A Sermon Delivered November 6, 2011, by the Reverend Dennis McCarty
At the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbus, Indiana
REFLECTION: from The Tempest by William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest, is about the thin line between fantasy and reality. It’s also about forgiveness, reconciliation, and building relationships. Because it was Shakespeare’s final complete play, it’s also about saying goodbye. The sorcerer, Prospero, ties up the loose ends in his life: he thanks the servant who saved his life many years ago, forgives the men who tried to kill him, frees the magical spirits who have served him, and bids farewell to his magical art. I read these verses, in part, as a gesture of regard for John Price and for Mary, and for their children.
[In puissant magic’s art,] I have bedimm’d
The noontide sun, call’d forth the mutinous winds,
And ‘twixt the green sea and the azured vault
Set roaring war: to the dread rattling thunder
Have I given fire, and rifted Jove’s stout oak
With his own bolt; the strong-based promontory
Have I made shake, and by the spurs plucked up
The pine and cedar: graves at my command
Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let ‘em forth
By my so potent art. But this rough magic
I here abjure. . . . I’ll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I’ll drown my book [of magic].
Holy Gonzalo, honorable man,
. . .My true preserver, and a loyal sir
To him thou follow’st! I will pay thy graces
Home both in word and deed. [But] Most cruelly
Didst thou, Alonso, use me and my daughter:
Thy brother was a furtherer in the act.
Thou art pinch’d for’t now, Sebastian. Flesh and blood,
You, brother mine, that entertain’d ambition,
Expelled remourse and nature; who, with Sebastian,
. . . Would here have kill’d [me–well–]I do forgive thee,
Unnatural being though thou art. [Now, mystic servant] Ariel,
Fetch me the hat and rapier in my cell:
I will discase me, and myself present
As [once I was, long, long ago. Then,] spirit,
Thou shalt ere long be free.
. . my dainty [magic servant,] Ariel! I shall miss thee;
But yet thou shalt have freedom. [For]
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
SERMON: “Thoughts on Being our Best Selves”
I met John Price long after he had retired as an English professor and Shakespeare scholar. But you couldn’t talk with John for long without realizing how well he knew William Shakespeare’s works and the times in which the bard lived. John couldn’t communicate much in his final days, so it seemed fitting to read Shakespeare to him. I chose The Tempest partly because it is one of my favorites; but also because it is about tying up loose ends, forgiving, and saying goodbye. All this is on my mind this morning as I ponder what it means to be “inspired” to be our “best” selves.
I remember times as a kid in elementary school, when my classmates and I would be encouraged to be our best selves. Maybe on a field trip, our teacher would tell us to be on our best behavior. Or she might tell us to use our very best handwriting on an assignment. Being relatively well-behaved, I usually tried to follow those orders. I can’t say they “inspired me,” though.
What would inspire me as a kid, was learning something new and interesting–or watching someone else try really hard and do their very best–particularly when they were underdogs and their hard efforts brought success.
I don’t think I ever told John this, but one big inspiration as a young English major in college was–you guessed it–my first class on Shakespeare. We read through Shakespeare’s most representative plays, one a week, in the order they were written. Eventually, I studied all his plays. Studying the plays in their rich entirety, gives you an amazing window into Shakespeare’s mind: his humanity and his full and complex genius. Like any writer, he had to learn and hone his craft as he went–but at a level which was truly inspiring to follow. We could follow the accumulation and development not just of his technique, but also his hopes, his prejudices, even his superstitions.
From age seven, I, myself, had wanted to be a writer–novels, not plays. Studying Shakespeare, I wanted to be just like him. And at the age of nineteen with my whole adult life ahead of me–I felt sure I could be just like him. Then, two years later, I went to my first major Shakespearian festival–and saw The Tempest on the stage. The poetry is even more beautiful in performance than on the printed page. I was amazed, inspired, transported–and at the same time, crushed. I realized for the first time that try as I might–no–I never was going be able to write anything as sublime as that. For the record–I’ve slipped a lot of Shakespearian blank verse–iambic pentameter–into my novels. Shakespeare makes it look easy. But it’s not. It’s really hard.
Life is full of hard lessons. That was only the first one I learned in my artistic life. I later proved that I did have talent as a writer. And I was very determined and willing to work hard. But talent is not genius. There’s an inexplicable something that I didn’t quite have: similar to the difference between an outstanding athlete who plays major league baseball for a few years–and, say, Albert Pujols, who dominates major league baseball.
I did learn how to use my gifts–but I also had to learn to live with my own limitations. What was harder, was finding out about best-selling novelists, whose literary gifts were even more limited than mine, who didn’t write well at all, but sold like hotcakes, anyway. That really hurt! Success was not just about talent, or about persistence or hard work, either. Part of success is just, plain luck–being in the right place with the right treatment of the right idea at the right time. There was also a whole other craft to connecting with and building a reading audience. These were all different talents–and I only mastered some of them.
Looking back, I truly believe things did work out for the best in the long run. I’m more rewarded as a minister than I ever would have been as a writer. But it was a bitter pill to swallow at the time. Even when we do our best–when we are our best selves–sometimes, no matter how hard we try–the world does not necessarily respond the way we’d like it to. Sometimes, the world absorbs our best effort like a sponge and returns nothing. There are times it’s all we can do even to leave the tiniest dent.
