The Day After

The Rev. Alison Cornish

January 2, 2004 – 

It’s a good time of year to talk about “The Day After.” The holidays are loaded with “Day After” stories, more than just the “Day After” sales that seem to be ubiquitous with the season. Coming, as I did, from a home that celebrated Christmas with great style, the preparation for the holiday was elaborate and lasted for many weeks. Christmas cookies made in great quantity and variety. Christmas presents made by hand. Christmas decorations arranged in every detail just as they had been every year past. A tree to trim. Packages to wrap and guess at. Meals to shop for. Records to play. A wonderful build-up to the holiday, filled with anticipation. And then – just like that – it was over. The clock ticked off the hours and minutes just like any other day, not slowing a whit in deference to the great moment that had finally arrived. All too soon, it was time to go to bed. And then – for me, the first real encounter with the feeling of the day After. All that anticipation, and planning, and hoping, and looking forward to – then, suddenly, it was December 26th. No matter what came next – school vacation, time to play with new toys, a trip to see grandparents, nothing could really cushion the blow of waking up the day after Christmas to the realization that – it’s over. It’s come, and gone, and it won’t be here again for another year.

And then there’s the opposite end of a childhood emotional “Day After” spectrum, also a memory of winter – Snow Day! I remember going to bed at night thinking that perhaps, just perhaps, the prediction of snow would be right – that the next morning would bring enough snow to call off school. Straining to hear what was, in our town, the signal that schools were closed – the fire whistle’s distinctive signal at 7:00 am. “Hooray!” No school today!” A whole, unexpected day of freedom stretched out before me.

Whether it’s a case of great anticipation with its inevitable letdown, or a surprise gift of unplanned time, for most children the “Day After” is a transient sensation. The moment comes, and then passes relatively quickly (if not always quietly) to the next experience.

As I grew older, I soon understood that the experience of this kind of “Day After” is repeated again and again in life. The great excitement of something to come, with all the anticipation and hopefulness that comes with it – and then, the moment is over. Or, the gift of something completely unexpected, a freedom from plans, that all too soon dissolves into the routine. These are our everyday, run-of-mill “Days After.” They are a part of life for every one of us. In the best of circumstances, we can see that the highs and lows more or less even out – there are the moments that lift our spirits, and then the Day After reminds us that nothing stays the same; that, ready or not, time always moves us on to the next moment. It is the pattern of life, like the setting and rising of the sun, and the ebb and flow of the tide. Once we know this is the rhythm, the challenge is to keep playing along – to still anticipate joyfully, knowing that the inevitable Day After will bring a feeling of let-down; to embrace the unexpected, even while knowing that a return to the routine is part of life. It is the process of falling in love with life – all of life, even the Days After we would rather not have come at all.

All our lives, we are faced with “Days After.” We wake up stung by loss, by grief, by loneliness. We wake up elated by relief, by accomplishment, by new romance.

Wherever our lives take us, at the end of the day we lie down, we sleep, and we wake – to a new day – to a day after. UU minister Laurel Hallman recounts how she has come to see the inevitability of welcoming the new day as a spiritual practice:

…I [thought] about how I welcomed the day. I recognized that I woke up each morning to a radio broadcast filled with trouble, from news of wars to mayhem on the highways. While I want to be informed about the world and local events, I began to believe that it was not wise to greet the day that way. Instead…I [chose] music to speak to my spirit each morning in the first moments of being awake.

When a specific spiritual practice takes root in our lives, it expands – and affects – everything we do. Laurel continues:

In time, this practice of intentionally greeting the morning [grew] into a practice of welcoming every moment. It [became] a way of living with hope. This is not always easy, because there are events and challenges in our lives that we don’t want to welcome. It is difficult to welcome the death of a loved one or a diagnosis of illness in our own lives… In the ancient Psalms of the Hebrew Bible, the Psalmists often begin by naming despair, moving by the end of the psalm into hope and praise…[it is a] pattern that would be wise to follow:

acknowledging our fears with a spirit of welcome and, in time, letting our gratitude emerge out of them.

It is, in fact, the ways we might learn to fall in love, over and over again, with life – to welcome every moment in the same way as the intentional greeting of the new morning.

There is another type of “Day After” that often comes hand-in-hand with the holidays.

You can recognize it by the clichés of the morning-after. “I’ll never drink again.” “I can’t believe she did that … I’ll never talk to her again.” “I can’t really remember much about…” “I really wish I hadn’t … “ “What happened after I…? You can fill in the blanks.

These “days after” are tough. These are the kinds of mornings that, when there is a verging awareness that morning has arrived, we do not welcome it – in fact, we would prefer to not show up. “Let it not be so – may that really not have happened” we whisper, even pray, to ourselves. These are the Days After that lead to recriminations and resolutions, blame and vows of reformation.

