Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Charlotte County
"Integrity vs. Despair"
March 13th, 1994 Philomena Moriarty Trumbore

Introductory Words

A poem by Gerald Stern, "Lucky Life"

Lucky Life isn't one long string of horrors
and there are moments of peace and of pleasure as I lie in between the blows.
Lucky I don't have to wake up in Philipsburg, New Jersey,
on the hill overlooking Union Square or the hill overlooking
or the hill overlooking Kuebler Brewery or the hill overlooking
S.S. Philip and James
but I have my own hills and my own vistas to come back to.
Each year I go down to the island I add
one more year to the darkness;
and though I sit up with dear friends
trying to separate one year from the other,
this one from the last, that one from the former,
another from another.
after a while they all get lumped together,
the year we walked to Holgate,
the year our shoes got washed away,
the year it rained,
the year my tooth brought misery to us all.
This year was a crisis. I knew it when we pulled
the car onto the sand and looked for the key.
I knew it when we walked up the outside steps
and opened the hot icebox and began to struggle
with swollen drawers and I knew it when we laid out
the sheets and separated the clothes into piles
and I knew it when we made our first rush onto
the beach and I knew it when we finally sat
on the porch with coffee cups shaking in our hands.

My dream is I'm walking through Phillipsburg, New Jersey,
and I'm lost on South Main Street. I am trying to tell,
by memory, which statue of Christopher Columbus
I have to look for, the one with him slumped over
and lost in weariness or the one with him
vaguely guiding the way with a cross and a globe in
one hand and a compass in the other.
My dream is I'm in the Eagle Hotel on Chamber Street
sitting at the oak bar, listening to two
obese veterans discussing Hawaii in 1942,
and reading the funny signs over the honey locust.
My dream is I sleep upstairs over the honey locust
and sit on the side porch overlooking the same culvert
with a whole new set of friends, mostly old and humorless.

Dear waves, what will you do for me this year?
Will you drown out my scream?
Will you let me rise through the fog?
Will you fill me with that old salt feeling?
Will you let me take my long steps in the cold sand?
Will you let me lie on the white bedspread and study the black clouds with the blue holes in them?
Will You let me see the rusty trees and the old monoplanes one more year?
Will you still let me draw my sacred figures and move the kites and the birds around with my dark mind?

Lucky life is like this. Lucky there is an ocean to come to.
Lucky you can judge yourself in this water.
Lucky the waves are cold enough to wash out the meanness.
Lucky you can be purified over and over again.
Lucky there is the same cleanliness for everyone.
Lucky life is like that. Lucky life. Oh lucky life.
Oh lucky lucky life. Lucky life.


Reading One: Johnny Hart B.C. Comic strip.

Seeker: "What is the grand scheme of Life?"

Wise Man: "You're born, you live, and you die."

Seeker: You call that a scheme?"

Wise Man: "Actually, most of the scheming comes during the middle part."

Reading Two: From Erik Erikson's Identity and The Life Cycle.

Ego integrity is the acceptance of one's one and only life cycle as something that had to be and that, by necessity, permitted of no substitutions: Thus it means a new different love of one's parents....Although aware of the relativity of all various life styles which have given meaning to human striving, the possessor of integrity is ready to defend the dignity of his own life style against all physical and economic threats. For she knows that an individual life is the accidental coincidence of but one life cycle with but one segment of history; and that for her all human integrity stands or falls with the one style of integrity of which she partakes The style of integrity developed by her culture or civilization thus becomes the "Matrimony of the soul" The seal of her moral fathering of herself. Before this final solution, death loses its sting.


There was a man hanging from a cliff two thousand feet above the valley floor. The terrified man looked to the top of the cliff and screamed, "Is there anyone up there who can help me?"
A deep booming reply came from above, "Yes, I'll help you. I'm God. Just relax and let go."
A long pause.
"Is there anybody else up there who can help me?

In its final stages life presents us with several tasks. One of these includes facing that final letting go, death. That mission, should we choose to accept it, may be like coming to a door and seeing a welcoming mat. For some of us it will represent a blackness and an emptiness that encompasses all that has been hopeless about life. It becomes for us that final straw heaped on our aching backs, the one that follows so many disillusionments and so many losses.

