Choosing To Be Free

Woman with sunset or sunrise in the background with arms out and broken chains hanging from her wristsElephant slavery begins when they are small babies. One ancient training practice is to chain the elephant’s leg to a stake in the ground. This limits her ability to freely roam around. As the elephant grows bigger and stronger, she could easily pull up the stake and go foraging for food. She doesn’t. Even with the hawser unconnected and visibly lying on the ground, the feeling of the manacle around her leg is enough to restrain her, as if connected by an unbreakable invisible chain. This highly intelligent creature remembers the feeling of restricted movement and simply stands still whenever the shackle is in place. Bound by invisible chains to habits, behaviors and attitudes we too learned at an early age, how different are we from this elephant in our actual behavior?

In 2002, eleven-year-old Shawn Hornbeck was out riding his bike in his rural Missouri hometown. Shawn was abducted by Michael Devlin, a 41-year-old pizza parlor manager who was generally known as an innocuous, nice enough kind of guy. Devlin abused and tortured Shawn … with a very strange twist, Devlin acted out a fatherly role pretending Shawn was his son. He even gave Shawn the freedom to go outside. This all happened in plain view of his neighbors and only an hour’s drive from where he went missing. Shawn even assumed his abductor’s last name. Shawn made friends, played video games and even used the Internet freely-yet he didn’t attempt to escape. His captivity was finally discovered four years later when Devlin kidnapped another boy, Ben Ownby, who was discovered with Shawn four days later.

This kind of identification with and sympathy for abductors got a name in 1973 during a six day long bank robbery in Stockholm. Those held captive by the robbers started defending them, even after they were let go. What is now referred to as the Stockholm Syndrome has deep roots in our sub-conscious mind. The longer someone is held, the more likely it can happen. Some may remember the heiress Patty Hearst joining up with the Symbionese Liberation Army who had kidnapped her.

Why does this happen? One explanation that makes sense to me arises out of evolutionary theory. If you think back across the enormous span of human development, our ancestors mostly existed in small tribes. What anthropologists have observed, and recorded history confirms, is when neighboring tribes go to war with each other, the winners often enslave the losers, especially the women. Even without war, abductions from neighboring tribes, especially of attractive females, has probably been going on for a very long time. The ones who resisted were likely killed and didn’t leave behind any ancestors to contribute to our contemporary gene pool. But those who were compliant, adapted to their new setting and produced children, contributed genes that selected for that behavior. In this way, some researchers think submission to authority has been baked into who we are, setting up the development of larger scale civilization, and interfering with our yearning for individual freedom.

While being submissive may have value for scaling up civilization, it can be a huge liability in relationships. The attempt by one person to control another can easily degenerate into emotional, psychological, and physical abuse. Mostly it is wives who are abused by husbands. Quite often the women do not leave these situations, sometimes defending their abusers even after suffering bodily injury. From the outside of the relationship, this willingness to stay with an abuser doesn’t make any sense. An explanation may be the evolutionary glue that keeps people together long enough to reproduce and raise children embedded in our tribal development.

And, like slavery, helplessness and hopelessness can stop the process of resisting abuse.

Reading Frederick Douglass’ autobiography (I have an excerpt at the end to look at)  opened my eyes to the demoralizing and dehumanizing effects of captivity. The mind numbing suffering field slaves experienced is captured in these words:

If at any one time of my life more than another,I was made to drink the bitterest dregs of slavery, that time was during the first six months of my stay with Mr. Covey. We were worked in all weathers. It was never too hot or too cold; it could never rain, blow, hail, or snow, too hard for us to work in the field. Work, work, work, was scarcely more the order of the day than of the night. The longest days were too short for him, and the shortest nights too long for him. I was somewhat unmanageable when I first went there, but a few months of [his harsh] discipline tamed me. Mr. Covey succeeded in breaking me. I was broken in body, soul, and spirit. My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished … the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me ; and behold a man transformed into a brute! p.63

Douglass’ servitude was real and unchosen. Yet what broke him was Mr. Covey’s ability to activate his capacity to submit. This willingness to submit rather than resist, to allow invisible chains to hold us and interfere with seeking freedom, also operates in far more subtle and insidious ways in the human mind, Think of compelling habits exhibited in the way many of us consume unhealthful food and unwholesome media to which we submit. What about the prejudices we unconsciously act out with our eyes and our attention. And then there are the life denying and self-limiting beliefs we’ve developed to lock ourselves in the prison of our own design. “I can’t do this. I can’t do that.”

Well, today I declare that we are capable of breaking the bonds of submission. We have the inner power to unlock these invisible manacles and move toward freedom. As Walt Whitman put it:

Great is Liberty! Great is Equality! I am their follower, … Yours is the muscle of life or death – yours the perfect science – in you I have absolute faith.

