The Spirited Life

A sermon by Doug Muder as the keynote address for the “Conversations Toward a Better World” workshop at the Eno River Unitarian Universalist Fellowship on October 3, 2009

In one of my previous careers I used to write books for dummies. Now I write for Unitarian Universalists.

It’s a little different sometimes.

When you speak to a group of UUs, one of the most important questions you have to ask yourself is: “After I eliminate all the subjects that the audience probably knows better than I do, is there anything left to talk about?”

So, for example, I decided early on that I was not going to come down here from New Hampshire and tell you about all the wonderful opportunities for UU social actions projects in the Raleigh-Durham area.

Later on I will make a few general observations about how UU social activists might work better together, but even there I’m on shaky ground, because basically I’m telling you about people like you. How much more than you am I really going to know?

So I thought I would have more room for error if I talked mainly about people who aren’t here.

Fortunately for me, that turns out to be relevant, because one of the topics we ought to be thinking about today is: Who are the people who don’t come out for social action events? Why don’t they? What are they looking for? Is there something we could do to appeal to them? Why does it so often feel like the social action group is a niche, an affinity group like the bridge club or the movie group? How do we get to a place where social action is at the center of the identity and mission of the church? How do we get to a point where the whole congregation is the social action group?

I thought I’d start by saying a few words about UUs in general. Not all of us are this way individually, but as a group, UUs tend to be contentious. Maybe you’ve noticed. We like to argue. We like to object. Sometimes we even nit-pick a little.

It’s in our collective DNA. We have a long history of doubt and dissent. We come from a long line of people who refused to follow the leader unless they could see exactly where the leader was going and they liked it. For the most part we are proud of that heritage and wouldn’t want to change it.

But there is a downside: We zero in so quickly on our differences that we sometimes forget how much we have in common. So if we start with two different ideas or points of view, before long we have two sides in an argument. Once you’re in that argument, it’s very tempting to harden your own position and to stereotype the people on the other side. And soon, it starts to look like there are two completely different kinds of UUs. Maybe we are really two different religions and don’t even belong in the same church.

I think you can guess where I’m going. For twenty years now in email and on blogs and in UU World I’ve been watching and sometimes participating in the argument between the Activists and the Contemplatives; between UUs who want justice in the world and UUs who want personal spiritual growth; between cold rationalists with no inner life whatsoever and self-absorbed mystics who won’t lift a finger to help anyone.

Two different religions.

Now, I meet a lot of UUs, but somehow I never run into either of those two extreme types. On the other hand, I do meet UUs who achieve some kind of balance: They act and they introspect. They contemplate and they try to make the world better.

I admit it’s hard to do both at exactly the same moment, but there is a natural rhythm between them. You contemplate until something comes up that you just have to act on, and then you act until you have experiences you need to sit with for a while. Or it can happen in the other order: You’re out there challenging yourself, pushing your boundaries, taking some real risks — and that experience changes you or wounds you or maybe just confuses you, because the world doesn’t respond the way you thought it would.. So you step back to figure out who you are now and what a person like you ought to be doing. Eventually the path ahead becomes clear again, and then you need to be back out in the world.

That’s what I see as the balanced UU pattern: outer work, inner work, outer work, inner work. It goes back and forth like a pendulum.

The figure from our tradition who best exemplifies that pendulum swing is Thoreau. If you had met Thoreau on his way to Walden, you might have stereotyped him as a Contemplative. Think about it. It’s 1845: There’s slavery in the South and war brewing in the West. We’re chopping down the Midwestern forest, and we’re right in the middle of that long process of pushing the Native Americans off their land. And what’s Thoreau’s plan? He wants to live in the woods and sit so still on some days that the small animals get curious and come up to investigate him.

What Earthly good is that going to do?

But think about what happens next. Does Thoreau conclude that solitude is true meaning of life? Does he stay at Walden forever? No. It takes two years — which I admit is a long time — but his pendulum turns and swings back into the world.