Life may suddenly seem like it has been one disappointment after another. The marriage gone wrong, the children not as close as we would have liked, our own inadequacies and weaknesses glare at us. Finally, what did life promise us after all? Only that if we live long enough we will outlive our friends and our loved ones. Only that finally the body deteriorates and the mind atrophies. And wasn't death in the cards all along? Even though when we were young it certainly seemed impossible, We believed ourselves immortal. We realize now that the choices were made for us, that fate dealt the cards. It was not in our control after all, the strings were being pulled elsewhere. And if that were true, then what was the point ?

And what about when we look beyond ourselves? Don't we see a world that is overpopulated, full of poverty and starvation? Don't we still see war and conflict, an increase of violence in our streets? What about pollution? What about racism and discrimination? What about detention and torture, AIDS, and all of the degenerative diseases, the earthquakes ,the hurricanes? Don't we, if we have our eyes wide open, see hopelessness all around? And what is my life, your life in the face of all of that? Is there no way out?

Better to light one candle than to curse the darkness. Sometimes our lives are that candle. The wicks are at the bottom. We can see there is little left to burn. But the fire of that candle is burning very hot with all of the bubbling wax that has been burned before. The candle sheds that much more light because of what has come before.

According to Erik Erikson, a developmental theorist, personality is determined by the interaction between an inner maturational plan and external social demands. He proposed that the life cycle is comprised of eight stages of development. He states that at each stage there is a struggle between two opposing tendencies, both of which are experienced by each individual. The struggles are resolved through an interaction of the inner self and the exterior world. According to Erikson, successful resolutions establish basic areas of psycho-social strength. In old age individuals are called upon to resolve the struggle between Integrity and Despair. This last stage begins with the growing awareness of the nearness of the end of life. The task is to examine and evaluate one's own life and accomplishments to verify that life has had meaning.

Almost forty years ago, a young medical school graduate and championship tennis player was struck down with polio and paralyzed from the neck down. In his latest book, Dr. Arnold Beisser, that medical school graduate, continues to struggle with questions of life and death, despair and integrity. He speaks of a time when he had to sign some papers and realized he could no longer write his name. His leg pains appeared much worse, he could not even sit up to have his teeth brushed. He began to think that the circulatory problems in his legs would require surgery and of course hospitalization. Fears of confinement, helplessness and pain overwhelmed him and caused him to doubt whether he would ever be able to see patients or ever do anything useful or enjoyable again. The nights of isolation made these feelings worse, and all his other physical problems, breathing, bowels, skin seemed intensified. He was in despair. His friend Joe came to cheer him up but he was really down. He told his friend that the struggle was too much; if it continued this way much longer, he would end it all and he would need help.

His friend, a cheerful, generous wild man said "You know I'd never let you suffer long." Perhaps this is my chance, Arnold thought, and he felt an overwhelming gratitude for the ultimate offer of friendship and charity. "How would you do it, then?" Arnold asked. For a moment Joe seemed stumped, but ever quick he recovered and unflinchingly responded "Oh that's easy; I'd just snap your neck." Joe demonstrated with a quick violent motion and a snapping sound. Joe never could contain his expansiveness so, feeling he was on a roll and pleased that he had been able to come up with something, he could not stop himself from adding gravely, "After all, I am a trained killer."

That was too much for Arnold; he began to laugh uncontrollably. He thought "This is not the tragedy I thought it was". Joe and Arnold, Abbott and Costello, the Two Stooges: Arnold feeding the straight lines and Joe supplying the punch. And every time Arnold would try to control his laughter, he would see this crazy conversation in a new humorous light. No longer did he want to leave this place - it was too much fun. And although still bedridden and uncomfortable, Arnold was now above the fray enjoying the outrageous farce. Evidently it was not his time to go.

The path to Integrity comes sometimes with just such a distancing from our lives, the walk on the beach, the long drive homeward, we suddenly see it all in perspective. We need to give ourselves the opportunity to look down from the mountain at the path below. To either give ourselves credit for how far we have come or to see that life's tragedy is comedy when looked at from a distance.

