What’s in Your Backpack
The Power of Myth features some of Joseph Campbell’s most profound sayings about the hero’s journey. One of them is this: “A hero is someone who has given his life to something bigger than himself. That’s the central message of the myth. You as you know yourself are not the final term of your being.”
That is so good. Positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi agrees and says it this way: “One cannot lead a life that is truly excellent without feeling that one belongs to something greater and more permanent than oneself.”
What’s exciting for me this morning is to see this idea about the hero literally encoded in our Seven Unitarian Universalist Principles, especially in the way they are numbered and laid out. Listen:
We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote:
- The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
- Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
- Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
- A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
- The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
- The goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all;
- Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
Every Principle beyond the First represents a bigger thing and a something greater that the hero gives himself or herself to. If “The inherent worth and dignity of every person” is ME, then “Justice, equity and compassion in human relations” is YOU, and “Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations” is US, “The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large” is the NATION, “The goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all” is the WORLD, and, finally, “Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part” is the ALL.
From ME to YOU to US to NATION to WORLD to ALL.
That is our Unitarian Universalist hero journey.
And that’s what I want to talk about today—what needs to be in our backpacks to help us stay on track with the task of giving ourselves to increasingly bigger and greater things. What needs to be in there to help us stay focused and fight forgetfulness, fight complacency.
As a side note: if you are listening carefully and you know your Seven Principles, you are wondering where the Fourth Principle of the “Free and responsible search for truth and meaning” fits in. I’ll explain in a bit. You’ll see.
So: what’s in our Unitarian Universalist backpack?
The first thing is a map of the hero’s journey, its basic phases. Call to adventure, threshold, challenges and temptations, transformation, return. Think Odysseus, think Bilbo Baggins, think Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, Katniss Everdeen. The map is there in our Unitarian Universalist backpack to remind us that inherent worth and dignity is fundamentally dynamic in nature. It’s not just some kind of lumpish thing. It’s energy, it wants to move from potential to actual, it ‘s got places to go and things to do!
It means that when Principles tell us to “affirm and promote,” what we’re really being asked to do is take the map out of the backpack and, for each individual, including ourselves, find out where they are in their hero’s journey. Every individual is on that map, somewhere. Odysseus in process, Harry Potter in process. That’s the reality of every individual. That’s the reality of ME.
But now, what happens when the focus shifts to that of the other, to YOU? Here is where we move to a slightly “bigger” thing, and what helps us do that is the next item in our backpack:
It’s a travel-sized version of Monopoly. Pull that out of your backpack and start playing, and all sorts of learnings related to justice, equity, and compassion in human relationships start to unfold. For one thing, games in general are great teachers of the arts of civilization. Play can provide a safe outlet for releasing aggressive impulses. Play teaching people how to follow rules. Play teaches people how to take turns. You want kids to learn justice, equity, and compassion? Have them play games.
I remember playing games with my older brother Rob. Not Monopoly, but chess. Once, he got so frustrated, he swept the entire board with his arm and sent all our pieces flying. I was outraged! Mostly because I was finally going to beat him. Victory was taken from me—a thing I deserved! And when you don’t get what you deserve—that’s injustice.
But I’m recommending not a chess set but Monopoly for our Unitarian Universalist backpack precisely because so much of justice, equity, and compassion relate to privilege and oppression. The haves and the have nots. You can learn a lot about justice if you play the game like it gets played in real life. Different rules for different players. Player #1 receives $350 for passing Go (well above the standard $200) and is permitted to buy houses and hotels two for one. Player #2 has rules like “You can only move half the amount you roll” and “You can only buy property priced less than $150.” Player #3 has rules such as “You will go directly to jail for rolling a number higher than 7—meaning that he’s in jail most of the time, or police tend to shoot first and ask questions later. Player #4 is the only one who gets to play by the actual rules in the rule book and his privilege—the privilege of not being interfered with—is invisible to him….
If the ME—the individual—is on a hero’s journey, then surely the heroic thing to do when ME meets YOU is to play a fair game. Repair the one that’s rigged and wrong.
But this is a daunting task, so, happily, ME meets YOU is not all there is to it.
The next thing we pull out of the backpack is this picture. It reminds us that there’s no way to get to the beauty of a rainbow if you are but one color standing alone. A rainbow is way more than just the sum of parts. If the separate colors can learn how to stand together, what an amazing thing comes to life!
It’s the power of community, the power of WE which is larger than just ME and YOU. “We build on foundations we did not lay,” says the Rev. Peter Raible:
We warm ourselves by fires we did not light
We sit in the shade of trees we did not plant
We drink from wells we did not dig
We profit from persons we did not know
This is as it should be.
Together we are more than any one person could be.
Together we can build across the generations.
Together we can renew our hope and faith in the life that is yet to unfold.
Together we can heed the call to a ministry of care and justice.
ME and YOU are just not enough. Each of us needs to plug into the power of US in order to keep the hero journey going. One hero journey killer for sure is shame, which absolutely depends on people thinking they are alone. But, says shame researcher Brene Brown, “If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.” Love destroys shame. Together we ARE more than any one person can be. Together we CAN renew our hope and faith in the life that is yet to unfold…
But now I’d ask you to shift gears and listen very carefully to these quotes from a famous piece of hero literature:
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.