Within four months of leaving Walden, Thoreau gives the lectures that turn into Civil Disobedience, the social action classic that later inspires Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Thoreau himself goes on to be an abolitionist, a supporter of John Brown’s rebellion, an opponent of the Mexican War, and one of the fore-runners of the environmental movement.

So which of the two UU religions gets to claim Thoreau?

Or maybe there aren’t two UU religions or even two kinds of UUs. Maybe there are just two directions that a pendulum can swing.

But when those directions become poles in an argument, egos get involved, and they can screw up the natural back-and-forth motion. Maybe it’s my time to turn now, to start moving inward or outward. But if I do, all those people on the other side will think that they won the argument.

So if leaving the cabin in the woods means admitting that I was wrong to go there to begin with, well then I’m staying. Or if backing away from the field of action to think things through or heal my wounds or contemplate what it all means — if everyone is going to take that as a confession that the activist life is ultimately unfulfilling, well then, I’m staying out here. I don’t care how far away the source of my inspiration seems. I can’t go back to find it. That would mean admitting I was wrong.

But Thoreau wasn’t wrong when he went out to Walden. And he wasn’t wrong when he came back. The healthy life has a cycle of action and contemplation. Unitarian Universalism needs to be about the whole cycle, not about one pole or the other.

So what am I saying? That there is no problem? That everyone will pass through the social action group sooner or later if we just wait and make them welcome?

I don’t think you would believe that, because the numbers don’t work. Social action groups are not half the congregation or anything like it. And lots of people never show up, no matter how long you wait.

All I’m saying is this: The people who are genuinely enthusiastic about spirituality, who really practice something and see it changing their lives — those aren’t the people you need to worry about. They’re not your enemies. They’re not even your rivals. And yes, I believe that if you wait and make them feel welcome, many of them will show up sooner or later.

The people I worry about are the ones who aren’t swinging in either direction, the stopped pendulums, the people who have neither a spiritual practice nor a social-action commitment, and who feel so stressed and over-committed that they can’t imagine how they could start either one.

Objectively, these people may not be doing any more than anyone else. Maybe not even as much. But there is a sense of clutter in their lives, a lack of priorities, a feeling that every demand is as important as every other demand. And so they experience life as an overwhelming to-do list, an endless hurdle race where you just barely have time to get your balance before you face the next hurdle.

I think those are the people we need to reach. But how?

I’ll tell you what not to do. Don’t pitch social action as one more thing to put on the list, one more hurdle that you have to jump before you can call yourself a good person. And it’s not going to help if you turn up the volume, to make sure they realize how important your issue is. They’re feel deafened already by the volume of the demands they hear. If that’s your approach, you might occasionally get another signature on the petition, or another warm body at the demonstration, but you’re not going to make any long-term progress in transforming your congregation.

The stopped-pendulum people don’t need one more demand, whether that demand is called social action or spiritual growth. They need a way out. They need hope. They need a vision of better life, a vision that puts some structure on that infinite list. In traditional religious terms, they need to hear a message of salvation.

At this point I think I know what a lot of you are thinking: “Well, they should go to the Baptists then. Because we’re not in that business. We don’t have a message of salvation.”

Yes we do.

You see, what you consider salvation depends on what you want to be saved from and saved to. If you want to be saved from this world of suffering and death into eternal heavenly bliss — then you’re right, that is the Baptist message and not ours.

But is Heaven the only kind of salvation? Is it even the best kind? Or is Heaven just a mythological projection of the salvation people are truly yearning for?

At a physical level, the answer to that question is obvious. If you are hungry and need to be saved from starvation, real salvation is food, not the promise of an endless feast after death.

What we need to realize and stake our claim to is this: The same truth holds all the way up Maslow’s ladder. Real salvation is here and now. If, for example, you feel isolated and need to be saved from loneliness, do you yearn for perfect love in Heaven? Or for human love — for friends, a family, a community here and now?

