Message 52, Cinematic Spirituality, 127 Hours and Unleashing Our Hidden Strengths, 3-20-11

© Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering UCC, All Rights Reserved

(Please see the end of this message for a transcript from a member of the Gathering, given in the form of an interview after the message was delivered.)

Many of us know the story of the gay rugby player, a determined flight attendant and a traveling salesman father of two who came together to thwart the efforts of terrorists to crash a plane into our nation’s capitol.  After the plane’s pilot had been brutally killed, these people somehow found the ability to fight back and confront knife wielding terrorists.  They were not going to die without a fight.  Or, we know the story of a runaway slave who travelled hundreds of miles by herself, in the dead of winter, crossing rivers and scaling mountains, all to reach freedom.  She then turned back in order to guide other escaping slaves on the same route.  This woman tapped into some inner power to determine her own destiny.  Or, we might know the story of a Canadian sixteen year old girl named Megan McNeil, diagnosed with a rare from of cancer when she was a child, who has fought against her disease for all her life.  She wrote a best-selling song that raised millions for childhood cancer research.  Harriet Tubman, the escaped slave of whom I just spoke, once said, Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.

What power and ability was within each of these people enabling them to confront such terrible obstacles?  What miracle of strength did they find inside to fight, to persevere and ultimately to conquer life itself?  In each of us, I believe, lies hidden unlocked strengths that enable us to face the challenges of life.  Such unleashed strengths empower us to survive and live in ways that grow and stretch us.  We are able to engage life as active participants – captains of our own ships – instead of as bystanders who simply endure.  We do not sit in heaven’s waiting room biding time until death.  We build a form of heaven here and now – for ourselves and for others.  This is not success as the world defines it in terms of money, power or health.  It is, indeed, success of the spirit and of that inner resolve to live with joy, fulfillment, empathy and positive thinking.

As we continue our examination of current films which might speak to us on a spiritual level, today we will examine the film “127 Hours”.   In the film, we watch the struggle to survive of someone who not only came to terms with his own successes and failures in life, but who reached deep within himself to find those inner qualities of calm, determination, gratitude, and joy.

One of the title slides in the movie, as we just saw, presents the simple aphorism: “There is no force stronger in the universe than the will to live.” And, if you will indulge me, I add to that my own belief that our desire in life is not just to exist but to thrive! Deep within our inner being is a yearning to love and be loved.  There is a hope for the future, a gratitude for all that we have been given, and an ability to enjoy simple pleasures like good food, intimacy with another, and recreation.  There is also, most importantly, a desire for peace and a powerful voice that tells us we are powerful, capable and intelligent.  Each of those hidden qualities are within us.  Our task, as we face the inevitable challenges, trials and setbacks in life, is to discover and then unleash those hidden strengths.

The most common reaction to what the main character does in the film “127 Hours” is, according to the director Danny Boyle, the statement, “I could never do that!” And his immediate response to people is, “Of course you could.  We all can.” I don’t think I will spoil the movie, should any of you choose to see it, by telling you that it depicts the true story of a young man who finds himself alone, stranded in the middle of nowhere and with his arm smashed and pinned underneath a large boulder.  After 127 hours of life examination and introspection, he summons that inner will to survive and he amputates his own arm with a dull knife.  He then repels down cliffs – using only one arm – and hikes for many miles until he is rescued.  It is a true story – one that could have ended tragically but which is uplifting not just because the young man survived, but because he found the keys to his inner core.   He survived this extreme difficulty and found himself.  With only one arm, he has now climbed 55 of the tallest mountains in North America, gotten married, fathered a child, written a book and established himself as a motivational speaker.

What I want most in life is to live not just for the gusto but with emotional contentment that I can only find inside of me.  And such strength will empower me to overcome the difficulties that I know await me.  Too often, I think my external circumstances are what will make me happy and what will get me through hardships – where I live, the friends I have, the events in my life.  I am slowly but surely coming to understand such is not the case.  Happiness and strength are found not outside of me nor can they be given to me.   I can only find them within.

