It is time to get it off my chest. It is said confession is good for the soul, and a little confession is in order. I was on my way to the West Avenue Methodist Church on Saturday, October 26, to an interfaith "Beyond Racism" program in an area of the city where I don't really know my way around. Slightly confused and distracted, I missed my turn and promptly found myself lost.
I did stop to ask directions and was driving slowly across the Child Street Bridge over Route 490; I momentarily took my eye off the upcoming traffic light to see if this were the street on which I had to turn. Before I knew it, the light had turned red - but not before I was into the intersection and crash! Another car, trying to make a left turn, and I came together - and to make matters worse - much worse - it was a police car!
The collision was relatively gentle; we both got out of our cars to survey the damage. He said, "I can't believe you did that!" I said meekly, "I can't believe I did it either."
He asked if I were hurt. I said no, and asked if he were hurt. He said no. He said I had gone through a red light. He was right. I confessed my guilt and explained why - but this did not seem to make much difference. And so, after 44 years of accident-free driving, I had my first accident. I was chagrined and mightily embarrassed.
What would I tell Joyce when I picked her up in a borrowed car that evening at the airport on her return from New Zealand? My first words were not an eager, husbandly, "did you have a good trip?" but, "I have bad news; I had a little accident - with a police car." And what would my mother think? My sons? My friends and colleagues? The members of this congregation? I understand that the news has spread far and wide, not only in this congregation, but throughout the denomination.
Well, there you have it. The "mishap" as I like to call it when I can put it in perspective, even laugh a bit about it. For, as Oscar Wilde once said, "Seriousness is the only refuge of the shallow."
But that is not the end of the tale. If you have ever been in an accident, particularly one in which you were to blame, you must know how I felt. My self-image was badly tarnished. I always thought of myself as a very careful driver, fully recognizing the privilege of being at the wheel of a two-ton machine. My self-confidence was for a time sent reeling. I didn't know I had such stupidity and carelessness in me. It is only now, more than a month after the "mishap," that I can reflect on its greater meaning, and, of course, make a sermon out of it - that's my therapy. This sobering experience has inadvertently become the stimulus for a consideration of the question, "Is the overexamined life worth living?"
It was Socrates who in Plato's Apology said "The unexamined life is not worth living," a phrase that has long resided in humanity's "looseleaf bible." Socrates was defending himself from his accusers in the trial that was to cost him his life. This was simply indicative of this man whom Plato called the "gadfly whom God had attached to the state."
This lofty aphorism may seem far removed from "the mishap," but bear with me. My accident caused a great deal of self-examination - not only about my driving habits, which I thought so stellar - but also why I had allowed myself to become so frazzled that I missed one turn I knew well, became lost in a city where I have lived for a quarter century and had the ill fortune to run into a police car. I began to think my life was just too hectic, that I had too much on my plate, that I needed to slow down and get myself under control - unlike the Swiss skier who happily compared his life with his skiing and said he always skied "just a little bit out of control."
Mishaps like this one are somewhat foreign to my life - and I don't mean only my car-driving life. I am a careful sort; I don't take big chances; I plan ahead; I am usually quite well organized. But to what end, if I do something that is stupid at best and potentially dangerous at worst?
Years ago I preached the inevitable Unitarian Universalist sermon on "the examined life." That is quintessential liberal religion - the self-examining, the self- correcting faith.
Then, in January of 1970 I went to Berkeley, California - Starr King School for the Ministry to be exact - for a ten-day retooling process. For me, the most important learning was a conversation with psychologist Charles Enright, who left me with words that seemed to rebut my sermon on the examined life: "The unlived life is not worth examining." It is possible to live the life of T. S. Eliot's J. Alfred Prufrock, who didn't even "dare to eat a peach" or "wear the legs of his trousers rolled." It is possible to so cocoon oneself from the world that one does not share the passion and action of living and consequently learns nothing.
When I candidated for the ministry of this church in the spring of 1970, I determined to share my new-found insight with this congregation in the hopes that you would recognize my wisdom and call me. Whether or not you did the former, you did do the latter, for which I am grateful.
For my first candidating sermon I preached on "The Unlived Life Is Not Worth Examining," using Nikos Kazantzakas' novel-become-movie, Zorba the Greek.
I compared this muscular and sensuous man with his cautious business partner, whom we might call Kazan, the Geek. They represented the two contrasting styles of these two sermons.
Kazan was a life-examiner - a careful, rational, unemotional man who seemed hardly to be living at all - so ruthlessly did he engage in philosophic self-examination. Then Zorba - there are few characters so colorful or engaging as Anthony Quinn's portrayal of Zorba - and though I have read the novel as well as seen the movie - Zorba is Quinn. Quinn is Zorba. Zorba lives for the moment, and if he reflects, it is long after he has satisfied his appetite for life. He says, "Life is trouble. Death, no. To live - do you know what that means? To undo your belt and look for trouble."
