I’ve been gone a while, so I have an unusually long post which I’d like to start off with two poems.
“Perfection Wasted” by John Updike
And another regrettable thing about death
is the ceasing of your own brand of magic,
which took a whole life to develop and market —
the quips, the witticisms, the slant
adjusted to a few, those loved ones nearest
the lip of the stage, their soft faces blanched
in the footlight glow, their laughter close to tears,
their tears confused with their diamond earrings,
their warm pooled breath in and out with your heartbeat,
their response and your performance twinned.
The jokes over the phone. The memories packed
in the rapid-access file. The whole act.
Who will do it again? That’s it: no one;
imitators and descendants aren’t the same.
“Touched by an Angel” by Maya Angelou
We, unaccustomed to courage
exiles from delight
live coiled in shells of loneliness
until love leaves its high holy temple
and comes into our sight
to liberate us into life.
and in its train come ecstasies
old memories of pleasure
ancient histories of pain.
Yet if we are bold,
love strikes away the chains of fear
from our souls.
We are weaned from our timidity
In the flush of love’s light
we dare be brave
And suddenly we see
that love costs all we are
and will ever be.
Yet it is only love
which sets us free.
When I was a girl, one of my more influential teachers was a very liberal, “it’s all good” kind of woman. She made you feel connected, and everything became a sedate celebration of the world, from her familial hold on your arm while speaking, to her fancifully-bedecked bicycle parked outside the church. When everything is part of the cycle, everything is a wonder, and even a rainy day has its own kind of sunshine. The world for her is best natural, best seeded with acceptance and watered with love, no matter who you are or what you’ve done wrong. She loves radically.
So at a time when I was really starting to look for myself, I saw a woman who lives out our Unitarian Universalist first principle, the affirmation of “the inherent worth and dignity of every person,” in all her interactions. If there was music, she was dancing, and she wanted you to join in the dance, no matter what was on your conscience. She gave you permission to be, whatever that being was, and receiving that was a freeing gift. I hope it’s a gift we all wish to give.
But as I left my small home community full of similar people who were intelligent and well-educated and liberal, I started to realize that she was making it look easy. I had thought it was easy because all the people I interacted with were much like me. Giving the gift of radical love is hard though. It costs all we are.
As I entered college and found people far different in every way from those I had met in my little community in central Illinois, I was confronted with just how hard it was going to be. I met a lot of people whom I wanted to label as “bad” – they lived their lives contrary to the morals I had been brought up with. They said hurtful things and dismissed values I find important. But belonging to a religion that demands the belief in an inherent worth and dignity of every person means critically confronting a lot of questions, and not slacking off on answers. Simply judging people because they hurt me runs contrary to my faith. So, the world is apparently full of hurtful acts, but acceptance is key: where must boundaries be drawn?
Can I remember a person has worth even if they tell me what I believe is wrong? When they tell me I’m bound for hell for having my own path to goodness? Are hateful people evil? How do I accept the friend with contradictory values? If I reject their core values and disagree with them, can I still accept them? And moving into more hypothetical challenges, one of the first questions I’ve often been asked on opening up about what Unitarian Universalism means is whether the first principle extends to the worst offenders of history. Surely even if I don’t believe in Hell, there is still one for perpetrators of genocide? They’ll get their due punishment, won’t they?
Think about that for a moment: are those men, in your beliefs, bound for Hell? Can we extend the first principle even to them?
Or, in perhaps something closer to our own lives and times, are those who threaten and bully others maliciously, or murder innocents for what they publish, worthy of dignity?
But the commandment is not about what a person does with their humanity – it’s about the fact that simply by being a human – “I think therefore I am” – each of us has worth. Has a dignity that must be respected. All of us are born in the same way, unwritten, blank stories – and so even the most flawed among us needs and even deserves a basic dignity. We each have our “own brand of magic” that we bring to the world, even if it is a magic that is only applied to a small and select part of the world.
