This spring semester, I am teaching online Unitarian Universalist Theologies for our local UU seminary, the Starr King School. And there is this line I keep repeating to my students-- if you want to know somebody’s theology, what they believe to be true (PAUSE) observe their lives, observe their bodies and actions, listen to their thoughts and feelings, then you will know what they really believe and with what they struggle.
Perhaps you have heard the Unitarian Universalist expression “we are about deeds, not creeds.”
I think emphasis on actual practice, on what we do with our bodies day in and day out is really wise. I would go so far as to say that our creeds, our beliefs about what is true, is embedded in our deeds. So, it’s not about “walking our talk.” It’s that our walk in many ways is our talk.
I believe that what we desperately need to live a fulfilled life, what the world desperately needs, in fact what may help save us and the world, is for us human-creatures, particularly those of us with relative amounts of privilege, to live through our eyes, ears, and fingertips, to think and love through our hearts, our bodies, our minds. The latest neuroscience reveals that what we consider “thinking” is always a full-bodied emotional process, no matter how rational, heady, and unemotional we try to make it. I suppose who you could say that we are always acting as an interconnected heart-body-mind.
When we do not retreat into the world of abstraction and ideas or headspaces of worry and fret, living as a heart-body-mind can make us painfully aware of our vulnerability. Is it not moments of realized vulnerability that often compel so many of us to seek a spiritual home? A loved one who becomes diagnosed with a serious illness, a divorce, an injury that requires us to re-arrange our life, a close encounter with death... Often, when we face the limitations of our lives, of our bodies, we then realize how much we need to reach out and feel apart of that great interdependent web of life. No matter how tidy and powerful our lives appear, in fact we are vulnerable and tender creatures. We are creatures deeply impacted by mortgage market meltdowns and heartbreak, to earthquakes and tsunamis and disappointments, by revolutions and rebellions, and to loss and grief.And the thing is, the ridiculous, paradoxical truth is that our vulnerability and our tenderness are the keys to strength and resiliency.
From the crush of wealth and power, can we tend to the broken in us all? Can we seek to understand the shyness behind arrogance, the fear behind pride, the tenderness behind clumsy strength, the anguish behind cruelty? Can we exercise compassion that comes from knowing we are all made of strength and struggle?
The answer is yes, yes we can. And, this kind of living is a long process requiring practice, imperfection, patience, gentleness, vulnerability, and strength. And as I have repeated this line to my students about focusing on how people live to discern their beliefs, I have started looking at my own life practices, only to realize how much I still struggle with perfectionism and vulnerability.
Vulnerability? Yes, listen to me preach how healing and necessary it is... but wait, it’s happening to me, now? In the past seven months, there have been a string of events in my personal life which put me painfully in touch with vulnerability: Illness in friends, injury, our dog biting the mailman and getting sued, and our car getting stolen, among some other challenges as well. It has been a hard year for many of us.
And do you know how I have dealt? Well, I did pray and journal some and we continue to get good support from friends and family. But, honestly, I also coped by getting angry, fearful, grumpy, and irritable. And while I want to tell you that I sat in a meditative state, being calmly aware of these passing emotions, I cannot. I did a lot of complaining and lamenting. I drank a lot of milkshakes from Jack in the Box. Totally human responses. But not the response that I think a minister should have--I had wanted to be all enlightened and spiritual. I “know better” I have the head knowledge to practice otherwise. But my heart-body-mind need a lot more embodied practice.
Yes, we can exercise deep compassion, yes we can embrace that we are all made of struggle and strength. And to journey on this path, to unlock the paradox that our vulnerability and our tenderness are the keys to strength and resiliency, we must also take a risk because the dominant messages many of us have been raised on direct and push us towards another path--the path of perfectionism.
I am hoping that many of you are familiar with the 1983 film Flash Dance?
Jennifer Beals plays the main character, Alex, who is a tough construction worker welder by day and a talented and ambitious dancer by night. She has a dream of entering ballet school and has to work hard to make that happen. The closing scene of the movie, Alex auditions for a prestigious ballet school. She walks into a large, intimidating wood-panel room with a big oak table, behind which sit six long-faced judges. She takes her vinyl LP and lingers for a few nervous moments before she drops the needle. Of course we, the audience, are rooting for the construction-worker dancer. Alex stumbles early on and has to begin again. And this time, she totally clinches her performance. We see her elegant turns, her expansive leaps, and even a breakdancing backspin. The audience delights that Alex auditioned in her authenticity, rather than sticking with ballet standards. She makes it, she did it. You leave the movie feeling inspired, perhaps thinking about what dreams you want to make happen in your own life.
It is absolutely true that we humans can create such beauty, can work hard to make dreams a reality. And there are indeed so many inspiring stories of real-life people living fulfilling, meaningful lives. And many of the stories we get exposed to in popular media, are manipulated fictions, peddling perfectionism.This final scene from Flash Dance, apparently, that incredible dance sequence was created by four different people: Jennifer Beals, a professional dancer for the ballet scenes, a champion gymnast for the leaping and jumping parts, and a male street dancer for the break-dancing moves.
I suspect that when we stop to examine the expectations we set for ourselves, we would find that our concept of perfection is so unrealistic that it could never exist in one person. That dance sequence would be very different if it was just Jennifer Beals but we leave the movie with the impression that the work of four people could be the work of one. There are so many expectations, from ourselves, our families, our communities, and broader culture. And in response to those expectations, in response to the many judgments and evaluations we face, I suspect we want to edit together all the best parts of our lives and just present those to the world, maybe post them on facebook.
