Seeking the Edges

This sermon was offered to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Wyoming Valley on Sunday, January 22nd, 2024

When I was a little girl, I loved winter. My earliest childhood years were spent in Anchorage, Alaska, and I have childhood memories of snow forts, sledding, my neighbor’s pet reindeer, sled dogs, and more. I think that very early connection to a true winter wonderland is where my devotion to this season comes from. I mostly grew up in Frederick, Maryland. Snow still happens there, but not to the same extent as in Alaska. After moving to Maryland, every year at the first snowfall, my private ritual of celebration was to run around the outside of my house barefoot. I reveled in building big snow creatures of various sorts – dragons, mermaids, trolls, and more. I’ve always been an outside kind of kid, and winter presented an incredible playground. 

I’m in my 40’s now, and winter is different. I have old Marine Corps injuries that don’t do very well in the cold. Turns out if you cut a joint open, it’s never really the same afterwards. If I’m out too long and not bundled up enough, I get an ache in my bones that only a very hot bath or sauna will remedy. The shorter days are harder now. As an adult, I wrestle depression and anxiety, and both have a tendency to be worse during the winter.

We’re past the holidays but the light and warmth of spring is still a couple months away. I think of this part of the year, deep winter, as the season of edges. Some of that is quite literal – we can see the shape of the land more clearly without the leaves from our deciduous trees. Those same trees are bare and stark against the winter skies. The color palette around us is full of sharper contrast – the white, gray, and blue of the sky against the dark browns, grays, greens, and black of the earth. We are in a space of sharper delineation, where the edges of the natural world can be seen more clearly. 

Edges are figurative as well during winter. The wind cuts like a knife and can howl like a beansidhe. The darkness can feel oppressive and menacing. Edges can be mythical, too – the folklore from parts of the world that include a snowy winter are fierce about this time of year. This is when the Wild Hunt rides, gathering up lost souls and anyone else foolhardy enough to get in the way. This is when people go missing in the wintry woods. 

All of these edges are true, and there is also more to the story of winter. 

In 2022 I was lucky enough to go to Iceland for my honeymoon. Remember, I did say that I love winter. The Icelanders have a great saying: There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes. My spouse and I did a lot of research before we went to Iceland and acquired the right kinds of clothing for the island. In what should be a surprise to absolutely no one, the Icelanders are absolutely correct. I was comfortable and having a marvelous adventure the entire time, in weather that was mostly cold and sometimes rainy. 

One of the many things I learned from that experience is that the tools you bring to an encounter with discomfort, with your edges, change the entire nature of that encounter. 

We are heading into a year that promises discomfort. The vitriol of our election cycle reverberates through our culture and we are guaranteed moments of distress associated with it. Uncomfortable conversations with family, friends, co-workers, and even strangers are on the horizon. We’re going to see signs and bumper stickers carrying slogans and messages designed to provoke. The cold wind of divisiveness will blow strongly this year. 

And that’s in addition to all the normal edges that arise during day-to-day life. 

Encountering edges, finding places of discomfort, and otherwise traveling through distress is not optional. It’s a normal part of life. And of late I’ve begun to wonder whether my own approach, and the approach that is common in the people around me, is actually serving us. 

We’ve been able to ease so many kinds of discomfort in truly amazing ways. Most of us live in spaces that are warm, dry, and free from the cold winds of winter. Electric light means that even if the days are dark, our homes don’t have to be. The internet has given us more information at our fingertips than we could ever hope to process. We are never truly alone, and now we can get into arguments with strangers about cat photos at any hour of the day or night. And modern medicine is nothing short of astonishing. I don’t want to imagine my life without over the counter painkillers and anti-inflammatories that keep me going. 

And also, I wonder if we’ve gotten bad at discomfort simply because we’ve softened the edges of so very many things at this point. What am I missing by simply turning away from discomfort rather than bringing the right tools to it? If I hadn’t had the right clothes in Iceland, I would have missed out on some of the very best parts of that adventure. What is my reticence around discomfort costing me now? 

I’m old enough that some of the recent technology changes are unappealing. I don’t always keep up with the most popular apps and media platforms. It only took five minutes for me to decide Tiktok is not for me.  And that’s just technology. There’s been an entire revolution in the language around gender and sexual orientation. I envy the kids who are growing up with language for how they’re wired even as I struggle to learn and include new terms in my vocabulary. History is in a constant process of revision and new voices are shining light on parts of our cultural story that I thought I knew. 

It’s tempting to bury my head in the sand and avoid this learning edge. With everything else we manage on a day to day basis, it almost seems unfair to add learning new language, social media platforms, and revising our understanding of our own cultural story. And yet, what am I missing if I turn away and try to just ignore the discomfort? What do I lose if I continue as I have been and pretend nothing changed? Four of the people I love the most in all the world are nonbinary, and there is no greater act of respect, kindness, or support than to honor those we love by recognizing who they truly are. What would have happened to those relationships if I met them with rigidity rather than curiosity? If I refused to honor my beloved ones’ chosen names and gender identification, what would that disrespect have done?  My life would be so much less rich and full of love. 

And so I wonder about the areas where I have tried to turn away rather than wrestle my own learning edge. 