While I was in college, another writer, a journalist named Paul Brodeur, used to supplement his income by writing novels. In 1970, he wrote one titled The Stunt Man, about an Army deserter during the Viet Nam War. The deserter wanders onto a movie set–where a film is being shot about the First World War. The director is a ruthless megalomaniac and he hires the deserter as a stunt man. But the soldier’s stunts get more and more dangerous till, in the end, he drowns in a stunt where his car plunges off a bridge into a river.
A Hollywood director named Richard Rush bought the novel, changing some aspects to make it more salable as a Hollywood movie. He added a happy ending and also made the stunt man more appealing by turning him into a returning Viet Nam war veteran instead of a deserter. It took a long time before Rush and a partner felt the script was ready to pitch to Hollywood financiers.
It was too funny to be a thriller, though. And it pondered the human condition too much to be a screwball comedy. Potential backers wouldn’t take a chance on it because they couldn’t see a workable marketing strategy. It took eight years of rewrites and shopping the script around, before none other than Indianapolis businessman, Melvin Simon, took a chance and backed the film.
They assembled a first-rate cast and crew, led by English star, Peter O’Toole. Top-rank Hollywood composer, Dominic Frontiere, wrote the music. But Simon got nervous and two weeks before filming was done, he he cut off the money. Rush barely managed to finish shooting and editing. Then they couldn’t find a studio to distribute the movie–studios still considered it too off-beat to market. The finished film sat on a shelf for two more years before Rush entered it in the Dallas Film Festival. It got rave reviews in Dallas and then, at the Montreal Film Festival, won the Grand Prize.
That persuaded Twentieth Century Fox studios to take a chance on it–sort of. They released it in only eleven theaters across the country. Peter O’Toole later quipped that the movie never really got released at all–it just escaped.
That tiny release did get it attention, though. Dominic Fronteire won a Golden Globe Award for best musical score and the National Society of Film Critics gave Peter O’Toole their “Best Actor” award. The film was nominated for three Academy Awards, as well, so Fox finally put it into half-hearted general release. To put it into perspective, this week’s top-grossing Hollywood movie, Puss ‘n’ Boots, opened in nearly four thousand theaters across the United States. When The Stunt Man was re-released, it appeared in–two hundred fifty. Eventually, its quirky nature and strong script and acting and music did gain it a kind of cult status. And it did make a modest profit. But it is living proof that your best efforts and hard work–sometimes produce very small results.
As to being our best selves, The Stunt Man, ponders why we are so quick to assume the opposite. The Viet Nam veteran says, “If you want to get home for Thanksgiving, you’d better know the fellow coming at you–is trying to kill you.” In a war, that may be the case. But the stunt man is no longer in a war. He now believes it’s the director who is trying to kill him–but he’s no more suspicious than other characters in the movie. The director doesn’t trust him, either. The police don’t trust anyone. Even the veteran and his love interest grow suspicious of one another. Nobody intends to do bad things–but everybody assumes someone else does mean to do something bad.
Peter O’Toole’s character tells us at the end, paranoia is a social disease, “You get it by screwing your fellow man.” That is, cheating others to get the best deal for yourself–while at the same time, living in fear that they’re trying just as hard to cheat you. One proof of this social insight–might just be the attitude of studios when the movie itself was being shopped around.
As an only-slightly-successful novelist, I empathize with Richard Rush. A lot of people put first-rate effort into The Stunt Man–multiple aspects of the movie really are remarkable. But it didn’t fit anybody’s marketing niche, so to this day, it remains one of the best Hollywood movies that hardly anybody ever sees.
Of course, there’s more to being our best selves than writing a successful book or producing a successful movie. But this does illustrate–however virtuous anyone tries to be–we are all part of a society and a world, in which people–because of our own woundedness or suspicion or just lack of time–treat virtue as a stranger, even when we do meet it. There is not much cause-and-effect relationship between how virtuous we try to be, and how well life rewards us. What’s more, that’s the way it has always been. Even the New Testament reminds us, “the rain falls equally on the just and the unjust.” So to me, that’s the lens through which we need to read the last–and arguably most important–line in our Congregation’s mission statement. If we just take it at face value, “to be inspired to be our best selves” is a nice sentiment. But is it a truthful statement? If we look at it deeply, there is challenge–and a real possibility of disappointment–if we actually do commit to trying to be our best selves.
To me, “to be inspired to be our best selves” first means, encouraging–even challenging–one another to do things according to our best ideals–in the realization that best efforts are not always successful. Therefore–if we’re going to encourage one another beforehand, we also need to follow up by supporting one another afterward, helping one another get through the difficulties of this resistant world. We don’t always win–whatever winning may mean. Being our best selves means caring for one another in ways deeper than visible success or failure.
