“What’s Y/Our Story” by Rev. Kevin Tarsa
Delivered November 6, 2016
Unitarian Universalist Community of the Mountains
Grass Valley, CA
That hymn (#297 The Star of Truth) is one of my favorites. I appreciate its celebration of uncertainty, of a story continually being written. I appreciate also its naming that each of us sees only a partial glimmer of truth. No one of us sees it all, and so we benefit when we share with one another the pieces of light that we do see. And though at times it seems utterly unfathomable, people in political parties other than our own hold pieces of truth that we need.
I’ll come back to that.
In a seminary class once, a teacher asked us to introduce ourselves with the usual name and where we were from, but then the teacher added “…and tell us one story that’s told about you in your family.”
With that kind of question, I try go with the first thing that pops into to my mind, in this case, a story my mom loved to tell:
I was a junior in high school, helping my sister drive home from college in our family’s tiny electric blue Datsun B210. On the way home, we remembered that our parents had warned us to check the oil frequently. So, my sister and I pulled over at a gas station, popped the hood, used the oil dipstick to check, and sure, enough the oil was low. But we were prepared. We got the oil from the back of the car, returned to the front, looked under the hood………and we could not tell where to put the oil.
Now, in our defense, there were plenty of caps with that international symbol indicating “fluid goes in here,” but not one was labeled “oil” in English.
We knew enough to know that we should not put oil where it didn’t belong. So I, very cleverly, I thought, figured…“Well, we know that the dipstick reaches the oil, so if we pour the oil down the dipstick tube, at least we’ll know the oil is going where rest of the oil is.” And so we tried to pour the oil into this very, very skinny dipstick tube. It was a messy business and took forever, but eventually we got enough oil in to continue on our way.
Now, mind you, we had stopped at a gas station.
We had been too embarrassed to ask for help.
My mom loved to tell that story, and she’d laugh and laugh…until I told her how embarrassed I felt and I asked her please not to tell it anymore.
The message of my mom’s story was that Kevin had many wonderful gifts, but that mechanical ability was not one of them. For years, I let that story – as it was repeated and as it replayed in me – discourage me from working on cars. I had mechanically inclined uncles and brothers and cousins, but that was their story, not mine, I thought.
So for a time, I lived the story of the un-mechanical me pouring oil down the dipstick tube, until later, of financial necessity and with instruction from a woman I worked with at the Food Coop, I worked on my old cars quite a bit. I changed water pumps and starter motors, gaskets, brakes even, and … several times a year changed the oil, knowing by then exactly where to put it, and how to drain it and to change the filter.
In all that doing, all that working on cars with the help of a friend, the story that had been told in my family, the story I had internalized, gradually changed in me, and over time so did I.
That’s a simple story, but that pattern played out for me around much more profound identities – regarding what it means to be a man, for example, or what it means to be a gay person, or a religious person, or an atheist. There were many stories about myself or people like me, some of which I internalized, stories that shaped my life unless and until my life and experience started to reshape those stories, until I learned that I could remake those stories.
Three Early Memories
As part of a career assessment for seminary, I met with a psychologist who said, “Please tell me three of your earliest memories.”
Again, I tried not to censor, and took the first three memories that came to mind, all from when I was 2 or 3 years old –
The first was a memory of being out in the yard, a leather harness strapped around my torso, attached to 6 or 8 feet of clothesline behind me, tied to a cement block.
I remember reaching my arms forward, crying and screaming as I watched our babysitter hold the front door open to let my older sister into the house.
(I joke with friends that that memory probably explains everything you need to know about me.)
I named two other memories – in one I was reprimanded by my grandmother for licking my finger, sticking it in the sugar bowl, and licking the sugar off my finger, over and over. The same babysitter who had tied me to the cement block …came to my defense.
In the third memory, at my request someone lifted me up so that I could see into the top shelf of a kitchen cabinet in an abandoned house where I was sure there must be something wonderful.
When I had finished my three stories, the psychologist asked, “Do your three memories have anything in common? Do you see any themes in your three stories?”
I thought for a moment:
- in each case, I really wanted something;
- in each case my quest was thwarted,
- in each case, I needed someone else’s help to get what I wanted.
Memory and Stories
Both of those experiences of being asked to tell my stories brought to mind something I had read years ago in the book At the Edge of History by philosopher William Irwin Thompson. He pointed out that given the extraordinary number of events that have taken place in all of human history, what we choose to remember and pass on and label “history” tells us very little of what actually happened, but tells us a great deal about how we see and understand ourselves now.
I read once something very similar about personal memory: Out of all that’s happened to each of us in our lives, the memories that stay with us, are memories of those experiences that we believe help explain who we are, and why we are the way we are.
