The sermon below was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, California, at the 9:30 and 11:00 a.m. services. The sermon text below is a reading text; the actual sermon contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2015 Daniel Harper.
You may have seen the article in the December issue of The Atlantic magazines titled “The Silicon Valley Suicides.” (1) It was reasonably well-written, but no one article can convey the true complexity of life as it experienced by teenagers here in Silicon Valley. Nor will I be able to convey that complexity in this sermon. But because I am a minister here in Silicon Valley who spends a significant part of my time with teens and their parents, I thought I would offer you my own perspective on Silicon Valley teenagers.
Please note that in order to protect confidentiality, I will NOT talk about any specific individual or family in this sermon. Instead, I’m going re-tell an old, old religious story about a famous religious figure. I’m going to disguise this old, old story by giving it all the trappings of Silicon Valley today. And even though I’m going to have to stretch the details of this old, old story a little, it is a story that can help us gain some insight into what it means to grow up in Silicon Valley today.
The story begins with the birth of a boy named Sid. Sid’s parents were very influential — let’s just say that they were very high up in government — and they were also quite well-to-do. Sid’s mother decided to give birth outdoors in the garden, so her personal assistant arranged everything, and her personal medical staff attended her during the birth.
Sid’s father did not attend the birth, because he was tied up with very important meetings. It was a day or so before he had time to see his wife and the new baby.
“What a good-looking baby,” he said.
“And talented,” she said. “You’re not going to believe this, but he tried to walk almost immediately upon being born,” she said. “And….”
“And what?” he said.
“Let’s just say that we have an exceptional child on our hands,” she said. “We need to start researching preschools that can handle gifted and talented children. This boy is destined for Stanford.” This was the college Sid’s mother had attended.
“Or Harvard,” said the father, who was a proud graduate of that institution.
“But not Berkeley,” said his mother.
The baby’s father then called in various experts to assess the child, who all agreed this was an exceptional baby. The coordinating consultant delivered the final assessment: “In addition to great intelligence, this little boy has exceptional leadership potential,” she said. “I’d say he has the potential to rise to the highest ranks of world political leadership.”
“Great!” said his father. “Fabulous!” said his mother.
“Or he could wind up going into religious leadership,” said the consultant.
“Religion?” said the father. “That’s hardly practical.”
“Forget religion,” said the mother. “He needs to be totally focused on his career goals, starting now.”
Little Sid exceeded even his parents’ highest expectations. He was a total success at preschool, in elementary school, and in middle school. With no apparent effort, he got straight A pluses. When he took the SATs, he got 800s. His sports and extracurricular accomplishments were equally impressive. And the family psychiatrists carefully controlled Sid’s anxiety disorder and clinical depression with appropriate medications.
Being mindful of the predictions of the experts, his parents kept him carefully protected from religion; and from knowledge of poverty, serious illness, death, or anything that might cause him to ask religious-type questions. “Religion just gets in the way of making a living,” said his mother. “Let’s keep him focused on STEM learning,” said his father.
Sid was admitted to Stanford at age 16. His father bought him a house near campus, mostly so his personal assistant would have an office. Soon Sid met a beautiful girl, whose parents were also high up in government, and (with a little behind-the-scenes urging from both sets of parents) even though they were only 18, the young couple got married. It was a storybook wedding in Memorial Church, a dream wedding in Silicon Valley, two motivated, attractive, talented young people in the fast lane to brilliant success.
By the time they were 19, Sid’s wife was pregnant. Being even more brilliant than Sid, she quickly finished all her course work at Stanford and made a start on her graduate study. A Nobel prize winner, with whom she had already co-authored two significant papers, had already asked her to work in his lab. She told Sid, “I’m going to enjoy the baby for six months, then I’ll lean in and finish my Ph.D.”
After the baby was born, Sid felt at loose ends. His wife was completely occupied with the baby. Somehow, he felt dissatisfied with life. He started having panic attacks again. He turned to Channa, his personal assistant, and said, “Let’s go for a drive.”
They got into Sid’s customized Tesla, and drove around the streets of Palo Alto. Suddenly, Sid noticed there were these poorly dressed men and women walking along the streets of Palo Alto. “Geez,” said Sid. “Why don’t those people get some decent clothes?”
