Monday, March 2, 2015

The Platinum Rule (March 1, 2015)

I bet everyone has a story like this one my friend Teresa shared on Facebook. She wrote:

I made a special dinner for two friends who helped me move into an apartment. VERY special - lobster! My Jewish friend let me know he appreciated the thought....and we laughed through the entire dinner (he ate peanut butter)

All of us learned the “Golden Rule” at a young age, a rule that appears in different traditions all over the world, and in the Christian tradition is spoken by Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount: ‘In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” [Mat 7:12]. But I think we have found the flaw in this golden rule. My favorite celebratory meal- lobster, might be a religious taboo to my guest. This is why the facilitator at our Intercultural Competancy training Beth Zemsky, suggested a platinum Rule: “do unto others as they would do/have done unto themselves”

As Unitarian Universalists, we value diversity in our congregations and in our world. But sometimes we don’t notice diversity when it is right in front of us -- much of the diversity in this congregation is invisible. This diversity can be seen not primarily in the color of our skin, or in the languages we speak, but it is real. We stumble across it in moments of miscommunication, or uncomfortable silences. Let’s go back to the example of our dietary diversity, because it is visible, and because we have really worked hard to raise our consciousness around that. Last night the Valley Vegan Supper Club had its 3rd gathering. I suspect part of the reason the supper club has been such a success, is because it balances out all the times vegans have attended potlucks in the valley and could pretty much only eat the dish they brought themselves.

Families and organizations that are not used to diverse dietary needs usually roll out their famous house specialty in honor of all their guests. But once you have seen one of your guests sit with an empty plate in front of them, you start to ask before they arrive “I’m making up the shopping list for your visit, any foods you like to avoid?” I recently visited some long lost relatives and was SO grateful they asked me that question, because as a guest it feels awkward to make demands on the folks who are already providing you with a place to stay and food to eat. Part of being a really skillful host, making guests feel at home, is not just to open your home to them, but to make them feel a little like they are in their own home. Take my friend Theresa --one time you serve lobster to your kosher friend is a hilarious miss-step. But if your friend has to watch you eat lobster while they make themselves a peanut butter sandwich every time they come to visit, it is going to be hard to follow the hostly injunction to “make yourself feel at home.”

Each and every one of us is different, but sometimes it only becomes visible because things don't work smoothly, or don't seem right. Things that never have to be looked at or spoken of suddenly don't work, and we don't know why. When “the way we do things around here” doesn’t seem to be working, that's how you know you are encountering difference.

I was attending a conference recently at a center that purported to have wifi, but maybe too many people were trying to use it or something, because I never got it to work. This was no problem for my friends with Smart phones, but for me it meant I couldn’t check my e-mail or go online for the duration of the conference. I ran into a colleague in the hallway who said “you haven’t answered that e-mail I sent you. Can you read it and get back to me today?” I started blankly at her and finally sputtered “I don’t have access to e-mail here, I think you are just going to have to ask me your question now.” My colleague assumed we had access to the same technology, until her attempt to communicate failed, and we had to figure out.

Technology is an easily visible example of how our differences sometimes keep us apart. You can’t open the minutes from the meeting, because you don’t have the right software. You can’t participate in the webinar because the website won’t open on your computer. You try to attend the meeting by skype but it crashes your computer and you spend the whole meeting trying to just get your computer to function again. Sometimes you power through and make it work, or find some kind of work-around, but sometimes navigating those differences is hard enough that you just don't participate. As far as I can tell, dealing with our very real technological diversity here at UUCAS is something we put a lot of care into. We still print out and stick our newsletter in the U S mail to our members who are not online. We learned how to use Skype for people who couldn’t make it to meetings in person, and have a conference call line for folks who can’t use Skype. Whereas Golden Rule invites us to say “I love having a paperless office, so I’m going to make sure everyone gets a digital copy of the minutes before the meeting” the Platinum rule invites us to ask “Can everyone open this document? Does anyone need me to print out a hard copy?” My colleagues have asked “how can you be a minister without a smart phone? Without being able to answer e-mail everywhere you go?” But I never feel like I let you down by not having a smart phone, because our community understands technological diversity. 

So there are two reason for us to think beyond the golden rule to a platinum rule. The first is practical- folks might not be able to participate if our community if it is not accessible to them. The other is more emotional. My dear friend said her mother-in-law never quite “got it” that she was a vegetarian. She would make the whole traditional thanksgiving turkey dinner, and figured the Brussel sprouts and mashed potatoes were plenty of food for her vegetarian daughter-in-law. Year after year this continued, and it started to really hurt their relationship, as my friend felt un-heard, unwelcomed by her mother-in-law. They stay home on thanksgiving now.

Because we are different and unique, each one of us, there is sometimes a gap between our “intent” and our “impact” on those around us. The “intent” of the host in our first story, was to offer the most generous, special celebratory meal she could think of- lobster. It sounds like her guest had a good sense of humor, and the impact was that he was able to appreciate her intent- to be generous, even as he watched them eating lobster while eating a peanut butter sandwich himself. But what if it had hurt his feelings? What if this was just the most recent in a long line of peanut butter sandwiches and he felt excluded and misunderstood? Just because someone doesn’t mean to hit you in the face with their carry-on luggage as they board the plane doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt.

