Thursday, November 8, 2012

In the Pit

In the Pit
A homily delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
November 8, 2012
Gibson Memorial Chapel
Blue Ridge School, St. George, Virginia 

I have chosen one of the Psalms to speak from and about this morning. This Psalm, Psalm 88 is subtitled in my Bible as a Prayer for Despondency.  I think the title is apt. I'd like to read the Psalm for you now, then sing a song, which I believe gives a contemporary spin on the very same topic, showing how timeless "despondency," or being in "The Pit" is for we humans.  

Psalm 88  

1     O Lord, God of my salvation,
when, at night, I cry out in your presence,
2     let my prayer come before you;
incline your ear to my cry.
3     For my soul is full of troubles,
and my life draws near to Sheol.
4     I am counted among those who go down to the Pit;
I am like those who have no help,
5     like those forsaken among the dead,
like the slain that lie in the grave,
like those whom you remember no more,
for they are cut off from your hand.
6     You have put me in the depths of the Pit,
in the regions dark and deep.
7     Your wrath lies heavy upon me,
and you overwhelm me with all your waves.      Selah
8     You have caused my companions to shun me;
you have made me a thing of horror to them.
I am shut in so that I cannot escape;
9     my eye grows dim through sorrow.
Every day I call on you, O Lord;
I spread out my hands to you.
10     Do you work wonders for the dead?
Do the shades rise up to praise you?      Selah
11     Is your steadfast love declared in the grave,
or your faithfulness in Abaddon?
12     Are your wonders known in the darkness,
or your saving help in the land of forgetfulness?
13     But I, O Lord, cry out to you;
in the morning my prayer comes before you.
14     O Lord, why do you cast me off?
Why do you hide your face from me?
15     Wretched and close to death from my youth up,
I suffer your terrors; I am desperate.
16     Your wrath has swept over me;
your dread assaults destroy me.
17     They surround me like a flood all day long;
from all sides they close in on me.
18     You have caused friend and neighbor to shun me;
my companions are in darkness. [1]  

This is "Down in a Hole" by Alice in Chains. Listen for the similarities between the Psalmists words, and the songwriter Layne Staley's lyrics.  (Link to hear song: )

Bury me softly in this womb
I give this part of me for you
Sand rains down and here I sit
Holding rare flowers
In a tomb... in bloom

Down in a hole and I don't know if I can be saved
See my heart I decorate it like a grave
You don't understand who they
Thought I was supposed to be
Look at me now a man
Who wont let himself be

Down in a hole, feelin' so small
Down in a hole, losin' control
I'd like to fly,
But my wings have been so denied

Down in a hole and they've put all
The stones in their place
I've eaten the sun so my tongue
Has been burned of the taste
I have been guilty
Of kicking myself in the teeth
I will speak no more
Of my feelings beneath

Down in a hole, feelin' so small
Down in a hole, losin' control
I'd like to fly but my
Wings have been so denied

Bury me softly in this womb
Oh I want to be inside of you
I give this part of me for you
Oh I want to be inside of you
Sand rains down and here I sit
Holding rare flowers (oh I want to be inside of you)
In a tomb... in bloom
Oh I want to be inside...

Down in a hole, feelin' so small
Down in a hole, losin' my soul
Down in a hole, feelin' so small
Down in a hole, outta control
I'd like to fly but my
Wings have been so denied[2]

A few things are clear in this connection. One is that pain is timeless. Despondency is part of the human condition. It was then, 2500+ years ago, and it is still the case now. We talk often about character in this school. Our code of conduct frames expectations for how we are supposed to act. I've heard it said that character is what you do when no one is looking, in the dark, by yourself, the man looking back at you from the mirror, staring deep within to the truth behind your eyes. I agree that this in many cases is true, but I think it falls short.
 I'd like to suggest that true character is who you are when you are in the Pit. Who you are when your life is turned upside down, who you are when despondency has you by the throat, who you are in the midst and aftermath of a hurricane, freezing with no power, who you are when your friends have abandoned you, who you are when  your girlfriend has just dumped you, or you have 5 tests in two days, who you are when the very walls that you have built around you for protection are closing in on you and threatening your very being. Who you are when it's hard. Because it is easy to be a good person when everything is going right, but will you still be that same person when all things go wrong? Will you be that same person when the adversity comes, and all of a sudden you have an excuse not to be, when people say, no it's ok, I understand, when goodness becomes relative and contextual. We all struggle with this. I've asked myself constantly, what are my limits? Have you ever asked yourself that? What are your limits?
Layne Staley, the writer of the song I sang, Down in a Hole, knew the depths of pain and despair. He knew what it was like to be in the pit, he poured that pain into the music that he wrote, but the person that he was in the pit was not the rock star with all the glitz and glamour riches and fame, but instead the heroin addict, trying at all costs to escape the reality of the difficulties and the pain of his life. Eventually that escape became permanent, here taken from an article about the singer's tragic death:

