There is a well-known experiment involving a group of ten monkeys, a ladder and bananas suspended from the ceiling. (Yes, this sounds like a joke; only without the Irish priest or the pub.)
When the first monkey (headed for the bananas) touched the ladder, the researchers hosed all the monkeys with cold water. Soaked and confused, the various monkeys tried to reach the bananas again, but whenever any one of them touched the ladder, all were punished. Soon enough, the monkeys learned the lesson: the ladder is taboo.
The researchers then exchanged one of the experienced monkeys for a new one. As soon as he entered the room, the new monkey started toward the ladder. But before he could touch it, the other monkeys pulled him away. After enough thwarted attempts, the new monkey abandoned his efforts.
The researchers then exchanged another new monkey. After time, not one of the original monkeys remained. (So, no monkey had ever been physically hosed.) But are you ready for this? The lesson endured: No monkey ever climbed the ladder. I confess, that amazed me. (Incidentally, if any of monkeys had tried the ladder, they would have succeeded. Researchers did away with the water hose early on in the experiment.)
So. Here’s my question: What is it that defeats us? Deflates us? Demoralizes us?
I ask because there are many ladders we don’t (or choose not to) climb. For any number of reasons. Or any number of ways we may get hosed.
Or, we try to climb for a while; and then we quit.
Or, we have been told, “Quit trying. You can’t make a difference here. You don’t have what it takes.”
That puts the kibosh on any enthusiasm in a “never enough” world–be it faith or courage or success or passion or beauty.
On my walk today, the sheep are resting under a group of Fir trees. I stand for a minute and then ask, “What happens when you feel disconnected from your heart?”
“Who wants to know?” one of the little ones asks.
“Oh,” I say, “I’m just asking for a friend.”
“This week, our world lost another bright light,” I tell my congregation. “And my heart hurts. Maybe because this year has been so heavy. To lose such a steadfast pioneer for human rights and gender equality is disheartening to say the least. I am worried for the future and just damn sad.”
Let’s go back to the ladder story. It helps to know that there are two different kinds of hosing. One is from life’s heaviness. And precariousness. From tragedy. Most of it, out of our control.
But the other, is the one that truly cripples us. It is an internalized message that we don’t have what it takes to move forward, to climb, or to make a difference.
It is as if something insidious crept into our spirit, partly fatigue, or partly something else we cannot name. Regardless, in the end, we believe the messages to be the truth about our life or ourselves. They become our narrative, our script.
“I can’t,” I will say. “I’ve got nothing to give.”
Who told you that? Does it matter?
In the end I pull my punches… and I stay off the ladder. I quit. Shut down. Give up. Give in to the weight of it all. And something in my spirit or heart hardens. So why even try?
Of course, some of these messages have more stick-um than others. Some we lug around for decades–from our family of origin. (I have a suspicion that there are designated family message luggers.) Some messages are internal (we just make them up). Some are odd reinforced prejudices. (Even Jesus had to listen to this stuff, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”)
But this is not just about building our self-esteem. It is about the reservoir we draw upon, in order to live with our whole heart.
But here’s the deal: We’re only truly stuck, if we assume that we have no say in how the story ends. When my heart says, “what’s the point” the narrative of scarcity wins every time.
Climbing the ladder is not about changing circumstances. It’s about embracing what is true and alive and well inside.
This is the invitation of Rosh Hashanah. And this week I’m learning from our Jewish brothers and sisters. This is from Rabbi Helen Plotkin.
“On the High Holidays, we read a poem known by its first two words in Hebrew: Unetaneh Tokef—Let Us Cede Power…
Who will be safe and who will be torn?
Who will be calm and who will be tormented?
Who will become poor and who will get rich?
Who will be made humble and who will be raised up?
But teshuvah and tefillah and tzedakah (return and prayer and righteous acts)
deflect the evil of the decree.”
The Rabbi continues, “What difference, then, can teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah possibly make? Even if they don’t change the plot of your story, they do change your character. That is, they make you a more worthwhile character in your own story.
Teshuvah—repentence, response, return—is the ability to move, to change course, to come back to center, to reconcile.
Tefillah—prayer—is the ability to let the world take your breath away, to hold onto and to articulate gratitude, hope, and awe.
Tzedakah—righteousness—is the ability to pursue justice and to act from a fountain of generosity.
We take with us the truth that we must cede power, but we don’t cede all of it. Even when we can’t change the plot, it is the strength of our character that can make the story rich and strong. It is not what will happen to you that makes your life meaningful. That power is in your hands, as you cultivate the self to whom it will happen.”
Thank you Rabbi. That does my heart good.
