The Silicon Valley Teen Suicides

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.

Notes:
(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.

Another way

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.

We Unitarian Universalists are known for our openness to the beliefs and practices of other religions. But we also have our own native spiritual practices, and today I’d like to tell you about spiritual practices from our own tradition, rooted in the relationships between human and non-human beings. I have to warn you, though, that this native Unitarian Universalist spiritual practice is a challenging spiritual practice to follow; which might explain why we have mostly ignored it, and instead turned to popularized spiritual practices from other traditions that aren’t so demanding.

And this native Unitarian spiritual practice starts with the story of how Henry Thoreau, who was raised a Unitarian, went to live at Walden Pond.

When Henry Thoreau got out of college, he had to decide on a career. First he was by his home town of Concord, Massachusetts, as a school teacher. He lasted two weeks. A member of the school committee dropped in to see how the new teacher was doing, and told Thoreau to improve discipline by using more corporal punishment. Thoreau called on half a dozen students at random, beat them, and handed in his resignation that night. (1)

Next Thoreau went to work for his father in the family business of manufacturing pencils. But this was a job and not a vocation; so he also started writing regularly in a journal; and, along with the rest of his Unitarian family, he became an abolitionist, trying to abolish slavery in the United States.

Henry Thoreau still wanted a job that would be a calling, a vocation. So he and his beloved older brother John started their own school. This school, what we today might call a progressive school, was a great success. Their school only lasted for two years, until John’s tuberculosis worsened to the point where he could no longer teach, and so they closed the school. Over the next year, John started to recover from tuberculosis — but then he accidentally nicked his finger with a razor, contracted tetanus, and died a week later.

His brother’s death deepened Henry’s struggle to find his path in life. Henry drifted along, trying different things, until three years after John died, when he got permission to go live on a woodlot owned by Ralph Waldo Emerson, right next to the railroad tracks on the shores of Walden Pond.

Henry built himself a small cabin there. He cleared some ground and planted a garden. He spent much of his days outdoors. He read deeply in ancient Greek and Roman literature, in the Bible, and in the holy books of other world religions. In his journal, he wrote about what he had seen in the outdoors. He wrote a memoir about a camping trip he and John had taken, rowing down the Concord River to the Merrimack River, then upstream till they could go no further, then traveling by land to the White Mountains, then into the mountains and all the way up Mount Washington, the highest peak in New England.

Henry Thoreau didn’t got to Walden Pond to pretend to live in the wilderness; he didn’t live there to escape from the world. In fact, the opposite is true: his cabin on Walden Pond was a station on the Underground Railroad. Some people are embarrassed by Thoreau, saying: Oh, but when he was at Walden Pond, he went to his mother’s house to eat dinner and get his laundry done! Yes, and while he was at his mother’s house he plotted with Concord’s radical abolitionists on how to help slaves escape.

So far from trying to escape from the world, Thoreau got himself arrested while living at Walden Pond. He refused to pay the poll tax, which, he said, was an immoral tax because it went to pay for an unjust war against Mexico. He spent just one night in jail because someone — he never learned who it was — paid his poll tax for him, probably out of embarrassment that this Harvard graduate wound up in the town jail with drunks and uneducated bums.

Henry Thoreau lived at Walden Pond for two years and two months, keeping track of when the flowers bloomed, watching the trees come into leaf, and then he went back to live with his parents and sisters. He had finished the business he had to transact at Walden Pond: his spiritual path led him elsewhere.

I think Thoreau is very difficult for many of us Unitarian Universalists today because he is more concerned with transcendent reality than with his career. He made his money manufacturing pencils and working as a surveyor. But his real concern was not his paid jobs, it was his spiritual life.

Our priorities tend to be the other way around: we think our careers deserve more time than our spiritual lives; or maybe we think that our careers are a spiritual matter. Here in Silicon Valley, we worship our jobs, and we like the fact that we can brag about working seventy hours a week — actually, I’m now down to about fifty hours a week, most weeks, except when I work more than that — and we don’t like it when Henry Thoreau tells us, quite convincingly, that we need only work a couple of months a year to provide for the necessities of life. If we did this, says Thoreau, we could spend the bulk of our lives contemplating the divine reality that we mostly ignore. But rather than confront this embarrassing truth, we turn our attention to other, less demanding, spiritual paths. Take, for example, the current Silicon Valley fascination with mindfulness. “Mindfulness” turns out a mis-translation of the ancient Pali word “sati,” a subtle Buddhist concept that means something like “memory of the present.” (2) But we prefer our Westernized and mis-translated version of mindfulness because it demands so little from us. Mindfulness is pursued by executives from Fortune 500 companies, so it must be good. Mindfulness means we do not have to give up our seventy-hour-a-week jobs, because we can be mindful at work, which will make us more productive, and allow us to spend even more time at work.