If you feel empty and want to be saved from purposelessness and pointlessness and meaninglessness, do you want to believe that you will know the meaning of the Universe someday? Or do you want meaningful experience right now? Do you want an eternal life of the spirit, or do you want a spirited life — a passionate, enthusiastic life — right now?

Which is the real message of salvation and which is the pale imitation?

If you want never to die, we can’t help you. But if your real fear is that when you die it will be as if you never lived — we can help you. If you want your story never to end, we can’t help you. But if you want a meaningful role in a larger story, a story that will continue long after you are gone, then we can help you. In that sense, we can offer a new life, a transformed life, a real life here and now.

The spirited life is our message of salvation, and it is a message the stopped-pendulum people need to hear.

How does social action fit into that message of the spirited life? UU social activists get into trouble, both in our own thinking and in our message to others, when we forget our own needs and talk as if we were fixing the world from the outside. We lose when we look either at ourselves or at our congregations as nothing more than reservoirs of energy for solving social problems. In that framing, our message of salvation vanishes. Instead we are playing a zero-sum game and have to choose between saving the world and saving ourselves. Inner work contradicts outer work.

But we don’t stand outside the world. We are in the world, we never leave it. The world that we are part of must save itself, and we save ourselves by participating in the world saving itself.

Now, notice what I did not just say. I did not say: “I’ll save myself. You save yourself. The homeless guy over there can save himself, and we’ll all be fine.”

No. We — all together — are a world. And when we as individuals get our heads on straight, our interests and the world’s interests align. You have a yearning to be part of something bigger than yourself, and to make it better. When you get clear to the bottom of your soul, what you will find there is a passion to change things. That passion inside you needs to manifest out in the world. And the world needs passionate people working for change. There is no contradiction.

If you start trying to reach out to the stopped-pendulum people at your church, if you start listening to them and putting your energy into them and trying to get that pendulum rocking, I foresee two problems.

The first is that Unitarian Universalists are not in the habit of testifying. When you give your social justice speech, you naturally want to talk about the issue in the outside world. You want to talk about the consequences of domestic violence and how many species will go extinct this week and what really happens to sick people with no health insurance.

And you absolutely should talk about that. But also try to make a little space to testify, to talk about how this work has changed you, how it makes your life meaningful, how it gives you hope and energy, how it allows you to live with passion and enthusiasm.

And if that’s not true, or if it used to be true but it’s not any more, that’s a warning sign. Activists who ignore that sign are courting a burn-out. The pendulum may be turning. It may be time for some inner work, time to heal your wounds, time to revisit your sources of inspiration and remember why you care. You’re not giving up, you’re just in the backswing. The foreswing will come again, in its season.

The second problem of reaching out to the stopped-pendulum people is that they’re going to annoy the heck out of you. But not because they are some other species of UU. Quite the opposite, the annoying ones are the ones who are just like you.

If their stress came from being unemployed, you could sympathize. But what if they have jobs like yours, and worry, like you do sometimes, that they’ll lose them if they slack up even a little?

If they were homeless, you could sympathize. But what if they have houses as nice as yours, and their stress comes from spouses who want those houses to stay nice, and neighbors who notice when the lawn isn’t mowed?

If they were struggling to keep their kids fed, you could sympathize. But what if their struggle is to give their children all the advantages that UU kids are supposed to have and expect to have? What if they know, as you do, that other parents will look down on them if they don’t provide those advantages.

When they tell you all that and expect you to understand that they couldn’t possibly find the time or energy to work for peace or justice or the environment — like you do — you may discover that it’s easier to have compassion for the murderer you work with in the prison reading program.

That’s normal. The person it’s hardest to have compassion for is the person you are trying not to be. Because you don’t want to empathize with them. You want to shake them. You want to scold them. You want to give them Hell until they shape up.

But remember what John Murray said: “Give them not Hell, but hope and courage.” As unreasonable as it may sometimes seem, their exhaustion and sense of desperation is very real to them. What they need is a positive message of salvation, and you have one.

