Taking a Break for a While

February 5, 2012

The church I grew up in always had the same quote printed in the order of service every Sunday:

“I like the silent church before the service begins, better than any preaching.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

In that congregation, it truly was silent in the main chapel before service, until that silence was broken by a professional musician playing a grand pipe organ. The music was its own kind of silence. For me, it served not to fill an empty space but to help quiet the buzzing of my mind that had begun to rebel against my command to just be in the moment for those quiet minutes on Sunday morning.

Of course, that congregation was blessed with a large building. If I didn’t want to sit in the quiet of the sanctuary, I could and often did wander to different areas. I’d make conversation with anyone who was in the lady’s room. I’d spend a great deal of time in the kitchen with my mother when she was readying for her turn at coffee hour. And I would listen to the conversation she shared with her friends who might come in the back door through the kitchen before making their way the room of quiet pews.

When I first started attending another church in college, I was a little shocked by the difference. This was much smaller church, both in building size and membership. The minister and regulars would often talk right in the sanctuary before service. On the Sundays that were well-attended that area would buzz with conversation at a volume that could have perhaps drowned out a pipe organ, had there been one in that building.

But, I still had my silence. The other difference between those two congregations was that my childhood church of the silent chapel was a mere five minute drive away from home, in the same town. The church I attended in college was the closest “real” church, but it was over an hour drive away from my campus. When I moved off campus, I not only drove an hour there and back each Sunday, I actually crossed a state border to get there. So, I still had an hour of something like quiet before service. Though my decade-old car would groan and whine as we went over river and mountain on the way to church, and the radio was almost always on a fairly high decibel, the outside world was silenced for a while each Sunday.

Those silences gave me what I needed once a week. They were part and parcel of all the other good parts of church: the intellectually stimulating sermons, the companionship of people who I cared for and respected, the reward of being part of social justice programs.

Lately, I’ve been craving the silence more than any other part of what I’ve been missing from church. I’ve also been thinking about a quote from another writer I admire, though he is more recent than Emerson and not a UU:

“Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.” -Stephen King

Replace “religion” for “art” and I can see that for years, even before starting this blog, I’ve been making a mistake. Far too often, I’ve been living my life like I’ve been on a hunt for something to write a sermon or blog about. That doesn’t leave much room for actually living. It instantly puts moments that should be lived under the microscope so that they can be dissected by writing. I don’t want to live that way.

I’ve also had to shelve several thoughts or stories that came to me because I wasn’t ready to put them out on the Internet. Some things I still need to process in deeper privacy.

So, I’m taking the next step in my journey toward whatever spirituality I’m heading toward. I’m putting the blog on hold for the indefinite future, though I’ll still be writing. I’ll be writing of a much broader scope than would fit in this admittedly large umbrella I gave myself of “what’s a uu to do?”

This UU will be spending more time enjoying the silence, rather than being panicked by it because I have to be writing something, or doing something, or at least worrying about something. This UU will still be practicing her faith and I know I’ll still be learning something new about what it means to be a Unitarian-Universalist every day. The difference is, I’ll be allowing my religion to be a source of inspiration and to help me appreciate my life, rather than using my life as something to draw from to appreciate my religion.

I may blog here again if it feels right. But, for now, I’ll just say go in peace and appreciate the silence.


A Tale of Two Confessions

January 14, 2012

I started my life as a Catholic.  Aside from the fact that I don’t agree with most of the doctrines they teach, there were two events that proved I didn’t belong to that faith:  my first and my last Confession.

The concept of telling someone that you’d done something wrong and asking for their forgiveness was a novelty when it was introduced to me in CCD class.  I was blessed with a very loving and fairly permissive family and was somewhat of a teachers pet in school. I remember that my Sunday school teacher struggled a bit with the pre-Confession talk about sin.  She didn’t seem comfortable referring to us as bad or tainted by sin, but obviously needed to make the idea of being made clean understandable and desirable. So, she explained the kind of things we might want to have blotted from our soul’s record:

Maybe you were mean to your sibling.  No good for me, as I was being raised as an only child.

Maybe you cheated at school.  Not a chance.  The biggest problems my teacher’s had with me was getting me to play at recess instead of finding a quiet corner of the playground where I could stick my nose in a book.