Our minds, the gift of consciousness, can lift us from being brutes. Reading opened the door to liberation for Douglass. Through reading his awareness grew to help him see his own inherent dignity and the corruption of slavery. Before reading he knew the oppression of slavery in his body. The physical hardships were terrible to him, but he didn’t understand the evil of the institution itself. Reading the abolitionist arguments opened his mind to the moral injury of slavery and hardened his defiance.

That defiance took the form of resisting the inhumane abuse of his master, Mr. Covey by striking back. This could have easily gotten him killed but luckily for him it didn’t. After fighting his master for two hours, finally exhausted Mr. Covey left him. Douglass describes the effect of successfully defending himself from abuse:

This battle with Mr. Covey was the turning-point in my career as a slave. It rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived within me a sense of my own manhood. It recalled the departed self-confidence, and inspired me again with a determination to be free. The gratification afforded by the triumph was a full compensation for whatever else might follow, even death itself. He only can understand the deep satisfaction which I experienced, who has himself repelled by force-the bloody arm of slavery. I felt as I never felt before. It was a glorious resurrection, from the tomb of slavery, to the heaven of freedom. My long-crushed spirit rose, cowardice departed, bold defiance took its place; and I now resolved that, how ever long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact. I did not hesitate to let it be known of me, that the white man who expected to succeed in whipping, must also succeed in killing me. p. 73

It thrills me to read this to you because in it we see the flowering of the dignity of the human spirit. This is the awareness of freedom that begins to lead us out of bondage.

Yet this moment of fortification of spirit is not enough to secure one’s freedom. The flush of courage can be washed away by the fear of consequences. It can be mighty hard to sustain the drive for freedom. Just a little hunger and thirst in Sinai had the Jews wishing they had stayed in Egypt by the fleshpots over the fire and not followed Moses through the Red Sea to freedom.

Because our courage and new understanding can be tender and easily shaken, we need others who can support and encourage us. Douglass needed a network of abolitionist support to plan his escape. Domestic violence shelters, like Equinox here in Albany, can support the inner growth and fortification of the spirit to stand up for oneself and one’s children and begin to end their abuse. Peer support groups are some of the best ways to deal with substance abuse and addictive behavior patterns. Groups like Weight Watchers have been perfecting the psychological methods and techniques to help people establish healthier eating patterns. Evolution has also selected for group bonding that can be harnessed to seek freedom.

Yet, no matter how well we recognize those invisible chains and how many people are around us supporting us, we still have to choose freedom. And not just once. We need to continue to choose freedom to follow our own inner guidance rather than be compelled by our past conditioning and habit. That takes patience and persistence … and risk.

The safer thing to do for Douglass was to remain a slave and not try to escape. Like the elephant allowing the manacle to bind him, many slaves did a rational analysis and decided it would be safer, not more pleasant by any means but safer, to not run away and risk death or recapture. Recapture could mean being sold to a plantation in the deeper south where they imagined their suffering would be far worse. Better to just stay with the devil you know.

This choice of freedom over security is huge for most of us even with our far more comfortable lives than what slaves endured. The consequences of our choice of freedom are unknowable in the moment the choice is made. And often we are not making it for ourselves alone. Our families and friends will have to deal with the consequences of our actions.

Before he departed for freedom, Douglass wrote about the sadness he felt leaving his friends behind. He writes:

I had a number of warm-hearted friends in Baltimore,— friends that I loved almost as I did my life,—and the thought of being separated from them forever was painful beyond expression. It is my opinion that thousands would escape from slavery, who now remain, but for the strong cords of affection that bind them to their friends. p. 106

And sometimes we can do no other than to choose freedom. It was that for Douglass or die trying. Douglass writes about how he felt when he made it to New York City:

It was a moment of the highest excitement I ever experienced. I suppose I felt as one may imagine the unarmed mariner to feel when he is rescued by a friendly man-of-war from the pursuit of a pirate. In writing to a dear friend, immediately after my arrival at New York, I said I felt like one who had escaped a den of hungry lions. This state of mind, however, very soon subsided; and I was again seized with a feeling of great insecurity and loneliness. p. 107

Choosing freedom is a moment that creates the next moment. There is no final ending choice but one that conditions the next moment of choice. It is a path to be walked every moment of every day. And some days we veer off the path, and later find our way back.

What I can testify to from my own choices to move toward freedom is the inner satisfaction and sense of creating meaning for my life those choices have yielded. And Unitarian Universalism celebrates and prizes those free choices. May we be so emboldened to choose freedom, not just for ourselves but for the good and benefit of all.

