January 10, 2021
By Rev. Ellen Quaadgras
Westminster Unitarian Church
Click here for Order of Service 1-10-21
First Reading: from “Radical Optimism: Practical Spirituality in an Uncertain World,” by Beatrice Bruteau
While the focus of today’s service is not on the events from this past week, they are in the air. Those images, angry faces, swarming crowds, chaos and confusion, are imprinted on our minds. Etched on our imaginations.
There’s a reading in the packet this month from Beatrice Bruteau in which she describes how our imaginations can escalate or de-escalate tension among humans. She gives an example. We might interpret someone’s sharp tone of voice, even if it was accidental – we might interpret that personally – and we begin to give that incident life in our minds. They don’t like us. So we are on the lookout for more hostility even as we show distrust and unfriendliness in turn, which naturally have their effect on the other person. By building this up in our imagination we develop and further a relationship of hostility, she writes. On the other hand, she suggests that we can also use our imaginations to create conditions for a very different kind of relationship, something that feels different to us, and is experienced differently, by the other person.
In that spirit, I invite us to lean in another direction with whatever tensions or divisions we perceive with whoever is on minds this morning, in our lives or in the wider world. In that spirit I invite us to consider the following reading by Rumi.
Second Reading by Rumi
“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
You must ask for what you really want.
The two worlds touch.
Don’t go back to sleep”
Do you know the game, truth or dare? Popular with teenagers, each person has to pick whether to be asked a truth or challenged with a dare. Truth questions like: when was the last time you cried? What’s your biggest fear? What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done? Nice, revealing, vulnerable, nerve-wracking questions. Or, if you prefer, you can instead request a dare. Like: Give a foot massage to the person on your left. Post your oldest selfie on your instagram account. As you can see, it makes for hours of fun, particularly if you are between the ages of 10 to 18. And really whichever way you pick, it’s designed to be edgy. It takes some chutzpah, it takes some dare, to play.
And, do you know the game, two truths and a lie? It’s a get to know you game where each person shares two things about themselves that are true, and one thing that’s a lie and everyone else has to guess… which is which.
It’s fun. You get to say imaginative, outrageous things, you get to lie, on purpose.
It *was* fun. I made some great friends, playing games like that.
Given the rampant misinformation and conspiracy theories that fueled this past weeks events and the ongoing impact of disinformation, everywhere, I’ve been thinking a lot about humanity’s relationship to truth. Truths and lies. Truths and dares. What shapes our relationship to truth. What kind of dare it takes, to speak truth, or hear it.
When I was growing up there was truth and there were lies. There were facts and there were falsehoods. Maybe the truth got stretched now and again, but you basically knew the ground on which you stood.
It’s doesn’t seem to be that way anymore. Now, truth no longer appears to be universal. My truth and your truth sometimes collide. And that’s dividing us – political parties, friends, family members.
How did we get here.
As I was pondering, it led me right back to childhood. Where I not only learned to play these two games, but where I learned all kinds of things.
I learned facts and figures. I learned we’d made it out of the dark ages, and smart people like Newton and Einstein had unlocked the secrets of the universe. Well, maybe not all of them, there were a few left for modern day astrophysicists, but, most of the important stuff, I learned, we got that covered. It was all very reassuring. We *had* ground to stand on. And it felt solid.
Thinking back on it though, even while I was surrounded by facts, I was also surrounded by… non-facts. Not necessarily threatening ones, not falsehoods exactly, but just, yeah, non-facts – imagination – imaginary characters from books and movies, flights of fantasy from storytellers or TV shows. I spent a lot of time watching sitcoms growing up. Not exactly full of lies, but, not exactly a reflection of the truth. Not to mention the ads… created by people gifted at stretching reality.
And then, of course there was the tooth fairy and Santa- charming but not technically true.
Religion, which I will defend as having truth somewhere in its mythology…. also has never been technically factual.
And then of course there were the many viewpoints ideas and opinions of the people around me. Some truth there, of course, but also, probably some not-exactly-truth, depending on the person.
All part of the stew of information and imagination that many of us grew up in.
So, we had to pick and choose – what do I believe? Which stories? Which people? Which books, which ideas?