Maybe you stole something. Well…

It’s been over 20 years since that First Confession, and this is the first time I’ve admitted this, but… There was one time in a convenience store when I noticed a package of “Bonkers” candy that had been ripped open.  That brand has long been defunct, but it was basically a Starburst with two different flavors on a single piece.  I had seen the commercials and was suckered like many a child who watched the Trix Rabbit into thinking that a sugar-laded substance could bring me to a higher place.  I knew my mother would never buy me the candy, and I rationalized that the store couldn’t sell it ripped anyway.  So, I took one of the pieces that was about to fall on the floor and ate it.

I was instantly guilty about it and even tried to confess to my mother in a round about way.  “I feel bonked out,” I said to her on the car ride home, echoing the tag line of the commercial that had led me astray by giving into temptation.

I had hoped she would instantly understand that I had a piece of that brand of candy and demand to know how I had gotten it.  Instead she said, “What are you talking about?”

That was probably two years before my CCD class was preparing to clean our souls, and I still would occasionally lie awake at night, guilt ridden over my pilferage.

So, you’d think that I’d jump at the chance to be forgiven, right?

Nope.  When I found myself face to face with the “good” priest – even at age eight we knew which of the Father’s in our church was the forgiving one and which was more the fire and brimstone fan – I chickened out.  I wasn’t afraid of god punishing me.  I just couldn’t handle the possibility that an adult would be disappointed in me.  No amount of prayers would ever take that away.  Perhaps I didn’t care or didn’t believe that God already knew my sin; it was much more important to me that no human did.

So, eventually I had to find a way to forgive myself.  If I could go back in time and speak as an adult to that anxious little girl with such low self-esteem, I would tell her that the action was bad, but she was not.  I’d try to find a way to let her know that it was okay to not be perfect, but the way to get closer would be to make up for what she had done.  I would encouraged her to do chores to earn money to pay the convenience store for the candy.  Or, if they wouldn’t take it, buy some food for the local food kitchen.  I would tell her that it’s okay to mess up ever now and then, and it’s even okay to be afraid to admit it when you do, but what makes you a good person is admitting when you mess up and putting in a good effort to be better.

Would the priest I gave my Confession to have said as much to me?  Probably.  But, he might have thrown in more about the fact that God loves me and forgives me even when I did bad.  That probably would have been the main point of his message, and the making up for my crime would have been secondary.  I’d likely have missed the part about penance beyond prayers because I’d be trying to get my head around who God was and how his forgiveness worked.  I’d have been too confused by that part to hear the message that would have made a difference to me.

Which brings me to my last Confession.  It was a few years later, and it may have been the only other time I pulled back the curtain to that little room with the expectation that I would unburden my soul.  What I went to confess then was that I wasn’t sure I believed in God anymore.  I can’t remember exactly what the response was, but the priest did his best to be reassuring that God would find me, and if I prayed it might be easier.

The Our Fathers and Hail Mary’s didn’t work.  A few months after that, my mother and I went to local Unitarian-Universalist church for the first time.  As I’ve shared in other blogs, that first visit didn’t go particularly smoothly, but it was the first time I didn’t feel like I was missing something that everyone else could see, hear, or feel.  No one there claimed to know with certainty the presences of an-all powerful God, so I felt less angst about not being able to find Him myself.

There were no Confessionals, either.  Over time I would come to understand that forgiveness was for everyone, and if prayers didn’t work for you, that didn’t mean anything was wrong with you.

It’s much easier for me to believe in human compassion and forgiveness as something that comes from within yourself and others.  It didn’t need to come from heaven through a special middle man. Forgiveness from god still doesn’t work as I’m not sure god exists and if there’s such thing as an all-knowing higher power, where does his/her/it responsibility for my actions end, and why do I need to ask for forgiveness – doesn’t love mean never having to say your sorry?  And if he/she/it isn’t all loving and forgiving, then I don’t really want to worship him/her/it anyway.

However, I realize that there is something I miss about the ritual of Confession.  It isn’t the idea that the sins can be washed away.  It’s the reinforcement that we should act like we’re absolved, even if we don’t truly believe it.  C.S. Lewis once wrote that acting as if he loved his fellow man helped him actually love his fellow man.  Perhaps acting like I am forgiven would make it easier to forgive myself – for that stolen Bonker and for any other little sin that weighs on my soul.

I don’t know if I’ve sinned against Unitarian-Universalism, but I’m obviously struggling with feeling like I am good enough to belong in church. My soul still craves a path to take to reach forgiveness.  I need a task to feel I have earned it. I’m just not sure what that task would be or who to ask for it.

