Paths to Self Acceptance

Ever since the Moravian Love Feast service was brought to this congregation in the 1960s, we’ve been celebrating it faithfully. It happened here just this past Thursday. Surrounded by the greenery in this sanctuary, we heard lovely and moving Christmas music, we sung all the old beloved carols, we ate a simple meal of bread and cocoa symbolizing the table fellowship tradition that Jesus of Nazareth practiced in his time, and we also lit candles. The flame from one candle, passed on to another, and another, and another, until the sanctuary was filled with hundreds of points of fire. And while this was happening, the overhead lights were gradually dimmed, in proportion to the number of candles lit, until the lights were turned off completely, and of the people in the pews, all you could really see was the candle each one held, its flame burning brightly, with the particular face and form in shadow.

That’s when I had an epiphany. I suddenly saw the spiritual truth represented by the candle-lighting ceremony. Each of us is a light. It does not matter what we look like, fat or skinny, short or tall, beautiful or ugly; it does not matter what clothes we wear, whether designer or Target or Wal Mart; it does not matter what age we are, whether smooth of skin, or wrinkly, or whether blond or brunette or red or gray or white; it does not matter what our class is, how much money we have or do not have; it does not matter what our race is, whether African-American or Hispanic or Asian or Euro-American or other; it does not matter what our political affiliation is, whether Republican or Democrat or Independent or Tea Party or Coffee Party; it does not matter what our sexual orientation is, whether gay or bisexual or straight. On and on and on, it does not matter. All these particular aspects of our lives take a back seat for a moment, in the candle lighting ritual of our Moravian Love Feast, and we see each other truly for what we are. The way I believe God sees us. As shining points of fire. Lights with infinite value. Lights equal in God’s compassionate sight.

That’s what I saw this past Thursday, and it has fed me on my path towards this moment, as we talk about self-acceptance. This capacity to embrace and value all we are, unconditionally. Even the parts which are disappointing and can cause us to lose respect for ourselves. Even the parts which positively overwhelm us with pain and can cause us to reject ourselves. “Find yourself,” says the song which we just heard, “and you will find the way.” “It gets better, better, better.”

What I so love about this song is the hope it brings—not just because of the words and music, but also because of its very existence. The fact that it exists suggests something profound. For the author (Jay Kuo) to have written it, he must have known personally how things can go, not “better, better, better,” but from bad to worse—and then, he must have been able to ride out that storm to the other side. So the song goes,

“Hey friend,
We used to feel like you
No end in sight
Fearing everyday
But it gets better.”

It’s happened for him, and when we are in a difficult place, it can happen for us too. We can learn how to face the parts of ourselves that disappoint and even overwhelm in ways that are more positive and life-giving. We can learn to see ourselves with less self-condemnation and more compassion, more delight.

But we can surely struggle. Parts of ourselves cause us to lose self-respect. Other parts overwhelm us with pain. To cope, we cut those parts off. That’s what we do.

Listen to no less than the father of Unitarianism in America, William Ellery Channing: “My whole life,” he writes in his memoir, “has been a struggle with my feelings. […] Ask those with whom I have lived, and they will tell you that I am a stoic. I almost thought so myself. But I only remember a fire which will one day consume me. I sigh for tranquil happiness. I have long wished that my days might flow along like a gentle stream which fertilizes its banks and reflects in its clear surface the face of heaven. But I can only wish it.” That’s the great William Ellery Channing. Struggling with his emotionality and also his sexuality—all of it diminishing his self-respect because it was not in the image of the God of his imagination. So he struggled with the passions that kept on bubbling up within. Longed to master them. Subjected himself to all sorts of self-imposed disciplines, to regain self-respect. Unitarian Universalist scholar Thandeka gives us a great example of this: “[In training for the Unitarian ministry, Channing] usually worked at his desk until two or three o’clock in the morning. Frequently, the sun would rise before he went to bed. When he did go to sleep, he often used the bare floor as his bed. This was his way of trying to overcome what he described as his effeminacy and his unwanted sexual fantasies. Once on the floor, he would spring up at any hour and walk about in the cold in an attempt to toughen his heart. Channing also experimented with his diet and did not exercise.” Thandeka concludes, “As a result of these routines, he broke down his immune system and was infirmed for the rest of his life.” And there it is. He’s one of us—the father of American Unitarianism.