And we built our personal tree of knowledge, our personal belief system, accepting some ideas, rejecting others. This narrative I believe, because I trust my parents. That one, I don’t, because I didn’t like that teacher. This idea sounds right because it fits what I already think. This one sounds like someone trying to sell me something. This one reflects how I see myself. That one I believe because my family says it’s true or maybe, that’s exactly why I *don’t* believe it.
Sometimes we picked by feel more than evidence.
Sometimes we picked by loyalty, more than logic.
However we did it, we built some structure, some way of seeing and understanding the world, from among that soup of conflicting ideas. We… built a life raft, you might say, in that sea of confusion. Something to help each of us make sense of the world. Something to help guide us on our way.
Kind of a home-made life raft, though. At least for mine – I am picturing driftwood held together with some duct tape and bailing wire, facts as well as feelings, pieces pulled from here and there, certified truths as well as a whole host of assumptions. Not 100% solid ground.
As I thought about it, I realized that everyone goes through something like this – is exposed to facts and fictions, of which some stick and some do not… everyone is building their own raft of truth.
Different rafts, from different materials, which lead people to see differently and want different things for their lives and their world.
And maybe that would all be fine if we never had to work or be or live with people who see things differently.
But we do.
And we need to, we get to, make decisions together, run countries together, run communities, churches, or households together. We need to work with each other, all the time. Even when we don’t agree.
And we do not always agree. Politically or personally.
As we all know.
Sometimes that’s not a problem. We compromise, it’s no big deal.
But sometimes those disagreements feel as fundamental as the ground we stand on. Or, the raft we float on….
Sometimes, when someone promotes a very different viewpoint, it can feel like we are losing the ground we stand on. Like something important we’ve built on our foundations, is at risk of being pulled out from under us. Once it a while, it can even feel like I will go under, lose myself, my identity, or whatever I feel I stand for, if I don’t fight.
Unfortunately, those who disagree, often, feel the same way.
Maybe it’s about climate change or racial justice.
Or it could be about LGBTQ+ rights, or women’s rights, or gun rights or religious freedom.
Or maybe it’s not about politics at all but is a disagreement with your partner about whether to risk going to the gym, or school decisions for the kids, or whether they are going to take that promotion, which would include moving to another state.
Whatever the specifics, when we feel something fundamental to us is threatened, something happens. At least, here’s what happens for me. The more threatened I feel, the more starkly I see my truths. I look down at that tangle of fact, fiction and narrative on which I stand and all I see are the things I know are right. And, the more threatened I feel, the more starkly I see their confusion, the lies on which they stand, or even what looks like heartlessness. The more threatened I feel, the less the other person looks like another good, if sometimes confused, human, and the more they look just like a threat, to be defeated, dismissed, or fought with.
And yes, that same thing often happens for them too. That defensive combative energy is contagious.
And we just grow further apart.
You’ll find countless articles books, advice columns, ted talks, about what to do when you have a conflict with someone that runs deep, whether that’s personal or political. I won’t cover that spectrum. There’s a lot of wisdom out there.
What I offer you today is another take, a perspective I’ve been trying to apply in my own life, a spiritual perspective, a spiritual approach, another tool for your toolbox that you can try.
But it takes some dare. It takes some willingness to let go of the ground you stand on, and venture out beyond it. What was that quote on the opening slide – we stand on an island of knowledge in a sea of mystery? It takes stepping off the island and into that sea. Which is especially challenging in situations where we are pretty sure, we’re right. Or when we’re really sure, they’re wrong.
There is a story, retold here by Jack Kornfield, about Japanese Zen poet Ryokan. He was someone, Kornfield notes, who filled his life with the spirit of ordinariness, and transformed those whom he touched. He also, I will add, had an unconventional approach to handling difficulties with other people. Apparently, he never preached to or reprimanded anyone. Even when he was right.
Once, this story goes, his brother asked Ryokan to visit his house and speak to his delinquent son. Ryokan came but did not say a word of admonition to the boy. He stayed overnight, then prepared to leave the next morning. As the wayward nephew was lacing Ryokan‘s straw sandals, he felt a drop of warm water. Glancing up, he saw Ryokan looking down at him, his eyes full of tears. Ryokan then returned home, and the nephew changed for the better. (cited in Kornfield, 1993, p. 320)
I love that story, because it speaks to something very different from how we typically handle a situation in which we are pretty sure, someone else is off. But Ryokan didn’t even try to talk to his nephew, didn’t try to convince him, didn’t approach him with all the good logical reasons why he should think differently or do things differently. But still, somehow, something happened, something changed. Something shifted for the boy.