Ye Economy of Little Faith…

August 28, 2011

This week my husband and I took ourselves to market to see what we were worth. Like many individuals, most governments, and for that matter, most souls, we are in debt. Like most people our age, we started our “adult lives” in debt with college loans.  Before we met, I took out debt even larger than the cost of higher education when I decided to buy a house.  Since then, we’ve acquired new debts together, first in paying for our wedding, and most recently because of expenses from the house I bought and we decided to rent after jobs took us farther away from that home than we were willing to travel.

Economists may have different opinions about the value of home ownership, but there a few who will ever tell you that renting your home from a distance is a smart decision.  It isn’t.  We knew when we first decided to rent our home it was a leap of faith that it might work, and so far it really hasn’t. We hoped to get tenants who were like us in that we treat the home we are renting from landlords literally on the other side of the world with the care we would our own.  Some did, but those who didn’t left us with legal fees and repair bills that have become to us like Sisyphus’ rock. We hoped to come close to breaking even between the costs and rental income.  We haven’t.

So, in the past few weeks, we met with a realtor about putting what we still consider our home on the market, and then, based on several factors, applied for an equity loan to consolidate our debts. Our hope was that when we could keep the rock of our financial well-being from rolling farther downhill each time we try to push it up. We put on what we thought were the right clothes and proper facial expressions, and met with a loan officer.  From her, we learned the biggest obstacle we face in trying to make this work: trying to pay the debts we currently have while keeping our current tenants happy and protecting the investment we made in the house.  The biggest obstacle is that we decided to make that leap of faith to take the jobs farther away than is practical commute and rent the house.  Banks don’t deal with “landlords” or “investors” the way they do with “homeowners.”

I’m not an economist.  If I was, I probably would have made better decisions before.  If I was an economist, the rest of this blog would probably make more sense.  The only way for me to view my financial choices, and what I witness on the larger economic scales of this country and the world, is to ask myself what I think is morally right and have faith that by doing the right thing, my husband and I will be okay.

What does any of that have to do with religion, or specifically Unitarian-Universalism?  Well, for one thing, the entire time we were reviewing economic advice online or meeting with the loan officer, I had that familiar frustration of whenever anything – monetary, legal, or spiritual – is treated as a black and white issue.  I felt that the rules that exist in the financial industry are like the early attempts of religion to see this action as “bad” or “immoral” and these as “good”, without examining the circumstances. Show me any place where someone, higher power or government agency has said “thou shalt not” and there is sure to be an example where it is morally less objectionable to break the law than to follow it.  I know it’s wrong to think of a house you’re not physically living in as your home (according to tax law), but our only other choice at the time we got jobs away from home was to abandon it, leaving it vacant and not paying the mortgage.  We chose to rent our home, and I stand by that choice, even though I understand the economists view that it wasn’t the right choice.

Meanwhile, our personal economic struggle was transpiring over the backdrop of the latest pledge drive beginning with the start of another church year and the U.S. government’s credit rating being down graded.  It seems that tough times are here in the micro and macro level, and there just isn’t enough to go around. But, the truth of the matter is that the day before I applied for a loan and the day before Standard & Poor said our government isn’t worth as much were almost identical to the individual days before them.  The only factor that had changed was that someone, somewhere, with economic power, decided how much faith a bank should have in us.  Sure, there are all kinds of mathematical formulas to give reason to the belief that the debts will or won’t be paid.  But it’s still about predicting the future, and that requires as much faith in determining whether a debt will be repaid as what may happen the to your soul after you die.

Kurt Vonnegut, the great writer who claimed to be a UU so people would stop bothering him about not having any faith, pointed his finger not at god, but evolution to the sufferings of man.  He wrote in his novel Galapagos about fictional, but familiar problems with the global economy:

“It was all in people’s heads. People had simply changed their opinions of paper wealth…This financial crisis was simply the latest in a series of murderous twentieth century catastrophes which had originated entirely in human brains… The planet … was as moist and nourishing as it is today… all that had changed was people’s opinions of the place.” (pg 24-25)

This sums up our situation today.  The grocery stores are still full of food. There is still gas in the pumps to fill our cars.  There is still power in the grid to turn on your lights when you flick the switch. The question is not whether any of these things still exist but whether you have the resources on hand or credit with which to purchase them.  In other words, do you have access to our physical possession of those little pieces of paper that state “in God we trust,” that are really valued based on the faith we have in all manner of things, including our government?

The stuff we want is still the same as it was a day, a month or years ago.  The paper we use to get the stuff is still the same (with a few security measures added over the years, though you can still use the old-low tech bills that get handed around.)

