I thought I would start out with a little Unitarian Universalist history about hell. Universalism is one of the two denominations that came together to form the Unitarian Universalist religion that we have today. Universalism in its earlier form was a belief that all people are destined to be reunited with god after they die. Universalists did not believe in damnation or hell. In 1882, Universalist minister Reverend Hosea Ballou explored the concepts of hell and salvation in his book A Treatise On Atonement. He wrote that nothing caused more harm to the understanding of Jesus than the idea of atonement, that Jesus died for our sins. He said salvation has nothing to do with being saved from eternal damnation when we die; he believed that we carry guilt from the hells, the harm, we have caused in the here and now, and the only atonement, or salvation, is how we make amends with those we have harmed in the here and now. Ballou believed that human emotions prompt us to moral or immoral actions, so we are invited to strengthen the emotions that reap happiness for ourselves and others. In Ballou's words: "We cannot be profitable to others unless we savor of the Spirit within [ourselves]."
Our Universalist heritage has two messages for us to consider today: deal with the hell we experience in the here and now and attend to ways to bring happiness into our lives and the lives of those around us.
I have been through hell a time or two. At least for me, going through hell is not just about the guilt we experience when we cause harm to others, but the suffering we choose to inflict on ourselves after we experience pain, hurt, resentment, and grief. And salvation is making things right within ourselves as well as with those around us in the here and now.
Early in my relationship with Martha, my loving wife, our life was perfect, at least I felt it was. We were in love, getting to know each other, and living life in a commune—everything was easy. Then came my first Christmas with my wife’s mother, Bitsy. This is one of those times in my life that I felt I was going through hell. And to be fair, Martha felt that way, too. It’s probably important to know that Bitsy didn’t like me early in my relationship with Martha. She told Martha I was a long-haired hippy that shouldn’t be allowed in her house; she has sent a detective to spy on us while we were dating in college; and she tried to break us up by forcing Martha into being a Debutante, having various young men escort her to a number of parties, as part of San Antonio’s high society. Martha and I weathered all those events without letting them disturb our lives, our perfect square, too much. But here’s the thing, Bitsy didn’t want me at her house on Christmas and I can own I wasn’t all that thrilled either. Martha and I arrived on Christmas Eve at her house after a 5-hour drive, tired and hungry. Needless to say, I was emotionally vulnerable. Martha’s sister, Laura, was already there, along with Bitsy. As the afternoon started, Bitsy didn’t want anyone to eat until after we opened gifts. I was starving, blood sugar dropping, but didn’t want to upset anyone by leaving to get something to eat, a little people pleasing and a little giving up control of my emotions to Bitsy. We sat down to open gifts. Bitsy gave Martha and Laura wonderful gifts; I was too miserable to remember what they were. Almost as an afterthought, Bitsy handed me a gift—I had hoped it was a peace offering and that things were looking up. I opened it. Three white dish towels. I had never received dish towels as a gift either before or after that time. I thought, “well at least they are useful” so I said, “Thank you.” This gift was not a peace offering. And so I moped around as we waited another hour and a half before getting anything to eat. I remember not thinking pleasant things about Bisty as I moped, getting more and more angry and depressed. I could easily have given up on the relationship, allowed my resentment to fester, perhaps given her the same dish towels the next Christmas. After dinner, I decided that I didn’t want to be miserable any longer, and took a walk. I returned and began to talk to Bitsy, to try to get to know her a little. And I kept working on my relationship with Bitsy, Christmas after Christmas. I treated her with respect and decided to not to give her power over my welfare or my joy anymore, so we got along much better, or perhaps I was no longer in hell, so I was a much happier person around her. She did eventually come to like me, after Laura married someone Bitsy considered even worse than me. What I learned from my time from Bitsy is if you are going through hell, keep going.