The word Integrity comes from the same root as integrate. It means to achieve wholeness...Integrity is sometimes painful. To truly integrate ourselves, we must look at ourselves as honestly as we can. We must confront what Carl Jung called our shadows. We must look at our cowardliness, our selfishness, our pride. And when we look at those things we may despair. We may enter what some call the "dark night of the soul". In our despair we feel hopeless and helpless. We feel there is no way out. But this despair helps us to peel away the layers of our self-deception.

There are some psychologists who say the individual must quest for wholeness. That the whole of our lives is about a drive towards integrity. The Soul is ruthlessly honest, and if we deny its truth we will be plagued with all sorts of illness, both physical and psychological. Recent work with those who have been sexually abused bears this out. Many women can keep the secret into their twenties and thirties but in later life they are hit with a depression so profound it cannot be escaped or with sudden overwhelming panic attacks. Then up from the depths of memory comes the unavoidable truth. All the choices they've made, all the many actions and reactions show the path back to that time of betrayal. What are our secrets? The drive for integrity will not let us keep them. Ultimately the hand plays itself out and we must confront the pain, the darkness that we have kept hidden from ourselves.

Life continually gives us opportunities to confront our shadows. We are confronted with losses to our dignity, to our pride. Getting older provides many of these crises. When we are measured and measure ourselves as the world does - by looks and productivity - we can work hard on that treadmill to prove our worth. We can have such and such important title, our clothing and makeup can be of such a label. But ultimately Oil of Olay will not help, and various acute or chronic illnesses do overtake us. Our worth now must be measured with a different yardstick. In other cultures, such as the ancient Chinese and Japanese cultures, old age was revered. The accumulated wisdom of long life was honored. We too must begin to honor ourselves in this way. Our wounds, our scars tell of a life lived and a path trod. While our path is unique, the paths of all have much that is similar. Lao Tse stated that true spiritual liberation is impossible before age 60. Perhaps it is because by this time we can give up all the posturing (if we wish) and focus on our true selves. The nooks and crannies of self we have kept repressed for fear of offending others or maintaining an image are no longer important.

When the superficialities are stripped away, and this is one of the major gifts of the final stage of life, we can begin to look for the core. As we examine that core of our being, the jigsaw pieces of life fit together, and we begin to have some glimmering of what the whole picture might be. Those black, empty periods on the canvas begin to add the contrast needed to see the light of the soul more clearly. "My life has been a tapestry of rich and royal hue", Carole King sings to us. The parts of our lives that appeared dull and full of sameness give our life boundaries and fullness. Our crises finally appear as the opportunities they really were. As Maya Angelou's title says, we say "I wouldn't give nothing for my journey now". The trip up the mountain was hard, we stumbled, we cut our knees, we got lost in the woods, but now we stand at a plateau and the path we have trod is rich and green below us. The vista we see can only be seen at this height, there was no other way up for us. We may share with those lost in the woods, yes I was lost in the woods, there is a way out. To those who are cut and bleeding, yes I was cut and bleeding also but I healed, let me show you my scars and you will see what beauty there is in healing and what beauty there is in wounds. And now you see the mountain top more clearly and the light beyond. The air is thinner for sure but everything is cleaner and clearer and brighter. As a storm appears on the horizon, how magnificent it is! How much closer are the moon and the stars!

The Fates, the Controllers that we railed against in our despair, the ones we said Why Me? about, their hands become precious now. The fates delivered the wonders as well as the trials. And now the trials, oh what you learned from them - What gifts they gave you! Perhaps it was the reaching out to others and the ability to say I need, I want! I am human too. And they in their turn showed you their humanness and you both could rejoice in the intimacy of that sharing. Or perhaps the trials gave a gift of strength, a strength of will, of compassion, of fortitude to say, yes I have been through the worst and have survived, and you come to know deep down in your bones that yes, everything must pass - even suffering.

Closing Words

Lucky life is like this. Lucky there is an ocean to come to.
Lucky you can judge yourself in this water.
Lucky the waves are cold enough to wash out the meanness.
Lucky you can be purified over and over again
Lucky there is the same cleanliness for everyone.
Lucky life is like that. Lucky life. Oh lucky life.
Oh lucky lucky life. Lucky life.

Copyright (c) 1995 by Philomena M. Trumbore, All rights reserved.