New Year, New Day

New Year, New Day
Goodloe Memorial Unitarian Universalist Congregation
Michael Gollin
January 5, 2014

Today is a good day! That is my morning mantra. Some days it’s easy to say, and I become euphoric and grateful simply by raising the blinds and watching the spectacle of sunlight shining on the world. The simple act of blessing each new day helps me channel my spiritual power to overcome even my deepest worries and negative emotions as I face sickness and trouble. How could I remain upset when I see each day as a magical present, given to me by forces beyond my control or understanding?

Every day is my birthday, and I can unwrap this miraculous gift again and again. Sure, today will surely include some disappointments, like when the presents we get for our birthday and Christmas or Hannukah don’t live up to our highest hopes, but there are few joys that compare to receiving and accepting a present, and I can’t imagine any better present, or anything more precious than another day of life.

Many years ago, a colleague’s wife died in her 30s from cancer. At her funeral, the rabbi said something that went straight to my heart, where I’ve kept it ever since. He said: “Our days on earth are numbered, and whether the number is large or small is not so important as how we live each one.” His words were like a message from a distant society. At the time I felt immortal, with a new wife, a new home, a new baby, and so many decades ahead of me that it seemed like infinity. I mostly disregarded the spiritual spark within and hustled and bustled, busy building a life for me, my wife and kids, and working hard in my chosen career as a patent attorney.

So here I am, two decades later, a confirmed agnostic who never belonged to any congregation before Goodloe, leading a religious service. I am grateful for the opportunity, and I can now appreciate the hard work that goes into a service.

Things changed in August 2012. I knew something was wrong when I finished a running race much slower than I expected, and was suffering weakness in my hand. I spent about a month with a series of doctors and in October my neurologist confirmed my deepest fear, with the devastating diagnosis of ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. This motor neuron disease causes progressive muscle loss, has no cure, and is terminal. That knowledge forced me to turn a corner onto a dark and scary road through a neighborhood we all try to avoid for as long as we can. And at first I felt like I was walking alone. But very soon, I found myself being led by guiding insights that emanated from my spiritual core, a resource I’ve nurtured here with you. Three of these insights relate to the year, the day, and the moment.

First, years — I asked myself a difficult question that fall: What would you do if you had a year to walk, and two years to live? The answer came in a flash: I would walk for a year, and live for two. Elaborating the details to that simplistic response has led me to experience 2013 as the happiest of years spent with family and close friends, at home, at work, and trekking to some of our planet’s most amazing places, fulfilling shared dreams of adventure. I had an instant entourage of family and friends as I hiked the Inca trail to Machu Picchu, followed Darwin’s footsteps in the Galapagos, visited my ancestors’ home towns in Eastern Europe, and went on safari in South Africa. We are all grateful for these experiences together. We will have a good time even when my wandering days are over and I am stuck closer to home. So I don’t worry about how many years I have left. I concentrate on making life a wonderful journey all the way. Wherever the road leads this year, I will enjoy the journey.

Second, days — The morning after my diagnosis, I woke up to a beautiful autumn day and felt pure ecstasy just to be alive. I put on my running shoes and off I went down the trail. I experienced transcendent joy – and even though I broke down sobbing with grief after a half mile, I kept going. Soon I made a vow to have such experiences every day, and somehow I conditioned myself to expect a continuous flow of magic moments. Why wouldn’t I wake up happy?

Third, moments – As soon as I received my confirmed diagnosis, I realized how hard it would be for my family to hear what I had just heard and so I came up with a way to soften the blow. I told them that I had good news and bad news, the good news being that I am very good at self-diagnosis. They knew immediately what the bad news meant and that is how we began to live in the new world, together. In dozens and hundreds of encounters since then, I have dropped my grief bomb on relatives, friends, and colleagues and shared every kind of reaction, from shock, to grief, to disbelief, with some people comforting me, and others requiring me to reassure and comfort them. All this loving, sharing, and empathy forged a growing and deepening bond with many people. Even at my law firm, a formal workplace, soon I found myself surrounded by all the hugs I can handle. People tell me it’s inspiring to see how I find silver linings among the storm clouds. I think what they mean is that I give them some confidence that they too will be able to handle the challenge well when it is their turn to follow me.

So those were some guiding insights. Now let’s take a time travel trip together to further understand the Mantra of Today.

Billions of years ago, there were no days, or years. Matter and energy were still new, and I get confused about when time began, or even what it is, but for our purposes let’s just recognize that eventually our spinning Earth began orbiting around the Sun, and that’s when years and days began in the way that we can all understand. And for billions of years to come, it’s a safe bet that there will be day after day.

