Pacifist Meets Gun

To my parents, peaceful people who raised me in a gun-free home on anti-gun teachings, let me assure you I’m the same pacifist I’ve always been. To my dear friend, who was less than enthused to hear I was going to a gun range and use one of a category of weapons created to kill and has had since to endure my somewhat enthusiastic retelling of events of the trip, know I’m not about to join the NRA and start building an arsenal. 

Last week, for the first time in my life, I fired a gun.

I was raised by pacifist parents who worked for peace during the Vietnam War. From ages five to seventeen, I grew up in Detroit, a city where guns were nearly ubiquitous in parts of town and responsible for the deaths of hundreds of people each year (333 in 2012, with homicide totals of 714 in 1974, the year we moved to the city and 686 in 1987, the year I began college at the University of Detroit). By 15, I’d lost a friend to a drive-by shooting at a party. Guns scared me. I felt relatively safe in my neighborhood despite the crime statistics, safe enough to stay in the city for undergraduate and graduate school. Yet, in 18 years of living in the city, I never personally experienced a gun outside of seeing one on the belt of a police officer.

Hunting? I didn’t know any hunters. It wasn’t the pastime of choice of those in my urban, professional, middle class neighborhood, and I lacked relatives that found respite from the hustle of the modern world in the woods with a shotgun or rifle while searching for deer, rabbit, or some sort of fowl. My uncle fished, a hobby my father eventually took up, long after I was grown, but a hook is far being a bullet, and the soft whoosh of the cast of the fly fisherman is a whisper next to the blast of a firearm.

Then I dated a boy raised on a farm with a family of hunters. Being eighteen and fully aware of the absolute rights and wrongs in the world, I expressed my disgust at the process of stalking and killing animals, an argument that might have been made stronger while munching on lettuce and tofu than on the double cheeseburgers from McDonald’s we often sought after the university’s dining service closed for the night. But despite my uneducated opinions, I liked his family. They didn’t seem like monsters for all their hunting habits, and I was at least wise enough to spout off my uninformed opinions in front of a family that welcomed me into their home on many occasions for most of my college years. They might have guessed, however, telling me about the rabbit in the chili or the venison in the stew only after I’d started eating and was clearly enjoying the meal.

Twenty years later, my views of hunting mellowed. Meeting hunters who ate what they fell informed my feelings about the sport. While I’ve spent much of my adult life eating little or no meat, for many years, my primary motivations were health and sustainability related. The issue of killing animals, something people have done since the start for survival, wasn’t my primary concern, although more recently, awareness of factory farming has made me think about the life my burger had before it was burger, and I am disturbed. Hunting seems an honest way to relate to animals as food, requiring involvement in all the grisly bits before partaking of the creature. I don’t think I could do it, but I respect it.

The gun part of hunting still bothered me. Guns, invented with the purpose to kill, seemed, well, bad. They too often end up in the hands of someone not intent on making Bambi’s dad supper for the next few weeks and too often in the hands of someone angry, depressed, or just careless. They scare me. But last year, after hearing a friend talk about his hunting experiences and about shooting at the range for sport, a gun use I’d never considered, I wondered if perhaps I should have some experience behind my convictions. I asked my friend to take me shooting. Given the weapon he had at the time would’ve knocked me across the range, the answer was no. But a few days back, a year after my request, he offered a trip to the range to shoot his .22, a quiet weapon with no kick. I was in. Anxious, but in.

Seeing the weapon, however, brought pause. He’d shown me pictures online of what we’d be shooting, explained extensively about mechanisms and safety, and answered dozens of my questions, but seeing the gun unnerved me. Plenty of conversation later, I picked it up, feeling its weight and wondering at its power. A few more “dry” lessons and practice ensued before we headed out to the range.