Many of us want to see our lives as perfect squares. Everything going along as expected, no downs, no stressors, and if there are changes, well, they’re kind of predictable because you know, it’s a square, easy-peasy. It is easy to get used to. And then something happens that tears all that up, we can feel like we are in hell. Then we have to decide what we are going to do. We can stay stop in hell and suffer. Or keep going through hell and see what happens.
Many of us have had times we consider to be “hell”. The one I described might not seem that bad to some of you, but at the time, as a young adult, it sure seemed that way. What you might describe as “hell” can run the gamut from a time when you felt miserable to when you felt extremely depressed. These might be times of grief and loss or times of trauma. It is not for any of us to judge whether someone’s experience was “hellish” or not. The person who owns that experience gets to decide that.
And here’s the thing, hell is when a personal pain becomes a lingering period of suffering. We all have a tendency to do this—making things worse for ourselves by what we say to ourselves and how we treat ourselves after experiencing some emotional, physical, or spiritual pain. Letting pain become “hell” is easy. We are vulnerable, low on energy, distracted, and more reactive when we are in pain, thus it is easy to go from a big “OUCH!”, to “this is awful, I will never forgive them, I will never forgive myself, this pain will never go away, I can’t bear this, I can’t go on.”
When you are going through hell, you might feel sorry for yourself, resist change, hold onto resentments, give others control over your emotions, dwell on what caused the pain, or resist trying to make things right within yourself or with people who may have been harmed.
When I was a psychotherapist, I worked with a lot of patients who were suffering. People who were Vietnam Veterans, going through divorces, rape survivors, and so many more. I decided I needed more skills to help people who were suffering, so I learned how to do Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. Now I tell you about this treatment not so much to advocate it, but that I learned something from it. This treatment involves desensitization of the pain and suffering, by taking the person back through the pain that they experienced—re-experiencing the event, feeling all the senses and emotions that they felt. In so doing they stop putting energy into resisting thinking about the painful experience and they develop a new meaning and sometimes even a new purpose that helps them heal from the experience. Do they still have scars form the painful experience? Yes. Are they still defined by the scars of the experience? No.
I want to share a very sensitive and painful period from my life. My cousin, Tabitha, died by suicide using her father’s gun. I was Tabitha’s godfather. I was a 19 when she was born. In my heart, I believed, and it was my responsibility to walk with her on her spiritual journey through life. So when she died by suicide I knew in my heart that I had failed her. My parents, my aunt and uncle, my other cousin, my brothers and I were emotionally devastated. I, the psychotherapist in the family, was called upon to try to hold my aunt, Tabitha’s mother, together. I did what I could, but this was really a job for the whole family. And I needed to make time for my own grief as well. And Martha and I had two children, toddlers at the time. We had to figure out what to tell our boys to help them understand the death and the emotionally broken people around them. Martha and I told our boys that Tabitha had lost her feelings and that resulted in her death. A few weeks after the funeral, my 4-year-old son asked us to write my aunt and uncle a letter for him. In the letter, he wrote that he knew they were sad and missed Tabitha. He went on to say that she had lost her feelings, and that he didn’t want them to lose theirs. He missed Tabitha. And he told them he loved them.
What did I learn? What new purpose did I carry away from this experience? I learned that children have resilience, sometimes more so than adults. I learned that I am not solely responsible for the welfare of others, that I need to take care of myself when going through hell. I learned that gratitude is important in times of pain. Gratitude for my wife’s support, gratitude for my children’s resilience and emotional intelligence. I learned that while reflecting on the past and learning from it is a helpful, wallowing in it is harmful to me. I learned that I need to create opportunities to be alone with my thoughts, reflect on my grief, pain, progress, and create goals for the future. I learned that self-growth and healing, especially from deep emotional pain, takes time, and I have to be patient for that to occur. The last thing I came away from that experience is a renewed commitment to say “I love you” to those in my life and show them that I love them. I also committed to be more intentional about making time for those I love and walking beside them as they face the many thorns life presents them.