“They’re homeless,” said Channa. “They can’t afford to.”
Sid was shocked. He never knew that people could be homeless. Questions began to rise up in his brain, but he didn’t know how to answer them.
Then in the next block, Sid and Channa saw an ambulance parked on the street. The EMTs were giving CPR to someone lying on the sidewalk.
“What’s going on?” said Sid.
They saw the EMTs stop the CPR and pull a sheet over the body. “Well,” said Channa, “it looks like someone just died.”
“Died?” said Sid. Intellectually, he knew what death was, but he had never seen someone dead before. “They died? Channa, I need to ask someone some questions about death. And maybe about homelessness. Where can I go?”
“Turn in here,” said Channa. They turned into a parking lot. “Let’s go find the minister,” said Channa. They found the minister sitting in her office. She invited Sid and Channa to sit down, and asked what was on their minds. Sid told her what he had seen: a homeless person, a dying person. He told her about the birth of his baby. He told her about his questions. She sat there and listened calmly, then after sitting in silence she said, “Those are difficult questions. You will need to find your own answers.”
Sid went home. His mind and soul were in complete turmoil. What was the point of his studies, if people were going to suffer and die? How could that minister be so calm in the face of so much that was wrong with the world? How could he answer all the questions that tumbled through his head?
“I’ve got to find answers to all these questions,” Sid thought to himself. “If I stay here, my wife will tell me to ‘lean in.’ My mother and father will tell me to focus on my career. But I need to know why there are people who have to suffer by living on the street. I need to know why people die. I need to understand better what it means to be human.”
Sid decided the only way he could answer his questions was to leave his comfortable life and wander the world as a homeless person. He looked in the bedroom, where his wife and baby were lying asleep. He reached out to pick up his baby and kiss him goodbye. But then he thought, “If I lift my wife’s hand to take my son, she will awake; and that will prevent my going away. I will come back and see him when I have become a Buddha.” And he left. (2)
So now you know that Sid is actually Siddhartha Gotama, who became the Buddha. In the original story, Siddhartha was the son of a king, but after seeing illness, death, old age, and a monk, he abandoned the royal life to become a wandering religious mendicant. I just changed a few details and transplanted this old, old story to Silicon Valley.
I tell this story because Siddhartha reminds me of some kids who live today in Silicon Valley. Siddhartha is a LOT wealthier than most Silicon Valley kids; his family was in the top one-tenth of a percent, while most families in our area are not all that wealthy, and where there are plenty of families who are just scraping by. (3) But the high expectations, that reminds me of Silicon Valley culture. The parental drive to make their child succeed, that reminds me of Silicon Valley. The way the child internalizes the drive to succeed, that reminds me of Silicon Valley. The way work or vocation is more important than family, that reminds me of Silicon Valley.
This brings me to a conversation I had with an adult in our congregation, who gave me permission to mention their remarks in this sermon. When this adult from our congregation was in high school a number of years ago in another part of the United States, there was a cluster of suicides in that high school. At first glance, the young people who committed suicide appeared popular and successful. But, says this adult, what connected those young people who committed suicide in that other time and place was their misery.
Misery is powerful emotion that acts to overwhelm other emotions. When someone falls into the depths of misery, it is hard to feel pleasure, pain, happiness, or hope. Misery is an unpleasant feeling, and when someone is in the depths of misery, they really want to get out of it.
When I listen to the story of Siddhartha, and we get to the part just before he left his family to become a wandering mendicant, I imagine that Siddhartha must have felt misery. Where did that misery come from? I imagine that for Siddhartha, his misery stemmed in large part from the fact that he was valued, not for who he was now, but for who he would someday be.
Here in Silicon Valley, there are young people growing up like Siddhartha, kids who are being carefully groomed to lead lives of power and privilege. We expect these young people to get good grades and do as many extracurricular activities as possible so that they can attend a prestigious university and get a job that will provide them with a great deal of money an influence. We require them to complete a great many community service hours, but we don’t really want them to reflect too deeply on homelessness or illness or death, or what those things mean to them. Our culture does not allow young people the time to find out for themselves who they really are.