In other words, my spirit moves from “Why even try?” to “Guess what I get to do today?” Think of teshuvah and tefillah and tzedakah not as a pep talk or shame, but as tools for ladder climbing.
Yes. Today, I have the freedom—and the responsibility—to climb a ladder, to hold to the power of love that I know to be true, and to not allow the world around me to deaden that in myself. (Thank you Lucas Johnson)
To Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg; May her memory be for blessing. May we continue to pursue justice, righteousness and sustainability.
We have blue sky tonight. A blessing and a gift. For those still in harms ways from fires, we pray for your safety.
Quotes for the week…
Remember there’s no such thing as a small act of kindness. Every act creates a ripple with no logical end. Scott Adams
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I love to write. Since I was a boy, paper and pencil have been on my list of favorite things. Now, I’ve added a nib pen. As a boy, I journaled. I still do. Some years, writing every day. All journals have this in common: They give voice to what is inside. They become safe space. In that way, journaling is like a sanctuary: a time and a place that allows us—gives us permission— to pause. To look inside and to embrace what is here, what is alive and well. To embrace our enoughness. Think of this “sanctuary” space as a dose of grace. It bestows gifts upon us… stillness, gladness, calm, mystery, delight, discovery, learning and peace. This resonates because it is in our DNA to be renewed, nourished, replenished and spiritually hydrated. The Gift of Enough: A Journal for the Present Moment
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In the mailbag… because your letters affirm us all…
–Dear Mr. Hershey, I wanted to express my deep gratitude to you for Sabbath Moment. It is how I begin each day, and it has been a key part of my remaining spirit filled during these times. I am looking forward to enjoying “The Gift of Enough”. I think I am going to make it my Advent/ Christmas prayer, as heaven knows we will need to be creative this year! I wish you and yours every blessing. Please find deep peace in knowing that you are honestly making a difference in so many lives… and have been for many years. With deep gratitude, Joy
–Dear Terry, I am also a “friend of” John O’Donohue. The world so needed him; I am sorry he is no longer with us. And yet…it was a treat to discover the prayer for this week are his words. I will have to gather his books for a “visit, especially Anam Cara. The world needs you, too, Terry. Your Sabbath Moment Daily Dose is like manna from heaven. Your writing is new to me and I often find myself reading it out loud so I can absorb it better. Your words are calming, assuring, insightful, encouraging and I thank you for them! I hope the smoke is not becoming problematic where you all are. Take care and know that you are appreciated! Lindy
–Just had to share with you today how powerful your Sabbath Moment Daily Dose was for me! I have been falling deeper & deeper into that chasm of COVID, grieving the death of my spouse of 54 years (even after 2 years), smoke from the wildfires, limited social interactions & seeing my purpose. Your sharing today reminded me that my purpose of “spilling the light” which I try so hard to do, still can be done in spite of the obstacles I face. Granted I have to find new, often creative ways to do it but I am refreshed & renewed by your comments. Thanks so much! Please keep “spilling YOUR light”! The world certainly needs it! Thanks for “walking me home” again today!
–Thank you for bringing sunshine on us and our day~ I love all that the Lord fills you with that you share with us. You continue to be a gift each day~ today it was Sara Thomsen’s Canticle ~ Thank you for that and thank you for the poems and songs and one liners and photos and every little (big) thing each day, Jo
POEMS AND PRAYERS
|I offer this prayer for us all at the time of the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, and the Jewish Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur.|
On Rosh HaShanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed:
That this year people will live and die,
some more gently than others
and nothing lives forever.
But amidst overwhelming forces
of nature and humankind,
we still write our own Book of Life,
and our actions are the words in it,
and the stages of our lives are the chapters,
and nothing goes unrecorded, ever.
Every deed counts.
Everything you do matters.
And we never know what act or word
will leave an impression or tip the scale.
So, if not now, then when?
For the things we can change, there is t’shuvah, realignment,
For the things we cannot change, there is t’filah, prayer,
For the help we can give, there is tzedakah, justice.
Together, let us write a beautiful Book of Life
for the Holy One to read.
Rabbi Joseph Meszler
When Great Trees Fall
When great trees fall,
rocks on distant hills shudder,
lions hunker down
in tall grasses,
and even elephants
lumber after safety.
When great trees fall
small things recoil into silence,
eroded beyond fear.
When great souls die,
the air around us becomes
light, rare, sterile.
We breathe, briefly.
Our eyes, briefly,
a hurtful clarity.
Our memory, suddenly sharpened,
gnaws on kind words
Great souls die and
our reality, bound to
them, takes leave of us.
dependent upon their
now shrink, wizened.
Our minds, formed
and informed by their
radiance, fall away.
We are not so much maddened
as reduced to the unutterable ignorance of
And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
irregularly. Spaces fill
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.