Reading

from Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave by Frederick Douglass

Very soon after I went to live with Mr. and Mrs. Auld, she very kindly commenced to teach me the A, B, C. After I had learned this, she assisted me in learning to spell words of three or four letters. Just at this point of my progress, Mr. Auld found out what was going on, and at once forbade Mrs. Auld to instruct me further, telling her, among other things, that it was unlawful, as well as unsafe, to teach a slave to read. To use his own words, further, he said, ” If you give a negro an inch, he will take [a yard]. A negro should know nothing but to obey his master, to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best negro in the world. Now, said he, “if you teach that negro (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.” These words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments within that lay slumbering, and called into existence an entirely new train of thought. It was a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things, with which my youthful understanding had struggled, but struggled in vain. I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty, to wit, the white man’s power to enslave the black man. It was a grand achievement, and I prized it highly. From that moment,I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom. p. 33

I was now about twelve years old, and the thought of being a slave for life began to bear heavily upon my heart. Just about this time, I got hold of a book entitled ” The Columbian Orator.” Every opportunity I got, I used to read this book… I found in it a dialogue between a master and his slave. The slave was represented as having run away from his master three times. The dialogue represented the conversation which took place between them, when the slave was retaken the third time. In this dialogue, the whole argument in behalf of slavery was brought forward by the master, all of which was disposed of by the slave…

What I got from [this book] was a bold denunciation of slavery, and a powerful vindication of human rights. … The more I read, the more I was led to abhor and detest my enslavers. … As I read and contemplated the subject, behold! that very discontentment which [my master] had predicted would follow my learning to read had already come, to torment and sting my soul to unutterable anguish. As I writhed under it, I would at times feel that learning to read had been a curse rather than a blessing. It had given me a view of my wretched condition, without the remedy. It opened my eyes to the horrible pit, but to no ladder upon which to get out. p. 40

Shramadana

“We build the road and the road builds us.” – Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement Slogan

I’m dedicated to Buddhist mindfulness meditation and social justice work to address the ills of society. I’d like to be happy and peaceful and I want others to be happy and peaceful too.

Sometimes people think of Buddhists, however, as navel gazers who want to escape the world rather than helping save it. In Southeast Asia, it is common to see monks who like to stay in their temples, accept donations and appear not to be doing much for others. They meditate a lot with the goal of becoming enlightened and escaping being reborn again in this world.

One of the positive aspects of the contact between Buddhism and the West is a movement called Socially Engaged Buddhism. Preeminent in that movement is an organization called Sarvodaya Shramadana in Sri Lanka.

Given my interests, I’m embarrassed to say, I hadn’t noticed them before listening in May to a podcast by an American Buddhist activist named Joanna Macy. In 1980, she spent a year in Sri Lanka studying Sarvodaya and then returned home and wrote a book about them. Between what she said in the podcast and reading her book, I felt strongly attracted to this movement.

My goal for this service is to excite your interest in this organization that has been transforming village life in Sri Lanka for over fifty years. I think they have some great lessons for us that we may find enlightening as we join together this morning in the celebration of life.

Spoken Meditation

An adapted translation of a traditional Metta Meditation from the Buddha

The embodiment of loving-kindness
begins with the practice of morality.
It requires uprightness and being straightforward
being gentle in speech,
being humble and not conceited or demanding.
Being contented and easily satisfied.
Be not burdened with duties but
Be peaceful and calm,
Be wise and skillful.
Be careful in action and above reproach.
To embody loving-kindness,
May your intention be
with a feeling of gladness and security

May all beings be at ease.

Whatever livings beings there may be
Those who are weak or strong
omitting none.
Those who are great or mighty,
non-distinctive, short or tall,
Those seen and those unseen,
Those living near and far away
Those born and yet to be born
May all beings be at ease.

Let none deceive another,
nor despise any being in any state.
Let none, through anger or ill-will,
wish harm upon another.
Even as a mother protects with her life
her child, her only child,
So with a boundless heart
Should one cherish all living beings;

Radiating kindness over the entire world:
Spreading upward to the skies,
and downward to the depths;
Outward and unbounded,
Freed from hatred and ill-will.
Whether standing or walking,
seated or lying down,
Free from drowsiness,
Let us remember and sustain this beautiful intention.

Reading

From: Collected Works of A.T. Ariyaratne, Volume III, pages 55-56

The type of human being we need for the world today is one which has the courage to reject [the] dreadful systems of organized evil which have made us decivilized; we need the type of leadership which will strive to re-build a new person who has the strength of character to harness the good that is in all of us. This new person in turn shall re-build our human society and a new human civilization on more abiding values.

The Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement (USA branch) is determined to build a new person and a new society. In Sri Lanka we started this process by enabling human beings to come together to share their time, thought and energy for the awakening of a process of sharing which is called Shramadana.