If we never let young people think and do for themselves — if we program their every waking hour, just as Siddhartha was programmed — how can they make sense out of homelessness and death? How can they make sense out of global climate change, toxics in the environment, and a war in Afghanistan that has been going on for as long as they can remember? In his reflection, Mike Abraham said: “It can very well feel to [teenagers] like there are few real options when overwhelmed, since they haven’t had the opportunity to learn through small steps how to cope with life.”
The dominant culture tells young people: Get into a prestigious university, so you can get a good job and make lots of money. When we tell teenagers that their main purpose is to be successful sometime in the future, we are telling them that their only value lies in success. We are telling teenagers that human beings are not ends in and of themselves, but rather that humans are merely means to an end.
Notice that I’m not blaming parents of teenagers. Notice that I was very careful to say: “The dominant culture tells young people….” The parents I know love their children very much, and are doing they best they can. But in the face of such relentless pressure from the dominant culture, both parents and teenagers need support as they try to stay centered on love and human value.
I would like to suggest to you that one place parents and teenagers can get that support is in a religious community like ours. Religion is often denigrated in Silicon Valley, perhaps because religions like ours treat persons as ends in themselves, not means to an end. This is in fact a central value of Unitarian Universalism. Historically, the Universalists rejected the concept of hell because eternal damnation implies that some human beings have no value and can be discarded to be eternally tortured and punished. Universalism has changed and evolved over the years, and now we say we affirm the inherent worth and dignity of all persons; we have changed the wording, but the value itself remains constant: we treat persons as ends in themselves, not as something to be discarded, not as means to some other end.
Because our religious community affirms that persons as ends in themselves, we are a powerful antidote to the cultural norm that treats teenagers as less than human. Our teenagers do more than feed the homeless in order to get community service hours; that would be treating homeless persons simply as means to an end. Our teenagers cook and serve dinner to people who happen to be homeless, and then sit down and talk with any of the guests who want to socialize; they treat the guests as guests, as fully human. When we treat other persons as ends in themselves, we learn and re-learn that we too are not mere means to an end, but rather we are fully human.
And our teenagers do more than receive services from this religious community. We want our teenagers to be full participants in our religious community. Depending on their interests and skills, our teenagers might teach Sunday school alongside adults, or participate in social justice projects, or serve as worship associates. We have teens who are full participating members on both the Board of Trustees and the Committee on Ministry, our two most important committees. Our teenagers may, if they wish to do so, sign the membership book, which means they can both vote in congregational meetings and make a financial pledge to the congregation. And, as is true of many adults, many teens simply show up, and make a contribution simply by being here. Our religious community does not wait for young people to become something sometime in the future; we consider them to be fully human now, fully able to contribute to and benefit from our community.
The ancient sage and prophet Jesus of Nazareth affirmed that we should love our neighbor as we love ourselves. “Do that, and you will live,” he is reported to have said. (4) I am not so idealistic as to believe we can somehow stop all suicides, but I believe we can at least get our suicide rate down to the national average. We can do this by committing ourselves to loving, and be loved by others. When we place the highest value on loving others as we love ourselves, then success will come, not with academic success, not with success in the future, but with sharing our common humanity together in community. Whether you are over the age of 18, or under that age, we can treat each other as worthy of love for who we are, worthy of love right now, worthy of love simply because we are human.
(1) Hanna Rosin, “The Silicon Valley Suicides: Why Are So Many Kids Killing Themselves in Palo Alto?” The Atlantic, vol. 316, no. 5, December, 2015, pp. 62-73.
(2) My source for Buddha’s early life is Jataka-nidana: The Story of Gotama Buddha, trans. from original Pali texts by N. A. Jayawickrama (Oxford: Pali Text Society, 2002 corrected edition), pp. 66-72.
(3) It should be noted that not everyone in Silicon Valley is wealthy or even well-off. “The percentage of students that participate in the Federal free and reduced lunch program is 8.8%,” according to the “Palo Alto High School 2014-2015 School Profile” (http://paly.net/sites/default/files/PalyProfile%26GradingKey1415_2014-10-16.pdf accessed 24 Dec. 2105 11:59 UTC). And for more on the effect of inequality on the lives of teenagers, see Robert Putnam, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015).
(4) Luke 10.27-28.