The lights were out. The doors locked. A used needle was on the floor, and $501 in cash was lying next to the toilet. Brown stains led from the bathroom floor toward the living room. When police kicked in the door to Layne Staley's University District apartment on April 19, there, on a couch, lit by a flickering TV, next to several spray-paint cans on the floor, not far from a small stash of cocaine, near two crack pipes on the coffee table, reposed the remains of the rock musician. . . A glamour-drug moment it wasn't. Staley, 34, sitting upright, had been dead for two weeks. . . In addition to the singer's tracked-up and paraphernalia-littered bathroom and front room, detectives found a kitchen counter covered with more used needles, more narcotics pipes, and more spray-paint cans. Needles also were found beneath Staley when his 86-pound body was removed. He lived alone in the two-story, three-bedroom apartment (one bedroom contained toys and video games, another musical instruments; the master bedroom had a bed and TV). When police played back Staley's answering-machine tape, it was filled with two weeks' worth of calls asking where he was.[3]

That is the pit, the very bottom of existence, lying dead, abandoned for 2 weeks as your body decomposes down to 86 pounds. Pain is real, but as  you can see trying to escape it does not seem to be the answer.
So what is the answer to pain? What is the answer to being in the pit? Is it avoidable? Is it controllable? So much of our society is geared around doing just that, avoiding the pit. It's why we have insurance, and safety nets, and risk management schemes, but all of those are swept away so fast when reality strikes, the reality of the pit. I ask again who are you when that goes down? Will you be the same benevolent, caring, brother's keeper type person you all want to be on your best day? The tolerance first, advocate of the struggling, generous, open minded, good person, or will you be something entirely different? You know all that morality and ethics and code of conduct stuff is nice and all but it's not practical when I've got to look out for myself. If it doesn't stand up on those hardest days, what good is it? Morality then is just another piece of our fleeting hypocrisy, just another dream that was just an illusion when seen in the light of day, just another worthless insurance policy from a company that has gone bankrupt.
How do we as human beings remain virtuous, moral, ethical, etc. when in the pit? It is difficult, I'm not here to tell you that it's easy, I'm also not here talking as someone who knows for sure without a shadow of a doubt how I will act when deep in the pit, but I think it has to do with how you view the pit itself. Does the pit have purpose? Does the pit have meaning? Why are you there? Because there are many different ways of looking at it. You can look at  yourself as a victim. Looking for someone to blame as to why you are in the pit, but with that view you can see the code of conduct falling apart. You can even look to blame yourself, but then again, how much good are you going to be? You can look at others who aren't in the pit and get jealous and angry, envious even, screaming out, "This Pit isn't fair", and the result there is you trying to pull people down with you, again the Code of Conduct is merely a distant memory. You can be wondering why all of your brothers haven't saved you from the pit  yet, why your religious beliefs haven't insured you'd never fall in the pit, how God must be absent, or non existent, or some kind of sadist, or why because you are an American citizen you are entitled to never fall into pits, that the Government should be there, that FEMA should be called in, and that view derails into the bitter cynicism of that is born in feelings of entitlement, dependence, and a crushed human spirit.
Those are just a few of the options, and they all seem to be reinforcing the idea that it's just all more than we can handle, but there is another thought. What if the pit has meaning and purpose, What if you learn from the pit, what if you embrace your pit, what if you live thinking that your pit is shaping you, strengthening you, that it isn't something to avoid, or escape, or to blame others or yourself for causing, not something to drag other people into, but something to embrace because it is an unavoidable part of life, that it is part of living, and that though it sucks, it's what life really is, and  it doesn't end us, it doesn't beat us, it doesn't destroy us, rather it makes us. How often on the other side of the pit, those of you who have been there, those of you who have felt the depths of that despondency, how many of you upon getting out can look back and realize how in that moment of struggle you felt the most alive, and that all of those other days since, those going through the motions, too safe to matter days, don't seem to hold that same import in your life as the pit days, and though you'd never choose to seek out those depths, there is something more there in them, something valuable, something necessary to life.
It's easy to miss that alive feeling, if you are focused on the blame game, or the it's not fair victim game, or the how come he's got it easier than me game, or the here I am save me game, but if your eyes are open you can find a real glimpse of what life truly is, and who you really are in those moments. God give us the strength. May it be so.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Ps 88:1-18). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[2] Words and Music by Alice in Chains, 1992.
[3] Anderson, Rick. "Smack is Back," Seattle Weekly News, Jan. 8, 2003.