“As for work, we haven’t any of any consequence [says Thoreau]. We have the Saint Vitus’ dance, and cannot possibly keep our heads still. If I should only give a few pulls at the parish bell-rope, as for a fire, there is hardly anyone within hearing, notwithstanding that press of engagements which was his excuse so many times this morning, but would forsake all and follow that sound, not mainly to save property from the flames, but, if we will confess the truth, much more to see it burn, since burn it must, and we, be it known, did not set it on fire.” (3) Today we do not even need to leave to comfort of our cubicle to watch the fire, we just wait for someone to post a video on Facebook. And so we are distracted for a pleasant moment in our seventy hour work week.

Because he will cause you to doubt about the value of your career, I cannot recommend Thoreau as a spiritual guide. But if you are crazy enough to want to follow Thoreau’s spiritual and religious example, I’ll tell you about three life-changing spiritual practices recommended by Thoreau.

The first spiritual practice is to spend a great deal of time outdoors, closely observing the natural world. Thoreau spent hours each day outdoors, checking to see when the various species of flowering plants first bloomed each year, watching how dead animals decay, closely observing all the minutiae of life around him, and then recording his careful observations of human and non-human beings in his journal. I’ve tried this a couple of times recently — spend most of the day outdoors, observing the relation of humans to non-humans, the interdependence of living things, how living things depend on non-living things — and I can report more than just about any other spiritual practice, it has gotten me closer to a transcendent reality. The problem with this spiritual practice, however, is that it makes me a less effective employee of this church, because I begin to believe it as important to watch Black Phoebes build their nest under the eaves outside the door to my office, than answer the email you have sent to me.

The second spiritual practice is to read the holy books of the great world religions. Thoreau lived at a time when the scriptures of non-Christian religions were being translated into European languages for the first time. Of course he already knew the Western Bible, and the spiritual writing of the ancient Romans and Greeks. But he was also able to read deeply in books like the Confucian Analects, and make those stories become a part of him, as when he writes: “Kieou-he-yu (great dignitary of the state of Wei) sent a man to Khoung-tseu [Confucius] to know his news. Khoung-tseu caused the messenger to be seated near him, and questioned him in these terms: What is your master doing? The messenger answered with respect: My master desires to diminish the number of his faults, but he cannot come to the end of them. The messenger being gone, the philosopher remarked: What a worthy messenger! What a worthy messenger!” (3) So it was that Thoreau understood the place of humans in the universe: as much as we might like to think we are like gods, we are in fact limited fallible beings. Books like this keep us from thinking we are better than other humans, or thinking that humans are somehow better than non-human beings. Thus we open ourselves to the web of relationships of which we are a part. And the problem with this spiritual practice is that it is a blow to your pride, from which you may never want to recover.

The third spiritual practice is to find your own way to truth. Thoreau did think that everyone should go build a cabin on a woodlot borrowed from Ralph Waldo Emerson. He did not care whether or not we read the Confucian Analects. He was not trying to recruit us to join the Underground Railroad. He wanted us to come face to face with reality, to see the world as it really is, to ignore illusions of progress represented by commercial success. This has been the task of religion since the dawn of time: to get us to see things as they really are. But this is a dangerous task. Thoreau said: “If you stand right fronting and face to face to a fact, you will see the sun glimmer on both its surfaces, as if it were a scimitar, and feel its sweet edge dividing you through the heart and marrow, and so you will happily conclude your mortal career. Be it life or death, we crave only reality.” And this is why you should ignore this part of our Unitarian Universalist religious tradition. It is safer to stick to the popularized versions of religion. Go take yoga classes, but do not delve into the depths of Hindu philosophy. Practice mindfulness, but ignore the difficult path of Buddhist enlightenment. Read leadership books that quote ancient Chinese philosophers, but do not attempt to diminish the number of your faults. Come to church here if you like, but do not take seriously the ravings of prophets like Isaiah and Jesus and Jeremiah who say we can make this world a better place.