We selected several of the poorest of the poor villages in Sri Lanka and while living and working with the villagers, together we evolved a series of concepts and a methodology to improve their quality of life by their own efforts. Self Reliance, Community Participation and a Planned Program to satisfy their basic human and community needs were three important ingredients in this self-development process.

Sarvodaya defines development as an awakening process. An ever increasing accumulation of goods and services created to feed greed in man is not development. On the contrary development is an awakening process taking place within individuals, families and communities in which their needs are first satisfied without polluting the mind, poisoning the body, destroying the ecological balance, violating the cultural boundaries, widening prevailing disparities or demeaning human nature.

Development in a true sense should enrich people both materially and spiritually so qualities of sharing, brotherhood and peace ennoble all people.

Sermon

Unitarian Universalists value the goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all. As we well know, that value isn’t universally embraced around the globe. It isn’t embraced right here in Albany for that matter. This becomes abundantly clear by spending some time on the North side of Central Avenue, east of Henry Johnson Boulevard and south of Delaware Avenue. As someone who has done faith based community organizing in these areas, I have some awareness of how difficult making a positive difference can be. So, discovering an organization that has had significant success at this kind of transformation in 15,000 villages in Sri Lanka for over 50 years got my attention.

The backbone of Sri Lanka is small, rural villages; about 23,000 of them. With lush vegetation and fertile land, carefully cultivated with an intricate water storage and irrigation system developed over a thousand years ago, the country has a proud heritage as being the the breadbasket of the region. Buddhism came to the island 2300 years ago and today is the religion of 90% of the population. They preserved many of the earliest Buddhist texts and have a proud heritage of being a light of the Dhamma in Asia.

That proud identity and heritage suffered greatly under four hundred years of colonial domination, first by the Portuguese, then by the Dutch and finally by the British. That domination had a devastating impact on those villages. The tea and coconut plantation system took away their control of their land. Their culture, traditions and religion were diminished by the Europeans in comparison with their culture. Over the years, that oppression turned into a self-destructive, downward spiral of disease, stagnation, poverty, harsh speech and conflict in the villages. That social disease infected the villager’s spirit with the negative spiral of ill-will, disunity, ignorance, possessiveness, competition and egoism.

In the glow of independence from Britain in 1948, a new generation of leaders sought to address this damage. The misery in the villages was much on the mind of a young science teacher, named A.T. Ariyaratne, or Dr. Ari as he is commonly referred to today. In the 1950’s, he and others were wondering how to restore the pre-colonial greatness to their country.

One of his inspirations was a prominent follower of Gandhi in India named Vinoba Bhave. Vinoba is known today for starting a land reform movement called Bhoodan. It encouraged plantation owners in the early 1950’s to share, without rent, a little of their land with landless peasants for them to grow their own food. How Vinoba started this program is worth retelling because in the story are the seeds of Dr. Ari’s later work.

In 1951, Vinoba, already a respected figure committed to non-violence, stayed overnight in a small village in an area of communist military activity. Two thirds of the villagers were landless, many of the untouchable caste. He asked a group of them why they had taken up arms. They told him the communists promised them land. He asked if they would lay down their arms if they could get land non-violently by asking for it and farming it cooperatively. They agreed. He wanted to go to the government with this request but the villagers urged him to make the request at a local meeting that included landowners especially a man who was known to be a generous fellow. At that meeting, “to everyone’s surprise, that landlord, Ram Chandra Reddy, got up and said in an excited voice: ‘I will give you 100 acres for these people.’”

In this story, I believe Dr. Ari became aware of two very important truths that have guided his work. First, the people already knew what their problems were and what they needed. Second, the people collectively had wisdom about how those needs could be met. What was needed was getting people to talk to each other and work together for the good of all.

But how to translate these ideas and methods from India to Sri Lanka? Dr. Ari looked within Buddhism for the principles that paralleled the Gandhian ideas that Vinoba used. Attracted to Gandhi’s “uplift for all” movement he titled Sarvodaya, he realized that another way to translate that word could be “awakening for all.” The Buddhist goal of enlightenment could join social welfare with spiritual development.

A friend of Dr. Ari’s had participated in post-World War Two work camps sponsored by the Quakers. Dr. Ari borrowed the work camp idea for his first attempt to make a difference in a village in 1958. A group of 16 and 17 year old students from his high school spent two weeks in a poor rural village working side by side on projects that the villagers guided them to do.

Sarvodaya’s first Shramadana was born.