People who have lived through a significant challenge say that to survive life, and to unlock our hidden strengths, we must search for those emotional and psychological abilities I believe we all have – what I call our three “P’s”.  We each have within us an inner reservoir of peace.  We each have the ability to see life with a positive attitude.  And we each are able to be persistent in finding the means to survival and happiness.  Three P’s:  peace, positive attitude and persistence are the hidden strengths within us.

One of the benefits of the Bible is its many stories and examples of those who do find peace in the midst of trial.  While Jesus is depicted as the perfect example of one who faced death with strength and calm, Paul manifested his own abilities to be at peace.  He says at one point, writing to the Philippian church while he was imprisoned, “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation.” Paul offers himself as a model to other Christians who faced persecution because of their beliefs – in his life he was repeatedly beaten and imprisoned for his efforts to spread the news of Jesus to a Roman world.  He was shipwrecked and near death during one of his trips.  He faced down an angry mob furious at him for proselytizing in the midst of Jewish Jerusalem.  He was finally sentenced to die – supposedly by beheading – for his beliefs and efforts.  And yet, he found himself able to be content – to be at peace – in any and all of those situations.

A calm mind and peaceful demeanor are essential to life happiness and to surviving difficulties or tragedies.  Aron Ralston, the young man depicted in the movie “127 Hours”, did so.  He found himself trapped and yet he did not panic.  He refused to allow himself to become unhinged by his circumstances.  I am in awe of people like him who are at complete peace in the midst of trouble.

Last Sunday, with only ten minutes to go before services were to begin, I was dealing with a computer issue.  There would be no words to our songs if I did not get it fixed.  Bob Freer came up to me as I worked and asked me a question.  I was flustered and frustrated and so, instead of answering him calmly, I snapped my response to him instead of using the kind of voice I should use.  If I can’t peacefully deal with something relatively inconsequential, how will I handle a life or death crisis?

Friends of mine repeatedly tell me to take a deep breath and to relax when I am distressed.  And such techniques are, indeed, helpful and they are recommended by many.  At times of even greater peril, we are encouraged to meditate by focusing solely on our breathing – the in and out rhythmic pattern of slow breath.

Others tell us to think of things for which we are grateful, thus encouraging a sense of joy, gratitude and contentment – like Paul found.  Lurking deep within us is this calm and tranquil pool of cool water that centers us – if we seek it.  I know we each have it.  It is so hard for me, though, to think joyfully and peacefully in times of crisis.  When my world seemed to be falling apart several years ago after I came out, as others attacked me in pretty vicious ways, I was in such acute distress – I could not sleep, I lost a lot of weight, I worried constantly.  But, I did survive.  I did get through it.  I eventually found a way to actually thrive.  But I wish I had survived with more peace in my heart.  In times of real crisis, remaining calm might be the difference between survival and death.  Such is one lesson from the movie “127 Hours.”  Even more, however, it is a lesson for life and for our genuine happiness.  Peace is truly inside of us!  We must simply find it and set it loose.

Shortly after Aron Ralston becomes trapped, he sets out to try and free himself.  First, he takes an inventory of what he carried in his backpack.  As an engineer, he then contrived an elaborate system to try and dislodge the boulder.  Throughout his 5 day experience, he used a video recorder to keep his mind active, to record thoughts and things he wanted to say to family and friends, and to delve deeply into his own past and his own failures.  All of these actions were, I believe, part of my second P action plan – he consciously did the work to maintain a positive attitude.  This was not an unrealistic view of his situation but a rational understanding of it combined with a future focused determination to find a solution.  Yes, he got angry.  He even contemplated his own death.  But he never gave up.

In the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire, which many of you may remember occurred near here in 1977 and led to 165 deaths, many of those who survived did so because they simply acted.  Indeed, while some of the deceased were found near locked fire exits, many others of those who tragically perished were found still sitting at their tables waiting for rescue.  Those who lived had not done anything more profound than simply acting.  A great number heeded the call of one bus boy who pointed to an open exit and implored them to get up and follow him.  As Winston Churchill once said, “Continuous effort – not strength or intelligence – is the key to unlocking our potential.”