It began to occur to me that one had to balance the examined life by a lived life. And then, at a Harvard Divinity School Chapel on my 1986 Sabbatical, I recall hearing a professor tell the tale - imaginary or not I don't know - that has troubled me ever since. At 30 a woman decided to write her memoirs. She spent the next 15 years in the process.
At 45 she determined she had left a great deal out and so spent the next 30 years refining the project. At 75 she found herself immobilized by the mountains of paper in her house. She concluded that nothing had happened since she began her memoirs. She was right. Her whole life was on "hold." She hadn't lived enough of a life to make examining it worthwhile.
Which leads me to reflect on a third issue: If the unexamined life is not worth living and the unlived life is not worth examining, can it be true that the overexamined life is not worth living? It has been said that "The unexamined life may not be worth living, but the overexamined life sure wastes a lot of it," and that, "On the other hand, the examined life doesn't seem to produce much income."
I am - we are - as Unitarian Universalists - products of our Calvinist religious heritage with its explicitly strict discipline and its clear consequences for misbehavior. Unitarianism and Universalism grew out of Puritanical New England with its vision evoked by revivalist Jonathan Edwards' classic sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God."
Edwards had an unjustifiably pessimistic view of human nature and a jaded view God's severity. In contrast, we have developed an unjustifiably optimistic reading of human nature and perhaps a rosy view of our own virtue. Unitarians, as Thomas Starr King would later say, believed humanity was too good to be damned by God, while Universalists, a bit more humble, believed that God was too loving to damn us. They both came to belief in universal salvation, the final harmony of all souls with God.
In one sense we rejected Jonathan Edward's theology. However, we replaced the judgment of a vengeful God with the judgment of a super-sensitive conscience. We Unitarian Universalists tend to be very hard on others and very hard on ourselves. We tend to be perfectionists, idealists, naive in our understanding of human nature as unassailably good. We tend to underestimate our unlimited capacity for mischief and mistakes. We are not only thinkers, but blunderers.
As Ogden Nash once put it, "Well, I have learned that life is something in which you can't conclude anything except it is full of vicissitudes and when you expect logic you only come across eccentricitudes."
All of which brings me back to the mishap. It was a stupid thing to do. It was a careless thing to do. It was a bad thing to do. And yet, I am told that when my ministerial colleagues heard this story, they did not defrock me for conduct unbecoming a minister. I understand that they laughed uproariously. The way I heard it told - Gilbert is such a Boy Scout, I can't believe he hit a police car!
I have not quite gotten that much delight out of my faux pas, but I have learned from it. In its wake I engaged in a great deal of self-flagellation! I called myself every name in the book! Like Ziggy, the cartoon character, I am a little like the "...masochist... who knows the agony of victory...and the joy of defeat." I did a kind of self-psychoanalysis as to why I did it. What nefarious experience in my childhood would lead me to such public misbehavior? How can I redeem myself? Can I yet be saved?
What I have learned is that I would do well to ease up on myself a little. It is not that I don't take responsible driving seriously - I am more careful now than ever. It is that I have after a month come to put my misdeed into perspective - not only the perspective of 44 years of accident-free driving, but of a generally responsible life. And while the mishap is hardly of consequence in the great cosmic scheme of things, it serves to dramatize truths beyond a single incident.
My tendency - widely shared among us - is to overexamine my life. It is to be my own severest critic even when a little self-forgiveness might be called for. I wish to continue to examine my life in the Socratic tradition - but I want to ease up a little. While I would be my own gadfly - I don't want to be a killer bee. I liken my sought-for balance to being simultaneously a coach and a cheerleader - one who criticizes firmly, but also encourages gently - for myself as well as others.
It is O.K. to make a mistake once in a while - even a really dumb mistake! After all, though it is sometimes hard for me to believe - I am merely mortal. I am utterly finite.
I am flawed creature - a characteristic widely shared among members of the human race. After all, it is our imperfections that unite us, not our perfections.
Life is messy. It is strewn with our misdeeds toward others and theirs toward us. It is strewn with our misdeeds toward ourselves. Mistakes are part of the game. Live with them, or get out. I have no intention of getting out before my time, so I had better learn to live with my capacity to be a whole lot lower than the angels. We are neither saints nor sinners - neither perfect embodiments of virtue nor of vice. We are noble bumblers of life, just trying to muddle through with a bit of grace.
I have learned that a large part of life is simply muddling through. Once in a while we will scale the mountain top, behold the view, and have our peak experience. There are times we will be trapped in the depths of despair and see no way out - the valley experience. But most of the time we are on the plains and plateaus of life - often losing our way - but managing to muddle on. There are worse things to do with a life.
As Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Master of the San Francisco Zen Center, once reminded us, "Everything is perfect, but there's a lot of room for improvement."