Shrama or labor and dana or donation, together name the engine that powers the Sarvodaya train. The very first step for organizing one is to bring villagers together for what they call, a “family gathering.” These gatherings always begin with prayers from the villager’s religious tradition, multiple prayers if more than one faith is represented so everyone feels included. They also include silent meditation to establish that universal spiritual practice to join people together. Then the conversations begin about the problems and the needs of the village. The ideas for work projects come from the villagers themselves rather than from the Sarvodaya leaders. They use familial address calling each other brother and sister, mother and father, to counter any inequality of social status, so all voices are valued equally.

A common initial project that people can get behind who are unfamiliar with working cooperatively is cleaning and making improvements to a temple or church. This is an attractive project in a Buddhist community because of their understanding of dana. Every Buddhist knows that they can individually get a lot of merit for a better rebirth by giving to monks. Monks eat based on the generosity of the villagers who offer them food every morning. What they may not know is the joy of a group of people coming together for a joint work project. Other common projects are building access roads, cleaning irrigation canals, digging latrines and building schools.

The next step is to canvass the community for resources for the project. Typically, food and materials are donated for the camp. The goal is to get as many people involved in the project as possible.

Once the resources have been promised and pooled, the shramadana can begin. The work is structured so people of all ages can participate either in the work itself or in meal preparation and other kinds of support. Family gatherings start the work camp with chants, prayers and ritual. Communal meals are served morning, noon and night where the discussions continue. A celebratory atmosphere is encouraged, particularly in the evenings when there may be singing and dancing. A work camp could be a single day or go on for a week or more.

In parallel with the project, sub-groups will be organized. Youth and young adults, mothers, elders, farmers, and other sub-groups find common interests for continuing shared labor. One very common project is to build a preschool. The government will pay for a teacher but not to build a classroom. Economic development through micro-loans are another common project to support the development of the village using appropriate technology.

The foundation of their shramadana methods are spiritual, the awakening, the liberation of all from suffering, stress, dissatisfaction and misery of every kind. While this goal comes from Buddhism, it resonates with Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam, the other predominant religions in Sri Lanka. Sarvodaya is intentionally interfaith and non-partisan. Their focus is on bettering the lives of people rather than promoting a religion or political party. Their constructive activity supported by sharing and cooperation, lead to pleasant speech, equality, love and selflessness. The resulting unity leads to organizational development, greater health, and spiritual and cultural development which supports education and economic development.

The first awakening that Sarvodaya encourages is to interdependence. Together people can do what it would be difficult for anyone to do by themselves. The disunity and downward spiral of oppression is reversed through cooperation. Mutual care for each other is encouraged through the cultivation of qualities of heart described in Buddhism as the four heavenly abodes, loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and an equanimity to the ups and downs of life. Shramadana gives participants, a direct experience of those four abodes through the skillful organization and execution of the work project.

Both interdependence and self-reliance are developed using shramadana. Again rooted in Buddhism, one’s progress toward liberation comes through one’s own efforts. The value of each person’s individual involvement in the common work is stressed from the very beginning. This means speaking up with one’s ideas in the family gatherings. Each person’s contribution to the joint effort is honored and appreciated. Each person’s ethical practices, such as gentle speech, generosity, social equality, and constructive work build both self-reliance and interdependence.

Sarvodaya believes what they are doing is more than village transforming and awakening. It is nation and world transforming as well. It envisions the goal of development very differently than the predominant corporate globalized vision of increasing material prosperity through endless growth in consumption. Sarvodaya presents us with a model of sustainability that puts human happiness and the well-being of all life as its central purpose. They build a new order from the bottom up rather than the top down. Interdependence and self-reliance are the methods that lead to the awakening of all.

I’m bringing you a little taste of this organization that most people have never heard of because they are one of the most extensive and successful efforts to date in socially engaged Buddhism that I believe could also have much value for Unitarian Universalism.

This weekend is a fine example of our own version of a Shramadana project, the Holiday Bazaar! People have come together numerous times to create items for sale. There was a gathering to make dry soup mixes. There was a gathering to make holiday pies. There was a gathering to set up Emerson Community Hall. Randy’s kitchen is another joint effort. And beyond this weekend, there are the gardening work parties to care for our grounds. People coming together to cook for the homeless shelter. Volunteering at Sheridan prep to read to students. Some will remember our joint work to build a Habitat for Humanity house. I remember our gathering to hit the streets to register people to vote in our neighborhood. These are just a few of the joint ventures we do regularly … but probably could learn to do more skillfully by studying Sarvodaya.

Our congregation is, in one way of looking at it, a virtual village. We pool our resources of time, talent and treasure to create this community. We network with other congregations to build a world-wide movement to support and promote our values. The values and methods of Sarvodaya have a lot of overlap with our principles. The core Sarvodaya interfaith spirituality that is self-reliant and interdependent parallels our evolving Unitarian Universalist religious development. Both serve to reverse racism and oppression while creating a sustainable world community that meets everyone’s basic needs while striving for peace, liberty and justice.