How many of you can personally relate? There’s something about you that’s unwanted, you’re not proud of it, and it causes you to lose self-respect, and you push back, you react, but it doesn’t necessarily make things better. If it’s not about emotion, it’s about something else. How about what we see in the mirror?

Too fat, too thin.
Cellulite.
Weird-looking knees or weird-shaped butt.
Skin blemishes.
Nose too big.
Not a six-pack, but a no-pack.
Or adolescence coming on, with all the changes.
Middle age coming on, with all the changes.
Old age coming on, with all the changes.

The struggle with body image can be as intense as any other.

And beyond all this, there’s parts of ourselves that can simply overwhelm, and to cope, we can just self-reject. Cut ourselves off. Justin Aaberg, who was 15 when he hung himself in his room on July 9, 2010. His last Facebook post said, “If you really knew me, no one would like me.” He said this because he internalized all the negative messages he heard about being gay. He internalized the prejudice. Listen to some statistics. “Lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth are up to four times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers.” (Massachusetts Youth Risk Survey 2007). “More than 1/3 of lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth report having made a suicide attempt” (D’Augelli AR – Clinical Child Psychiatry and Psychology 2002). ”Nearly half of young transgender people have seriously thought about taking their lives and one quarter report having made a suicide attempt “(Grossman AH, D’Augelli AR – Suicide and Life Threatening Behavior 2007). That’s what internalized prejudice does. The world, throwing out a lot of hate, and people catching it, people taking it in, believing it, drowning in it. It doesn’t always lead to suicide. You can still be living, and self-reject. But in every instance of self-rejection, whether it’s about sexual orientation or class or race or disability or anything else which is a lightning rod for prejudice—whether it’s about a more personal struggle, like you are a man and you grow up with a mother who hates men, and you carry that with you constantly, and on and on—something in ourselves dies. Parts in ourselves are cut off, frozen up. We lose the wholeness of ourselves, and we lose our way.

A different way of saying this is that we get tied up in a problem-saturated story. The language here comes from church consultant and Unitarian Universalist minister Larry Peers. “A problem-saturated story,” he says, “has a dynamic of its own. Often when we are telling a problem-saturated story … it has a trance-like effect. The story is self-reinforcing. We ‘see’ only those things that reinforce the story. Whatever is contradictory to this problem-saturated story goes un-storied and is not ‘seen.’” It happens in front of the mirror all the time. You spot a pimple on your chin, and you can’t see anything else. The dynamic happens everywhere in our lives. Congregational life too. Larry Peers says, “You can recognize the problem-saturated story when you’re in a group where someone offers an example of how difficult or awful something is in the congregation and before you know it the rest of us can’t help but chime in with more evidence for how truly bad and impossible the situation is.” All eyes and minds riveted on some malfunction, and there’s no room left for other perspectives or possibilities. It’s the downward spiral. Rumination on the problem making us extra-vigilant for more of the problem, or other problems; extra-vigilance helping to trigger even worse things. Can’t let the problem go. Can’t get bigger than the problem, see it from a different point of view, get loose. Happens in our relationships, happens in our solitude.

So we expend precious life energy trying to gain our self-respect back, just like William Ellery Channing tried to do with his self-imposed disciplines of overwork, sleeping on a bare floor, braving the cold, and so on, all to “toughen himself up.” Or we do even worse and self-reject. Self-hate. Suicide of spirit or suicide of body. “The worst loneliness,” says writer Mark Twain, “is not to be comfortable with yourself.”

“But don’t give up
Just take another look
And you can shine.”
That’s the song again.
“If you fall just get up, get up, get up,
cause there’s another way.”

And that’s what I want to turn to now. Paths to self-acceptance. Two of them.

