Wednesday, February 5, 2020

“Being Changed Not Reduced by Life” preached by Reverend Tom Capo on 2/2/2020


A young woman went to her mother and told her about her life and how things were so hard. She did not know how she was going to make it and wanted to give up. She was tired of fighting and struggling. It seemed that as one problem was solved, a new one arose.

Her mother took her to the kitchen. She filled three pots with water and placed each on a high fire. Soon the pots came to a boil. In the first she placed potatoes, in the second she placed eggs, and in the last she placed coffee grounds. She let them sit and boil, without saying a word.

In about twenty minutes, she turned off the burners. She fished the potatoes out and placed them in a bowl. She pulled the eggs out and placed them in a bowl. Then she ladled the coffee grounds out and placed it in a bowl.

Turning to her daughter, she asked, "Tell me, what do you see?" "potatoes, eggs, and coffee," the daughter replied.

Her mother brought her closer and asked her to feel the potatoes. She did and noted that they were soft. The mother then asked the daughter to take an egg and break it. After pulling off the shell, she observed the hard-boiled egg. Finally, the mother asked the daughter to sip the coffee. The daughter smiled as she tasted its rich flavor. The daughter then asked, "What does it mean, mother?"

Her mother replied: “Each of these objects faced the same adversity—in this case, the boiling water. Each reacted differently. The potatoes went in strong, hard and unrelenting. However, after being subjected to the boiling water, they softened and became weak. The egg had been fragile. Its thin outer shell had protected its liquid interior, but after sitting in the boiling water, its inside became hardened. The ground coffee beans were unique, however. After they were in the boiling water, they changed the water.”

"Which are you?" she asked her daughter. "When adversity knocks on your door, how do you respond? Are you a potato, an egg or coffee grounds?"


When you heard the story earlier, did you identify with the potatoes, the eggs, or the coffee beans?  I think many of us would aspire to be the coffee grounds; I mean Unitarian Universalists love their coffee.  But also the coffee grounds performed transformation when faced with adversity – in this case the boiling water. Really, they were just as affected by the boiling water as the potatoes and eggs, but the coffee grounds gave something of themselves, their essence, to that adversity; they lent themselves to the trouble, and made a positive difference.  Did you think about what kind of coffee you might be changed into?  New Orleans Chicory, Cafecito, decaf, French Roast?  When life presents you with boiling water, with adversity, how do you flavor that water?  In other words, how do you respond to adversity?  Adversity can leach your energy, but it doesn’t have to reduce you.  Adversity undoubtedly changes us if we actively engage with it, construct meaning from it, and if we build resilience from it.

            The American Psychological Association ( defines resilience as “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress — such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems or workplace and financial stressors. ... Being resilient does not mean that a person doesn't experience difficulty or distress… Resilience is not a trait that people either have or do not have. It involves behaviors, thoughts and actions that can be learned and developed in anyone.”

            I have been thinking a lot about resilience, and a lot about resistance.  We live in interesting times, don’t we?  A time of significant shifts in our national culture—divisiveness and polarization and loss of rights---and some of us almost every moment of our lives have to cope with racism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, all the isms and phobias. In addition we all face the common ruptures of life—moves, births, marriages, deaths, economic ups and downs, ebbs and flows of intimacy with significant people in our lives.  These days we are routinely called upon to find the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.  Our goal is to not be reduced by change, but instead grow in wisdom with each life changing experience.

            I grew up in an alcoholic home and have attended ACOA (Adult Children of Alcoholics Anonymous) meetings, and when I worked at an alcoholic treatment facility, I attended AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) meetings with my patients.  I have the serenity prayer—grant me the serenity—engraved on a stone on my desk, placed where I can’t miss it. I won’t tell you how often I look at it, but it’s a lot.

           As I was thinking about change, my eyes landed on this prayer and I wondered if the coffee metaphor really still works for me.  I mean I am all for the transformation that happens as a result of going through a difficult time.  But I am a white cis-gendered middle-class college educated male here.  If anything, physically I am the very embodiment of the political party that is currently in power.  The government is not coming after my rights.  The government is not seeking to reduce my access to medical care or food.  I was never in danger of being in the school to prison pipeline.  I’m pretty sure that some of you here could say the same thing. 