“I am looking for someone to share in an adventure that I am arranging, and it’s very difficult to find anyone.”
“I should think so — in these parts! We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner!”
“Sorry! I don’t want any adventures, thank you. Not Today. Good morning! But please come to tea -any time you like! Why not tomorrow? Good bye!”
That’s the voice of Bilbo Baggins from The Hobbit. And right here is demonstrated the shadow side of US. Communities can hunker down in their hobbit holes and get complacent. Groupthink can take over. “We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures.” We don’t know that we don’t know.
Which is exactly when we want to pull this out of our Unitarian Universalist backpack:
It’s a Gandalf action figure. Everyone needs one in their backpack. Henry David Thoreau, our great spiritual ancestor, knew this. He once said, “We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake” and he sounded the alarm again and again because he knew that sleepwalking through life is a constant temptation—especially when we are sleepwalking in unison, sleepwalking in community. “We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures.”
But along comes Gandalf. Gandalf plucks us from our cozy home and plunges us into adventures. We learn that true JUSTICE is way more than JUST US. We learn that “the road runs ever on,” towards higher levels of being…
And so we pull this next item out of our Unitarian Universalist backpacks:
It’s another action figure: a John Stewart action figure.
The fact is, ME and YOU and US don’t live hermetically sealed off from our NATION. Where the NATION goes, we go. And so we have to pay attention to what’s happening in our democracy. We have to learn citizenship that makes a difference. And we have to do it in this day and age, in which we see an ascendency of truthiness and one schlocky pundit after another whose mantra is, basically, “Truth is that which can be boldly asserted and plausibly maintained.” “There is,” said Isaac Asimov, “a cult of ignorance in the United States… The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’”
Therefore, What Would John Stewart do? He is no patron saint of liberal smugness. Again and again he called out liberals as well as conservatives. When his mind reached out to another point of view and discovered it devoid of anything to satisfy a reasonable person—anything at all—well, out came his hilarious and delicious irony. Made us laugh for five seconds and then think for fifteen minutes.
If truthiness is Voldemort, then John Stewart is Harry Potter, and he shows us a way to re-engage the political process and stay engaged….
But there are two more items in our Unitarian Universalist backpack. The next is …
… a vial of water. Water reminds us of a level of being that is far greater than ME or YOU or US or the NATION. We all come from water: not just as mammals who float in amniotic fluid as we are readied for birth; not just as species on a planet where all life began in the ocean; but also as beings who (in the here and now) simply cannot survive unless there is drinkable water to drink. Water is a symbol that reminds us of a reality that transcends all divisions and unites us all in one human family.
And yet, almost three-quarters of a billion people around the world lack clean drinking water. The United Nations has reported that more people now die from contaminated water than from all forms of violence. The human right to water—access to safe, sufficient, and affordable water for everyone—is more important than ever.
And as I say this, it feels like we are David facing down Goliath, or Odysseus in battle with the Cyclops….
How can communities of US change a complex system like the WORLD?
But it’s said that “The most common way people give up their power is thinking they don’t have any” (Alice Walker). It’s said that “Nothing great was ever achieved by being realistic” (Tom Venuto).
Death Stars HAVE been known to blow up…
And now, the last item in our Unitarian Universalist backpack:
It’s a prism. A prism demonstrates that appearances are deceptive where light is concerned, and reveals an underlying harmony and beauty. So, too, can we heroes accomplish our largest task of all and give ourselves to the ALL. Bring to the ALL a mind that operates like a prism. Look beneath and beyond surface appearances, to the reality. Align ourselves with that reality, despite appearances.
Years ago, I sat in a darkened theater and it was the start of the movie and these are the words that scrolled down the screen:
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away… It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire. During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the Death Star, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet. Pursued by the Empire’s sinister agents, Princess Leia races home aboard her starship, custodian of the stolen plans that can save her people and restore freedom to the galaxy…
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away … and also right here and now. No evil Galactic Empire per se, or Death Star, but agents of evil every bit as bad. And ME and YOU and US and the NATION and the WORLD are racing and rushing around, just like Princess Leia. But I am struck by the movie’s ultimate message that what really brings healing to the universe at all levels is the hero’s discovery of the ALL. First Obi Wan Kenobi and then Yoda teach Luke Skywalker to bring the prism of his mind to reality and what is revealed is The Force. Says Yoda, “Size matters not. Look at me. Judge me by my size, do you? Hmm? Hmm. And well you should not. For my ally is the Force, and a powerful ally it is. Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter. You must feel the Force around you; here, between you, me, the tree, the rock, everywhere, yes.”
“Respect for the interdependent web of all existence, of which we are a part” is not just a nice sentiment. It wants to make us nothing less than Jedi Knights who serve a vision of the Force and out of this heal the WORLD, the NATION, the community of US, YOU and ME. Doesn’t matter what your size is!
That’s what’s in our Unitarian Universalist backpack. Seven items representing Seven Principles all adding up to a hero’s journey through life. “Follow your bliss,” says Joseph Campbell, and here are the people of your bliss. Here is the track you have been waiting for. “Follow your bliss,” he says, “and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be.”
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.
Right here and right now.