So I will close by telling you this: Don’t read Thoreau. He will only cause you trouble. If you are young, he will tempt you to drop out of school and go hike the Pacific Crest Trail (which is our North American version of the pilgrimages to the holy land), and then you will not get into Harvard and your life will be ruined. If you are trying to raise children in Silicon Valley, he will tempt you to tell your children: “Stop doing homework and spend time outdoors!” and then they won’t get in to Stanford and their lives will be ruined. If you are retired, he will tempt to become like the retired admirers of Thoreau I once knew who devoted their time and money to social justice causes and filed their bills as follows: Bills To Be Paid; To Be Paid When There’s Money; Refuse To Pay for Ethical Reasons. Trust me, this is a recipe for trouble.

No, you should stay away from people like Thoreau. He will make you crave only reality. He is like all those religious prophets, telling us that we need not live the way we do now, that we can follow a better way.

Notes:
(1) The facts of Thoreau’s life are taken from the standard scholarly biography: Walter Harding, The Days of Henry Thoreau: A Biography, enlarged and corrected edition (Princeton University Press, 1982).
(2) For the origins of the word “mindfulness” in English, see Virginia Heffernan, “Mind the Gap,” New York Times Magazine, April 19, 2015, p. 14.
(3) Walden, “Where I Lived and What I Lived For.”
(4) Analects Book 14.26.1-2. In James Legge’s translation: “Chu Po-yu sent a messenger with friendly inquiries to Confucius. Confucius sat with him, and questioned him. ‘What,’ said he, ‘is your master engaged in?’ The messenger replied, ‘My master is anxious to make his faults few, but he has not yet succeeded.’ He then went out, and the Master said, ‘A messenger indeed! A messenger indeed!’”

A curious incident on the road to Jerusalem

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.

In the story for all ages this morning, I told you about how Jesus came to Jerusalem, and about how for some people he may have symbolized the hope of spiritual leadership against the occupation of Judea by the foreign Roman Empire.

Now I would like to tell you story of a curious incident that happened while Jesus was traveling to Jerusalem. We Unitarian Universalists are quite comfortable with the idea that Jesus was a religious leader who fought for social justice, like Martin Luther King. We are much less comfortable with the story of this curious incident. But since I am a Unitarian Universalist, I feel we should look carefully at that which makes us uncomfortable.

So here’s the story of the curious incident:

Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. Of course he knew he was taking a risk by traveling to Jerusalem: that his visit could be perceived as defiance to the Roman empire, and that his visit could be perceived as challenging the religious leaders at the Temple of Jerusalem. When we remember that we Unitarians insist on the full humanity of Jesus, and when we remember that the we just recognized the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King’s march to Selma, you and I will be tempted to draw parallels between Dr. King’s religiously-inspired social justice movement, and whatever it was that Jesus was doing.

But —

According to the old stories, Jesus was also a faith healer.

On their way to Jerusalem, Jesus and his many followers traveled through the city of Jericho. As they were leaving Jericho, according the book of Christian scriptures called the Gospel of Mark, a blind beggar sitting by the side of the road called out to Jesus. When you imagine this blind beggar, call to mind someone who is wearing cast-off clothing, someone who is dirty, someone who lives on the streets because there is no other place for him to live, someone who is as low in the social hierarchy as you can go. If you’re thinking about a street person that you might see in the city, go lower still: there were no social services in Judea, there was a much wider divide between the haves and the have-nots, and physical disabilities were most often perceived as the result of a person being taken over by a demon. No, this blind beggar that called out to Jesus was lower in the social hierarchy than a street person is in the United States — and that’s saying something.

This blind beggar calls out to Jesus, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

Many among the followers of Jesus tried to hush him up. Here’s how I imagine the conversation: “Dude, what are you doing, we’re on our way to JERUSALEM! Jesus doesn’t have TIME for this right now. Look, here’s a piece of silver [that would be a lot of money to give a beggar!] — here’s a piece of silver, now hush up.”

