The Misuse of Imagination – Sermon Text


I’ve been worried about this sermon.

How can I possibly preaching about managing worry when I am full of worry?

I’m worried about my family, my health, your health, the future of this church, the future of The Church, the safety of the people who were in the path of Hurricane Patricia, the daily well-being of my black friends, the future of women’s health in this country, the student loan crisis, my aging computer, whether I am too needy with my friends, and whether the new Star Wars movie be any good or will it be another disappointment like The Phantom Menace?

And I can, at my worst, imagine all kinds of results – I am a world class catastrophizer. My mother would constantly warn me against borrowing trouble, but the worry still mounts, and the what-ifs spiral into a storm of epic proportions – a category 5 hurricane of dark menaces and disastrous outcomes.

Now to be fair, worry is useful. Worry is part of how our brains work: we anticipate that something unfortunate could happen, and the discomfort of worry spurs us to avoid that unfortunate something or at least mitigate its effects. Worry no doubt has helped us survive, and even in modern times a burst of that anxiety keeps us on our toes.

But for some, worry is  more than an occasional feeling of anxiety – it is the default setting. Worry becomes so common place that to not have worry feels odd and a little wrong, and so worry creeps back in. Now to be clear, I am not talking about diagnosed generalized anxiety disorder, which is physiologically present and is thankfully treatable with medication. I’m talking out the kind of worry that is simply the misuse of imagination.

It’s the worry that gets us when something doesn’t feel quite right about a situation, and we can’t name it, so we imagine all the things it could be. A friend seems distracted in a brief encounter at the post office – gosh, I wonder what’s going on. Oh dear, was it me? What did I say? Did I do something wrong? Oh no, what if she doesn’t like me? Why won’t she talk to me? I can’t believe she’s upset with me! How could she snub me like that!? HOUSTON WE HAVE A PROBLEM!

When we let worry take over our imagination, we go from zero to sixty in about five seconds, when the truth is more likely that she was thinking about the bill she just opened or the endless junk mail she’s getting, or that she might be running late for an appointment, or she doesn’t want to forget to buy mushroom soup AGAIN, and it had absolutely nothing to do with you.

It’s worry that gets us when we don’t know the answer to something big in our immediate future. We sit here today with a lot of unknowns about the future of this congregation – build or buy, what will it look like, how long will it take, can we survive, can we grow, what will happen to the community I love? What if there are bad feelings? What if we split? Will there be a place for me? What can I do? How will I survive? We can’t afford mistakes! I don’t know how we can do it! HOUSTON WE HAVE A PROBLEM!

Once again worry has taken over our imagination. We catastrophize the future of First Universalist instead of remembering all of the things that remain true – we are not our building, we have faith, we love our liberal religion and the story of who we are, we have a spirit of service, we are warm and welcoming, we make space for our spiritual explorations, we encourage growth, we offer support in tough times.

All things, by the way, you said in late August when Sylvia Stocker was here.

Now world class worriers won’t just limit themselves to the immediate situation – the interpersonal connection or the organizational issue. No, for the world class worrier, the more existential the question is, the easier it is to worry. My mother didn’t sweat the small stuff – don’t borrow trouble, remember, she said to me. And yet when it came to huge unknowns, my mother excelled at worry. To wit: My mother was freaked out about black holes. These cosmic entities that seem to defy the laws of physics – huge, massive, millions of light years away, bending time and space. And my mother would wake up in the middle of the night worried about black holes. We watched Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, and she had insomnia for a week. Just today, I read that a quantum equation is now suggesting the universe may have just always existed… if she’d heard this, she might never have slept again.

I thought of this when I read a satirical article yesterday, humorously attributed to famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. In this parody article, deGrasse Tyson proudly announces “I never want to understand sand.”

“Throughout my career,” the not-Neil-deGrasse-Tyson writes, “I’ve studied subjects as varied as the birth of whole galaxies and the presence of dark matter in our universe, but I would like sand to remain a total mystery to me. I never want to know what it’s made of or what it’s for, nor do I want to know why it sometimes exists as a castle and sometimes only as a smooth hill. I don’t want to know whether sand comes from the ocean or the sky. I want to know nothing about sand.”

It isn’t that he wouldn’t have the capacity to understand sand – he probably does. But he also doesn’t need to worry about not understanding it. Because that would be a misuse of his imagination.

Or what writer Terrance McKenna would call hubris. We don’t know enough about the future or about the mechanics of the universe or the mind of God, so who do we think we are to assume we would have that kind of knowledge of things?

We can’t change how black holes work, we can’t predict the future, we can’t make someone feel differently. In First Century Palestine, amongst worry over the Roman occupation, Jesus offers this in his sermon on the mount: “can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.”

For Christians, Jews, and Muslims, worry is a prayer for what we don’t want, and it reflects a lack of trust. The Abrahamic traditions teach that letting go and putting trust in God – through prayer, through remembering our place on earth, through keeping busy doing good work for our neighbor – this helps us refocus our imaginations from worry to possibility.

