This I Believe: Bob Meyenburg (2019)

Good Morning everyone.  I’m honored to have been asked and grateful for the opportunity to take part in this long-held church tradition.

When I was looking for ideas for this morning, I reviewed many of the past “This I Believe” presentations.  They’re very good, and online.  I recommend them.

Among varying approaches I choose Nature and Nurture as the best way to frame what shaped me and led to my beliefs.  So I attempt to answer a personal question, one that perhaps you’ve asked  yourself: “Why me?”

In the fall of 1982, I walked into the old church on Mahtomedi Avenue.  That summer a friend had invited me to attend the First Universalist Church in south Minneapolis.  It was good.  I hadn’t much experience with religion, and the little religion I did have I’d heard secondhand in the Polish Catholic Chicago neighborhood where I grew up.  I thought: maybe this is the kind of community I’ve been seeking.  Minneapolis was way too far, so I said, “Hey Google, Alexa: Where’s the nearest UU Church?”  Right, I didn’t say that.  It was 1982.  No, I found spirituality in the Yellow Pages, and they pointed to a small UU community in Mahtomedi.

When I walked in, the place was empty but for one person: wonderful Jane Bacon.  Ambassador Jane welcomed me and said the congregation was up north near Duluth, hoping to observe hawks migrating along Hawk Ridge.  I pondered: hmm … as a Chicago boy familiar with the sparrow and the pigeon, I may have found some kindred spirits. Seriously though, I was enticed and returned the following week.

That was some 38 years ago—years filled with stimulating, interesting, challenging sermons; fascinating guests; lovely music; and endearing friendships.

So, why me!  What follows is the role of luck in my life and how it has formed my beliefs.

Let me begin about 100 years back – not kidding.

In 1908 Minnie at age 15 married Fred.  Ten years later, in 1918, Hans was born.  He was the fourth and last child of Fred and Minnie.  By 25, Minnie had 4 children and 2 miscarriages.  Six months after Hans was born, she was pregnant again when her mother helped her abort the unwanted embryo.  It didn’t go well, and Minnie at 25 died of an abdominal infection.  She made her choice; it was a dangerous one; it was a fatal one.

This was an unnecessary death.  For this and other reasons, I believe in a Woman’s right to choose and to have adequate medical care for whatever her decision may be.

After Minnie’s death, Fred remarried and the family grew.  Nine in all.  I’m guessing this was not good for Hans – he was lost in the shuffle and became the family’s black sheep.

Unlucky Hans grew to be an irresponsible, undependable, alcoholic, larcenous, womanizing, … and you might guess, a charming man about town.  This was not great preparation for marriage and family life.

His future wife, Winnie, was born in 1921.  When she was a toddler, she contracted Scarlet Fever and lost her hearing.  She attended a school for the deaf, became a skilled signer and lip reader.  Then miraculously when Winnie was in her teens, she regained much of her hearing.  Winnie remained hard of hearing throughout her life, but this was definitely a lucky turn.

Winnie was a passionate woman, passionate in caring, passionate in anger.  The anger part was not good because as Hans’s co-dependent she was always angry and helpless.

Hans and Winnie were my parents.  I think they were unlucky, for they both struggled throughout their lives.  Yet people do well in spite of adversity, and yet other times they are overcome by it.

I’ve come to believe that if people do thrive against the odds, it’s because some good happened to them along the way and it was in their Nature for it to have a positive influence.

I got some luck.  “Why me?”

Having Hans and Winnie for parents made just the right mixture of insecurity and neuroses for a bumpy path in life.  However, I’ve had advantages.  Lucky to be born during a prosperous era in a country that favored white males.  Lucky I wasn’t maimed or killed in Vietnam.  Lucky to have the government pay for my education.  Lucky to relocate in wonderful Minnesota.

Lucky to have the resources to remain healthy as I age.  Lucky to have met inspirational people along the way.  Lucky to be married for over 30 years to a most excellent, loving partner.  Lucky and relieved my children are grown and self-supporting.  In this church community, I have friends whom I love and respect . I am lucky, and I am grateful.