With a new mayor in Albany, there are some great opportunities for systemic change in our distressed neighborhoods. What we can learn from Sarvodaya might be very helpful in that process. The dysfunction in some Albany neighborhoods parallel Sri Lankan village dysfunction that may be transformed through their bottom up methods.

For these reasons, I’ll be traveling to Sri Lanka January 13 to immerse myself in Sarvodaya for three weeks, participate in a shramadana, and see for myself if Sarvodaya is as good as they appear to be from my research and from my conversations. By turning the tables and going to the developing world and bringing home their ideas for our use, perhaps we can help restore some balance to this world so far out of balance.

Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement has articulated and is practicing a compelling vision of how to bring awakening to villages that could be of great value in the developed world too. May we benefit from their wisdom and adapt their methods to support our common work of building community with peace, liberty and justice for all.

Benediction

I close with these wise and generous intentions offered by former Sarvodayan regional director Dr. Herat Gunaratne:

May all beings be well and happy.
May no harm fall on anybody
May we look only at the good of others
May nobody suffer because of my actions.

Taking a Stand

Call to Celebration

What does it mean to be courageous and what are the challenges?

Theodore Roosevelt (not Franklin) spoke some wise words on the subject in a speech he gave at the Sorbonne in Paris over a hundred years ago. It is sometimes referred to as “The Man in the Arena” speech. This passage made it famous:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.

The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again,

because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions;

who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.…”

May we consider this morning what it means to dare greatly by taking a standas we join together in the celebration of life.

Sermon

We all know courage when we see it don’t we?

Philomena and I saw the movie about Captain Phillips last Friday. It’s the story of a cargo ship boarded by Somali pirates with the purpose of ransoming it for millions of dollars. Captain Phillips cleverly and courageously managed to get the pirates off the ship and into a life boat with him as the only hostage. The whole movie has you on the edge of your seat as the captain takes risk after risk. We also saw the movie Gravity that showed a lot of courage, but in this case, the kind of courage it takes just to survive in space. I think I’m going to avoid boating off the Somali Coast or space travel from now on.

In the 1960’s, there were many examples of courage during the struggle for civil rights. Those courageous souls who faced police dogs and fire hoses. The Freedom Riders who were attacked and assaulted. All these people put their lives on the line for freedom and justice.

I’m grateful for the inspirational record of courageous action in our Unitarian and Universalist histories. The Boston abolitionists who upset the manufacturers and merchants who were profiting from slavery. Unitarian ministers like Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Theodore Parker. Higginson actually served as colonel of the 1st South Carolina Volunteers, the first federally authorized African-American regiment, from 1862–1864. Julia Ward Howe and Susan B. Anthony were courageous in their fight for women’s rights.

I’d like to call out another group who have been and continue to be examples of courage. Those who challenged the dominance of Christianity and questioned its doctrines and beliefs. The one who comes to mind for me from the latter half of the nineteenth century is Robert Ingersoll. Within Unitarianism, John Dietrich and Curtis Reese were early humanist ministers. On the Universalist side, Ken Patton distinguished himself. They challenged theism to make room for a non-theistic approach to religion that is common in our congregations today.

This only begins to identify the many courageous people who have been leaders within our religious tradition. Institutionally, we have a lot of pride about the ways we, as a movement, have both participated in and led social change that has brought more freedom and fairness to the world. And there is plenty more to do.

I was just at the October Unitarian Universalist Association Board meeting doing a presentation on good governance procedures for our Association. I chair a UUA committee that monitors our Association’s openness and transparency. At the meeting, I learned more about the high level of commitment by the leadership of our Association to be an anti-racist, anti-oppressive force in society as well as encourage that commitment in our congregations.

Closer to home, our Green Sanctuary Committee reminds us of the urgent need for the whole world to temper our insatiable appetite for consumption and transition to living sustainably on our planet. They have proposed a statement against fracking that our congregation will debate and hopefully pass so our congregation can take a stand on the issue.

These are a few examples of opportunities to take stands as individuals and as a congregation that may take courage to accept … or resist. And here is the rub. Will we have the courage to take a stand for or against… or will we let the opportunity pass by?

If we believe that you have to be a heroic figure like those Unitarian and Universalist luminaries I’ve mentioned to do this work, you might be a little discouraged. What is an ordinary person to do just trying to keep food on the table and take care of their families? I can’t put aside my responsibilities or risk my security or my relationships tilting at windmills.

Yet, maybe I could be MORE courageous than I am. So what holds me back?

The philosophers separate courage into two types. The first, physical courage, is the capacity to face fear, pain, danger, intimidation, uncertainty and death. These are potential physical assaults on the body. The second is moral courage, the ability to do the right thing when the right thing isn’t popular. Maya Angelou says of courage:

Courage is the most important of the virtues, because without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently. You can practice any virtue erratically, but nothing consistently without courage.