I want to talk about the meditation.  Someone pushed on your shoulder.  Reflect for a moment on the word that came up for you after the meditation.  How does that word speak to how you manage change or pressure in your life?  When we perceive a force pushing against us, we generally have three broad choices.  To resist it, accept it, or give into it.  Resisting is when you fight against that force even as you realize that the force is changing you.  Accepting is allowing the force to wash through you while still keeping the essence of yourself intact.   Giving in has to do with allowing the change to negatively impact you, choosing to be reduced by change.  Which, if any, of those three broad choices describes how you felt when your partner pushed your shoulder during the meditation?  Or maybe none of these three response choices describe what you felt.  That’s okay, because guess what?  There is a fourth choice.  Use the pressure.  Transform that force into a source of energy for building your resilience. 

            So you don’t want to go and tell your friends that your minister told you to push someone sitting next to you in church, but as you sat there, did it occur to you to use the energy of that push?  Most of us make an almost automatic choice to resist.

            Energy drains can be thought of as pressures, both the daily pressures of existence—making enough to survive, to house and feed yourself and your family, to navigate relationships, etc.  Now add the pressures that isms, phobias, prejudice and hate put on you, your friends and family, your community, and your desire to affect positive change in our world--march, rally, lobby, educate, petition, and stand with our marginalized brothers and sisters. How do you hang on to even a scrap of energy with so much pressure draining you dry?  Some of us might meditate, pray, listen to powerful speakers who inspire us; we might be more mindful about our health; we might replenish ourselves with friends and fellow congregants at this church that support us in our work.  If any of that works for  you, keep doing that.  Do all the things that help you build resilience, to not be reduced by life.  

            But what happens when the pushes just keep coming?  When the pressure feels like an irresistible force? 

            Here is my answer: Resilience Judo.  Resilience Judo aligns your physical, mental, and spiritual energy with whatever is pushing against you, absorbing and transforming that energy to add to your resilience. The irresistible force directs its energy toward defeating or destroying you. If you counterattack you're imposing your body energy against the oncoming thrust. Judo redirects your opponent's energy instead of meeting force with force. As the attacker pushes against you, they find you stepping to the side and allowing their momentum to throw them forward. You are like a tree that bends to the wind instead of resisting unyieldingly and being uprooted and blown down.  You become…resilient.



at the trees around you

as you walk by


focus on the branches

and the branches of the branches

and so on

and find the branches

that if instead

of branches

were trees of their own

standing alone

would be the most

perfect trees

with roots and

perfect branches

and so on

and if from this point of


you let your mind start to


you might find yourself

start to wonder

what it must feel like to be

one of these

branches on trees” (by poet Thomas Russ)

            There are no perfect trees or perfect branches, unless you find perfection in imperfection.  The wind, the rain, and the climate affect the trees.  But we do not perceive these effects as having reduced the trees. We perceive the trees as unique, beautiful, with branches reaching out in new and different ways.  Resilience Judo is like that.  The effects of stress, pressure, isms, phobias, and prejudice can alter our responses to life, even the way we see ourselves and the world around us, but we can choose that our responses are not altered in ways that reduce who we are and knock us over. 

            Resilience Judo keeps you from becoming exhausted from using your energy to attack or resist.  And each time your opponent thrusts and fails, you feel empowered.  Each time the opposing force thrusts, you learn more about it/them and learn more about yourself.  You might be changed, your branch altered by the experience, but you will not be reduced.  You will adapt.

            Here is one Judo move.  When I was still in practice as a psychotherapist, I worked for a private psychiatric clinic.  I was on the Board of this clinic and had a personal relationship with the owners.  One night, the owner, Ken, and I were the only ones left in our main office.  I was doing some paperwork and I noticed Ken seemed deep in thought.  I asked him if there was something wrong or if there was something I should know about as far as the clinic was concerned.  He said no; he was alright and so was the clinic.  The next day I found out he was lying.  He announced that the clinic was closing and we all had two weeks to find new jobs.  It felt like a kick in my stomach, rather than a push on my shoulder.  I could feel pressure starting to reduce me as I feared what I would do to support my family.  I was tempted to yell at the owner for lying to me the night before.  Instead of giving into the pressure, that very day I used the energy to alter the course of my life.  I reached out to a local psychiatric hospital.  I went into the CEO’s office, honestly told her of the situation, and she told me she was excited by the prospect of me joining them.  I was thrilled.  I then went to a friend of mine who was the administrator of another psychiatric clinic and told her about my predicament, and she said she would be excited to have me join them.  I was thrilled again!.  Now I had a different dilemma, but one of my own making.  I used the energy that was putting pressure on me to empower me to explore new options and directions, instead of letting the pressure push me down, depleting and reducing me.