Thoreau’s neighbor Nathaniel Hawthorne knew who he didn’t want to be. He spent a few months at Brook Farm, one of those idealistic intentional communities that Unitarians kept starting in the 1840s. About ten years later, he novelized his experience in The Blithedale Romance, which is a scathing indictment of Unitarian idealism.

Of all the characters the one who comes off worst is the one who most resembles Hawthorne himself — the narrator, Miles Coverdale. Near the end of the book, Miles writes:

I by no means wish to die. Yet, were there any cause, in this whole chaos of human struggle, worth a sane man’s dying for, and which my death would benefit, then — provided, however, the effort did not involve an unreasonable amount of trouble — methinks I might be bold to offer up my life. If Kossuth, for example, would pitch the battlefield of Hungarian rights within an easy ride of my abode, and choose a mild, sunny morning, after breakfast, for the conflict, Miles Coverdale would gladly be his man, for one brave rush upon the levelled bayonets. Further than that, I should be loath to pledge myself.

The hardest person Hawthorne to have compassion for was the person he was trying not to be.

In my remaining time I want to get back to that first question: How should UU activists be dealing with each other?

As I said at the beginning, I don’t have your local knowledge, so I can’t begin to tell you what you ought to work on. But the ideas I’ve been developing in this talk do have some application.

If you accept what I was saying before, that as individuals we should be trying to live spirited lives, to save ourselves from pointlessness and meaninglessness through our participation in the world’s effort to save itself from suffering and injustice, then what should we be trying to do as a group?

I think we should try to be spirited groups.

A spirited group is one whose members are in touch with their deep passion to make the world better, and who regularly manage to engage that passion in the work of the group. It isn’t one or two people with an idea and everyone else half-heartedly going along. It’s an entire room of people who are creative and imaginative and energetic, where ideas bounce from one person to the next so quickly that afterwards nobody can remember who thought of what, where the leaders don’t deal out jobs like punishments, but as soon as a task comes up, someone says “Oh I can do that” — and they do.

When failure comes — as it occasionally will, because if you’re really stretching and challenging yourself, sometimes you fail — people won’t say “I told you that wouldn’t work.” They’ll support each other, they’ll say “At least we tried. We fought the good fight, and we’ll come back next time stronger and wiser.” And they will.

If that’s what you want, what do you do differently? The main thing, I think, is that you listen more and listen more deeply. When a new person walks in the door, you’re not so quick to ask how he or she fits into your plans. Instead you ask: “What can we do for you? How can we help you lead the kind of meaningful life you want for yourself? What is your vision and your dream? Who are your heroes? What peak experiences have led you to think that this might be a path to fulfillment?”

When the spirited group makes plans, it isn’t “my idea is better than your idea” or “my issue is more important than yours.” It’s not “We voted on that and you lost.” Instead, each of you knows each other person’s passion and you think of it as a valuable resource that the group doesn’t want to lose.

Building that kind of group with that knowledge and those relationships takes time. And some people will tell you that time is wasted. Probably some people told you that this meeting today would be a waste: A bunch of privileged UUs sitting around talking to each other, and no hungry people fed, no parks cleaned up, no legislators’ minds changed — what a waste.

It’s not a waste. Because the spirited group has its pendulum just like the spirited individual does. It has its inner work as well as its outer work. And the ultimate goal is similar: to find our true passions, to identify the work that we can do together with our whole hearts.

The world needs individuals passionately working for change. And it needs groups of such people passionately working together. And so you do not have to choose between saving yourself and saving the world. You and the UUs you hope will join you do not need to choose between transforming the world and transforming their lives.

We save ourselves from pointlessness and meaninglessness by participating in the world saving itself from suffering and injustice. We transform our lives by transforming the world around us.

If you commit yourselves and your churches to a balanced, integrated vision of transformation, inside and out, you will not go wrong.

Read other sermons by Doug Muder