And there is also a quiet dimension to courage, we might miss. This is the courage of questioning one’s own beliefs and opinions in the search for the truth. I like how Winston Churchill put it:“Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.”

Bryan Stevenson is a wonderful example of quiet wholehearted courage. The origin of the word courage is: to have heart. Stevenson is:

a public-interest lawyer who has dedicated his career to helping the poor, the incarcerated and the condemned. He’s the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, an Alabama-based group that has won major legal challenges eliminating excessive and unfair sentencing, exonerating innocent prisoners on death row, confronting abuse of the incarcerated and the mentally ill, and aiding children prosecuted as adults.

The message he brought to the TED audience was an agitation to care about injustices in our criminal justice system. He pointed out that if plane flights crashed every one out of ten time no one would buy a ticket. Today we tolerate one innocent person out of ten being executed. Many are silent in response to this error ratio.

Speaking in Germany, he talked about this error rate and the very high proportion of people of African descent who are incarcerated and put on death row. One of the Germans responded that they don’t have the death penalty there and could never have it because of their oppressive history. Stevenson reflected on what this might mean if they did have the death penalty and most of the people being executed were Jews. That would be unconscionable. Yet, here where we have a history of oppression of people of African descent, in the old south, a defendant is 11 times more likely to get the death penalty if the victim was white than if the victim was black. The defendant is 22 times more likely to get a death sentence if they are black.

I was moved by Stevenson, as I hope you will be too if you watch the talk. He modeled taking a stand in a non-alienating way that moved the heart – something many effective activists strives to do. And he moved us, because he was willing to be vulnerable on stage.

The key to moral courage is being willing to be vulnerable. When one is courageous, one is open to attack and capable of being wounded. Vulnerability is where courage and fear meet. The researcher and writer, also made famous by a TED talk in 2010, who researches vulnerability is Dr. Brené Brown. She points out that being courageous requires vulnerability. Without a sense of risk and exposure, no courage is needed.

So here we have the center of the problem. We admire and respect people who are courageous, am I right? And how many of us like being vulnerable? Notice that gap? If we want to be more courageous, we need to tolerate being vulnerable.

Brown’s research helps us understand what makes being vulnerable difficult. What often underlies an unwillingness to be vulnerable is shame.

At its core, shame is a self-inflicted wound to prevent a loss of connection. Brown asserts that shame is unavoidable if we want to be a person who loves and cares about others and wants love and care and a sense of belonging in return. Shame is based in the fear of disconnection. We all have it. Shame is universal and one of the most primitive human emotions that we experience. I suspect shame evolved as a powerful way to keep groups together by stimulating internalized submission to dominance.

So if we want to be more courageous, and tolerate vulnerability better, we need to become shame resilient. Brown suggests we can’t become resistant because of our social needs. “As long as we care about connection, the fear of disconnection will always be a powerful force in our lives, and the pain caused by shame will always be real.”

Here is how Brown describes shame resilience as:

the ability to practice authenticity when we experience shame, to move through the experience without sacrificing our values, and to come out on the other side of the shame experience with more courage, compassion, and connection than we had going into it. Shame resilience is about moving from shame to empathy— the real antidote to shame.

Shame is different from guilt. If I do something harmful to someone, there are two predominant ways to respond. The guilty response would be to regret the behavior and resolve to not repeat it. The shame based response would be to think I’m a bad person for doing such a bad thing.

Shame has within it a belief in one’s self as depraved and unworthy. Recognize any Calvinism here? Thinking of oneself as depraved and unworthy undermines one’s sense of self-worth and creates internalized oppression. The king, the dominator, the master crawls inside our head and enslaves our minds with self-judgment and self-doubt.

This is where Unitarian Universalism comes to the rescue. We completely reject this view of the depravity of humanity. Yes, we do bad things. Yes, we do really wretched things. But we have inherent worth and dignity too. We have goodness in us that cannot be removed. In our faith, we have tools to support and build shame resilience.

What shame thrives on is silence. Brown learned a powerful technique to break the mesmerizing grip of shame. She suggests we just speak out loud, “pain, pain, pain, pain, pain” until it’s grip begins to loosen. She observes that when shame descends, it hijacks the limbic system, the prefrontal cortex shuts down and the primitive fight-or-flight reflex is activated. Reactivating critical thinking skills through verbal activity helps us regain rational perspective.

