Deep Fun: Emptying by Rev. Anthony Makar

A passage from Alice Hoffman’s book called Here on Earth has been working its way through my heart lately. The book’s main character is returning to the town she grew up in. On the way to her old house which she hasn’t seen for twenty years, she drives by a stone wall, and a memory comes back to her: of how she used to “balance, arms out, ready for anything.” How she “truly believed that she carried her own fate in the palm of her hand, as if destiny was nothing more than a green marble or a robin’s egg, a trinket any silly girl could scoop up and keep.” How she “believed that all you wanted, you would eventually receive, and that fate was a force which worked with, not against you.”

Not any more, though. A sense of weariness fills her. That stone wall she passes by could still be a narrow passage that she could balance on, arms out, ready for anything, but there is no room for that any more.

The past holds the present hostage.

She stays in her car, and drives on by, and the rest of the story unfolds.

The rest of the story, which is about returning to your life, and what that’s like when you are so full up with disappointments and resentments and hurt.

And this is how the Alice Hoffman story expands to include every one of us. We don’t need to resemble the book’s plot precisely and be ourselves returning to the town we grew up in ten years ago, or twenty, or fifty.

Every one of us returns to our lives every morning when we wake up. Every morning, after sleep leaves us, and perhaps dreams, history rushes back in and we know ourselves again, and the fundamental question of the new day becomes, How much of this new day can I allow in? How much room can I give it, to show me something new, when old things are taking up space in my heart?

This is the Deep Fun spiritual question that we are engaging this morning.

Readiness for renewal, readiness for authentic connection, when there exist so many obstacles to that.

A major obstacle is a back-and-forth dynamic between a sense of entitlement and a sense of resentment. Grandiose expectations never fail to position us for disappointment. They are the bed bugs of the soul, so hard to get rid of.

Some say that natural selection plays a role here. Positive psychology researcher Jonathan Haidt is one of them. Natural selection, he says, is about creating winners in life, and there is evolutionary survival value to people overestimating their own virtue. “Evidence shows,” he says, “that people who hold pervasive positive illusions about themselves, their abilities, and their future prospects are mentally healthier, happier, and better liked than people who lack such illusions.” But, he goes on to say, “Such biases can make people feel that they deserve more than they do, thereby setting the stage for endless disputes with other people who feel equally over-entitled.”

To give just one small example, there is a reason why, when spouses estimate the percentage of housework that each does, the estimates total up to more than 120%. Each partner has grandiose illusions about how much they do, and that sets up the resentment cycle.

You aren’t doing unto me as I deserve! That’s what stops us from wanting to listen, to hear a different side of things, to be at peace.

Nature has put a tendency towards grandiosity in all our hearts. But there are other forces that set up the sense of entitlement-resentment dynamic, and they operate only on some of us and not others.

Womanist theologian Katie Cannon hits the nail on the head. White people, she says, resonate to a perfectionistic ethic of self-reliance, frugality, and industry because it works for them; they do not encounter the extraordinary obstacle of interlocking oppressions in their quest for self-actualization or economic success. Whites can even dream of the nobility of “voluntary crossbearing,” as when they can freely choose when to make a sacrifice. But this makes no sense when, in a black person’s life, the sacrifices are constant and no one ever asks your permission.

This is not just about race. This speaks to class, sexual orientation, gender identity, ability, and so on.

When you’re on the side of privilege, the vision of limitlessness fills you up, and part of it is real—you really have advantages others do not—but then a part of that vision is also unreal.

And that’s what you learn the hard way.

I can still feel the pain of slamming into my own personal limitations when I entered college. I emerged from high school as Student Council President, was in the academic top ten of my class, and was founding nerd or geek or both of a group called the “I. Q. Booster Club.” I was also a doctor’s son. Medicine was the only career path I had known all my life, and it was simply unimaginable to me that I could follow any other—even though, in another compartment of my brain, I wondered about what it would like to be a minister. But this is what we do—we compartmentalize; we experience a balkanization of the brain; the different parts don’t talk to each other. So I entered college with the purpose of going to medical school. And why not? The sky was the limit! Blithely and without any concern in the world, I signed up for the harder science classes—honors chemistry and honors calculus—to start off with a bang.