As a yoga teacher I focus a lot on the importance of keeping bodies flexible – supporting range of motion and full expression of movement so that we avoid getting hurt and can continue doing the things we love. As it turns out, flexibility applies to more than just my hamstrings and lower back. 

We can meet the learning edge with the right tools: curiosity, research, conversation, and repetition – practicing. But new information isn’t the only point of discomfort in our lives. The fear edge is very real as well. Too many powerful people and organizations know that frightened people are easier to control and mobilize, so they play on fear – fear of change, of becoming irrelevant, fear for our children and families, for our financial security, our place in the international pecking order and more. It seems like every week there’s a new boogie man making headlines. 

Fear and I are longtime companions. I have an anxiety disorder, which means that my brain interprets situations that most people consider normal as threatening. I live with a cold spot in my core and no matter what I do, I never really feel safe. As I’m standing here talking to you, my heart is pounding in my chest and my hands are shaky. I know intellectually that I am safe, but that deeper part of me does not. One good thing about wrestling with an anxiety disorder is that I have a lot of tools for fear. I sometimes wish the mechanisms I had to learn in order to function were taught more widely. We encounter fear all the time, and fear is at the root of a lot of the biggest problems in our culture. 

All of these edges, these discomfort points, can bring us face to face with the edges in our faith. Maintaining the belief that it all matters, and that there is cause for hope can feel almost impossible. And, carrying that burden can mean we’re less likely to explore some of the new horizons of spirituality. I am Pagan by faith in addition to being a Unitarian Universalist. The Pagan faith path, for the most part, is one that prioritizes learning. One of our little jokes is that Paganism is a religion with homework. We’re encouraged to explore – to learn new ways to connect, to work with our beautiful planet and the beings on it, to explore the wide world of spirit and transcendental experience.  That learning process, if we’re doing it right, brings us to our edges. At this point in my faith journey, I know that I’m in the right place in terms of spiritual growth if what I’m doing makes me a little nervous or uncomfortable. 

For me, learning to navigate my edges, to pass through the fear and discomfort, has only ever helped. It’s only ever brought good things into my life. Deeper relationships, transforming spiritual experiences, a greater understanding of my own place in the story. One of the most profound spiritual experiences I ever had was at the very end of the Crucible, the “final” of Marine Corps Boot Camp back in the 90s. I would not have had that experience without the sleep and food deprivation or forced marches. Navigating discomfort — going through my own resistance — revealed something wholly new to me. Something that continues to inform and support my spiritual practice to this very day.

In this season of edges, of being able to see more clearly the shape of the land and the structure of the trees, it seems like a good time to try to look more clearly at some of our own edges. 

There are good tools and perspectives we can bring to our moments of discomfort. The first is a solid understanding of the different kinds of fear and unease we can experience. There’s a big difference between discomfort and a PTSD or trauma response. Discomfort is emotional and intellectual – we feel resistance and the desire to just give up, move on, or brush off the information we’re encountering. A PTSD or trauma response is biological and largely not under the control of the person experiencing it. We can work with discomfort on our own. For most people, trauma and PTSD responses take time and usually professional assistance to learn to manage. 

Another tool to bring to moments of discomfort is curiosity. Rather than immediately slamming on the brakes, take a moment to slip into observer mode. Where is the discomfort coming from? When we encounter resistance to a new idea, information, or situation, there’s a reason for it, often buried deeply or rooted in a long-ago past. Maybe the situation is outside our sphere of experience and our fear of doing something wrong is flaring up. Maybe the new information means that we’re thinking about points of personal discomfort that it brings up. Those of us who grew up without diverse language around gender and sexual orientation often have some issues to unpack about how we feel about our own gender. 

One technique I bring to moments of fear is to sit with the emotion and evaluate whether I’m actually in danger. If I can get up and leave, end the conversation, ask for help or for a little more time, or simply stop engaging, I’m not in danger. I’m uncomfortable. And once I recognize that, I can then sit with the discomfort and explore it a little more. 

There are several good questions to bring to discomfort: 

What is this experience teaching me about myself? What am I learning right now? 

And

Why do I want to quit? How do I feel about that reason? 

New skills take practice and finding the mental space to explore discomfort while also uncomfortable is no exception. But just as the right kinds of layers meant I could explore a ruined viking hill fort in the rain, the right questions can reveal incredible insights. Learning to sit with our discomfort, to approach it with curiosity and a desire to learn, yields many worthwhile rewards: closer relationships, deeper connection to ourselves and the world around us, more immunity from the manipulations of those who try to use our fear against us, and more. We get better at discomfort through practicing working with discomfort. 

It’s so easy now to just make discomfort stop. We can almost instantly numb it out and find a distraction or a hit of dopamine somewhere. We can turn away and bury ourselves in some other form of stimulation rather than explore. But, if I stopped every time I was afraid or uncomfortable, I simply wouldn’t go anywhere. Every single worthwhile spiritual experience in my life has included challenge. The very best candy, as it turns out, is just outside my comfort zone.

The bright winter sun shines on the naked trees and exposed earth, revealing shapes and patterns that teach us about the land we live on. When we can see the edges, we know more. Winter invites us to contemplate, to slow down, to ask questions, and to observe. As without, so within. May the winter sunlight show you the path to deeper understanding and closer connection through illuminating your own edges. 

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