If you read the various op-eds, the difference between now and the “boom years” is that we’ve lost faith in that stuff.  Americans have lost faith that their money will continue to grow in worth.  Standard & Poor has lost faith in the U.S. ability to pay back its debts.  The red and blue sides of our political system have lost faith in whether or not the extremely wealthy will continue to work hard if we do or do not do something to their tax rates.

It comes down to faith in the things you can’t see, but affect your daily life anyway.

We may have lost our faith in our money, which ironically makes most of us want to hold onto what we’ve got as tightly as we can.  Still, some people who have the most money, including Warren Buffet, have faith in the power for our brains to get us out of this mess. Two weeks ago, Buffet wrote an open letter to the President and Congress that he should have his taxes raised, and doing so would not make those with the largest pocketbooks to lose faith or the country to collapse.  (If you have not already read it: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/15/opinion/stop-coddling-the-super-rich.html)

Where does that leave us? Apparently stuck between two sides of what is being framed as an economic issue, with clear black and white answers derived from rigid mathematic principles and infaliable equations.  But, really where we’re stuck is between those who have faith, and those who do not. The problem is, neither side sees their point of view as “faith” in that it is unknowable whether you are right.  Instead, they see their point of view on the economy and what would fix it as “truth” or “law, ” those who don’t follow their ideas are infidels and savages.  It’s those who don’t agree who are sending us all to hell in a handbasket.

Meanwhile, those of us who are not the macro-economic decision makers wish that there could be away for those with different beliefs to live and work together toward the common goals of justice and equity, plus a little compassion for those who need a hand up.  Maybe we need to all remind ourselves that when we use those funny little pieces of green paper, we’re not exercising faith in god, or even faith in the government.  We’re showing faith in ourselves, that we can continue to find a way to provide for ourselves and our family. We’re showing faith in the soul attached to the hand that receives our money: that they will treat us fairly and they have a right to be paid for the good or service they are offering us.

And, we have to have faith that somehow, Warren Buffett and the super-rich aren’t there to just swoop in with charitable donations, but have some good ideas that will trickle down.  Namely, that higher taxes on some who can afford it won’t make them lose faith and do whatever they can to avoid helping others.  That a higher tax rate on those who succeed won’t stop people from trying to succeed.  Perhaps if we had faith that those who succeed the most aren’t afraid of a little higher taxes, we wouldn’t be afraid of loosing our jobs, since many of our salaries are about equal to the “burden” being debated here.

Perhaps if we all believed the inherent worth, dignity, and compassion in all people, we could have faith in the economy again.

So Disturbing We Should Have a Picnic

June 18, 2011

Just a quick one this week.

Our weekend has been overbooked with travel and visiting with family, including the happy celebration of my cousin’s graduation from college. Graduations are always nostalgic, and since my extended family of aunts and cousins see each other very rarely, there is an added pressure to make this a picture-perfect reunion of sorts, which may mean some telling of old stories and smiling sadly about those who are no longer with us.

It reminds me of a line from one of my favorite TV shows of all time, My-So-Called Life. Claire Danes as Angela Chase explained why she didn’t want to be on the yearbook committee anymore: “It’s like, everybody’s in this big hurry to make this book, to supposedly remember what happened. Because if you made a book of what really happened, it’d be a really upsetting book.”

So it is with other events that we turn into backyard barbecues. We tell the funny stories about family members, and avoid eye contact when we unwillingly think of the heartbreaking ones. We ooh and ahh over pretty fireworks, putting aside the thoughts of the real explosions they commemorate that left thousands dead. Even the event of becoming a father, or having a father, is so wrought with pain and loss and confusion that we dare not even admit it to ourselves unconsciously, let alone put it down on a greeting card.

Change is painful. That old line about high school being the best years of your life, is of course completely untrue for anyone who actually became an adult. Even college, which is better, doesn’t compare to all that comes after.

However, they were the years that we were blessed with the blinders of limited experience. They were the years that we thought the biggest change lay ahead on a day that would be marked with black robes and pomp and circumstance, and in the end we’d get cake. Most of us didn’t realize that much more radical changes lay in the pre-morning hours of some unforeseen day that would bring our assumed reality to a shattering end. If only we could celebrate that, we might have a better chance of learning from them, as we try to learn from Memorial Day or the Fourth of July.

Meanwhile, churches are closing for the summer and we look forward to General Assembly.