Because we are so different and unique, churches are full of such mis-alignments of intent and impact. A newcomer to our congregation in Palo Alto who was confined to a wheelchair after a horrible accident could no longer attend the Buddhist fellowship of which he had been part of for many years because there were 25 steps leading up to the front door. His Buddhist congregation had not intended to exclude him, but the impact of their architecture was to exclude him completely. But we were not always as welcoming as we hoped to be either. As the 2nd Iraq war was threatening to begin, my congregation was very active in the peace movement, expressing our collective desire to avert another war. A military family pulled me aside one day and asked if they were truly welcome. Some of our anti-war rhetoric made them feel like Unitarian Universalists didn’t care about our Service Men and Women. My heart broke to hear it. It had never occurred to the peace activists, myself included, that our actions for peace would make one of our own families feel unwelcome.

How we handle these gaps between intent and impact will make a big difference in how welcoming we really are as a congregation. The tools for handling these gaps are the same whether we unthinkingly put “just a little bit” of flour in the diner we made for our gluten-intolerant friend, or used the wrong pro-noun for a transgender member, or made one of a million other faux pas that have the unintended impact of making people feel unwelcome. Comedian Hari Kondabolu told this story as during one of his shows:
I was at a party last week and this guy came up to me and he was like:
"Hey Man, where are you from"
So I told him- "Queens NY"
"No, I mean, where are you really from"
Which for those of you who don’t know, that’s code for “No, I mean, why aren’t you white? I noticed your skin was a different color from mine”
I was offended, clearly

I’m assuming that party guest hadn’t intended to offend, he was probably just expressing his curiosity. But the impact on our comedian was quite different from what he intended.

 So what do you do when you realize you’ve asked the stupid question, or when you realize your guest is kosher and you have served him a lobster? First, you state your intention “I had intended to show you my gratitude by serving the most fancy thing I could think of." Second, try to slow down your “knee Jerk” defense response. It would be easy to think to yourself “they have no right to be upset, I did the best I could!” but if you can just silence that impulse for a moment, they you can give them a chance to share the impact on them. I asked some of my vegan friends to tell me about their dinner-guest challenges. Most of them replied with some variation on the theme of “I’m used to it. The important thing is to spend time with friends.” But we have to be ready for someone to say “There are no alternative protein sources at this retreat center and I’m literally starting to have trouble functioning!”  

Now here’s the tricky part. Our friend may reply with more anger here than really this situation alone deserves. Let’s take your transgender neighbor whom you called by his former name just this one time. If he responds with anger, remember that anger comes from not just this moment, but from every other person who calls him by the wrong name, uses the wrong pronouns, refuses to see him as he really is. Our mistake was relatively small, but it touched a nerve where he has a deep wellspring of hurt. What a gift you could give to just listen. Probably the first time someone asked Hari where he was from, “really” from, it wasn’t that big a deal, but as it happens again and again, compounded with all the other cultural obstacles people of color face in this country, it touches a very sore place.

While our friends are sharing the impact, we are listening empathically, trying to understand now they feel, rather than arguing or explaining or excusing ourselves. Then both parties can share information and be open to new information. If you can stay in this conversation and really listen, the next time your friend comes to dinner you will understand a little better what makes him feel truly at home. Maybe he has some favorite recipes that will become your favorite too. This is the most profound gift and the most profound challenge of being truly welcoming; if, when we encounter difference, we stick with it through the embarrassing fails, through the emotions and the tough conversations, it will change us. We will grow not only in our hospitality, but in our deeper and wider understanding of this world we share. 

This congregation is more diverse then we might guess at first glance- economically, politically. We are different ages, different sexual orientations. It is especially impressive how diverse we are theologically, considering we are all one faith community. We are Theists, and atheists, we are Jewish and Christian and pagan. Some of us grew up in a faith community, and for some of us this is our very first faith community. As Universalists, we like to focus on what we all have in common, our inherent worth and dignity, our humanity. But as part of a free and responsible search for truth and meeting we will encounter our differences to. Be proud that not everyone in this congregation voted the same in the last presidential election. Be proud that last year a 2nd amendment rights activist and a die-hard pacifist both spoke about gun violence from this same pulpit. I know that it is hard to say something when you think it is not the majority opinion of the community. But in this world where your search engine gives you the information it thinks you want to hear, where even the news channels are partisan, coming to a church where you might hear something you don’t believe is important for the healing of the world. I encourage each of you to be brave and say the true thing that is in your heart. And just as important, if you hear someone say something that is the absolute opposite of what you believe, to say “I have never thought about things that way. Help me understand.”

This is what it really means to “affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person” – to affirm not only the common ground among us, but our differences too. In the words of Rebecca Parker, “Love seeks to know the other as other and to preserve and protect the just so ness, the "otherness" of the other.” The Golden rule helps us remember that all of us have the same basic needs for food and shelter and safety, to love and be loved. But in this world of tremendous diversity, and among the diversity of this our beloved community let’s also remember the Platinum Rule: “do unto others as they would do unto themselves.” 

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