The gun range. I’d not anticipated all the people who would be there. Oh, and I’d not considered that they’d also have guns of their own, some which looked like the ones in movies that I generally didn’t watch. I worked to pack away my imagination on that and focused on hearing instructions through my ear plugs. The range officer quickly reviewed safety and general rules of the range, a speech he gave countless times a day that fluttered by my brain far too quickly. We headed out to our station, and my friend unpacked his rifle.

Even with earplugs in place, the noise and sights surprised me. And all those people with weapons. Loaded weapons. I reeled my ever-ready imagination back in and focused. None of the sequence of preparing to shoot remained in my brain, and when my turn came to shoot, despite watching the shooter before me, I fumbled around. The only part of the instructions I remembered were those about breathing: Take a deep breath. Exhale. This calms and focuses you. Then take a breath in and let only part of it out. Hold your breath, aim, squeeze the trigger,  and then release the rest of your breath. The breathing I could do. The shooting? We’d have to see.

It took me about halfway through the visit to relax enough to consistently remember the simple sequence of the steps before the breathing part. I stopped hearing all but the loudest of booms around me, focusing more on aligning the crosshairs with the target fifty yards away. After each shot, my friend would tell me where on the target I’d hit. I was continually surprised that I was hitting the paper, much less the target itself, and the bullseye in the second round was more mystery than practiced accomplishment. Even more, I was surprised that at the pleasure in the process, not so much in hitting the target as in the total focus required to make a successful shot.

So what have I decided about shooting for sport? Not much. One time out doesn’t make me a sports shooter, and while I might go again, it’s hardly my next hobby nor would I ever want to own a gun. While I agree with my friend’s refrain that guns don’t kill people, many people are still killed with guns. As hobbies go, gun ownership, whether for hunting or target practice, correlates with deaths that just shouldn’t happen. Calling the owners careless (and many may be) doesn’t go far enough, since that doesn’t bring back or repair those killed and hurt during unintentional shootings and suicides attempts. (For more information about gun ownership and suicide rates,see this study from the Harvard School of Public Health.) It’s a heck of a lot riskier than knitting, reading, and writing, my current hobbies, and not as soothing as a walk through the woods.

But I can see now what I couldn’t see before. It was satisfying and, ironically, peaceful. And while I’ve developed no love for weapons and only increased my awe at their power, I’ve gained a bit of understanding of why people shoot for sport, the original aim of the project. So does this pacifist shoot again? I don’t know. I’m working that over in head and heart.

Breathe in. Exhale. Breathe in again. Let it halfway out, aim, and squeeze. Hear the sound and wonder at the power. Exhale fully.

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A Walk in the Woods

IMG_0434Yesterday I walked in the woods with my dear friend, sharing the sights and sounds of Stony Creek Metropark on a warming Saturday morning. We’d started a conversation an hour before, and there was still much to be said on both sides.  Or perhaps it began months earlier, after he talked me into reading Richard Dawkins’ controversial work, The God Delusion. I’d avoided the book, not wanted to read a polemic against religion. After reading just over half the book, I couldn’t complete it. It felt hostile and angry, not feelings I hold at all toward religion and religious people. And, yes, it held arguments against the likelihood of the existence of God that resonated with — and expanded on — my own. But I’d had enough.

Whenever the conversation began, its basic components remained the same. He feels the world is worse for religion while I maintain it’s given more to humanity than it has taken. He cites genocide, wars, hate crimes, exclusionary behavior, and a host of hostilities, all in the name of religion. He’s right, of course. Throughout history, religious differences and religious beliefs have led to atrocities, both large and small, many in the name of a god, or at least with the intent of doing what that faith believes is the work of their god.

Yes, he’s right. Terrible acts have been committed and will continue to be committed under the shelter of religion and religious thought. Religion serves to set a group apart, encouraging a community to share values and ideals. In the course of this setting apart, those different may be seen as in the way of the truth as that group perceives it. Those with differing views of the greater reality are sometimes seen as in conflict with that particular truth, which when taken to extreme, can lead to violence. But, I counter, plenty of hate has occurred without religion as a motivator. Racism and sexism, while fostered by some religious groups, run rampant through history regardless of religion. Mass executions under Stalin and Mao were not religiously motivated either. And some atrocities have multiple triggers, as in Darfur.