More recent research has suggested that our memories change in the very act of our remembering! They are not so much indelible truths, as evolving stories about ourselves that we re-create every time we tell them.
We shape our stories even as our stories are shaping us.
I invite you to notice this week and all month – in the midst of the election and its aftermath, and in the midst of family Thanksgiving gatherings, which are so story laden, even when no words are spoken – to take stock of some of the stories you’ve internalized, and to do so in ways that are helpful to you. Notice the stories you tell yourself about yourself and the stories you tell about others, and consider how those stories might be perpetuating, or creating, or recreating a reality and quietly shaping the way you move through the world.
Psychologist Dan McAdams claims that our minds are story processors, not logic processors, and that stories about ourselves – though not necessarily true – are among the most important stories we know (Haidt 281) because they shape so powerfully our behavior, our relationships, our lives…. (281-282).
A Christmas Carol
As part of a storytelling class, four of us were each asked to tell the story of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” …in five minutes. I expect you know the story: Ebinezer Scrooge, Bob Crachit, Bah humbug!, Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present Future, Tiny Tim… The first person in our group didn’t even get to the first ghost by the time the bell rang for “times up.” Surprised, she ended then suddenly, right in the middle of the story with, “God bless us, every one!” – Tiny Tim’s closing line. It became our running joke: no matter where we were in the story when the time ran out we ended with “God bless us, every one!”
After we’d each had a turn trying to tell the story in five minutes, the instructor asked us each to tell the story again – in three minutes. And then, to do one more round, to tell the story in one minute.
Now, squeezing Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” into 60 seconds requires that you distill the story to its absolutely essential elements: In some way to name Scrooge’s miserliness and greed, his chance to see both the roots and the consequences of his feelings and his actions, the opportunity to change the ending of his story – redemption.
I took the concept one step further and invited people from this congregation to tell the story of the Unitarian Universalist Community of the Mountains in six words…. i.e. to distill the story of this congregation – or at least their experience of it – to its essential elements.
Many stories came in, so many that we’re reading half of them at each service. We’ll post them all with this week’s eChalice and with the sermon on the website.
Thank you to everyone who wrote and sent in one of these stories. I hope it helped you consider the essence of UUCM for you. The authors will remain anonymous. As you hear them, listen for the recurring themes, listen for what a story says about the congregation, and listen for what a story says about it’s author and it’s author’s experience, in life in general and in this community.
Notice also what your reaction to each story tells you about YOU.
My friends, we give you The story of the Unitarian Universalist Community of the Mountains:
UUCM 6-word stories 9:45 Service – November 2016
It’s okay if I’m an atheist.
Critical thinking seekers building spiritual community.
Open-minded community learning about sharing love.
UUCM Celebrates diversity, love and justice.
Teaching my kids values in community.
Attended, listened, got involved, attended again.
UUCM invites me home to myself.
Moving forward with Concern, Laughter, Love
Connected with warm acceptance and growing.
Support is always there if needed.
We got trashed – now disgusted, wary.
Finding community of loving, accepting people.
UU accepts me as I am.
Group of dedicated people ever growing
After years adrift, I found home.
Helping my child find meaning, context.
My community of advocates for justice.
Community, where I can be me!
Energizing liberal folk in Nevada County.
Devastating loss…then wrapped in gentle embrace.
They paved the road we walk.
Stop! Look, listen, evaluate, negotiate. Reflect.
UUCM crawled, walked, and now runs.
UUCM 6-word stories 11:30 Service – November 2016
Open minds. Warm Hearts. Fellowship hands.
Family – messy, loving, trying, forgiving, searching.
I value Unitarian social action principles.
Seekers, joining forces to find love.
From living room to living body.
Community, where I can be me!
They married us, no questions asked.
Unfocused hope and without a mission.
A community that shares my values
Spiritual support without fundamentalist guilt trips.
Island finds connection to the universe.
A community my child finds nurturing.
Safe place for my whole self.
Connection with Mind, body and Spirit.
I feel cared for at church.
An assembly of diversity and acceptance.
Helping me to be my best.
UUCM: In sickness and in health!
Returned to hometown to join UUCM.
A meaningful interconnection between loving people.
It offers a family-like atmosphere.
People sharing life, community, love, ideas.
It’s a loving community of friends.
What themes stood out to you?
Listen for what your stories and memories of this congregation are telling you about how you see and understand yourselves now. Listen for how your future is being shaped by the story you tell of this congregation’s past and present and future. Imagine the story you would like to be telling several years from now…
In this sermon on story I usually conclude by naming a couple stories told about UUism, I list a few of UUisms earliest memories, looking for common themes, and finally I try to distill UUism to its absolute essence – in six words or less.
