Tuesday, November 26, 2019

The Heart of Hospitality

When I hosted thanksgiving for the first time at my house, I worked so hard to get everything clean, to set the table with our best plates, to make sure we had everyone’s favorite foods baked from scratch, with 2 kinds of homemade pies because not everyone likes pumpkin pie.

It was a stressful couple of days leading up to dinner, and even the moments right before serving were especially stressful, because it is so hard to get the timing just right, because you can’t start the gravy until you have the pan drippings from the turkey, and by the time the gravy is done the mashed potatoes are definitely cold, and I didn’t want my guests to be disappointed by cold mashed potatoes. But I realize now I was missing one of the most important things guests really need to make them feel at home.

Scientists tell us we are always scanning the environment for cues of safety. We’ve been doing this since we were a baby. We would look at our mother’s face, for something as simple as soft eyes and a relaxed forehead. We still do that today. If we see that the people around us seem anxious, we become anxious. If people around us meet our eyes with soft eyes and a relaxed forehead, something inside us feels safe. And when we feel at ease we can play and socialize and learn and grow.

So more than having the best china, the clean house, and 2 kinds of home baked pies, perhaps the most important way we can make a guest feel welcome, is to know that we ourselves are safe. To cultivate in ourselves a sense of basic trust. The house will never be clean enough, the food will never be perfect enough to give us that feeling. We just have to take a moment and remind ourselves that really everything is fine, that we are enough. Because that sense of ease is contagious.

And if you are a guest this holiday season, you might offer to bring a hot dish, or help with the dishes. But you might not realize one of the best things you can offer your host is just a relaxed smile that says “I can tell this is going to be fun. You are doing great.” The fancy science word for that is “co-regulation.”

When we come together as a congregation, we try to help one another feel welcome and at ease. We do this not just because it’s kind, although that is important. We do this not only because it helps us learn to think of others, although that is also very important. We do it because at the heart our congregation is about learning and growing and healing, and neuroscientists are finding what most of us have already experiencing, that most kinds of learning and growing and healing are almost impossible to do when you are anxious. 

So we do things to make this feel like a safe and caring place. Someone comes early to turn the heat on. Someone makes a pot of coffee. Someone makes beautiful music. And we all try, as we are able on any given Sunday, to greet one another and say “you are welcome here…we are glad you are here.”

Our church feels like a sanctuary not only because we have lovely windows, and beautiful music and hot coffee, but also because this is a place where people come to root themselves in what is good and loving. From the first notes of the prelude to the end of social hour, we cultivate that sense of trusting ourselves, of trusting the universe, and trusting one another.

I’ve changed my mind about how I want to be as a hostess this Thanksgiving. There will be just 4 of us, and I’ve decided that the right number of dishes to make is whatever number will allow me to sit down at the table without anxiety. That the first most important thing I want to prepare is myself, remembering that feeling of being safe at home, so I can communicate that trust, and communicate my caring to the people I love, even if the mashed potatoes are cold.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

What's the Good of Shame?

Unitarian Universalists don’t do shame and guilt. This was a common point of pride in my UU church growing up. Universalism grew up in opposition to the idea that humans are basically sinful. So I grew up believing instead that humans are basically good, and that through our diligence we can improve ourselves and improve our world. Ours is an optimistic faith that believes in progress and empowering people to be their best selves.

Our faith became a refuge for all those who were told they should be ashamed for who they are- doubters, heretics, A refuge for people who were shamed for who they loved or how they expressed their gender. This faith has been a balm and a refuge for centuries.

But here’s the thing- I grew up UU, and sometimes I still feel shame. Since it didn’t come from a fire and brimstone preacher, where does it come from? I am generally of the philosophy that emotions have reasons and uses. Sadness helps us process loss. Anger helps us defend our boundaries. Joy, well I think we all get why Joy is good. Even Guilt I get- the prick of conscience is our ethical compass. But shame? I started to pay attention to every time I felt shame, and the pattern I notice is that I feel it when I worry that I am out of covenant with community. I’ve got a little judge in my head that has internalized societies expectations, and gives me a jolt of shame when it thinks I’m in danger of doing something that jeopardizes my place in my community. In a way, Shame is an important survival mechanism for us creatures who need our tribe for survival. It’s okay that we have community standards for our actions, and that we have an inner warning system when we are doing something that may jeopardize our role in community.

The problem comes when we carry around old judgmental voices, real or imagined, that may or may not have anything to do with our actual community. I was sometimes picked on as a child for being part of a dissenting faith, and when I went on silent retreat at a Jesuit Retreat center during my last sabbatical, those old judging voices started in on me. Even though I had been super clear on my application that I was UU. Even though the spiritual director I worked with during that retreat said I was welcome to be part of liturgy, even to take communion if I chose, those judging voices really started to get to me. There are a lot of things you “just know” if you grew up Catholic about what the community expects. I had decided I wasn’t going to fake it. I was not going to try to keep up with the gestures and words that come so easily to someone in their own tradition, I would just be silent and still when I didn’t know what to do. But some inner judge decided I was being disruptive by doing something different than my comrades around me. And even though my spiritual director reassured me each day that everything was fine, the feeling didn’t abate until I really turned to look at those feelings of shame and realized this was something that was coming from inside me, not from my community. Despite all the preaching about “the inherent worth and dignity of every person” my faith in that worth sometimes wavers. That feeling of shame was showing me where my inner work was, my fear of being excluded from community, my feeling that just by being me, I was a disruption.

We UUs are quite clear on this- every single self has inherent dignity and worth. You get to be you. Perhaps shame shows us where our shadow is- the parts of ourselves we disown, the parts of ourselves we don’t like to look at.

