Given by Kara O'Neil 12 January, 2020
If you ask me what religion I am, I would likely reply automatically that I don’t care for organized religion and that I don’t identify as any one particular religion, but that I do consider myself to be somewhat of a "Pagan" Unitarian Universalist. And, frankly, if you are not a seasoned UU member, you will then look at me as if I have gone completely daft. But, to me, this answer makes sense, and I’m more than happy to expound on Paganism as I understand it, Unitarian-Universalism as I understand it, and why I shy away from organized religion, as I understand it. However, I equally recognize that this identity I carry is also somewhat hypocritical, as modern Pagan beliefs are ripe with determined rituals and Unitarian Universalism is, in fact, an organized religion.
I am not, however, religiously unusual as a congregant of UU Services. Religious identity among UU is a very elusive and fluid thing. We each determine, personally, who we are, what we believe, how we define truth, and what rituals we are comfortable with. However, as we sit here and in congregations around the world, we also find ourselves in a covenant with other American Unitarian Universalists. Though each congregation has (or doesn’t have) a covenant among its members, there is an overarching ideology of love and acceptance as generally understood by members of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Every congregation within the Unitarian Universalist Association has covenanted to “affirm and promote” UU “Principles and Practices” and to promise “one another our mutual trust and support.” These 7 Principles are not intended as dogma or doctrine, but do serve as a guidance for those who choose to participate in UU communities.
I’ll share them again, quickly, here:
1st Principle: The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
2nd Principle: Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
3rd Principle: Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
4th Principle: A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
5th Principle: The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
6th Principle: The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
7th Principle: Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
But what happens when the 3rd principle: Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations, becomes a point of personal contention?
What do we do when one member was reared in a strict Catholic home, and still holds many of the saints and rituals from their childhood deep in their heart, and maybe was taught from childhood and still feels a little uneasy with the word “witch”, while another has joined us from a hereditary tradition of paganism, who self-identifies as a “witch”, and who holds a deep-seated mistrust of Catholicism? If we shun or shy away from either of these beliefs, or any of the beliefs of others, are we offering acceptance of one another to spiritual growth?
As we are a religion built quite seriously on the belief of the right of each individual to find their personal path to truth and righteousness, we find ourselves often in a position where we are required, by our own covenant, to accept that to which we may feel unaccepting. What do we do, personally, when our religious identity also hosts feelings of resentment or “othering” of our fellow Unitarian Universalists? How do we become comfortable in the comfort of others?
I have heard many Unitarian Universalists over the years state that they are “intolerant of intolerance”. I have used the phrase myself a time or two. But what, really, does this mean when applied to our own lives and beliefs? Are we able to hold the mirror up to our own discomfort and intolerances, or are we only intolerant of the intolerance of others?
Many UU members carry a duality within their spiritual identity. Some are “Pagan-UU’ers” some are “Christian UU’ers”. Some identify as Jewish-UU, Muslim-UU, Atheist-UU, and so on. We all find common ground in UU congregations, however, despite our inherent differences. How, then, do these dual-identities shape our congregations and how do they affect us, and our tolerance, as individuals?
When we feel uneasy at certain words, or perhaps feel a sort of mistrust of an entire religious group, are we practicing reason and discerning truth, or are we reacting emotionally without logical analysis? Are those negative reactions serving us spiritually, as individuals or as a congregation?
To give real consideration to these questions, we must first begin to unpack our own personal thoughts and feelings. Our view of the world is built from our experiences, old and new, past and present. These experiences build inside us an idea of what the future will become. The psychological word for this is “schema”, the way we see the world and the lens through which we perceive what has been and what will be. And our perception truly does determine everything.
Perception is crucial to understanding. How we see, and what we see, determine how we will act and react to happenings around us. Not only does our perception determine how we act and react, but it also determines the way things will behave for us and toward us.
Too often we tend to perceive difficulty as disturbance. We refuse to change our minds even when presented with iron-clad evidence. We engage in cognitive dissonance, holding fast to an untruth, rather than go through the uncomfortable occurrence of change.
