Thursday, October 25, 2012

Observing Grief (October 21, 2012)

The classic Buddhist tale we heard during our lesson for all ages, “The Mustard Seed” reminds us that each and every person on this earth has experienced loss. And like the heartbroken mother in our story, we may think some times when grief comes over us that we are alone in our grief, that the smiling chatty folks around us, the folks doing the work of living day to day don’t know…but of course they do. Not everyone knows the excruciating grief of losing a child, as Kisa Gotami did, but being alive in this mortal world means knowing loss.

And grief, grief is the process by which we heal those holes left in our life through relocation, through divorce, through death. We mammals are designed to feel acutely the loss of one we love, it is a survival mechanism that binds parent to child, that binds together family group and tribe. The more we bring people into our hearts, the deeper the hole they leave if they are taken from us.

I think that we in this age have more trouble with the process of grieving, because we like to move through things quickly. In the classic Jewish tradition mourners take a week to sit quietly with family and friends and observe their grief . They are not to work, they have no other social obligations during this time. They cover the mirrors in their homes to relieve the responsibility, the anxiety about literally “keeping up appearances.” For the most acute losses they observe a period of mourning for a year, as a reminder to themselves and their community that grief ebbs and flows long after the religious services are over. My colleague Craig, who will be coming here to preach in 2 weeks, described grief as an ocean, along whose shore we walk. At any time the waves may come in, wetting the bottoms of our feet and receding, or knocking us over with their power and pulling us under water. When those waves come it is challenge enough if we are in a safe place were we can surrender to our grief, but often times they come while we are driving our car, at our job, at a dinner party, we are disoriented and confused and overwhelmed.

Grief takes many forms- it is as variable as humanity itself. Tears, sadness, we expect. But other emotions like anger? Or numbness? These often take us by surprise, and maybe go unrecognized as grief. We may even notice guilty feelings arising if we imagine we are not grieving the “right way,” for example the very common feeling of relief experienced by survivors when someone who has been struggling for a long time finally dies and has an end to their suffering. Sometimes we are surprised by anger at the person who has left us. Maybe we regret things done or left undone, said or left unsaid. But all these feelings are possible and important and real. Counselors during the peak of the aids crisis noticed that some folks were losing so many friends and loved ones that they had sort of a grief fatigue, that began to grow numb and felt incapable of grieving any more. And so they encouraged those facing these many losses to put on a sad movie and grieve those many losses. Whether it takes the form of tears or irritability, or rage --whether you feel completely numb and empty --all of this is grief, and no one way of grieving is better than another.   

I want to acknowledge we grieve not only the relationships that gave us comfort and joy, we also have to grieve the difficult relationships. When we grieve, for example, the loss of a friend or relative from whom we had drifted apart. We grieve not only the loss of what was, but also of what might have been. Perhaps we always assumed that some day we would reconnect, and now we have come to an  ending with things still unsaid and undone. We grieve the loss of a future together.  We need to grieve even the loss of those who were abusive to us. Maybe we feel rage for how we were hurt, sadness for the healthy relationship we deserved, perhaps guilt that we had wished that person would finally leave our lives. This kind of compound grieving can be hard to navigate, hard to express, and still I think the best we can do is to observe it, to witness each facet as it is uncovered, as it washes over us.

When waves of grief come, however they come, I believe that the best wisdom of the Buddhist teachers is to simply observe it, not to struggle against the undertow, but to let the grief do its work. To let go. The Buddha taught that pain was inevitable, loss was inevitable, but suffering is optional. By that he meant that it is the act of fighting against the current, the big waves, that causes suffering. By holding on to our grief, or by pushing it away, stuffing it down, ignoring it, these are what cause us to suffer. When the waves come, small or overwhelming, I encourage you to pay attention, to give it the time it needs. We don’t always have the luxury of saying “I’m taking the afternoon off because I need to grieve.” But pull over to the side of the road if you are driving. Stand up from your work and take a walk or find a place to sit undisturbed for a few moments, or a few hours. The pain of grief is not like the pain of getting your hand too close to the fire, which tells you to pull away, it is more like the pain of a wound healing.