For a story of change and the complex emotions that go with it that is particularly important in our heritage, I recommend the Unfulfilled Dream by David E. Bumbaugh, which was published in the last issue of UU World. As he described the moments after the merger which we “celebrate” as the beginning of Unitarian-Universalism: “When the moderator announced the result of the vote, I should have been among those who stood applauding. It was, after all, an outcome for which I had vigorously campaigned. Instead, I stood at the side of the hall, weeping. A great sadness swept over me as I witnessed the end of a separate history of Universalism in America. I felt that I had just voted away my only religious home.”

Try fitting that on a sheet cake.

Why Attend Sunday Services? The Ahh… and the Aha!

May 22, 2011

Sunday morning and I am sitting alone in my office.  A copy of the latest edition of UU World lies next to me and a cyber-universe of sermons, blogs, message boards and more is at my fingertips.  Plenty to help me feel connected to my chosen faith.  Yet, I feel a pang of longing and loss for what I am missing.

Across town, the church that was my spiritual home is probably starting to fill with the scent of fair-trade coffee as my minister’s service winds down.  I am not there for a multitude of reasons I’ve alluded to, but have not yet come to terms with enough to blog about. Across the country, there are people who have also received the Summer 2011 copy of UU World and are using it and a plethora of other information to prepare for General Assembly, an event which I have never been able to attend.

And here is the crux of the questions that led me to start my blog:  What’s a UU to do to stay true to her faith if the experiences that define our faith just don’t fit into her life?  Can I be a UU if I don’t go to church or any UUA event? How does Unitarian-Universalism fit into my life?  Is it a luxury I can treat myself to when everything else is taken care of?  Or is it the essence of my day-to-day existence, impossible to relegate to just a few hours on Sunday or a trip to some event that I may never be able to make?

Back in April I pondered why any of us go to church.  There are plenty of sociologists, psychologists and church consultants who will tell you that the best way to build a strong community is to recognize that individuals will have varied needs they want met by that community.  A 2007 gallup poll asked people of various spiritual traditions who attended church regularly why they did so.  The responses were:  For spiritual growth and guidance: 23%; Keeps me grounded/inspired: 20%; It’s my faith: 15%; To worship God: 15%; The fellowship of other members/The community: 13%; Believe in God/Believe in religion:  12%; Brought up that way/A family value/Tradition: 12% Other: 4%; No reason in particular: 1%.
See the poll here: http://www.gallup.com/poll/27124/just-why-americans-attend-church.aspx

Right off the bat we can see that over a quarter of the respondents may have difficulty in a UU congregation since they are looking for some connection to the “g” word. There is also a reason conspicuously absent from this list that is often stated as reason for UU’s to attend services: intellectual stimulation.  But, perhaps I should examine the laundry list from gallup to see if I can better understand my own spiritual needs.

Reason #1: Spiritual growth and guidance
This is right in key with the third principle of UUism: “Acceptance of one another and encouragement of spiritual growth in our congregations.”  However, what I feel is unique about the Unitarian-Universalism I want to practice is that spiritual growth does not just take place for an hour on Sunday.  The faith I want to live is present in every experience of my life.  For example, the fact that ethical eating is being examined at this year’s General Assembly confirms my belief that the hour I spend grocery shopping is just as spiritual as the hour I might have spent listening to a sermon and singing hymns.
The second part of the gallop poll answer is very tricky for UU’s: guidance.  When’s the last time you got a straight-answer from a UU on what you should do when faced with a prickly spiritual question?

Reason #2:Keeps me grounded/inspired.
Having a time every week set aside to centering yourself through worship, i.e. “worth-ship,” deciding what is important in your life, is vital to keeping your spirit healthy.  I know I need to take stock of what I’ve experienced in the past and what I want from my future. But, do I need church for that?  Certainly it helps to know I am not alone.  But, what if I don’t feel grounded or inspired by modern dance or breathing exercises, and that’s all that is being offered on a particular Sunday?
My first solution was to look beyond the sermon and seek out inspiration from my other congregants.  And for a while it worked.  I was awed by those who devoted themselves to their families or some social justice cause, which I learned about while sharing coffee and conversation after the “worship” service.  So, really, reason #1 came to me through another category of motivation for attending church.  This answer did not show up on the gallup poll, but is often quoted by UU’s as their reason for attending services…

The “Other” Reason: Intellectual Stimulation.
This reason has become somewhat of a dirty word in some UU circles.  Some see it as a sign that we are moving away from being a religious or spiritual organization, and instead become a country club of over-educated political liberals who think of themselves as a religious movement, but are not.  One of the most articulate arguments against intellectual stimulation came from Michael Durall in his book: The Almost Church Revitalized: Envisioning the Future of Unitarian-Universalism.  In fact, he lists it as the first of his “five  helpful heresies” in which he questions the current path of our denomination.