But probably the most effective way to counter the experience of shame is to reach out. Again, this is another source of support we have here: community. But we are special kind of non-judgmental community that will allow us to try on new ideas and ways of being. In Brown’s words:

We need a hand to pull us up off the ground when we get kicked down in the arena (and if we live a courageous life, that will happen). Across the course of my research, participants were very clear about their need for support, encouragement, and sometimes professional help as they reengaged with vulnerability and their emotional lives. Most of us are good at giving help, but when it comes to vulnerability, we need to ask for help too.

Without supportive friends and community, I know who will be there to knock you down again. It will be the critic, the authority, the judge, the master, the naysayer, the one who doesn’t see you as a human being. It will be the one who sees you an object to control and extract work.

It takes courage to face the dehumanizing forces in the world. It takes courage to face the forces that treat our planet as an object to control and from which to extract useful resources. If we want to make a difference in this world and counter these forces, we must be courageous. We must learn how to stand together against some pretty strong headwinds. If we can build our shame resilience together, we’ll have the strength to be vulnerable. If we can be vulnerable, we can be courageous. And if we can be courageous, we can become real.

Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse of the Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but really loves you, then you become Real.”

Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real, you don’t mind being hurt.”

Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”

It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out, and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real, you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

Benediction

I’d like to end with the words Bryan Stevenson ended his TED Talk.

I believe that many of you understand that the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice. That we cannot be fully evolved human beings until we care about human rights and basic dignity. That all of our survival is tied to the survival of everyone. That our vision of technology and design and entertainment and creativity have to be married with visions of humanity, compassion and justice. And more than anything, for those of you who share [my vision], I’ve simply come to tell you to keep your eyes on the prize, hold on.

 

Notes:

The Brené Brown quotes are from:Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead (2012-09-11)Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition. 

The Courage … To Be Wrong

I didn’t discover the courage to be wrong until I was married.

Oh, I’m sure I was wrong lots of times before that. My parents corrected me many times. My sister pointed out my wrongness without timidity. But I fought off being wrong rather aggressively. After all, I had my father as a model. He was fond of saying, “When have I ever been wrong?” His lack of humility was compounded by his evasiveness. My sister and I would carefully watch for his mistakes so we’d be armed. Then we would attack him after he asked that question and itemize the times he was wrong. He would then artfully manipulate our evidence to obfuscate the facts. This could make for some heated arguments with my mother irritatedly telling us to stop it.

Living with housemates in college also presented me with opportunities to be corrected for being wrong. I’ve been fortunate to live with people that I got along with fairly well so we didn’t get into the right/wrong struggle too much. Or maybe I was compliant enough not to get into too many arguments with them.

The first time I had to deal seriously with being wrong was with a former partner I lived with before entering seminary. She was clear that I was wrong about the way I didn’t express my feelings. Because I loved her and wanted to please her, I agreed she was right and I was wrong. I strived to be who she wanted me to be, going to different therapeutic groups trying to fix myself. I asked her to marry me several times and when our third engagement period ended without getting to the altar, I suggested we separate. I didn’t have a problem expressing those feelings.

Intimate relationships can amplify differences. And the closer people get to each other, the more intense those differences can be. The closer we are, the more vulnerable we are. That vulnerability can also make those differences that much harder to deal with. “How can you say you love me and still leave dirty dishes on the counter!”

One of the joys of marrying Philomena was discovering that the way I expressed my emotions wasn’t a problem for her. This was a great learning for me, discovering a new constellation of issues in our relationship very different from my previous ones.

But, at times, I was still wrong in Philomena’s eyes.

What has made the most difference when this happens, is cultivating courage. In the face of her disapproval and in the certainty or uncertainty of my own position, sensing the danger to the well-being of our relationship, I take a breath and strive to be present to what is happening. If I feel discouraged, shamed, or threatened, I strive to stay put and not attack or run away. I also resist the urge to defend myself. For me, courage requires examining the flood of chemicals being pumped out by the amygdala, honoring their primitive intention to protect my body from harm, and allowing them to calm down before acting.

Amygdala driven conversations tend to end badly. But courageously pausing until I am able to remember my love and care for my partner before continuing the conversation can make a world of difference. The solution to most relationship conflicts will not be found in establishing who is right or who is wrong. It will be found in comprehending what each party is feeling, then examining what unmet universal human needs are driving those feelings in that moment. Once we both understand the needs that motivate our feelings and actions, we can, with care for each others needs, explore ways to resolve the conflict.

When my focus moves away from being right or wrong but toward respect, caring and the desire to understand, a foundation for trust and mutual commitment can be built and reinforced. That takes courage. The courage to look at one’s own reactivity and the sources of it. The courage to attend to the hormonal soup sloshing around in the brain stimulating that reactivity and to question its impulsive conclusions. The courage to put aside temporarily one’s truth claims to better comprehend the other and their claims.

The peace we seek in the world requires us to have the courage to nurture and to develop peace in our hearts, minds and spirits.