Grief is the process of knitting back together those holes, those empty places where our loved ones used to be. We wove them so carefully into our lives, and now that they are gone we feel we may unravel without them. My theology professor told us, years after the death of his wife, that he experienced one of the most acute moments of grief as he was ready to leave a party, and looking around for his wife as he had done at the end of every party for 40 years. That hole where our loved ones used to be cause us to stumble- to wonder how can we live each day without them. Loss creates a change in the terrain of our lives, and grief is the process of re-forming our lives, transforming our lives into a new wholeness. Even those waves that drag us under are helping us transform our lives. Those waves are part of the slow process of washing us clean of what is gone, of what we have lost. And so instinctively we struggle, because that pain binds us to what we have lost. Says Dr. Earl A. Grollman, one of the great teachers about death and loss:
Grief is not a disorder, a disease or a sign of weakness. It is an emotional, physical and spiritual necessity, the price you pay for love. The only cure for grief is to grieve.”

Lest we be washed out to sea, we need anchors or touchstones to keep us tethered to all that is still alive and growing in this world. A favorite movie or poem or piece of music can be a touchstone to bring us back to ourselves. If walking in the woods or gardening restores your soul in ordinary times, when you are awash in grief, you need these things more than ever. For some work can be that anchor, but we must be careful not to use work as a way of blocking out or avoiding our grief. This is not the time for big ambitious projects, but the simple actions that pull you back to yourself, like putting your hands in the earth, or in a dishpan of soapy water. The key is not to expect that this time of grieving will be like other times, but to witness and notice- today I washed 2 dishes and even that was hard. Today I walked in the woods and everything reminded me of her.

The most important touchstone, or anchor, is compassion -- compassion first for your self if you are grieving. When you are not as productive as you might normally be, or patient, or witty, or when you just have trouble putting words together, be compassionate, be kind to yourself, as you would to a dear friend who was grieving. Don’t let your grief come between you and the people who love you. It can be hard to connect with others when those waves come, it is easy to isolate yourself when you are grieving. Because truly, no one can really understand what you are feeling, no one can take your pain away. But no living being can survive in isolation. We need one another.

In his novel Hannah Coulter about a small rural community experiencing the losses of World War 2, Wendell berry writes:
 “I need to tell about my people in their grief. I don’t think grief is something they get over or get away from. In a little community like this it is around us and in us all the time, and we know it. We know that every night, war or no war, there are people lying awake grieving, and every morning there are people waking up to absences that never will be filled. But we shut our mouths and go ahead. How we are is ‘Fine.’” [p. 61] 
I think we are blessed in this beloved community to know that if we say we are “fine” that folks around us will respect our solitude, our privacy, but we are also a congregation that speaks its joys and concerns out loud. Ours is a community where we have the honor of being present to one another’s grief. Berry continues
“and yet the comfort somehow gets passed around: a few words that are never forgotten, a note in the mail, a look, a touch, a pat, a hug, a kind of waiting with, a kind of standing by, to the end.” [p. 62]
Whether we are the sort who is comforted by talking about our losses with someone we trust, or whether we feel more comfortable when we “shut our mouths and go ahead.” Still we need on another, and comfort is somehow passed around.

Being with one another in grief is difficult. It is difficult because it may bring our own grief back to us in a fresh way. It is hard because we can never really ease the grief of another- only the miraculous restoration of the one lost could truly fill the hole in their lives. It is difficult because we know how tender the heart is when it is grieving, and sometimes we just say or do the wrong thing, maybe the very thing that would bring comfort to us is painful to our companions. A colleague once told me the cautionary tale of going into the hospital room of a young man dying of aids. She asked him “How are you?” and he replied in fury “how do you think I am! I’m dying!” The lesson my friend took from this moment is to never ask “how are you”  but I took a different lesson from it, that if you ask how someone is, you must be ready to listen and stay present with however they really are, whether that is rage, or sadness, or despair, or a need for solitude. I confess to you that despite the training I had in pastoral counseling, when I enter into a conversation with someone who is grieving, I am a little nervous, wondering if my presence will sooth or agitate, whether I will say the wrong thing, but I have made up my mind that I would much rather have a grieving person go away from our conversation saying “That minister is a bumbling idiot” than “Why does no one reach out to me when I need them the most? I feel so terribly alone.”