But it was all bust. It ate my lunch. All my overachieving got me nowhere. My head couldn’t follow the professors; my head couldn’t follow the numbers or the experimental protocols. Other students seemed to be understanding just fine, but I wasn’t understanding a thing, and this is where my perfectionism made my life a living hell. One day I called my dad, crying. I couldn’t do it anymore. He heard me and was kind, although from that day on our relationship changed. I wasn’t going to carry his dream forward; and whether or not this disturbed him wasn’t as important as how I felt about it. I had failed. I had bought into the fiction of limitlessness completely and totally—the fiction that the world is mine on my own terms if I just work hard; and if I don’t get the world, then I didn’t work hard enough, I didn’t do something enough, so it’s my fault and I ought to be ashamed.

There it is.

My social privileges as a straight white male remain. Because of them, the world dances to my tune, not perfectly of course, but more than it does for others. But this unearned grandiosity exists in poisonous tension with the lived reality of failure, and a shame that exists to this very day.

The sense of entitlement. Then the disappointment and resentment. Then the shame.

The heart can be so full of these, that nothing else gets in.

You return to your life, upon awakening from sleep, and the day is new, but there’s little to no room for newness inside you.

The Chasidic Rabbi Simcha Bunam of Pzhysha once said to his students: “Everyone must have two pockets, so that he can reach into the one or the other, according to his needs. In his right pocket are to be the words: ‘For my sake was the world created,’ and in his left: ‘I am but dust and ashes.

But the problem is when people reach for “For my sake the world was created” at the wrong time. That’s the problem of grandiosity.

When you and your spouse are arguing about housekeeping and who is doing what, and you pull out the “For my sake the world was created” slip of paper and press it into your spouse’s face—this is going to be one ugly fight.

When you bump up against personal limitations, and you reach for that slip of paper and make yourself read it over and over again—you end up feeling absolutely self-degraded and worthless.

When you experience the discomfort of hearing a person of color express intense upset, even anger, about how, once again, something happened and they were rudely reminded of what it means to be black in this country, and maybe you are the one who did the something, or maybe not, but either way, you experience great discomfort, and you’re not down with that, you take a look at that slip of paper in your hand that says “For my sake the world was created,” and it makes you feel entitled to not being uncomfortable, and all of a sudden you are the one feeling victimized, and all of a sudden a moment that contained the promise of authentic connection craters and things are even worse than before.

The problem is reaching for that slip of paper at the wrong time. The right time is when our inherent worth and dignity is genuinely at risk. The wrong time is when we are indulging in grandiosity.

You know, at UUCA we are in a powerfully transformative time. This Treehouse time is an interim time when we are relooking at things, reviving things, evolving things. And how we do social justice as a congregation is one of those things. I was talking with someone very wise about this the other day, and he said that all congregations struggle deeply with the limitations of their capacity. There is a tendency towards a grandiose vision of having to be the most important player in town on all the most important issues. And the tendency inevitably leads to an inability to gain traction on even one thing. Consistent effort day in and day out is required. Substantial money and time are required.

If we want to get to that, it’s not a time to pull out the grandiose “For my sake there world was created” slip of paper.

It’s humility that creates the room we need, for sober assessment of who we are, what we are capable of, what specific form of brokenness in Atlanta that we could make a serious impact on.

Humility creates the room.

And as we turn to one of the most pressing needs in our larger world, and here at UUCA, once again, we need humility. The need I”m talking about is dealing with conflict. Humility is absolutely necessary because what grandiosity does in the face of conflict is act like conflict shouldn’t exist—because aren’t we all mature, intelligent adults?

