Have you ever done one of those exercises where you try to get to the bottom of something that is working away at you; the big assumption that underlies the question at hand? I have done this on more than one occasion in groups exploring root causes, personal and professional and have even led a cohort of colleagues through the process while in seminary studying leadership and change. You begin with an ideal or commitment or value that begs for exploration, primarily because you are struggling with making it a reality in your life or work. Next you make note of things you are doing or not doing instead; your competing or contradicting behaviors. Third you take an inventory of hidden competing commitments and values. Finally you get to the big assumption which is invariably the longest column because you must keep asking yourself “what if” and “if that were true, what would that mean” until you boil it all the way down. For me it often comes down to one or two assumptions, which perhaps I will talk about on another occasion, but the important thing is to get there and stay there for a while, letting the truth of it wash over you; accepting it as a part of who you are – no blaming or shaming about it, though. It simply is.
I have heard it said lately in so many circles that it seems to be an epidemic of thought these days – the idea that we are falling short, not doing enough as we attempt to respond to our rapidly changing times. I hear it from colleagues who are schooling themselves on zoom and i-movie and you tube, trying to find new ways to remain present to the people they serve and as many ways and people as possible. I hear it from co-workers at WE CAN who are faced with figuring out what need looks like now for the women we see; who will call in the midst of this new layer of crisis; how will we ever be up to the task; where will we draw the necessary resources from? And in the general public, too, this desire to make it all fit neatly back into the box it spilled out of a few short months ago; to pick up the pieces and move them forward from what was to what will be without stopping for a moment at what is.
When we think of antidotes, we think first of the medical realm. An antidote is a medicine that counteracts a particular poison; a remedy that leads to an improved condition. Science is tirelessly working away at this project in response to the latest and most pervasive ill that we have encountered and we remain cautiously hopeful for a cure or preventive, wanting to believe that it will arrive sooner than later, but none the less trusting that it will indeed come. But beyond the physical manifestations with which we are confronted, I wonder what else we are trying to solve. If I were to do that exercise that I began with and follow it all the way to the end, what might I come up with? What is it we are seeking an antidote for?
The Rev. Nancy McDonald Ladd, in her recent book After the Good News: Progressive Faith Beyond Optimism, posits that we as Unitarian Universalists suffer under the Enlightenment Era affliction proposing “the progress of man, onward and upward forever.” It is the idea that history moves in a straight line trajectory that, if charted on a graph, would be a line moving left to right always inching up to new heights, closer and closer to perfection, although never quite there so as to give the impression of constant movement. In our privileged progressive view, time marches onward, never wavering side to side or, heaven forbid, backwards. It carries with it an aura of invincibility; any notion of vulnerability becoming an afront to our perception.
And this may be the thing – the big assumption at the bottom of the fourth column – that we, in our humanity, are vulnerable creatures. It is a distinction that those of us in the dominant culture don’t as often need to wrestle with. Those whose lives and stories have been lived on the margins do not struggle with this. Their vulnerability is a way of life. People of color, the elders among us, the differently abled, the economically challenged, members of the GLBTQ community reside on the edge, always in danger of one misstep that pushes them over. The recent arrest of two men in the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, a young African American man who made the mistake of jogging through a white southern Georgia neighborhood on the evening of February 23rd is an all too perfect example. And it was all too easy for me to find an example – no major research needed – just open the paper and there it was.
For most of us this is not the case, although I do not want to over generalize. Any one of us could find ourselves at any moment, more vulnerable than we were the day before and many of us likely have at one point or another in our lives. But at the risk of such generalization, I want to suggest that this blinders on, forward looking American mindset has been a part of our DNA for long enough to have taken root in how we process the world with which we are faced. We are the storytellers of this culture we have inherited. It is written, always, in all times, by those who possess the power. In accepting the myth of inevitable progress, as McDonald Ladd puts it, we offer ourselves no opportunity to grapple with the truth of our humanity.
So, is this a piece of what we are trying to solve for in the current equation? There is a constant tension that exists between the foundations that our forbears built for us and the reality of the times in which we live. Humankind is in a vulnerable place right now and this is, of course, doubly so for those who were already in such a place. I am wondering if we can be with that instead of constantly reassuring ourselves that it will all be over soon. It may take a while. Can we settle in for a moment and accept that history has gone a little sideways for a time?
The Rev. William R. Murry, in his book A Faith for All Seasons, offers a liberal religious way into suffering amid life’s crises. Step one is accepting the idea that it is simply a part of life. It’s not all good all the time. He points to the same tendency that I have been discussing and suggests creative approaches that bring meaning to the suffering we endure. There is no God trying to teach us something, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn. Murry calls us to compassion and caring on behalf of others and our world. As we are bound together in community, we are sustained through difficulty. We need one another and I would suggest that our world needs us. Are there things we can be doing, even now as we find ourselves in this state of somewhat suspended animation?
In accepting our vulnerability, exploring what that feels like, how it gets in the way of our day to day existence, we have a window into the vulnerability of others. It’s not the same, to be certain, so please don’t mistake me to be saying it is on par with other forms of marginalization, but there is something in experiencing it more fully that can give us a heightened sense of empathy and compassion as we consider how to bring justice to our communities, our nation and our world.
This past week I attended a UUA sponsored UU the Vote, “How We Thrive” Facebook event to learn more about how we can be useful in ensuring that votes from the margins are counted in the coming elections. Earlier this spring you may remember that we hosted a voter registration letter sending event in collaboration with the local Indivisible group at UUMH. The UU the Vote folks suggest local action - making sure marginalized people have access to protective masks and food supplies and necessary funds in cooperation with local organizations. We can be engaging people in conversation about important issues like voting by mail in the coming elections and signing petitions and making calls to representatives to ensure this is in the conversations of our leaders. And they want us to tend to our spirits and take good care of ourselves so that we can act when we are needed.
One of the reasons I have always loved attending the UUA General Assembly is that the justice focused workshops are so incredibly thoughtful and thought provoking. They spur in me the urge to do the work of our faith in the larger world; rekindling the flame at my center and offering me tools to do so. This year’s workshops will be more in the form of webinars, but I will be there none the less because I need that to keep this work going. So, this is my shameless plug for GA since I have the microphone! I encourage any of you who are interested in learning more to visit the UUA website, register for GA and join me in learning ways to respond to injustice alongside our siblings in faith.
I have been reading a series of essays on engaged Buddhism in the book True Peace Work, first published in 1996 with a second edition this past year. Roshi Joan Halifax is a Zen Buddhist teacher and priest, and an anthropologist. Her 2019 essay entitled Hope at the Edge talks about the concept of “wise hope.” Wise hope lies somewhere between the idea of conventional hope, which we may hold as a part of our inherited progressive optimism, and its opposite state of hopelessness which has the potential to draw us into apathy. It calls us to see things as they are – in our case, we are vulnerable – and to open ourselves to the uncertainty of that. It suggests that we are not at all invincible, but that we have possibility before us none the less. It stops us short of the downward spiral and asks us to apply what we know to what we have and where we are in order to shift the tide; to keep the flow of movement going. It is a reality-based hope that calls us into action.
Our big assumption takes into account the truth of our vulnerability. It is not something about us that needs to be fixed. And trying to do so will just lead us down dead ends that are not terribly satisfying. As we awaken to this reality we become more aware of the plight of the already vulnerable in our midst. Our capacity for compassion deepens and we are enabled to find meaning and purpose as agents of change here on the ground. May we here at UUMH settle in for the long haul, get comfortable in our personal and collective realities, and be the voice of wise hope for our times.
So may it be and Amen.