More Hope, Vigor, and Strength, part 1

Gaudeamus Hodie (let us rejoice today) – for we are alive, and we are together, and we are embodying the good life. The good life.

In the 320-year history of Yale University, no class has been as popular as Psych 157: Psychology and the Good Life, taught by Professor Laurie Santos. It was offered in 2018, and 1,200 students enrolled for the lecture course. That’s a large class. As a former professor myself, my first thought was: that’s a lot of papers to grade. Fortunately, Dr. Santos had 24 Teaching Assistants for the class.

That 2018 class was the only time it was offered in-person. Coursera made a 10-week version of the course available to the public, attracting 100s of thousands of on-line learners. Then came the lockdown of March 2020, and enrollment really took off. So far, says Coursera, 3.3 million people have enrolled for the class. The class “asks students to, among other things: track their sleep patterns, keep a gratitude journal, perform random acts of kindness, and take note of whether, over time, these behaviors correlate with a positive change in their general mood” (NYT).

In her class lectures, Dr. Santos mentions a study in which 632 Americans were asked to predict how happy they would be if they were given $5 to spend on themselves versus getting $5 and being told they must spend it on someone else. In the study, people predicted that they would be happier if they were allowed to keep the money. But participants consistently reported afterward that they had in fact derived more satisfaction from spending money on someone.

I was surprised. I was surprised that people predicted they would be happier keeping the money. I think most of you probably understand yourselves better than that – you have a better grasp on what’s conducive to joy – and the fact that giving to others makes you feel good is well-known for you. One student, inspired by the class, decided to try a practical experiment. Instead of keeping an expensive dress she had bought, she gave it to her sister. “I’m still feeling that happiness months later,” she said. No surprise there.

Generosity. Gratitude. And sleep. Yale undergraduates – and maybe many of the 3.3 million who took the online class -- benefitted from being disabused of the notion that high grades, prestigious internships, and good-paying jobs – or making law review -- had any relationship to happiness. But most of you, I expect, know those things have little correlation with well-being.

Sleep. Help others. Gratitude. There you have it: a full life, a life of well-being, a life that lets joy in. Congregational life provides the framework for developing gratitude, and generously helping others. It may also ease anxieties so you can get more sleep at night, but I don’t know about that one so much.

We help each other become more generous people – which enhances and deepens our happiness and well-being. The generous spirit that pervades many congregations, including this one, gives us much to be grateful for, fueling a positive feedback loop of generosity, to gratitude, to more generosity, to more gratitude. We yearn for beloved community that will love us into the fullness of our being – a community that will show us how, and provide opportunities, to love others into their being.

“Love makes your soul crawl out from its hiding place,” wrote Zora Neale Hurston.

Unitarian Universalist congregations have loved me into being – from the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Auburn, Alabama when I was in 2nd and 3rd grade, to the UU Congregation of Atlanta from 4th-grade through high school, to the UU Fellowship of Waco, Texas when I was a young adult graduate student, and the congregation that is now called Unitarian Universalists of Charlottesville, Virginia – and then the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Nashville, Tennessee. These places shined a light straight into me that dispelled a little boy’s nihilism and despair, and then a teenager’s, and then a young adult’s, then an adult’s.

Over and over – because dark nights of the soul have a way of recurring, moments when it all seems meaningless have a way of recurring, for beings like us – composed, as W.H. Auden put it: “of eros and of dust, beleaguered by the same negation and despair.”

I came to these places – Unitarian Universalist congregations – for two opposite reasons: the comfort of people like me, and the delight of people not like me. Through and with those like me – which, really, has been everybody – and those not like me – which, really, has been everybody – I have loved and been loved into being, into my voice, into my place in this world.

My guess is: you have stories like this -- stories of how the values, the theology, you found here -- the music, the work, the camaraderie and friendship – maybe even helped along by some of the preaching you found here -- changed you. Grew your heart. Helped your soul crawl out from its hiding place.

Then I began serving our congregations in a professional capacity. The Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Clarksville, Tennessee, the Unitarian Universalist Community of El Paso, the Unitarian Church of Midland, Texas, the UU Fellowship of Gainesville, Florida – and for the last 8 years, Community Unitarian Universalist Congregation at White Plains, where I’ve spent more Sunday mornings now than at any of those other places.

You are such wonderful people. I am so glad to be among you – a people, rich and multi-layered -- people of action – at our best, unstoppable – guided by our heart’s desire to serve others.

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