However, rather ironically, difficulty can be a great friend of creativity. Paul Valery, French poet, essayist, and philosopher was a man not unaccustomed to difficulties. During WWII, Valery was known for his quiet refusal to collaborate with the German occupation and was stripped of many prior distinctions for his stance) Valery stated once that ‘A difficulty is a light; an insurmountable difficulty is a sun.” Of course, Valery was a poet, and his meanings could be argued as ambiguous at best, but history tells us, from his own Notebooks, that Valery read Jean de La Bruyere, a french essayist who wrote the Caracteres, a novel exposing the French court for hypocrisy and corruption through satire. De La Bruyere wrote (and Valery read) that “out of difficulties, come miracles.” This leads me, personally, to believe that Valery chose to adopt Bruyere’s stance regarding the difficulties of life and see life’s difficulties as a challenge, from which we can learn, and grow, and build, and produce miracles, rather than as something from which to shy away and hide in despair.
For many people, this is a difficult way of evaluating things we see as problematic in our lives. John O’Donohue (another poet and philosopher, he from Ireland) said of Valery that this view is a “Completely different way of considering the awkward, the uneven and the difficult.” O’Donohue wrote that, “Deep within us, there is a terrible impulse and drive toward perfection. We want everything flattened into the one shape. We do not like unexpected shapes. One of the essential aspects of beginning to re-imagine our current situation is to awaken the ability to welcome that which is difficult and awkward. Frequently, the actual work itself is fine, rather it is our image of it that makes it appear difficult and awkward.” He mentions a time when he was stuck in his own studies, and saw the work required for his study as insurmountable. He said of this time in his life, “As the Germans so beautifully say, “Ich stehe mir im Weg” – I’m standing in my own way. . .. Some people have great difficulty at work, even though the work is a genuine expression of their nature, giftedness, and potential. The difficulty is not with the work, but rather with their image of the work. The image is not merely a surface; it also becomes a lens through which we behold a thing. We are partly responsible for the construction of our own images and completely responsible for how we use them. To recognize that the image is not the person or the thing is liberating.”
I believe this is true not only in our work, personal or professional, but also in our spiritual work. Our perception drives our study, our ritual, our practice, our beliefs (or lack thereof) and our futures. Most humans are comfortable in ritual of some fashion. From the mundane actions of our lives like a quiet cup of coffee in the morning, to which foot we put into our shoe first, to the larger spiritual or religious rituals, this consistency of action gives us a feeling of security and safety. We are, at large, creatures of habit. Therefore, when things challenge our personal norms, we begin to feel uncomfortable. But what does this discomfort bring us? What if we refuse to allow to give these feelings a foothold and, instead, embrace them as the sun which shines on a direction we are meant to travel?
Today, and often in the past, you have heard me quote from a book called “The Anam Cara”. Anam Cara means, in Gaelic, “soul friend” and the author, poet, and scholar whom I quoted a moment ago, Jonathon O’Donohue has compiled ancient teachings, stories, and blessings from the Celts in this book. O’Donohue wrote:
“There is a friend of mine from Cork who lived near an old woman named Mary who had a notoriously negative and gloomy outlook on everything. She always had the ‘bad word’. A neighbor met her one beautiful May morning. The sun was shining, the flowers were out, and nature looked as if it wanted to dance. He said to her, “God, isn’t it a beautiful morning, Mary?” to which she replied, “I know sure, but what about tomorrow?”. She was not able to enjoy the actual presence of beauty around her because she was already troubled by how awful tomorrow was going to be. Troubles are not just constellations of the soul or the consciousness; frequently, they actually assume a spirit form. Perhaps there are little crowds of miseries flying along through the air. Then they look down and see you gloomy and miserable. They imagine if they come down they might be able to lodge for a week or a few months or even a year. If you let your own natural shelter down, these miseries can come in an and take up tenancy in different places in your mind. The longer you leave them there, the harder it will be to evict them in the end. Natural wisdom seems to suggest that the way you are toward your life is the way that your life will be toward you. To have an attitude that is compassionate and hopeful brings home to you the things you really need.“
We have all heard of an “attitude of gratitude” and modern scientific research has begun to verify that a daily practice of gratitude can physically change our brains and result in self-reported increases in happiness and decreases in anxiety and depression. It is universally recommended, both through medical science and religious instruction around the world, that we take time to stop and physically note the things for which we are grateful. From prayer to journaling to long walks in the forest, time in reflection of what we love about life has proven to be very effective in increasing our joy in living.