A bit of googling around lead me to dozens of poorly documented lists tallying the dead from both religious and nonreligious atrocities. The numbers go the way of the one doing the tallying — the religious cite higher numbers killed in conflicts not based in religion while the agnostics/atheists claim the count goes the other way. I’ve not the time nor inclination to do the math myself, and I’m fine with saying its a draw. Either way, human beings have committed unimaginable wrongs against others of their species in an astounding number of ways.

Humans find ways to divide. We’ve evolved to gather in community for protection at the very least. As a species, we thrive when we divvy daily tasks yet still stick together when whomever is perceived as the dangerous ‘other’ comes into our camp. We’re territorial, suspicious, and tribal. We don’t like change, and living in proximity of ‘other’ requires either change or the removal of ‘other’. Religion or not, I maintained, we have always and sadly likely always will battle ‘other.’

And so the conversation went, as we walked through the woods, debating the topic heatedly but without anger. We enjoy a good back-and-forth, which is good, since I seem wired to walk into one sometimes just for the mental stimulation, regardless of how strongly I feel about a topic. We did pause for a group of birders, not sure they’d share our enthusiasm for the subject, but otherwise, the debate continued through the woods.

What bothers me most in conversations like this is what I perceive as hostility against religion.  Now, my dear friend is decidedly not hostile against religion or religious people. He’s a tolerant, accepting chap, devoted to peace and human rights and as loving, kind, and smart as they come. He’s just not the hostile type. And yet I find my hackles raised when the conversation takes this turn. Suddenly, I’m ready to defend the tolerant portion of the religious, the part that includes my family (and his) and many of my friends (and his). It’s me against the anti-religious tide, and I raise my verbal staff to part the seas for the faithful and kind.

Well, at least I do put up a good verbal defense. Or at least I think it is. My dear friend (and for this and other traits I do love him), is unfazed, lobbing counterpoints to each of my replies. We’re without statistics, walking by water and through woods, stopping once to wait for a chipmunk to pass and again avoid trampling a butterfly. I talk about the good done by religious people, about churches and temples and mosques committed to helping the poor and downtrodden. I talk about the benefits of the institutionalization of values, such as the Golden Rule, a exhortation repeated in most world religions to treat others as one would want to be treated, to love as we want to be loved. We each attempt to measure the immeasurable to support our respective opinions.

Miles later, we’re no closer to agreement and not entirely out of fuel for this fine discussion. He’s calling me on my logical inconsistencies to the point where I just start pointing them out myself to save verbiage  I’m pointing fingers at overstatements and wanderings, at least as I see them. And despite my tone, I’m satisfied and happy. We don’t agree. We’re unlikely to agree on this one, and even if we started toward agreement on some middle ground, I’m not sure either of us would admit it. I’ve had to think deeply, and I’m sure I’ll continue to think deeply about the role of religion in this world. I’ll mull and stew.

And we’ll undoubtedly debate again, and I’m glad. These debates stir my thoughts beyond the subject at hand. I start to think about the motivations behind my stance. Sometimes, it’s just out of desire to be obstinate that I take the up to his down. But generally, like today, there is more there. With this question — the question of whether religion has given more to humanity that it’s taken — I found the strength of my attachment to the hope that religion could some day be tempered and moderate, used cooperatively as a point of shared general values of love and compassion for humanity. I can’t say I’m terribly optimistic that we’ll ever reach that point. We’re just far too…human. I’m just not so sure the balance leans are far into the red as some say. In the woods — in the peace of the trees and waters and residents of both, my friend at my side and my children’s futures in my heart — I have hope.