Imagine if Martin Luther King Jr. were on the march to Selma, doing that arm-in-arm social justice walking thing with some heavyweight social justice leaders — as in that famous photograph that shows Dr. King with John Lewis, Ralph Abernathy, and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel — imagine if Dr. King were walking along like that, when up pops this homeless disabled guy and says, “Dr. King, heal me!” All the organizers of the march are going to converge on that homeless guy, slip him twenty bucks, and get him to shut up so that Dr. King can proceed to Selma without being delayed.

But whatever Jesus’s followers said to the blind guy, he wouldn’t shut up. He shouts out: “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

Son of David, indeed! Here’s this blind beggar shouting out his feeling that Jesus is descended from the line of kings of Jerusalem. Talk about deliberately provoking the Roman authorities!

And what does Jesus do? He stops, and tells his followers to bring the blind guy over. The blind beggar makes his way through the crowd to Jesus, and Jesus says to him: “What do you want me to do for you?”

The blind man says, “My teacher, let me see again.”

To which Jesus responds: “Go; your faith has made you well.”

Upon which, the blind man regained his sight and… (1)

 

Upon which — my Unitarian Universalist skepticism kicks in. (Did you notice the same thing in yourself? Did you notice your skepticism kicking in?) The blind man regained his sight? — I don’t think so! Modern medical science would not be able to cure someone of blindness just by saying “Your faith has healed you”; so there’s no way some wandering, semi-literate Judean religious teacher could cure blindness in this way.

And here we might get into arguments with our conservative Christian neighbors. There are many conservative Christians in the Bay Area who do believe that Jesus made it so that this blind man could see again. We might also get into arguments with some of our more liberal neighbors, people inspired by the New Age, who are not conservative Christians, but who do believe that such miracles happen. We might also get into arguments with our liberal Christian neighbors who don’t believe in the literal truth of such miracles but who see miracles as metaphorically true, or who choose not to impose anachronistic twenty-first century Western worldviews on first century Middle Eastern stories. Being Unitarian Universalists, we find it easy to get into arguments with lots of different people!

But personally, I’m not particularly interested in getting into such arguments. I am especially not interested in arguments that aim to debunk this story of healing because it is unscientific. I am not interested in such arguments because from my point of view, there’s a big difference between curing someone, and healing someone. In a perfect example of what I mean, I can point to hospice programs. A hospice program cares for people as they are dying. Hospice programs do not cure people, nor keep people from dying. But I can tell you from personal observation that hospice programs do provide some sort of healing benefit to people. My mother was in hospice before she died; my partner’s mother was in hospice before she died; my father is currently in hospice. In each case, from the point of view of the dying person, hospice helped them to become more whole as persons, to be healed even as they moved towards death.

There is a difference between what dying feels like to the person who is dying, and what an objective scientific observer would report from the outside. An objective scientific observer who is confronted with a terminally ill person is going to conclude that death is — let’s say — 99% likely. That’s the objective viewpoint. From an objective viewpoint, we might say that if there is a one percent chance that the person might actually recover, then we should keep that person in a scientifically-run hospital with all the latest technology, hoping to prolong their life as much as possible. But the dying person might have another viewpoint; they might prefer the quality of life they get in hospice care, avoiding what appears to them to be intrusive medical procedures.

There is a difference between curing and healing. The science of medicine now has a great deal of technical know-how, and medicine can cure many ailments that would have baffled the people of Jesus’s time. Thank God for that! I for one am glad that we can cure so many ailments.

But healing is a different matter. If you are healed, as opposed to cured, the final result will be different. To illustrate what I mean, let me tell you another brief story from early on in Jesus’ ministry. Here is how the story is translated in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible:

“Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told [Jesus] about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them. That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And [Jesus] cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons.” (2)

Feminist Bible scholars have pointed this translation is wrong. Instead of saying, “she began to serve them,” the translation should read, “she ministered to them.” In the original text, the word used for what the woman does is “ministered” — the same word that is used to describe what the male followers of Jesus get to do. In other words, this woman engages in the same kind of religious leadership that the male followers of Jesus do. Unfortunately, the sexism that pervades our modern culture always tends to obscure the religious leadership of women. In fact, this woman does more than many of Jesus’s male followers: her house becomes the place where Jesus does even more healing. (3)

(And if I were in a snarky mood — OK, OK, I am in a snarky mood! — since I am in a snarky mood, I could go on to point out that, like Biblical scholarship, supposedly-objective science is also pervaded by sexism. We all know that science is sexist, we all know that women are underrepresented in the hard sciences, we all know how medical science is more likely to research specifically male medical problems than specifically female problems. All this can be objectively proven. And beyond sexism, we know that science is pervaded by racism, beginning with the Enlightenment attempts to provide scientific “proof” for race and racism, proceeding through the twentieth century with scientific eugenics, up to the present day is ways we may only dimly recognize but which will no doubt embarrass us when the next generation points it out to us. That’s enough snark for now, and so I’ll return to the sermon.)