But at what cost?
As Anne Lammott writes in her book Bird by Bird: “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life. Perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die.”
Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain. Perfectionism says we are what we accomplish and how well we accomplish it; it always has us asking “what will they think?” Perfectionism is a twenty-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact it may be the thing preventing us from the connection, love, and belonging we so desire.
We human beings are wired for connection. As infants, our need for connection is about survival. As we become adults and grow older, connection means thriving--emotionally, physically, spiritually, and intellectually. We all have the basic need to belong, to be valued for who we are, not just what we do. Belonging is the innate human desire to be part of something larger than us. And because this yearning is so primal, we often try to fulfill it via shortcut, by fitting in and by seeking approval. Fitting in means becoming what you think is needed in order to be accepted. Fitting in, in fact, usually inhibits belonging because we figure out what are the pieces of ourselves that are acceptable and only reveal those parts. Over time, we can become disconnected from ourselves, refusing to acknowledge those parts we deem unacceptable. Belonging, on the other hand, does not require us to change who we are- it requires us to be who we are, it requires us to be more of who we are, particularly the messy, imperfect parts. Belonging only happens when we risk sharing our authentic, imperfect, vulnerable selves with others and with ourselves..
Risk sharing our authentic, imperfect, vulnerable selves? I don’t know about you, but the sound of this makes my stomach clench up. It makes my stomach clench up because I realize there is a big part of me that still buys into our culture’s emphasis on “going it alone”, buys into myths of self-sufficiency; a part of me that equates success with not needing anyone, a part of me that believes vulnerability and imperfection equals weakness. Somehow it feels safer to act on this theology of perfection. And perhaps it is safer.
Dr. Brene Brown, a social work researcher who studies shame, says that practicing authenticity can feel like a daunting choice because is there is risk involved in putting your true self out there in the world. But, she offers this cigarette package style warning: Caution: If you trade in your authenticity for safety, you may experience the following: anxiety, depression, eating disorders, addiction, rage, blame, resentment, and inexplicable grief.
Sharing our authenticity requires courage. Sometimes when we risk authenticity, other people may not respond as we want to. Perhaps we will feel embarrassed or ashamed. Our dilemma is that when we do not care about what people think or feel, we then also become ineffective at deeply connecting with others. When we make ourselves immune to pain, we also numb ourselves deep joy. Courage is telling our stories, not being immune to criticism. Strength is developing the relationships and deep connections that keep us resilient. Staying vulnerable, risking pain as well as joy, is what we have to risk if we want to fulfill that primal yearning for connection and belonging.
So what does being authentic even look like? Perhaps it’s having guests over when your house is untidy. Perhaps its admitting how tired and resentful you are of some of the caretaking responsibilities you carry. Perhaps it’s sharing how truly sad, or angry you are. Perhaps it sharing how joyful and glad you are. What is authentic, what is vulnerable is different for each person. Only by staying attuned to the moment, to your intuitions, and to our bodies can we navigate this terrain of relating more authentically, of achieving deeper and more meaningful connection.
I believe, I hope that religious community can be a counter-cultural space that draws us to be more authentic, to share more of ourselves, particularly the messy, imperfect, and tender parts. In the words of Dr. Brene Brown, church can be a place where we can reclaim the gifts of imperfection--the courage to be real, the compassion we need to love ourselves and others, and the connection that gives true purpose and meaning to life. Religious community can be the space where we begin to take into our beings that vulnerability and strength are not opposites, but in fact mutually inclusive and necessary for us to live full, authentic, connected lives.
I end with these words by Leonard Cohen, in his song Anthem:
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.
Copyright © 2011, Intern Minister Darcy Baxter. All Rights Reserved.
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December’s Theological Theme: Divine Spark
Sunday Services at 9:00 and 11:00 a.m.
December 1 - A Larger Covenant
Rev. Sarah Moldenhauer-Salazar, Linda Laskowski, and Rev. Sue Magidson
December 8 - Participation: Spark of Life
Revs. Bill and Barbara Hamilton-Holway, Merrin Clough, Director of Family Ministry, Youth and Children’s Choir and Luminescence Choir
Capital Campaign Celebration, Mitten Tree Sunday, Holiday Fair, and New Member Welcome!
December 15 - The Divine Spark in All Creation
Revs. Bill and Barbara Hamilton-Holway, Merrin Clough, Director of Family Ministry,
December 22 - Holiday Pageant for All-Ages: Stepping into the Christmas Story
Director of Family Ministry Merrin Clough, Revs. Barbara and Bill Hamilton-Holway
5:00 p.m. Christmas Eve Candlelight Service
Student Minister Zak Wear, Merrin Clough, Director of Family Ministry; Bryan Baker, Director of Music; Youth and Children’s Choir led by Michele Voillèqué, Youth and Children’s Choir Director
10:00 p.m. Christmas Eve Candlelight Service
Revs. Bill and Barbara Hamilton-Holway and family, Luminescence Choir, soloists, and Bryan Baker, Director of Music
December 29 - 10:00 a.m. The New Year of Every Morning
Student Minister Zak Wear and Kay Fairwell