Any attempt to smooth over the loss will fail- must fail- “he’s in a better place now” or any variant on “it’s for the best” or “life goes on”  is an attempt to bring premature closure. It is not developmentally appropriate in acute grief. Usually it speaks more the well-wisher’s discomfort with the depth of grief. Our goal as supportive neighbors, family or friends is not to sooth, not to smooth over, but to be present with the truth of what is. To say simply to a neighbor or friend “I heard about your loss”  and “I’m sorry” gives the mourner a chance to speak about their loss if they choose, or just to know they can number you among those who will understand if you are not quite yourself. . As we are present with our own grief, so we can be present with the grief of another, “a note in the mail, a look, a touch, a pat, a hug, a kind of waiting with, a kind of standing by, to the end.”

I believe this is the most precious gift we can give to someone who is grieving, our simple presence. Without trying to fix the person, without offering advice,  without trying to talk them out of their difficult feelings, just to be a compassionate presence for them, however they are in that moment.

The message we often get from our society is to try not to show our grief to one another, to not “be a downer” to stay productive. Even as those waves wash over us we feel like we should stay “productive.” But remember Kisa Gotami walking with her grief cradled in her arms, comforted finally by not only the knowledge that grief is part of the fabric of every being’s life, but also that if we can acknowledge, share, observe grief, we will better remember that we are not alone. We grieve because we are creatures who connect, who love, and therefore, we know loss. Writes Wendell Berry: “Grief is not a force and has no power to hold you. You only bear it. Love is what carries you, for it is always there, even in the dark, or most in the dark, but shining out at times like gold stitches in a piece of embroidery” [p. 50]

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Is Loyalty a UU Value? (September 30, 2012)

This past summer I saw a video featuring moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt. He identified 5 foundational moral values and showed that when tens of thousands of persons were surveyed there was a reliable difference in which values were more important to folks who identified as liberals, and which were most important to those who self identified as conservatives. The values of Compassion and fairness were considered the most important by liberals, while conservatives felt that the other three values of respect for authority, loyalty and purity were just as important.[i] It was a fascinating talk, because it gave some insight into why liberals and conservatives have so much trouble understanding one another, in seeing the world through one another's eyes.

As a self-identified liberal, it didn’t rock my sense of who I am too much to see compassion and fairness elevated over respect for authority and purity. But seeing Loyalty there as conservative value and not a liberal one… that bothered me. It made me wonder -- could we Unitarian Universalists, both liberal and conservative, get behind loyalty as a value? The psychologists who designed the test define it this way “Loyalty/betrayal: This foundation is related to our long history as tribal creatures able to form shifting coalitions. It underlies virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice for the group. It is active anytime people feel that it's "one for all, and all for one."

Today we honored Andy and Joe and their marriage, a marriage which was not the union of two kids with  romantic notions about life, but of 2 adults who have already proven their loyalty to one another and to family. The 2009 Census showed marriages are now at an all time low.  Only 52 percent of adults 18 and over reported themselves as married, compared with 57 percent in 2000.[ii]  This reduction in marriages is both folks who have never been married and folks who are divorced or widowed.

Initially when divorce became more possible in our culture, I know there were some women and men for whom this was literally  life saving. Folks trapped in abusive or oppressive relationships could see no way out. The option of never marrying is a blessing to new generations of men and women who were forced into un-wanted marriage out of social convention. But I propose that the pendulum has now swung too far to the other direction. Today the media often portrays marriage and romance much like any other consumer activity, shopping around for the best sweater or TV set, and relying on the return policy if the sweater no longer fits, or if the TV needs an upgrade.

I know that in this room there are folks who don’t buy into that cultural image of marriage as one more consumer good for sale in the marketplace. There are folks here who have been married for decades, who live loyalty day by day, who have stood by their partners through mental or physical illness, through disputes over the dishes, through conflicting career aspirations, through nights with colicky babies, or arguments about whether to have children. When Unitarian Universalism comes out year after year as a very public voice for marriage equality, I think most folks look at their message first and foremost as a pro-equality movement, but I also want to lift up that this is a pro-marriage movement, a pro-loyalty movement. If we didn’t believe in marriage, why would we embrace this particular inequality? Ours is not a religious tradition that says everyone must be married, but I do think it is important to name loyalty as a religious value, and to stand on the side of commitment and loyalty.