Durall writes, in part: “intellectual stimulation from the pulpit…sidetracks the rightful purpose of UU congregations.  … Unitarian Universalism rarely views the congregation’s primary purpose as assisting people along life’s journey or deepening their faith.  Rather, Unitarian Universalism has focused on intellect, a method of information gathering that too often results in conversations about religion rather than defining a UU way of life by which people live in community.” [pgs 72-73]

I agree with almost all of Mr. Durall’s points and recommend his book to all UU’s (see note below).  However, I feel there is a flaw in his logic with this particular conclusion.  He suggests that intellectual stimulation moves us away from spiritual connection.  In my own experience, the intellect is the only way through all the blocks of disbelief that I encounter when trying to worship.  I can only experience the connection to others and decide what is worthy of praise in my life if I consider, ponder.  I grow my spirit by learning more about how the world works and different points of view.  Intellectual stimulation is my spiritual practice and I can only live in community when I challenge myself to understand that community more fully.

Case in point: I felt lost when I was spending an hour each Sunday listening to sermons in which the minister told me what to feel.  I am beginning to reconnect to my spiritual strength through the intellectual exercise of writing.  I feel greater joy and satisfaction from my life after I write this blog, because it forces me to use my intellect to examine whether my life’s journey is headed toward the correct destination.  I’m still missing that outside stimulation that will provide spiritual growth through broadening my mind, but I’m sure I’ll find something to fill that need.  And when I do, I’m certain it will be a spiritual experience for me, though some would call it intellectual.

For me, the “aha” of learning has always been hand-in-hand with the “ah!” of reverence.  I am more spiritually connected to the awesome power of a thunderstorm though my experience of learning about the scientific phenomenons of weather.  If you told me that a lightening bolt came from a god called Thor or even yahweh, that does not stir my religious passions the way descriptions of energy in air masses fires my brain and makes my heart race.

Perhaps someday I can recapture all those other pieces of the religious experience that I am still missing.  But, I’ll have to learn to worship side by side with those feel the “aha” is in conflict with the “ah!”  And, that will take some more pondering.

NOTE: If you Google Michael Durall, you will probably first come to the website for his CommonWealth Consulting Group: vitalcongregations.com.  If you didn’t already know that Mr. Durall was a UU, you might not guess this from his homepage, which features a picture of a sign post listing other Christian denominations. This is another sign that makes me worry about the future of our denomination, but that’s for another blog.