Of course, ancient Judea was also pervaded by sexism and racism, and Jesus himself certainly appears sexist by my standards (though he seems to me to be less racist than anyone living in the United States today). But the feminist interpretation of the story makes the point that when the woman was healed of her fever by Jesus, she immediately turned around to engage in ministry herself. She was healed, and then she became a religious leader; and the way she became a religious leader was to minister to others, to even heal them of their weariness and their hurts and their self doubts.

This I believe is really the point of Jesus’s healing ministry. Did he actually cure people of physical ailments? We have no way of objectively answering this question two thousand years after the fact. Many of us skeptical Unitarian Universalists would say — no, he didn’t actually cure people.

But did he heal people? Oh yes. Yes indeed. I think Jesus healed people in much the same way hospice heals people who are dying: they are still going to die, but instead of being emotionally overwhelmed by death, they are healed to that they can more fully experience the love that surrounds them. So it is that when Jesus heals the blind beggar, Jesus may not cure his eyesight, but Jesus does heal his soul. And so the blind beggar “followed Jesus in the way” — he followed in the way of love and kindness, and by so doing he both loved and experienced the love of others. When Jesus healed the woman with the fever, she in her turn took on religious leadership, and in her turn helped to heal others; and that makes two miracles: a woman in religious leadership, and a person following in the way of love and kindness.

When we can see this difference between curing and healing — where curing can be objectively measured and subject to scientific rigor, while healing must be judged by the subjective viewpoint — when we can see this, we might better understand some otherwise intractable problems.

Let’s take for example the problem of racism in the United States. We can provide cures for racism through laws and regulations, through addressing objective mechanisms that perpetuate racial bias; we can even provide cures for racism through physical actions like marching on Selma and protesting Ferguson and writing letters to elected representatives. But we also need healing, and therein lay the brilliance of Martin Luther King Jr.: he not only worked toward a cure for racial bias, he helped heal people of racism.

Let’s go on to the problem of death and dying. In the end, medical science cannot cure death: my father is in hospice, and he will not be cured. But he is in hospice care, and that has helped to bring him some healing — not a cure, but healing.

We could go on to many other problems that face us. For some of the problems that face us, it is not enough to cure the problem by finding a rational, scientific solution — we also need healing. And for some of the problems that face us, a cure may not impossible — but healing may be possible.

As a skeptic, I do not believe that the blind beggar was cured by Jesus. Jesus did not repair whatever physical ailment afflicted his eyes or his nervous system. In fact, the Gospel of Mark says only: “Jesus said to him, ‘Go; your faith has made you well.’ Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.” His faith made him well; he was healed, not cured. As a blind beggar, he had been kicked to the margins of society; but Jesus helped heal his soul, so that he could once again see love and kindness. No wonder he followed Jesus in the way. No wonder he joined a religious movement that promised to spread love and kindness throughout Judea, even to Jerusalem, even to the place that embodied oppressive foreign rule.

And we may all hope for this kind of healing in our own lives. Each one of us probably has problems or pain or sorrow that we wish could be cured, but where we know a cure is difficult or impossible. Yet even when a cure is impossible, we may still be healed. And if we are healed — even if we get just a little bit of healing — we may find ourselves like the blind beggar, getting up off the side of the road, and following in the way of love and kindness. We may find ourselves like the woman with a fever, who was healed, who got up, and who continued her healing by ministering to others. For this is how healing works: when we begin to be healed, we are no longer isolated in pain or difficulties, we are returned to the web of interdependence of all beings, we are returned to love.

 

Notes

(1) Retold from Mark 20.46-52, New Revised Standard Version translation.

(2) NRSV, Mark 1.29-34

(3) For a concise statement of this viewpoint, see Mary Ann Tolbert, “Mark,” The Woman’s Bible Companion, ed. Carol A. Newsome and Sharon H. Ringe (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Know Press, 1992), p. 267.