But what happens when we practice not only gratitude but active acceptance?
What happens if we take that with which we feel uncomfortable or suspicious and use that as the launching point for our own study and reflection?
Will a practice of acceptance change our perception in the same way that an active practice of gratitude does?
If we, as Unitarian Universalists, claim to practice all-inclusive love, then we must be actively and acutely aware of our personal intolerances. We are proudly intolerant of intolerance, but do we practice active tolerance personally and as a congregation?
Lucky for us, the world’s most well-known prophets and philosophers have given us a great amount of wisdom to explore here:
During what is now referred to as his “Sermon on the Mount”, possibly one of the prophet Jesus’ most famous sermons, from whence came the Beatitudes (Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven…), Jesus said, “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do men light a candle and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick so it may light all that are in the house. Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father which is in heaven.”
The prophet Mahatma Gandhi taught us, “Carefully watch your thoughts, for they become your words. Manage and watch your words, for they will become your actions. Consider and judge your actions, for they become your habits. Acknowledge and watch your habits, for they shall become your values. Understand and embrace your values, for they become your destiny.”
And the Dalai Lama taught us, “Every day, think as you wake up, today I am fortunate to be alive. I have a precious human life, I am not going to waste it. I am going to use all my energies to develop myself, to expand my heart out to others; to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of all beings. I am going to have kind thoughts towards others, I am not going to get angry or think badly about others. I am going to benefit others as much as I can.” …. He taught, also, that “The true hero is one who conquers his own anger and hatred.”
Perhaps the hero is one who is able to see clearly in the mirror, and to recognize in themselves that which they despise in others. And, with that self-realization, change their minds and relieve that burden. Perhaps the true hero of the spirit is one who is able to say that the only thing of which they are intolerant, is intolerance, and carry that meaning deep into their mind and soul, and through their daily lives and practices.
What do we do, and what can we do, to uphold our 3rd principle of Unitarian Universalism?
How are we engaging in active acceptance of one another, despite our differences, and encouraging spiritual growth in our congregations and among our fellow UU’ers?
What can we do better as a congregation, and what can we do better as individuals?
What are we doing, as UUers, to truly show others, “Whoever you are, where-ever you’re from: you are welcome here”?
Plato believed that human beings were composed of two substances, a body and a soul. Of these, the true self is the soul, which lives on after the death of the body.
Likewise, Socrates stated, “Let us see in what way the self-existent can be discovered by us; that will give us a chance to discover our own existence, which without that we can never know.”
The idea that each individual’s personal search for truth should be honored and that it is possible for us all to be “right” without anyone being inherently “wrong” is a difficult but necessary theory to explore within UU congregations. The necessity of allowing space, especially for those things which we find it more difficult to accept, is the only way we can support acceptance and encouragement to spiritual growth of one another.
It has always been my personal challenge, and I challenge each of you now, to find that with which you are uncomfortable, and become painfully familiar. You will find some things intolerable and sometimes that is okay. But set aside those which you find completely intolerable, set aside thoughts of abuse and egregious acts against humanity. Those are intolerable without argument and, as such, they reside on the surface of our minds and are easy to find. Your challenge today is to dig deeper and find those things which are simply uncomfortable for you and explore them in much greater depth. Why are they uncomfortable and how can you find more tolerance for the people who practice these things which make you uncomfortable?
We pride ourselves on welcoming all, but have you asked yourself recently what “all” really means? I challenge you today to do so. Remember, always, in this space, whoever you are, where-ever you’re from, you are welcome here.