One is a gift from Japanese culture, called “wabi sabi.” “Wabi-sabi,” says writer Leonard Koren, “is the quintessential Japanese aesthetic. It is a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. It is a beauty of things modest and humble. It is a beauty of things unconventional…. It is also two separate words, with related but different meanings. ‘Wabi’ is the kind of perfect beauty that is seemingly-paradoxically caused by just the right kind of imperfection, such as an asymmetry in a ceramic bowl which reflects the handmade craftsmanship, as opposed to another bowl which is perfect, but soul-less and machine-made. ‘Sabi’ is the kind of beauty that can come only with age, such as the patina on a very old bronze statue.” That’s from Leonard Koren.

So what happens when we take a wabi-sabi perspective on the things that bug us about ourselves? The emotions, for example, that can rush in all of a sudden, like torrential weather, and you have no idea what the butterfly was 7,000 miles away in another part of your psyche which flapped its wings and triggered the whole thing to begin with. Or the weird-looking nose or the weird-shaped butt. What does wabi-sabi do for us here?

This: it invites us to step back from instant judgmentalism, and to see our lives with the curious eye of an artist. In the case of difficult emotions popping up, wabi-sabi spells the difference between reacting with a big WHY AM I FEELING THAT? (which is a judgmental response that causes one’s self to shut down every time)—this, as opposed to a response that’s more open and accepting. Not WHY but What is my feeling like? When did it happen? What does it seem related to? Or, in the case of our bodies, wabi-sabi spells the difference between narrowing down like a laser on some feature we don’t like, and seeing ourselves holistically, like we would see a handcrafted bowl: beautiful especially because it is not perfectly symmetrical. Echoing wabi-sabi, the spiritual teacher Krishnamurti once spoke of our souls as all coming from the same paper, but what makes each of us unique is the creases left in the paper from all the folding and unfolding of experience. It’s true of our bodies as well. Each bulge and blotch and wrinkle tells part of the story of where we came from, who we are, and it is all beautiful. My big nose: beautiful because I got it from my grandmother.

Wabi-sabi does nothing less than immunize us from the way we can bully and demean ourselves. The stronger our spiritual immune system, the easier it is to shake off the negativity and feel more comfortable and at ease with who we are. To love ourselves unconditionally.

Medicine also comes from a second path to self-acceptance, which is perhaps even stronger than wabi-sabi: our Unitarian Universalist affirmation of the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Ours, not just that of others. Not just spreading love and justice in the larger world, for the sake of others, but for our own sakes as well.

It’s Fred Rogers, of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood fame, who once said, “I believe that at the center of the universe there dwells a loving spirit who longs for all that’s best for all of creation… and little by little will love us into being more than we ever dreamed possible. That loving spirit would rather die than give up on any one of us.” This is powerful medicine. Worth and dignity that we don’t have to earn, but is our birthright.

It’s powerful. Power to face up to any internal weather than comes our way. Strength to support us when we are feeling blown away by some self-hatred or other. The voice inside says, “I am bad because I am this or I am that. I am bad. I am bad.” A problem-saturated story like this takes center stage, and it threatens to hypnotize us and make it easy to think that it is equivalent with the whole truth, the whole enchilada. But faith in our own inherent worth and dignity makes us bigger than any single story. Faith in our own inherent worth and dignity enables us to hold that story in our hand, without reacting to it or allowing it to overwhelm us, and we can let it be for a time, be detached from it in a healthy way, until its scary energy calms down. We take a moment to breathe—and I mean this literally. Breath which revitalizes and brings us back to our larger sense of self. The effect is just like what I saw in our Moravian service from this past Thursday. The harsh glare of our self-bullying like the overhead lights, gradually going down in intensity, revealing what was and has always been true and will always be true no matter what: The shining light that each of us fundamentally is. Shining light.

“There is so much more than just the here and now,”
says the song….
“Don’t give up
Just take another look
And you can shine.
If you fall just get up, get up, get up,
cause there’s another way.
It gets better…