In the end though, we end up who we are because, in so many ways, of what the world does to us. Those who perpetrate terrible crimes did not wake up one day, were not born into the world, saying they would commit evil. There have been many fingers on that trigger, throughout their lives. Our job as affirmers is to ease the pressure where we can, by giving love and some kind of basic acceptance to those who need it. What if we could stop a crime down the road, by showing acceptance of someone’s inherent dignity when they needed it?
“Affirming the inherent worth and dignity of every person” means remembering we all came from the same place. Whatever place we believe that may be, we all arrived in the world by the same journey. We end the same way too, with “the ceasing of our own brand of magic.” So why forbid any of us a measure of human dignity? Anyone, if we could know their story, presents a measure of humanitarian beauty. Few people if any, set out planning to commit evil, and perhaps even those that seem to, have a true reason born deep down out of some kind of love that can be understood.
The Universalist tradition taught that with Christ’s sacrifice, we were no longer divided from God, as was the case when Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden. All sins were paid for, and so all sins were forgiven by a loving God. Because Universalists did not believe God’s gifts ended with death, Hell was downgraded to a “time-out corner” for God’s misbehaving children. Human sins shrink in the eyes of an omniscient, all-loving God the scale of the universe: even crimes against humanity become the acting-out of a hurt child, since God can see into all hearts and understand all pain. God does not need to punish, but seeks for humans to see what they have done and feel remorse. Good parenting guidelines do not involve damnation.
But here on Earth, regardless of any heavenly parents, we are not omniscient, and often we are each alone, a hurt child acting out against another. So it’s hard to see that spark of the holy in the disliked neighbor, or the politician on TV, or the criminal on trial, which demands understanding and respect. It’s hard to see the person who hurts you as a valid person themselves. Can we remember that those who commit evil, can also give love to those in their lives and provide for them in some way? Can we remember in the face of it, to respond to pain and hate with love and understanding, turning the other cheek? It can be hard to remember that the meanest of us deserve to be treated as humans and given clean nourishment and the opportunity for redemption, or to remember that those with antithetical beliefs are also lost and seeking their truth like we are.
So how can we remind ourselves that there is no one without dignity?
A belief I find sustaining is the idea that we are all part of a larger divinity. For me, god is in our web of humanity, and if we forget the divinity in our neighbor, a piece of god is going missing.
“It takes all sorts,” as we say, to make the world go round. Everyone has their own dance, their own brand of beauty to share with their corner of the audience.
I find too, that believing there is no evil, only disconnection, is important. We hurt each other from inability to see ourselves in our enemy. We close our eyes to suffering because we forget that another day, it might be us in the gutter. And sometimes, when we see evil in ourselves, there is the knowledge that it is from loneliness and the need to be loved, or at least accepted. Hopefully we can forgive ourselves that.
So the answer is always more connection. If you need a reminder of your worth, connect with disadvantaged children at the local school and see yourself through their eyes. It’s hard not to see your own value when a child wants to show you what they accomplished with your help, isn’t it? If you need to see the dignity of a coworker who hurts you, take the time to learn their story, to connect with them. You may see that what they inflict on you comes from their own pain. They do not want you dancing in the field, because they wish they could do it too. Perhaps you just need to see through to their own flaws.
But when we talk about walking a mile in another’s moccasins, we forget that they probably don’t fit well. A mile is a long way to go in ill-fitting footwear, striving to see how these shoes shape the gait of our fellow human while at the same time they are pinching our own toes. It’s a hard journey to walk, responding to attacks with love.
Nonetheless, I hope we can all find in ourselves the kindness and desire to “love radically”: not just the easy loves for family and friends, but the love for those who are different than we are and those who hurt us. Because you never know when they are just looking for acceptance so they can accept in their turn. Remember the meaning behind the popular yoga greeting, “namaste.” The soul in me bows to the soul in you. We all have our own divine souls and must remember that.