My premarital counseling professor once told us that some of his couples wanted to promise to stay together “for as long as we both shall love” instead of “for as long as we both shall live.” He would refuse – “That’s not really a marriage” he said. Because there is something about knowing that a union is a forever promise, that it doesn’t come with a gift receipt so you can return your partner if they don’t do their share of the dishes, or if a newer fancier model comes along later. Such a promise changes fundamentally the nature of the relationship. The Great 19th century novelist George Elliot wrote “What greater thing is there for two human souls, than to feel that they are joined for life—to strengthen each other in all labour, to rest on each other in all sorrow, to minister to each other in all pain, to be one with each other in silent unspeakable memories at the moment of the last parting?[iii]” It fundamentally changes the relationship to covenant “for richer for poorer, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health. ” Such a promise is a foundation you can build your lives on.

In one of Wendell Berry’s novels, his protagonist HannahCoulter, shares the view of one who has been married for many years, as Berry himself has: [p. 109] "You have had this life and no other. You have had this life with this man and no other. What would it have been to have had a different life with a different man? You will never know. That makes the world forever a mystery, and you will just have to be content for it be that way."

I think as a denomination, we have been reluctant to speak too strongly about the value of marriage in particular, because we know there are folks who build their lives on a different foundation. They chose not to be in a life partnership, and instead have strong bonds with friends, with parents or siblings, with extended family. There are folks for whom heartbreak has crumbled those very foundations they used to depend on, and those whose lives are more solitary. But I think it is the job of your beloved community to say to one another- don’t let heartbreak undermine your capacity to connect, to value connection, and to stand by those connections. 

The biblical story of Ruth and Naomi is a wonderful story about how loyalty can take unexpected forms. Some of you will remember that in this story Naomi’s husband dies, and not long after her two adult sons. She says to her 2 recently widowed daughters-in-law
“Go, return each of you to her mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you as you have dealt with the dead and with me. 9 May the Lord grant that you may find rest, each in the house of her husband.” Then she kissed them, and they lifted up their voices and wept.
One daughter in law, Oprah, chooses to go back to her mother’s household, (remember this was a matriarchal lineage) but the other, Ruth says to her
16 “Do not urge me to leave you or turn back from following you; for where you go, I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God. 17 Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. Thus may the Lord do to me, and worse, if anything but death parts you and me.” 18 When she saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.”

Ruth is elevated throughout the Judeo-Christian tradition as a standard-bearer for Loyalty.  Legally, she owed no fealty to her Mother in law, but she made this vow of loyalty, and as the story reveals, is true to her vow.

Certainly loyalty has a  shadow side, which is betrayal and abuse. For years religious leaders have told women or men trapped in abusive relationships that this is their cross to bear. That they must remain true to their promises and “try to work things out.” Untold damage and harm has been done with such admonitions. I attended a clergy training about domestic abuse over at Guthrie, and one of my evangelical colleagues stood to respond to this traditional dialogue and said “A woman who leaves an abusive relationship is not breaking her covenant. The man broke the covenant when he abused her.” The shadow side of loyalty is that it sometimes us into staying past the time when the covenant is broken. Sometimes the most loyal thing we can do is name the truth, is uphold the boundaries of our covenant. If we are in an abusive marriage, and we cannot restore the safety of that relationship, it is not un-loyal to leave. If we see democracy erode in our great democratic nation, it is not un-loyal to speak up and say “we can be better than this, I know we can.”

I went to the website and took the survey, and one of the questions stuck out to me: “should you give help to a member of your family even if they do something wrong?” I believe that you should. I believe that there must be some network, some community looking out for each and every person, even those who commit grievous errors. Now, let’s be clear that one must also put up boundaries. This is not disloyal. One should think carefully about giving money to a cousin you know is a heroine addict. We must keep our children protected from relatives or friends who have transgressed sexual boundaries. Keeping those boundaries is part of loyalty.

Here’s a question that often pits liberals against conservatives: “should you be loyal to your country even if you think it has done something wrong?” Remember the old rallying cry: “America: love it or leave it?” I want to challenge that old chestnut and say that is not really loyalty. I think real loyalty sounds more like “America: love it or work to make it a great country for all.” I want folks who think critically about government to reclaim the word “loyal.” Do you believe that those folks out shivering in the cold in an Occupy tent city are disloyal? I don’t believe they are. I think it takes a tremendous amount of loyalty to speak truth. And I have to say the same thing about those standing on tired cold feet at Tea Party protests. To me it is more loyal to stage a protest than to just give up on the democratic process and stop voting, stop paying attention, stop caring. To me political loyalty is not a passive thing, but an active one. We show our loyalty by showing up, by paying attention, and by hanging in there on good days and on bad.