Now, of course, in real life, things don’t always go like this. Our love for someone alone is often not enough to turn them around, no matter how poignantly we express it. And, as one person I shared this story with assumed, I don’t think the point is to try to manipulate people with tears.
But this anecdote is pointing to something that can happen when the focus is not on rightness or wrongness, but on something beyond that. It’s about what can happen when we don’t escalate a divisive dynamic and, instead, create conditions for something else.
Which turns out to be not as easy as this anecdote makes it sound.
There’s another version of the story which also has Ryokan staying up meditating all night, before this moment with his nephew. Which speaks to some inner work on Ryokan’s part – meditation is all about letting go of thoughts and beliefs to allow for what is present, now. Ryokan was making space, not only for his nephew, but for his own sadness, for his heart.
When I am willing to do this, I have found I have to make room not just for sadness, but for all kinds of discomfort. Stepping off of certainty can feel to me like I am being tossed into the water – into *uncertainty.* Might I be wrong about this or that? If not fact then in attitude? Perhaps what I like to call my steadfast conviction may sometimes include a dash of inflexibility? I forget that my feeling of being right could perhaps feel like righteousness to someone else… And I forget that it’s possible that the catastrophic outcome I envision if the other person has their way may not be 100% correct? I mean, How can I know for sure, really? On the other hand, if I do let go and trust, will I be okay? Will they be okay? What will happen? I can’t know. Either way.
That letting go, of our particular convictions, even if it’s just for a little while, takes some dare. It is, in some situations, downright unnerving.
I think of my friend, I’ll call him Jim, whose son struggled for years with a meth addiction. Jim believed, for many years, that if he just found the right words, or took the right actions, his son would change his ways. Or, at least, that Jim could keep him safe.
It took years, many years, before my friend realized that when he intervened on his son’s behalf, by sending money, for example, it wasn’t actually keeping him safe. Neither his words, nor his money, could do that.
And it took many years before he realized that his efforts were actually getting in the way of his son being able to see and take responsibility for his own situation, himself. Getting in the way of his son’s need to face his own insides, himself.
And it took many years before he realized that when he stopped intervening, and started only loving, he would have to face his own heart-wrenching sadness, as well as his fear, that something terrible would happen.
Which he finally understood he could not prevent anyway. And never could have.
His son happens to be in recovery these days. I won’t pretend to know that the father’s change in actions made all the difference. I have no idea. All I know is that when the father let go, he himself was freed. And that he stopped making the situation worse by feeding his son’s habit. And, is it possible he helped make room for something different to happen? Maybe…
But there are no guarantees. Of course.
Letting go is not magic, making space doesn’t solve all problems, nor is the only thing we need to do with people on the other side of an important disagreement is to stop arguing with them. Clearly that’s not the case. Sometimes, we need to take action. Insist on driving our friend home after that 4th drink. Set clear expectations with a wayward child. Sometimes we must speak up, write articles, protest in the streets, organize voters, lobby politicians, call in the national gaurd, to stop harm from being done.
And, there is something here. When we are locked in disagreement we are just that, locked. All that tension, all that anger, all that division that we see publicly amplified by some unsavory opportunists, denies a whole other level of basic human connection. Connection that can happen when we are relaxed, open, even playful, like when we were as kids, playing games together.
As UU’s we believe everyone has a spark of the divine. To me, that means everyone has the capacity to find truth, to recognize it, to open to it. And I have a feeling the more relaxed and connected humans feel, the more clearly we each can see. The less defensive we feel, the more willing any of us will be to look at the tangle that is at our very own feet. The more love we experience, the more supported we feel to find a truth that honors us all.
We’ve all heard a lot about the world wide web and how it amplifies our divisions. This month, let’s envision something else. A different kind of network, a world wide web of relationships, and care, built 1:1 in families, with friends, in congregations and communities. We can build it, wherever we go. We can build it, beginning with our imaginations.
The fighting doesn’t work in the long run anyway. And never has. As we have seen confirmed again this week.
Could it, instead, be?
That, Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field, where we can meet?
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
What is it we really want?
The two worlds touch.
May we stay awake, to help make it so.
Closing Song: “Keep My Heart Wide Open” by Lea Morris