While it might be easy to ask how this shows a positive attitude, I believe it is evidence of a compelling urge to survive.  And such is reflected in the lives of those who are truly thriving and happy in life.  They dig within themselves to find the impulse to do something – to act in a way that shows hope for the future, to learn a new task, to undertake a hobby, to volunteer, to serve, to do what is necessary to, as I said earlier, build heaven here and now instead of waiting for it to miraculously appear.  To use the Biblical Paul once again as an example, at one point finding himself in prison, he joins with a friend to loudly sing joyful songs of praise to God.  He refused to succumb to the darkness of his situation and he called upon his faith to find solace and hope.  Once again, experts encourage the same – whatever we have faith in: ourselves, God, other people, the moral imagination at work in the world, we must use that faith to maintain a positive attitude – during our trials and in our very lives.

The third P in unleashing our inner strength is to show persistence.  And this, for me, involves a determination to use our minds to continuously think about life solutions.  Instead of allowing ourselves to lapse into what I call “pity parties” – affairs to which only you are invited and that echo the words of the famous song “it’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to!” – we have to stay focused on the task at hand.  If it is a life and death crisis, we must quickly move into solution mode – find shelter, find food, find water, seek help.  If it is a crisis of health, we might learn all that we can about the illness and various treatments – or we might pursue mental exercises that will lead to fulfillment, peace and joy.

Whereas many animals have instinctive abilities to react with fight or flight in times of danger, as humans we have been given the ability to think and to rationally weigh our options.  Those who survive critical situations like Aron Ralston’s – and those who find inner strength to live in true joy – do so by engaging their brains.  This is not thinking about how bad the crisis is, or how bad life is, it is about reading, learning, engaging, and analyzing what can be done to survive or to make life better.

Even further, I believe we must also use persistence in self-examination.  Aron Ralston does this with brutal honesty.  And we must engage in that exercise as well.  This undertaking is not to beat ourselves up in some masochistic effort at self-defeat.  It is to use our minds to understand how we have failed, how we can learn from such failure and what can we do that is different such that success might follow.  Self-examination is never easy for it involves looking at ourselves in ways we do not like – to see ourselves in all of our naked ugliness, but then to conclude how we can be better.  Persistence in thinking rationally, in self-examination and in finding useful solutions to a dilemma, or to life, is a critical third P.

Like the subject for last week – overcoming fear, this week’s topic of unleashing our hidden strengths is one that I must re-learn over and over again.  The potential and the secret to a fulfilled, meaningful and happy life are in here – in my heart and my soul.  I will not get them from anyone or anything outside of me.    The power to survive and the ability to thrive are in my possession.  And they are in yours too.

There is such beauty and such strength in this very room.  As the Pastor here, I am so fortunate to know some of your life struggles but also each of your many strengths.  I am in awe of each of you.  I am in awe of the inner reserves found in the human spirit – to survive and to really live life with peace and contentment.  May we remember those internal reserves of peace, positive thinking and persistence.  In you, in me, in all of us, lies the strength to move mountains and, indeed, the strength to build a glorious heaven right here and right now….

Statement by a Gathering member – made in an interview after the above message:

I was born and raised in the Catholic church.  My father was in the Army and we moved every 2-3 years.  I have 2 sisters and a brother, of which I am the youngest.

At age 11, we were living in Raleigh, N.C.  There I was molested by the neighborhood bully.  I wouldn’t convey that story until 12 years later.

At age 12, we moved to Ft. Knox, Ky, and I soon discovered that I was attracted to men.  From my interpretation of the bible, I was doomed and on my way to hell.

Although I hadn’t experienced much, if any racism, I knew that there were some people in the world who hated me for the simple fact that I was black.  Now, I knew that even more people would hate me, because I was queer.  Yes, I had heard the jokes and the ridicule of effeminate men.  It seemed as if no one defended them.  So, I became devastated.  I wanted to be loved, not hated.  So now, I knew that I must live a lie because if anyone found out about me, I would just die.