What Happiness Is and Isn’t

May 14, 2011

It’s been a tough week.
Not that the outside world has thrown me any particularly onerous challenges, but I’ve had a harder time than usual dealing with what I’ve had to deal with.  After more than half a lifetime battling clinical depression, I’m fairly used to this.  I recognize that there will be days or weeks where all the normal tasks of life seem more difficult or fruitless. There will always be times where I feel the gnawing beast of despair trying to tear me apart from the inside.  There will always be periods of my life when the internal voice that tells me I’m worthless is louder than usual.  There will always be times that the voice will not stop telling me that I can’t do anything right, that all who come in contact with me think little of me or despise me, that there is nothing that will ever make it better.
But, after years of experience struggling through this mire, I feel fairly confident that it will pass.  I just need to live through the suffering.
When I was a teenager I decided that I couldn’t live through the suffering.  I came very close to ending my own life. I can look back at that time realize that over half of my life up ’till now would have never happened if I had killed myself.  And, it was the better half.  There was so much joy waiting for me that I wouldn’t have believed it had someone told me.
What have I learned that makes me able to face weeks like this one, confident that they will not destroy me, but will serve to make the good ones even better?  Is there anything I would say to that former self, if through some techno-miracle I could send an e-mail back in time or transport an image of myself like something out of Star Wars to the torn up and battered soul of my fifteen year old self crying in her bedroom?
These questions are at the root of the seven-month old “It Gets Better Project” started by Dan Savage.  As a faith that proclaims to support both youth and the LBGT community, I wish that I saw more connections between this admirable project and the UUA.  You do get an impressive number of hits if you google “Unitarian It gets better,” including The UU Growth Blog by Peter Bowen: http://uugrowth.com/2010/10/12/it-gets-better-make-it-better-unitarian-universalist-videos/
One of the better messages out there is from the youth ministries office of the UUA that promises that there are people working to make it better now.  Both promises are needed: that there is light at the end of the tunnel, and that there is a real effort to ensure that there is a safe passage through the darkness.  Because, unfortunately there will always be people who will attack those who are different because they can’t understand and appreciate the differences.  There will always be sorrow in the world and in our individual hearts.
So what does spirituality, religion, and specifically Unitarian-Universalism have to help those who follow it through the darkness?  Despite the fact that the symbol of UUism is a flaming chalice, I don’t think we’ve come up with a uniquely UU way of throwing light onto dark times.  More often, our members say they relied on wisdom of world religions when they were most in need of spiritual help (the third source of UUism).
I tried to find a path to the light through other faiths, including Christianity and Buddhism, and was discouraged.  It seemed that could only promise that there was a reason for suffering, not any relief from the suffering.  Like Dan Savage’s project, they only made the promise that there would be something good waiting for me if I could hold on, whether it be heaven or enlightenment.  It left me feeling frustrated and alone.  What good is the promise of some vague future when your trouble is here and now?
The truth is that you need to find a way to be happy in the moment, no matter what the circumstances you are facing. I used to think that happiness meant getting what you want, but realize now that true happiness is appreciating the greatness of what you have. It means living in the moment, and not wishing to be in the future or in the past.  I had to remind myself of this many times this week as I struggled through the long hours at my two jobs, wishing that instead of looking at a spreadsheet or stocking the shelves of the video store I could be taking a hike somewhere and enjoying the too-short-lived beautiful weather.  Wishing I could be doing something else was only making it more difficult to get through the task I had to do because it was not only making me less productive through my distraction, but making the time pass more slowly.
One of the most helpful concepts that I’ve come across was actually from the Buddhist leader His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Howard C. Cutler.  I picked up The Art of Happiness at Work while I was in a miserable job, hoping it could give me some insight. In this book, Dr. Cutler describes the concept of flow, which he borrowed from Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.  As described in the book: “To be in flow means to be totally absorbed in whaterver one is doing at that moment.  It occurs when one is fully present and completely focused on the task at hand … While in flow, we find ourselves engaged in the activity for its sake alone, not for any external rewards we receive. The task is intrinsically rewarding, in and of itself.” (pg 79.)  This book was extremely valuable to me at that horrible job and the better ones which followed, so I recommend you grab yourself a copy on amazon.
I’ve been able to apply this reasoning to work.  If you truly submerge in the task, appreciate the physicality of reaching for high shelves, the mental challenge of making numbers transform into meaningful patterns, the task becomes an end to itself and is therefore joyful in its own way.  Despite the Dr’s assertion that we should not think of any external rewards, it is also helpful to me to think of where I would be if I wasn’t lucky enough to have these jobs, and how many people are unemployed or underemployed.
So, can I take the same skill and use it to find happiness in my whole life, as well as just the portion of my time in which I earn my living? Can I find happiness by absorbing myself in the now?  Can I find joyful music in the hum and heat of my old and temperamental computer as I sit here. Is there any peace waiting for me in the stack of bills at the corner of my desk that I must sort through to decide which I am able to pay and how to handle those I can’t?  I know that there will be no peace or satisfaction in ignoring those things, so why is it so hard to fully engage in all facets of the now?
Happiness is appreciating the greatness of what you have.  Which is why I get so frustrated with those who insist that angels are waiting to scoop them up to a place in the clouds, or those who feel the only way to accept suffering is to become detached from their lives through meditation or modern dance.  I want to scream “You’re missing it.  This is the best part.”
One of the hardest moments of the past week was an interaction with a person who has obviously chosen to detach himself from his life.  I was doing my best to get into my own flow at my second job, multi-tasking at helping customers and getting some dvd’s ready for rent.  But then a young person came in who demanded my full attention, yet made me wish that I could change the circumstances of where I was and who he was.
The young man had come into the store to sell a video game system.  My co-worker and I recognized him and remembered that he had already sold the store the system only to buy it back (at a higher price than we had given him, of course) several times.  He informed us, quite happily that he understood that he’d be paying a higher price for it later, but needed the money now.  Uncomfortable with the situation, we reminded him that he might not be able to buy it back at all if someone else bought it. The conversation went on as we did the necessary paperwork and helped other customers.
At one point we had one of those telepathic communications with another customer who was clearly as horrified as we were by the young man’s assertions that he loved video games and weed, but loved his young son more, which was why he was hawking his system to buy diapers.  I could see in the other customer’s faces their disgust and horror, her desire to make the young man see that if he wasn’t so concerned with detaching himself from reality, he could give his family much more than he was currently.  I could tell that the other customer was torn between running from the store to avoid being in the same area as him, or opening up and telling him what a fool he was.  She met my eyes and at that moment I felt pity for both customers: the man and the woman who were obviously so different in the life circumstances and choices, but both human and deserving of the ability to make those choices, no matter how foolish they were.  I was silent, but with my eyes, I told the woman “I know how you feel, but the best we can do in this moment is feel pity for him. This is a sad situation we are witnessing.”  In that moment I saw her jaw relax and her eyes widen from their tense positions.
Yes, we wanted the situation to be different at that moment.  But the only way to achieve peace in the moment was to live through it and accept the reality of that moment.  I expected to repress the incident, but instead I am blogging about it.  Perhaps what I really wanted to do in that moment was tell both customers the message of Dan Savage’s project, “It gets better.” Yet, the only way to make that message true would be for someone to do some real social justice work: vocational programs to help the young man and/or eventually his own child and political action to make those who are able to help understand why they should.
The Buddha began his spiritual search after being shocked by reality of a poor, sick man in the street.  His parents thought they could keep him happy by sheltering him from the painful realities of suffering.  But, in the end, he had to see the truth and find his own way of dealing with it.  The Buddha’s path relies a great deal on detachment.  But, my own experience has been that trying to fully detach leads to unhappiness.
So, perhaps the answer is that we must consider every moment of our lives as “on the job” in making ourselves and the world better, and trying to get into flow in this work. Those moments at the video store when I wished I could have been anywhere else or could have been someone else were not my best self, and I definitely wasn’t in flow.  It made me think of those who work in the social services who I’m sure are often disheartened when they are unable achieve their goals.
But, we all have to find a balance between engaging in an imperfect present and remaining hopeful for a better future.