But there is this presidential election looming, in which the story being told by many is that people on the other side of the political spectrum, whichever that may be, are misguided or cognitively impaired at best, and more likely morally corrupt or evil, even. An election in which the story is told that the process is rigged and you won’t be able to trust the outcome, and that people who support the other candidate are inherently deplorable.
No matter who “wins” next Tuesday it feels like we’ve all already lost a great deal of communal integrity and social connection in what was already a very polarized atmosphere before the campaigning began. In theory, next Wednesday morning we’ll at least have an answer to the immediate national question, powerful feelings of relief or terror, and either way, tremendous questions as to what will happen moving forward.
So there we will be.
How are you feeling about the election at this point?
[people are invited to name feelings]
My question to you is, what will your story be next Wednesday morning…or whenever the election results are finalized?
No matter who wins or what happens or which of the 837 state propositions passes or fails (I’m new to California), I invite you to pick up a thread from the recent service focused on forgiveness and to tie it to our Unitarian Universalist commitment to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person, including yourself. Tie it to our commitment to compassion in human relations, acceptance of one another, the right of conscience and the goal of a world community with peace, liberty and justice for all.
If you are tempted to tell a story that demonizes, dismisses, minimizes or rails against “those” people, as if they are inherently flawed, unintelligent and unworthy…
if someone who bothers you, or whom you don’t like, or of whom you are afraid, is the main character in the stories you are telling and retelling next week, see if you can (after some cathartic venting, probably), change the character of your story.
Change the main character, so it becomes a story about you and your effort to live your UU and personal values in the midst of potent and highly charged polarization. Draw on all your centering, grounding, spiritual resources to calm your fight or flight or freeze response, [3 deep breaths is a great start ] and then tell a story about your heroic effort to find genuine compassion and openness in your heart, a story about your desire to find some way to understand and connect to people who seem so different from yourself.
Change the character, the tenor, of the story so it is a story about what it might take to move forward from that moment toward the world you long to see, the best world you can imagine. Attend to the story you tell.
I’ll finish by offering two very brief bits of insight that help me, a liberal humanistic naturalist, to keep my heart open and to get off my high horse when I want to demonize or dismiss people.
These are from moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt who came to some understandings about why good people can be divided by religion and politics.
- He writes that researchers have found genetic differences between liberals and conservatives, differences in neurotransmitter functioning in particular; seratonin and glutamate in conservative people, who react more strongly, physiologically, than liberals to signs of danger. And dopamine in liberal people, who are physiologically more sensation-seeking and more open to new experiences. Change as threat or change as “Oh, goody!” No wonder we are polarized!
Remembering to consider the physical roots of our emotional states, perspectives and behaviors almost always helps me surface more of my compassion. When I don’t think that people are being willfully antagonistic to may ways of seeing and being.
- Haidt identifies 6 moral foundations to which humans have access, though we may understand and draw on them in very different ways. Liberals draw primarily on two or at most three of those six moral foundations – care, liberty in terms of human rights, and fairness. While Conservatives tend to draw on all six.
So when asked to describe how the other side thinks, conservatives are able to do a pretty good job of describing how liberals think. Liberals, however, typically do a very poor job of describing what and how conservatives think, because liberals attach so little importance to half of those moral foundations – foundations rooted in a valuing of authority, loyalty, sanctity. Lliberals have more a more difficult time communicating to and with conservatives, because they are not accessing, resonating with or even recognizing half of the moral foundations that are important to conservatives.
So if you identify as liberal, and find yourself flabbergasted at other people’s stances, not understanding how some people could possibly think and decide the way they do…there are reasons for that. Reasons we can learn from.
When I can remember that some people will define and seek the common good differently than I do, and that I may have something to learn from them, I am better able to keep my heart open. Which has not been easy this year.
As for distilling UU-ism to it’s essence…
At one time Unitarianism was summed up in just three words: Freedom. Reason. Tolerance.
Universalism also was summed up in three words:
God is Love. (or as I reframe it for myself, Love is God)
Not a bad 6-word story when combined. We are at our best when we understand that freedom, reason, and tolerance or openness are not final ends, but means to higher a higher end: living more loving lives for the sake of the well being of all.
That’s one way to tell the UU story, anyway.
My invitation to you is to pay attention. really pay attention to the stories you tell and re-tell about yourself, about others, about this congregation, about our religious tradition, about the election and about democracy. Those stories shape who you are and who you will become. Who we will become.
The good news is that, like Ebinezer Scrooge, it’s not too late, you have a chance to shape your stories, and thus your future, in the telling.
So may it be.
Oh,… and God bless us, everyone!”