Let me give you a couple of judo moves to deal with some of the pressure of isms, phobias, and hate in our country.  A few years ago I was involved in starting a grassroots organization in Cedar Rapids based on Saul David Alinsky’s work. He is generally considered to be the Founder of modern community organizing.  The first step in the process is one-on-ones, getting to know people and getting to know their values.  The discussion leads to finding common values, which leads to developing common goals, and thus together we effect changes in governmental policy or laws; in our case we would be working on policy and law changes in Cedar Rapids and Linn County.  In one of my conversations, I met a factory worker.  We got to know each other and then started talking about our values.  One of his core values was “live and let live.”  He was kind of libertarian in his thinking.  Now it probably wasn’t what I was supposed to be doing, but I asked him about same sex marriage.  He said he was against it.  I could have been oppositional and argued with him or I could have swallowed my depression about his response.  I could have let his negative attitude reduce me or my energy, but instead I used the energy from  his response to wonder aloud, “I am confused, how can you be against someone having equal rights, you know marital rights, when you value live and let live.”  He said he had never thought of marital equality in that way.  We parted ways with him being a supporter of marital equality, and with both of us feeling energized and empowered by our conversation.

            Here is another Judo move.  While attending a rally for marital equality in Iowa, I was invited to talk with Bob Vander Plaats, the president and CEO of The Family Leader, a socially conservative organization opposed to marital equality, abortion, and a variety of other progressive causes.  I think I was invited to join in the conversation at the Pizza Ranch, because I was wearing a clerical collar and they thought I was like one of the other evangelical ministers.  As Vander Plaats began talking about his campaign supporting the rights of people opposed to marital equality, it would have been easy to stay quiet, let his negativity role over me, enrage and depress and even reduce me.  Instead, using the energy I felt after he started with his opening punch, I thrust my hand into the air and asked, “So you feel you are fighting for a majority of Iowans?”  “Yes,” he said. “And you believe that the rights of the majority should be the law of the land.”  “Yes,” he said.  “What about the ‘Tyranny of the Majority?  You know, when the majority imposes its will and either disregards or oppresses the will of a minority.  Didn’t the forefathers of this country oppose that?”  He looked deeply confused.  Not sure what to say.  Another person, energized and empowered by what I had asked, said, “what about that?”  And another, actually a member of the local Unitarian Universalist, church got up and said, “Marital rights are human rights aren’t they?”  At that point an aide removed Vander Plaats from the Pizza Ranch and any further discussion.  I felt energized and empowered.

            The image before you is a dojo.  A dojo is generally associated with various forms of martial arts.  Dojo literally means "place of the way".  American author, coach, and consultant, Richard Strozzi Heckler, wrote  “…the dojo is a place of learning where one practices what is being taught.  This [approach] is different from the conventional classroom where students sit passively taking notes or listening quietly to a lecture…[the approach] points out the difference between academic knowledge and an embodied knowledge that allows people to take actions that sustain and enhance their lives.  In place of [academic] learning … the dojo students practice what is being taught and over time begin to embody the subject matter.  It lives in their body, it is who they are.” I propose that we let this place be our dojo for resistance and resilience.  So when we have a calamitous experience, we can come here to reflect on and practice our Resilience Judo.  Here we can decide how to use the energy generated by calamitous experiences to alter our direction, and empower our resistance, rather letting it reduce us. Here we can create new moves, go out into the world and try them, and then come back to share with each other how they worked.  Here we will embody new ways to be both resistant and resilient.  Welcome to the Unitarian Universalist Dojo of Miami. 

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