Or, grandiosity can make a person embroiled in conflict on all sides feel exempt from being held accountable! (I WILL NOT SAY HIS NAME!!!!)

Grandiosity doesn’t take conflict seriously, and therefore we lack publicly recognized and respected rituals that help us mediate them.

I was reminded of this while reading an article about ritual and the role it has played in some cultures to prevent conflict or, if conflict did break out, to mediate a solution that would satisfy both parties, often without resorting to violence. “Duels of the 19th century,” write authors Kate and Brett McKay, “were not spontaneous affairs in which an insult was given and the parties marched immediately outside to do battle (in fact, striking another gentleman made you a social pariah). Instead, a duel had to be conducted calmly and coolly to be dignified, and the preliminaries could take weeks or months; a letter requesting an apology would be sent, more letters would be exchanged, and only if a peaceful resolution could not be reached would plans for the duel actually commence. Even then, only 20% of these ‘affairs of honor[‘ ended in a fatality; each side would deliberately miss or intentionally aim for a non-critical wound.”

The authors go on to say, “Ritualistic combat to resolve problems may seem barbaric to us today, but its advocates at the time believed it actually reduced violence. Instead of a conflict pulling in each party’s associates, and turning an issue that was originally between just two men into an endlessly bloody feud between groups and families (a la the Hatfields and McCoys), a mano-a-mano showdown nipped the problem in the bud and provided a clear resolution to all parties.”

And now here is the main thing we all need to hear:

“Though the ritual of dueling died out, no alternative rituals outside the legal system emerged to replace it. And this has brought its own set of problems. As Carlin Barton, author of Roman Honor, argues: ‘The absence of sufficient and powerful ‘given’ rituals makes it hard, in contemporary American culture, not to be overwhelmed by the intensity of one’s emotions or to respond to even slight challenges with anything but expletives. The formalized behaviors that would mediate between violence and passivity are lacking in our culture. We respond to humiliation by shooting one another or by watching television.’”

It’s grandiosity that makes us ok with this! Grandiosity that tells us that we are too good, too advanced, too Unitarian for conflict to erupt. So we refuse to humbly acknowledge the reality that conflict is a given in human life, we refuse to humbly do the legwork of creating communally accepted and respected rituals and practices that help, so that they’re ready and waiting when—surprise, surprise—conflict happens.

Last week, Taryn talked about chaos times when our demons show up. She asked, how do we creatively engage them? And I want real answers to that. Problems in the larger world are just going to be problems here. We are not hermetically sealed off. But being Beloved means we bring awareness and intentionality to these problems. We practice solutions.

We do that here, so we can do it out there.

That’s how we earn the word “Beloved.”

Now already, we practice certain ritualistic gestures. We join hands together for the benediction, evoking our unity. We place hands on hearts during the embracing meditation, to invoke love for self and love for others. Some of us like to knock on the air, which is a youth group symbol of basically saying, “I totally relate, it really resonates.”

Maybe a small but powerful social ritual that we could develop among us has to do with moments when something happened and we feel hurt, we feel disconnected, we need people to see that what just happened felt bad and we need to open up the space to talk about it. Perhaps a gesture like this: [hands clenched covering chest.]

I don’t know! Maybe? For sure we need to revise our congregational covenant. For sure we need to revisit how we manage conflicts as a community and create agreed-upon rules for how to do that, and it won’t be allowed for anyone to imagine themselves as exempt from being held accountable.

There is a time to pull out the slip that says, “For my sake the world was created.”

And there is a time to pull out the slip that says, “I am but dust and ashes.”

Now is the time to pull out that second slip. Here at the Treehouse we are waking up to a new day, we are leaving sleep behind, and the history of who we are rushes back in, but we don’t want to be overfull with that, we want to make sure that there is space enough for newness to touch us and transform us.

We want that!

Not to be held hostage by the past!

Humility is the medicine that makes it possible.