delivers a vibrant testimony of resilience under oppression.
Million Dollar Baby
“A powerful emotional drama about a woman boxer and her crusty old trainer and the slow miracle that draws them together.”
“A picaresque tale about a resilient and loving boy from the slums of Mumbai whose luck takes him from poverty to the wildly popular game show “Who Wants to be a Millionaire.””
The masterful family move about the most persistent and resilient pig in movie history!
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