I was pretty close to my siblings, but I couldn’t share this secret with them.  I often wonder why no one picked up on my femininity in my early years.  My brother would often come home with a bloody nose, bruises, fractured or broken bones, all from a day of fun.  Fun?  I didn’t think so.  I thought that fun was playing house or school with my sisters.  Dressing up in my mother’s old clothes, if dear ol’ dad wasn’t around.  I had mastered jumping rope and jacks.  Anything that my sisters did, I could do as well or better.  Those were good and fun times.

l was once a fairly popular little boy.  Now, instead of playing with my sisters or kids in the neighborhood, I relied on my HotWheels  and Matchbox car collections to keep me happy and content.  Somehow, I found inner peace and I learned to enjoy James.  I had to like me, the odds were not too many other people would.


At age 13, we moved to Cincinnati.  I was still in the closet as far as I knew, but I was bullied and harassed just the same.  My classmates found fault with y voice, my eyeglasses, my clothes, and even when my mother gave me a bad haircut, it gave them great pleasure.  There were so many days when I dreaded going to school.  I didn’t have any friends outside of school, so I kind of buried my nose in my school books.  I was elated when I made the ‘B’ honor roll.

In 1977 I was hired by Cinti. Bell as a directory assistance operator.  Then I became a local and long distance operator.  I loved those jobs.  In 1980, I joined the Air Force.  Over the next four years I walked very gently over eggs shells.  When I got out of the AF my job at Cinti. Bell had transferred to AT&T.

In 1987, I transferred to Jax. Fl.  I met a young man named Greg.  It was rumored that he was HIV+.  By 1992, he had developed full blown AIDS.  Family and friends had abandoned him.  I would often take Greg to the store or doctor’s office,  He had become skeletal thin and ghostly looking.  we would get all types of stares.  I would sometimes get sad just looking at him.  I promised myself that if I ever contracted that disease that I would commit suicide.  Greg passed later that year in my home.  Many years, I was diagnosed as being HIV+.  Suicidal thoughts were lingering but not at the rate that I thought that they would be.  I want to live more than I wanted to die.  I used to tell people that I was a lover, not a fighter.  Not that I was really much of either.  But if necessary, I would fight if I had to.

Sources of inner strength that have allowed me to overcome my life challenges:

Faith and prayer:

I know that some people say that God doesn’t answer their prayers.  I believe that he does.  It’s my belief that he sometimes answers no, or not yet.  I think that some people want so badly to hear yes, that they don’t hear him when he denies their requests.

In Jan 2008, I was diagnosed with anal cancer, which is in remission right now.  One of the side effects of the radiation: weakened muscles.  It appears that the muscles weaken worse in the evening hours.  That’s one of the reasons that I’m not able to join you all for book clubs and movie nights.  Depends, well they’re not always dependable.

There has been an occasion when I would feel sorry for myself.  I would wonder what more can my poor little body endure.  a tear would well up in my eye, but it would never fall.  Then I would remember what a dear friend told me a long time ago.  She said that when people experience trauma in their lives and ask why me? the is why not you.  You are no  one except another of God’s children.  Should bad things happen to other people and never to you.

On being content:

I have an AF buddy who lives in a small town in S.C.  He doesn’t have a partner, nor do I.  He’s in great health, has a decent job, and he has a lot of friends.  He always tell me how unhappy he is.  He is always depressed.  I don’t understand.  If anyone should be depressed, it’s me and I’m not.  I have a saying: I’m happy to be alive…I’m alive to be happy.

I’m a simple person.  I watch a little television, talk on the telephone, surf the internet, ad watch old 1930-1950s movies when I can.  I sometimes play with my great-nieces and nephews.  I’m no longer addicted to alcohol nor drugs.  I’m very content with life.  Suicide no longer lives in my thoughts.