This was my outcome, but I have to say I was ill-prepared to make a good life.  And I am thankful for the positive experiences that helped me to unlearn some negative behaviors.

I believe our life experiences are uniquely ours and yet we share the big picture with other members of the species.  Let me briefly wander off topic.

We human animals have evolved from little critters over an unfathomable amount of time in a cosmic niche we call Earth.  We band together in tribes for survival, for security, and sometimes for the most trivial of reasons, and then often compete aggressively and self-righteously with each other.  We struggle to see humanity as one – one all-encompassing tribe living in a global community.

We’ve been lucky.  We thrive on a planet that we are uniquely suited for, but alas, we’ve been fouling our own nest.  The test of time may prove that, to quote a friend, “we’re too stupid a species to survive.”  We have work to do.

Naturalism appeals to me.  I believe scientists when they say atoms, and molecules, and the laws of physics do not support life after death.  Personally, I have not seen evidence of a supernatural creator or anything operating outside of what I know of as the natural world—so far.  But!  It’s possible I may have believed differently if I had been nurtured by parents in a community with other worldly beliefs.  It’s hard to say.

So I’ve wondered:  Who’s in charge, anyway?  Are we self-made people with only ourselves to blame, or to praise?  If we screw up, do we deserve to catch hell, fire, and sulfur?

Here’s a quote from John Weaver’s “This I Believe” in 2003:  “Philosophically, I consider myself a determinist.  This is that any personal action is the product of one’s heredity and the influence of previous experience.”  From this I conclude that John believes Nature and Nurture are a big deal.

Here’s another take from philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris who says:  “Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control.”

That’s quite a statement, isn’t it?  Harris is saying he doesn’t believe you consciously, this bears repeating, consciously, decide what flavor ice cream you’ll choose, or whom you’ll marry, or why you finally began that long-postponed diet, or why you regained the weight you worked so hard to lose.  Or more seriously, how you’ll react if you’re threatened or humiliated.  In the present moment, we are the reflection of all our past moments.

Scientist Daniel Kahneman is the author of “Thinking, Fast and Slow.”  Kahneman with  his colleague Amos Tversky researched how we humans make decisions.  Kahneman may agree with Harris to a point because he says the default position of our brains is to take unconscious shortcuts.  But he adds that conscious and thoughtful actions are possible but take special effort and we resist.

I conclude that whether we are aware or unaware, our actions are always influenced by our personal history.  It takes a very special effort to deviate from your unique self.

One more belief from Harris:  It is an illusion to think you could have acted differently in the past than the way you did.  The choice you made reflected the person you were at that particular slice of your history.

If fate (Nature and Nurture) has formed you to be the kind of person who makes good choices, then you will.  If your fate allows you to learn from bad choices, then next time you might choose differently.  We evolve as we go along—or not.  All you can say is “I’m working on it.”

Bad luck can lead to bad behavior.  You may consider that unlucky people are blameless, but of course we’re all responsible for our actions.  Such is life.  Such is the rule of law. Tough luck.

Why me?  I did not choose my parents, the body I live in, what gender I would become, what gender I would be attracted to, where I would grow up, what outside forces would influence me and so on.

What is…is – for this moment.  The next moment could change you or anyone forever.

“There are a billion people on the planet that would gladly change places with you,” says Sam Harris.  Enjoy your lucky life – feel lucky rather than entitled and be kind to those who are unlucky.

If you’re not lucky?  If you find yourself sliding down the razor blade of life, do the best you can and trust your luck will change.  It’s to be admired.

Life is a wonderful gift and we’re all in it together.

Ultimately, you can only act “as if.”  Act as if you are the master of your fate – because you are; act as if you can succeed – because you can; act as if you can make a difference – because you will; and then let luck have its way with you.

Why me?  Why you?  Why not?

Thank you.