There is much that’s fine and delightful about human nature. There are also troublesome aspects. We’re all part of that. Like the paranoid characters in The Stunt Man–we also manipulate one another at times, and misjudge one another, as well. Being our best selves includes the challenge of recognizing that humanity’s shadows don’t just exist in other people. We all have them. When we don’t see eye-to-eye with someone, it might not be just because they’re stupid or out to cheat us. It might be that I, myself, need a bit of an attitude adjustment. We are called to courageously stand up for truth and justice on the one hand–but in the knowledge that we are all wrong from time to time, on the other. That puts us all right on the razor edge of the ethical complexities of our existence.
Again, being our best selves, calls us to take a hard look at our own actions, priorities, mistakes and weaknesses. It calls us to self-skepticism and, perversely, to the difficult discipline of assuming decent intentions in others. Underneath it all, we are never all that different from the person we’re fighting with. In fact, sometimes we fight hardest against those who are most like us. Ouch. Most people do want the same things–but the same thing can look very different from two different perspectives.
When that conflict starts, it can very well be from both sides having different opinions on how to achieve the same good thing. Then it can escalate to one side simply wanting to win–to defeat the other side. And once that winning-losing dynamic gets rooted, it can deteriorate to the point that one side is even willing to lose, if that will only cause the other side to lose worse. You might call that suicide-bomber mind. But if we look at the world scene, there’s a lot of it out there.
Human nature gets scary when it really gets rolling. When you really get into the trenches of human life, the way real people really relate with one another–even our life together in this Congregation–to be “inspired to be our best selves” is a challenge. Not just to be virtuous ourselves, but to support one another as each of us faces that same challenge. Our Third Unitarian Universalist Principle puts it quite nicely: “acceptance of one another and challenge to personal growth.”
To look back, The Tempest is arguably Shakespeare’s most spiritual play. It’s about gentleness, reconciliation, forgiveness, the music of our relationship with spirit and the world and one another. But I can tell you, having read through his whole canon–it took Shakespeare a long time to get there. What’s more, even in The Tempest, some characters are still monsters and even some of the human characters have behaved monstrously. You can’t forgive someone who hasn’t done anything–and we probably can’t forgive fully until we acknowledge that we aren’t perfect, either. Hold onto that thought.
It’s beyond human capacity to judge the situation we’re in or the person we’re dealing with perfectly, every time. Relationships need structure, general standards of behavior. We have social standards in the broader culture–which need to be reexamined from time to time, as this human experiment moves forward. We also have laws, which we also need to revise from time to time. Therefore, if we in this congregation really want to be our best selves–instead of just talking about being our best selves–it helps for us to have intentional guidelines here, as well. And to pay attention to them.
That’s why I don’t think we can have an authentic discussion of “being our best selves,” without bringing up our congregation’s Behavioral Covenants. Remember, they came into being at a time when our membership felt there were shortcomings in our behavior. To avoid repeating prior mistakes, members went through the long process of bringing in a facilitator and working out those guidelines.
But we aren’t perfect–and neither are our covenants. In the same way social standards and laws need to be reexamined and changed from time to time–we also need to revisit our Behavioral Covenants every few years. In fact, they’re long past due.
We can find our Behavioral Covenants listed on our church’s website. There’s a copy hanging in our Fellowship Hall. They’re also printed on our Order of Service covers, right along with our Mission Statement and other Principles. Regarding all these fine statements, we always need to remember the choice that’s always before them–to take them seriously and use them to inform our lives. Or just appreciate them as nice words, there to make us feel better about ourselves, with no real connection to the way we actually do things. We make that choice all over again, every day.
We’re never going to get it all right, all the time. That’s why the Covenantal ideal has to include the principle of renewal–of forgiveness. Knowing that we fall short, promises get broken, we make mistakes–serious relationship work also includes the practice of forgiveness. In fact, forgiveness and renewal may be the most difficult “best self” practices of all.
To look at it in a literary way–Shakespeare was a master of an Elizabethan literary genre called the “revenge tragedy.” His play, Titus Andronicus, written very early in Shakespeare’s career, is considered his worst play. But it’s also a very efficiently-written revenge tragedy. Shakespeare returned to this genre from time to time. Each time he did, he became more thoughtful. Hamlet, is a study of just how complex and uncertain revenge can be. Othello looks at the destructiveness of revenge: the main character is seeking revenge for something that never even happened. Finally, by the time we get to The Tempest, Shakespeare has gotten past revenge entirely. Again, The Tempest is about spirituality, forgiveness, and reconciliation.
Shakespeare was only one popular playwright among many. His colleagues respected his work, but the work of others was respected, as well. Theater was considered rather low brow. After Shakespeare died, the Puritans seized power and banned theaters entirely. It was only when theaters reopened a century after Shakespeare’s was alive, that his plays had withstood the test of time so well, they stood head and shoulders above others.
The movie, The Stunt Man, has the opposite history. So far. But we can’t know for certain, can we? That century has not passed for us, and no one knows what the deep future will bring. We can only put our best effort out there on the winds of the cosmos–with all the humility, honesty, and courage we can muster. Then, how the cosmos sorts that out, is its own business. To me, that makes “being our best selves” even more important. In the midst of an uncertain universe, maybe that’s exactly what faith is. Amen. May it be so.