Our UU theology asks us to separate our actions from our self. We’re not actually perfect. All humans make mistakes. All humans have a great capacity for both good and evil. We can do a bad thing, but that doesn’t make us a bad person. It’s part of our gift as a religious tradition that we don’t shame people for being who human beings. Our shadow as a religious tradition, especially these past 100 years, is that because we don’t do shame and guilt, we don’t have constant ways of helping one another talk about our mistakes, looking at our mistakes honestly and helping us reconcile.

That retreat happened to begin on Ash Wednesday, the first day of lent. Being born and raised UU, I had never actually observed Lent before. But here I was with a rare opportunity to learn from the “wisdom of the world religions”. Now not only was I going to Liturgy each day with my fellow retreatants, but I took up reading the morning and evening scriptures as well. I have never read the words “wicked” or “evildoer” so many times in my whole life. This put me in a quandary. As a UU born and raised I was not going to take those words onto myself. I believe I have inherent worth. I’m a pretty good person- I compost my food scraps, I pitch in where I can, I generally follow the rules. One way to read those passages would be to decide that other people were the wicked evildoers, and not me, since I’m pretty good. But I’m a Universalist. I don’t believe there are 2 kinds of people- wicked and good. I believe we are just humans with a huge range of how we live out our capacities for good and evil.

Each day I would walk along the beautiful coast of the Atlantic Ocean, moved by the seals and sea birds, the sun gleaming off the white snow, the movement of the waves. When I saw the scraps of plastic among the sea polished rocks, I thought of all the ocean birds and fish who die from ingesting our plastic waste. This always makes me sad, but on a morning when the sight of seals sunning themselves on the coastal rocks had caused me such delight, the juxtaposition was particularly disturbing. I started filling my pockets with bits of plastic. I couldn’t clean up even in what I could see while walking, but I thought “I can at least do what’s in front of me.” For a few days the pattern continued- the Lenten scriptures, the walks along the beach, the pockets full of plastic. I began to despair at the size of the environmental devastation that we humans are responsible for, how could we ever turn ourselves around?

Then one day I came across this story from the gospel of Luke 18:
10“Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
And this spoke to me, as a pretty good person. Just because I’m pretty good, doesn’t mean I’m perfect. I use plastic. I drive a car. I eat meat. I do ordinary things considered normal in our culture that nonetheless contribute to our collective harm. No matter how lightly we tread we still leave a footprint.

No matter how hard I try to eliminate plastic from my life, it’s all around me. Sometimes I find myself standing in the checkout line at the grocery store with a salad in a giant plastic bubble, and I know that can’t be right, but I seem to be doing it anyway. I went to the sustainable home shop to buy a gift for a friend who is very passionate about reducing plastic consumption, and found a great little set of metal flatware you could carry in your bag so you don’t have to use plastic flatware when eating at a restaurant that give you no alternative. I was feeling pretty good about my choice until I got it home and opened it up to wrap it- each piece of flatware was in a plastic sleeve. D’oh! According to Per Espen Stoknes the mind cannot tolerate cognitive dissonance for long. Even knowing the environmental cost of using plastic, if I find that I am using it anyway, if I cannot figure out a way to extricate myself from its use, the mind cannot hold onto the problem, and so the mind decides it must not actually be a problem.

We need to develop the capacity to somehow open our hearts and minds to the harm that we cause even when we are working hard to reduce harm, the harm we cause just by being born into this culture at this time. This capacity is important and is something our culture does not do well. “We don’t do shame and guilt.”

This fall I’ve been reading a book called White Fragility with a group of folks from this congregation and the Binghamton congregation. It wrestles with the same question- how can we “pretty good people” have anything to do with racism? If there is something called “evil” in this world, then surely the kind of systemic oppression of people of color must be evil. Our hearts and minds can’t even hold the idea that we “pretty good” people might be participating in an evil system, and so we turn away from the problem. 

I attended a training by CB Beale about how to make our churches radically inclusive. CB suggested that, while we are making our circle a “safe space” for folks with marginalized identities, those of us with privilege should instead focus on making a “braver space.” They asked that we be willing to hold the uncomfortable feeling of knowing that we may inadvertently and with innocent intentions have done something or said something that caused another pain. They warned we might even feel shame- and invited us to notice the habitual pattern of turning away from any conversation that caused us to feel shame. Shame, they said, was one of the tools that allowed oppression to continue. Instead of shutting down the conversations that lead to feelings of shame, they invited us to use that feeling as a guide “here is where the work is.” Could we take that invitation to look, with humility and openness, at where the feeling is coming from? Could we just stay with it to ask “is there an opportunity for growth here?” Because all of us “pretty good” people still are human, and humans are imperfect. Fortunately humans are beings capable of creativity and change. Of course our lives have an impact on the earth. Of course our lives are part of powerful systems that are used sometimes to nurture and support life, and sometimes to oppress and harm. We live in an imperfect world desperately in need of transformation towards compassion and justice.

I believe that all our emotions come in the service of health and wholeness. When I feel sad or angry, I don’t enjoy those feelings but I am learning to just soften around that feeling, soften toward myself. I am learning to be present toward whatever emotion is arising and whatever wisdom that emotion is bringing. I’m starting to approach Shame the same way. As awful as it feels sometimes, I am trying let it come, and ask it what it has to say. I stand bravely in my inherent worth and dignity, I stand bravely in the knowledge that there is a love that holds us all, even me, and I ask with humble curiosity- where is the work I need to see? I can’t clean the ocean, but I can do the work that’s right in front of me. I want to do the work that’s right in front of me, whether that’s work on my own fears of unworthiness, or work on how I transform our world into a more just and compassionate place. The next time you feel that flush of shame, I invite you to resist the urge to feel, to fight, and see if there is some work that’s calling you.