In the Buddhist traditions, worry is a negative attachment. A wonderful explanation of this comes from Richard Bach’s book Illusions. In this allegory, the narrator, a biplane pilot named Richard, meets up with a traveler named Don Shimoda in a cornfield in the Midwest. As Richard travels from town to town offering rides in his plane, Don teaches him some things about life and powers beyond ourselves. One day, he’s teaching Richard how to make a cloud disappear:


The afternoon was quiet… an occasional passenger now and then. Time between I practiced vaporizing clouds.

I have been a flight instructor, and I know that students always make easy things hard; I do know better, yet there was I, a student again, frowning fiercely at my cumulus targets. I needed more teaching, for once, than practice. Shimoda was stretched out under the wing, pretending to be asleep. I kicked him softly on the arm, and he opened his eyes.

“I can’t do it,” I said.

“Yes you can,” he said, and closed his eyes again.

“Don, I’ve tried! Just when I think something’s happening, the cloud strikes back and goes poufing up bigger than ever.”

He sighed and sat up. “Pick me a cloud. An easy one, please.”

I chose the biggest, meanest cloud in the sky, three thousand feet tall, bursting up white smoke from hell. “The one over the silo, yonder,” I said. “The one that’s going black now.”

He looked at me in silence. “Why is it you hate me?”

“It’s because I like you, Don, that I ask these things.” I smiled. “You need challenge. If you’d rather, I could pick something smaller…”

He sighed again and turned back to the sky. “I’ll try. Now, which one?”

I looked, and the cloud, the monster with its million tons of rain, was gone; just an ungainly blue-sky hole where it had been.

“Yike,” I said quietly.

“A job worth doing…” he quoted. “No, much as I would like to accept the praise which you heap upon me, I must in all honesty tell you this: it’s easy.”

He pointed to a little puff of a cloud overhead. “There. Your turn. Ready? Go.”

I looked at the wisp of a thing, and it looked back at me. I thought it gone, through an empty place where it was, poured visions of heat-rays up at it, asked it to reappear somewhere else, and slowly, slowly, in one minute, in five, in seven, the cloud at last was gone. Other clouds got bigger; mine went away.

“You’re not very fast, are you?” he said.

“That was my first time! I’m just beginning! Up against the impossible…well, the improbable, and all you can think to say is I’m not very fast. That was brilliant and you know it!”

“Amazing. You were so attached to it, and it still disappeared for you.”

“Attached! I was whocking that cloud with everything I had! Fireballs, laser beams, vacuum cleaner a block high…”

“Negative attachments, Richard. If you really want to remove a cloud from your life, you do not make a big production out of it, you just relax and remove it from your thinking. That’s all there is to it.”


What Shimoda was teaching Richard, and what Buddhism teaches us, is that we can let go of our negative attachments to the things we can’t know – the future, another’s mind, the nature of God. Instead, we can use meditation, mindfulness, and connection to others to learn how to trust ourselves and our basic goodness, instead of identifying with our worry.

I know. Easier said than done.

So I recommend this. (pick up towel)

Yes, it’s a towel. Or a security blanket, if you will. Either pop culture metaphor will do.

In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglass Adams writes that “a towel is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have.” It has practical value of course – you can wrap it around you for warmth, lie on it to sleep, use it as a sail, ward off noxious fumes, wave it as a distress signal, “and of course dry yourself off with it if it still seems to be clean enough.” But what we learn is that it also becomes a bit of security. If you have your towel, you will be all right.

Linus, in the comic strip Peanuts, has his own version of the towel – his security blanket. He carries it everywhere; it keeps him connected to himself, it gives warmth, a place to sleep, and it becomes a weapon, a tool, a shepherd’s headdress, a bullfighter’s cape, and a distress signal too. When Linus doesn’t have his blanket, worry mounts. But when it’s returned, all is well. And because his blanket holds his fears and anxiety, Linus is then able to be brave in other ways, standing up against bullies, speaking uncomfortable truths.

We have our own towel or security blanket. Maybe you personally have something like that – whether fabric-based, or a worry stone, or a piece of jewelry, or a particular book – maybe it is a movie that grounds you or a particular symphony. But this church also has one: It’s in what you said makes us a church, that afternoon with Sylvia. (pull out paper) The UU story. Patience. Acceptance of those who are different. The People. A Supportive atmosphere. Community. Smiles. Love.

This is our towel.

And when we have our towel in hand, we can let go of our worry. We can lean into worry’s opposite – curiosity. As Rabbi Marcia Prager teaches, where worry says “oh no, what is going to happen?” curiosity says “oh wow! I wonder what will happen!”

Let us start to let go of our burden of worry and face the world with curiosity.

May we trust that nothing will get worse for us putting that burden down for a moment.

May we let go of what weighs us down.

May we find that we can set down worry for longer and longer periods of time.

In our experience of letting go, may we be open to the possibility that we need not pick our worries back up.

May we find passion and strength to work for change where we have the power to do so, and to let go where we do not.

If not forever, let us put down any worries or anxiety, for our time of quiet.

May we be in quiet together.


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