Two Thoughts on Happiness and Fate

May 1, 2011

There is a four-letter word that causes me to cringe whenever I hear or say it: plan.

An ugly word, don’t you think? I cannot forgive this word for almost never living up to its promise, despite my love of paradox. To plan is to think you can exercise some control over the future, which in my experience seldom actually happens. It seems we can exercise about as much control over the future as we can the past. And we can no more change what will happen strictly by our force of will than we can imagine our way to undoing a past mistake. We can paint pictures in our head, but those pictures never really capture the reality.

For instance, when I started this blog I planned to use it as a substitute for attending Sunday services at my local parish.  The reality on this Sunday morning is that I’m typing away after listening to a lay led service, which interestingly enough hit all the points that I was pondering this week.  I planned on not getting anything more from my church, and was once again surprised by fate that I did get that feeling of connection I had been missing for so long.

Does that mean I’m giving up this blog?  No.

But it does mean I’m a little short on angst to dissect and analyze on this beautiful May day. So, I’ll just put two thoughts out there in the void.

One is a poem that I think perfectly encapsulates my feelings about the god-human relationship, if there is indeed an all-knowing higher power.  I think it was printed in UU World a few years ago, and can be found on Garrison Keeler’s public radio site: http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/index.php?date=2007/10/10

I’m not copying it into the blog because I don’t want to break any copyright.  If the link breaks, try searching for The God Who Loves You by Carl Dennis.  (BTW- I find it ironic for a person who loves to skewer UU’s as often as Mr. Keeler does on his show, Praire Home Companion, how often you could use one of his quotes or favorite poems to define our faith.)

The second is a response to the national news story of the week, i.e. the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton.  The blogosphere has been buzzing with partisonship over whether this was a story of love and hope or whether it was a sign of a dying empire and our own society’s self-destructive worship of glitz and glamour.  I’ve borrowed the format of one the readings found in the UU hymnal, so I also owe my gratitude to Margaret Gooding for her wise words on Christmas.

Why Not a Wedding?
They told me that fairy tales end with a bride and groom living happily ever after.
When I was very young I had no trouble believing in wondrous things; I believed in the bride and her prince charming.
It was a wondeful story of the miracle of love, foretelling the ending we were all to hope for.
They told me of the tragic end of the real life fairy tale: that the princess was unhappy and eventually killed by those who would not stop following her story.
When I was older I believed in democracy and justice. I believed there was no place for princesses her true love.
But I was unwilling to give up on the wedding, the day of joy and hope that still brings family and friends together.
The wedding redefined became love understood, not predestined of an end to itself, but the beginning of the real story.
Why not a wedding? For even in the midst of our wars and famines, our hatred and greed, there is the miracle of love that binds two people together.
Who knows whether each bride and groom will fulfill their promises?
Who knows what uncommon love will transform those who share vows and those who witness for them.
But we must celebrate and give love a chance.