After I realized that I was never going to be a professional opera singer and before I knew that I wanted to be a minister, I went to work for a company called Clendenin Brothers Inc. They made non-ferrous fasteners, and had been doing so since the 1865, because a port town like Baltimore needs rivets for ship-building and repair. Almost everyone in the front office had started in one of two jobs- the switchboard operator (my job) was the entry level job in the accounting department, and from there folks  advanced to biller, then to accounts receivable, then payables. The Sales intern usually became a sales person, and in fact the head of sales had been the sales intern almost 50 years back. I didn’t understand the politics as well in the factory, which was right there in the same building, but I knew that many of those who worked in the factory had been with the company for a long time. The company was loyal to its employees. If you were hired at Clendenin Brothers and worked hard, you could spend your life there, and each year the boss would stand in the loading dock handing out Christmas Turkeys and Hams.

When I spilled soda on the switchboard, a mistake that cost the company over $1000, I wasn’t fired, I got a very serious talking to by my boss, the comptroller. I confess I made a number of mistakes on that job, and each time, quietly, patiently, my boss and talked about what changes I could make so that those mistakes wouldn’t happen again. Hardly anyone ever got fired, and hardly anyone ever quit. One of my jobs as the switchboard operator was to interface with the vending machine guy. Being the kind of entrepreneurial young woman I was, when we received a proposal for a new vending machine contract, I presented it to my boss. I had heard enough complaints at the front desk about moldy food in the machines that I thought it was time to make a change. My boss said, “we have to think really carefully about this. We never leave a vendor lightly. Try to work it out with the current guy first, then we’ll talk about it.” This was a company that was loyal to its employees, to its vendors and to its customers. And I know that at least the employees in the front office were very loyal in return.

Is loyalty a Unitarian Universalist value? And if it is, do we believe that Unitarian Universalism is something we could trust with our loyalty? This, I think, is a question we struggle with mightily. So many of us grew up in other faith traditions, that we often speak most loudly about the importance of “Our chosen faith” …of choosing. We value so highly the wisdom of diverse religious traditions that we just spent 18 months teaching our teens about those neighboring faiths, and visiting those traditions as they gather in worship. But we have to be careful not to let loyalty to this faith become the null curriculum, that is, what we teach by what we leave out. Instead, let us fearlessly say to our children, if it is our truth, this is a good faith, and one that will walk with you all your life as you search for meaning and try to live lives that are compassionate and just.

Let us not forget to tell our children that if they choose to commit to this Unitarian Universalist tradition, it will be there for you in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health.  When we speak of “our chosen faith”, I encourage us to think of choosing in the same way that we may choose to enter into a marriage, rather than the way we choose a new TV at the electronics store. Because when you new get your TV home that first day and you’ve figured out the remote, that is about the best that relationship is ever going to be. But when you enter into relationship with a faith tradition, with a particular beloved community, that relationship has the potential to get deeper and richer and closer year after year as live itself changes and grows. Perhaps loyalty is like putting down roots- which takes time. The deeper the roots, the more the tree is able to weather storm and drought, the more channels of communication and sharing are open between and among the trees and other life forms in a grove. 

As Olympia Brown, the first Ordained woman preacher in America, Preached to her Racine congregation in 1920:
 “Stand by this faith. Work for it and sacrifice for it. There is nothing in all the world so important as to be loyal to this faith which has placed before us the loftiest ideals, which has comforted us in sorrow, strengthened us for noble duty and made the world beautiful.”

Loyalty takes many forms. Loyalty to country, to a partner, to friends, to family, to employer or employee. Loyalty sometimes runs in the face of cultural patterning that we should always crave something better, something more, as if the next friend, the next partner, the next job will be better than what we have now. When we claim Loyalty as an important value we are remembering  that some things only grow slowly with time and commitment, and that these things are of profound and satisfying value, even when they are hard, even when exciting new things sparkle in the distance. Loyalty is about giving relationships time to put down roots, to spread their branches, and to blossom and bear fruit.

[i] There is also a lovely interview with Haidt on Bill Moyers here 
[iii] From Adam Bede, George Elliot, 1859. Cited in We Pledge out Hearts ed. Edward Searl. Skinner House Press 2006.