I don’t know anyone who hasn’t been touched by these Days After. We, and those we love, all battle some kind of demons – alcohol, food, drugs to name just a few. And we all carry around our own hurts and angers – a half-buried grudge, just waiting for the right conditions to suddenly re-emerge, a long-simmering argument that can be re-ignited with the right touch of spite, a low self-image that needs little provocation to explode. When our demons meet our hurts and angers, the conditions are ripe to create an ugly scene, and a wicked Day After.

If we are lucky, the damage is slight. We weather the storms and soon emerge into the calm waters of the everyday. If we are very lucky, we learn something about ourselves that moves us to new levels of understanding. If we are very, very lucky, we might move past our regrets to a place of forgiveness – of ourselves and of others – and the Day After begins a new journey of the heart.

That is, if we are lucky. When the damage to be faced is not so slight, the Day After to which we wake brings with it a world changed forever. When demons meet wild driving, or a weapon-at-hand, or harsh words, or uncontrolled anger, or unfettered inhabitions – then the Day After becomes a day of reckoning, of broken heartedness. This is the stuff of tragedies on the 6:00 news, local papers’ headlines, and families and friends torn asunder. This is a Day After that will not pass easily to the everyday, but remain a permanent marking point in a circle of lives. It is not so much a Day After as a dividing line – a life before, and life after.

Common as they are, and sad as they can be, I don’t believe these “Days After” are an inevitable part of life, something that we must simply expect to happen. Instead, I see them as signals of life-out-of-balance, wobbling and teetering one direction and then another, and finally toppled over the edge in a moment of poor judgment or abandon.

That is, these Days After emerge not just from the moment at hand, but have their origins deep in the stuff of our lives. It’s about much, much more than “just saying no” to the drink, or biting back an insult, or stuffing a fist into a pocket instead of striking out. Keeping these Days After at bay means living a life that has love at its center – a love strong enough to sustain willpower and hopefulness in our encounters with our demons.

For some, this love is called God. For others, this love is the deep connection with the pulse of life, of all of that surrounds us in this glorious and mysterious world. For still others, this love is drawn from the deep well of care that has its source in the companionship of fellow travelers on the journey of life. Whatever the origin, I believe it is a generous love that gifts us with the grace to face these moments of discernment and choice with strength. It’s a love that allows us to love ourselves, and a love that allows us each to experience the preciousness of this one unique life we have to live.

As I meditated on the topic of The Day After this week, my thoughts could not help but turn to the aftermath of last Sunday’s earthquakes and tsunamis. What has occurred there is a most extreme, and most tragic, version of a “Day After.” The actual event – the shifting of the earth’s plates deep under the ocean – was just one, short moment that has had cataclysmic results. All this week we have watched, and listened, as the successive “Days After” bring more news of the soaring death tolls and exposure of the destruction wrought. If there were a Psalmist at work today, these would be the days of despair, of lament.

Early in the week I heard one reporter speak words that have stayed with me through the days – for some, he said, the effects of this disaster will pass, perhaps in weeks, or months. Life will return to some kind of normalcy. But for many, it will be a generation – or more – before life will once again resemble what it once was here, if it ever can. The Days After for those living in the devastated parts of our world are just beginning, and they stretch far into the future.

As the New York Times noted the day after the tsunamis crashed into a dozen countries’ shorelines, “the mechanics of the earth’s surface … [are] amoral.” The ocean goes where it will, regardless of invitation or barrier. What, of course, is not amoral at all is the way we respond to the plight of our sisters and brothers in the Days After. In so doing, we are faced with the reality of a living on a planet that seems to be ever-shrinking. Here are images, and stories, and cries of grief coming directly into our homes on the other side of the globe.

We are still in the earliest moments of this Day After. But what we know, what we are already experiencing, is this – events such as these call on us to understand the words “Love thy neighbor as thy self” in radically new ways. As Ken said earlier, the vast oceans of this planet make neighbors of us even when separated by thousands of miles – the same waters lap our shores as those in Thailand, and Sri Lanka, and Indonesia. But it’s more than the ocean that gives us commonality. Those who are suffering the effects of the tsunamis are our neighbors because we share more than we have differences – because we are living in an interdependent web of existence, of which we are all a part – because our care and concern for those suffering shines a light into the darkest of despairing times. We have heard it, time and again, following disasters: “Yes, we need money, and we need help. But knowing that someone, somewhere, cared about me – someone who didn’t even know me – that’s what kept me going, helped me to get up the next morning and face the anguish.”

What Days After bring us are lessons of love. Every day we are invited to fall in love with life – all of life. To live in a centered and balanced way means living a life that has love at its center – a love strong enough to sustain willpower and hopefulness in our encounters with our demons. And, at times, we are called by extraordinary circumstances to love our neighbors, all of them, as we love ourselves – a love that offers compassion, and hope, across this whirling, spinning, globe of ours.

Closing Words (adap., Dr. Karenga)

Build where you are and dare leave a legacy that will last as long as the sun shines and the water flows. May the wisdom of the ancestors always walk with us. May the year’s end meet us laughing and stronger. May our children honor us by following our example in love and struggle. And at the end of the year, may we sit again together, in larger numbers, with greater achievement and closer to liberation and a higher level of human life.

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