Millions of years ago, vast ecosystems of life had formed in every sea and on every land mass. Sunrise and sunset in the Jurassic period were about the same as now. The profusion and variability of microbes, plants, and animals was unstoppable, despite mass extinctions now and then – and humans rose up on their hind legs and began running around in social groups that could outwit even the baddest of predators and prey. Like us, and the rest of their neighbor species, they awoke each day and went about their business.

Tens of thousands of years ago, as agriculture began, chiefs and Pharaohs and ancient priests began to organize the solar year into lunar months and set aside certain days as sacred.

Over the centuries, countless societies continued to rise and fall. Thousands then millions and billions of babies were born on their birthdays, grew up in happiness, or misery, and lived each day as best they could until the day they died. Even in war or disaster, survivors woke up each day and found the will to go on.

My own family history began about 150 years ago, when Russia required Jews to select a family name, and the records from then on allowed me to find where they lived, their birth year and who made it safely to America and when. Like us, every family begins to celebrate its own special holidays, with anniversaries, and dates of birth and death. But in my view, we should respect our family heritage, our ancestors and societies and the whole brilliant bundle of everything in our past, present and future, every single day.

So the years and seasons come and go, and the months and weeks form nice and convenient cycles of days. It’s great if we can celebrate the Sabbath, birthdays, anniversaries, and national holidays. But why stop there? Why not celebrate our family heritage, our societies and the whole brilliant bundle of everything in our past, present and future, every single morning?

And is it enough to greet each morning with joy? A family friend told me her story of surviving the Holocaust by leaving Lithuania days before the Nazis arrived. Every night since then, she gives thanks for the day she had just been fortunate enough to experience. So I added that to my mantra: in the morning, I say today is a good day. At night, I recall some positive events – hopefully I shared some love and made the world a bit better somehow — and then I say that was a great day, thank you. And this evening mantra made me even prouder of my spiritual achievements.

But wait, there’s more – one morning I listened to Krista Tippet interview Buddhist monk Thich Nat Han, and it dawned on me that he strives to be fully present, grateful, and aware in every waking moment. Few of us could meet that high standard. As for me, I am pleased to be able to enjoy each day a few times – but I realize there are infinite moments in every day that I could better appreciate.
Try it now. Close your eyes for a moment and try to experience gratitude just for being alive here today.

***

With that mindset, I can explain how living every day with gratitude can help us fulfill not one or two, but all Seven Principles of Unitarian Universalism.

1st Principle: The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
The sun rises and sets for all of us, together. All people live their lives day by day, but each of us experiences our daily lives differently, with joy or sorrow, love or grief, comfort or privation. My day is neither more nor less valuable than yours.

2nd Principle: Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
Nelson Mandela was stuck in his cell for 27 years, about 10,000 days, and he used this time to prepare for liberation from apartheid, and to cultivate compassion toward his captors while insisting that they treat him with decency, day by day.

3rd Principle: Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
Each day brings a new opportunity for spiritual growth. My membership in this congregation has helped me cultivate my spiritual garden with help and encouragement from all of you, and I hope I am returning the favor today.

4th Principle: A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
Even if I faced physical sickness, or troubled relationships yesterday, today I can search for higher truth and deeper meaning and transform negative experiences into positive lessons.

5th Principle: The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large; and 6th Principle: The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
We are defined by the accumulation of choices we make every day. When you decide that every day is precious, you make your decisions count. You speak out and support causes that matter.

7th Principle: Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
Each day of my life is also a day in the life of the trees and grass, the birds and squirrels, the ants and crickets and the flow of wind and water around me and around the world, from before recorded history began, and on until who knows when. As I savor today’s precious gift, really what I am experiencing is gratitude and responsibility for being a part of such an astoundingly beautiful and complex world.

You may also notice an analogy to another principled day by day approach. Alcoholics Anonymous urges daily recitation of the serenity prayer. My version is:
Grant me the strength to change the things I can, the patience to accept the things I can’t, and the wisdom to know which is which.
Strength, patience, and wisdom can be restored every day.

As Morrie Schwartz was quoted in Tuesdays With Morrie, if you learn how to die, you learn how to live. I have learned how to love living every day, and to paraphrase Bob Dylan, I’m too busy being born to be afraid of dying.

Life is uncertain and no one really knows what will happen and when it will end, for ourselves or those we love. But I know a few things for sure. Each of us was conceived by our mother and father, we were born, we live, and we will die. We come and then we go. The seasons return each year, as our great blue and green earth circles the sun again and again. And as our planet spins, the sun rises in the east every morning and sets in the west every evening. The world will keep going no matter what we do, long after we are gone. All we have to do is get up every morning with a smile and try to appreciate that we are along for the ride. Then we can realize that today is surely a very fine day.