Pope Francis, Atheism, and Words of Thanks

“The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone! And this Blood makes us children of God of the first class! We are created children in the likeness of God and the Blood of Christ has redeemed us all! And we all have a duty to do good. And this commandment for everyone to do good, I think, is a beautiful path towards peace. If we, each doing our own part, if we do good to others, if we meet there, doing good, and we go slowly, gently, little by little, we will make that culture of encounter: we need that so much. We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.

I smiled while reading the Huffington Post piece, Pope Francis Says Atheists Who Do Good Are Redeemed, Not Just Catholics. (I’m assuming it applies to us agnostics who do good in the world as well, since the hair between the atheist and agnostic is the knowability of the presence of God.) Personally, the issue of my redemption matters little to me. I don’t hold to the idea of sins or sinners needing redemption. As human, I am fallible, and whether one calls those numerous failings human behavior, sins, transgressions against other living beings, or mistakes doesn’t really matter to me. And as human, I am accountable to myself and others for those shortfalls. I don’t see the role a divine being would have in my acknowledgement of my mistakes, my need to make amends, and my subsequent attempt to avoid those mistakes again.

And yet, to this agnostic, Pope Francis’s words matter. They don’t matter because agnostics and atheists are all excited about going to heaven, a place that doesn’t have meaning to those who don’t ascribe to the religious beliefs behind the concept (and I know that’s not the redemption issue, but it is bothering some Catholics, all of us nonbelievers thinking we’re a shoo-in for heaven). They don’t matter because atheists long for compassion from a god or knowledge that Jesus died for their sins (but plenty of us find Jesus to be a fine example of love and compassion).  They matter because they are inclusive in a way that past hierarchy of the church has not been, at least not in quite some time. They matter because intolerance for non-believers is alive in this country.

An unanticipated consequence of my movement from theistic Catholic to agnostic Unitarian Universalist has been awareness the negative view much of this nation has about nontheists. I’ve become a member of an untrusted minority. While I’ve been called a moral relativist and amoral by a few, overall, I’ve received very little heat for my lack of belief. Admittedly, I’ve chosen to associate with compassionate people of a variety of belief systems, but plenty of my friends are believers. Generally, I choose to listen to others statements of faith and their understandings of reality without injecting my own version. I identify as a UU, a faith tradition I’m glad to attempt to explain when asked, but I don’t go out of my way to say that I don’t believe in a god. That part just gets too sticky.

It shouldn’t be that sticky. I’m not pleased that I tend to avoid talking about that part of my understanding of the world. And I’m aware that too much of this country sees all atheists as without morals and absolutes, that we’re selfish, freewheeling relativists who do whatever our reptilian brain dictates. Others are just sad for my loss. I’d just like to be accepted as someone who works to do good in the world, who tries to love more fully, to show compassion more freely, and to work for a better world more often.

But I’m an adult, and I grew up in a faith-filled home, a variety of religious expression, and my own belief. I grew up sharing an essential belief with most Americans, and I felt, well, normal. My kids don’t share that experience.  My younger son, a staunch atheist since age five, a bit before I’d moved my hat to the agnostic peg, wonders if his atheism will limit him professionally. He has his eye on politics, and he’s well aware that this country, at least not now, sees atheists as amoral and suspect. They certainly aren’t presidential material, according to most Americans, he notes. As outspoken as he is, he learned early to curb talk of religion outside of our UU church, where varying opinions of divinity are regular Sunday school fare. He knows which of his friends are religious, and he has learned to listen but leave his own opinion aside, a task that I know is hard for him and that I’m certain has improved relations with others. It feels less than ingenious, though.

His older brother briefly considered scouting, wanting to be outside, light campfires, and climb trees with other kids. Then he read the Boy Scouts of America’s oath. “I can’t say that,” he told me. “I don’t believe it.” Now, given his preference for shirts without buttons and sleeping indoors, scouting was nixed for more than religious differences (and, yes, their stance on gays was another issue we had), this wasn’t a tragedy, but it was a moment reminding us that we stand apart.

So what Pope Francis said about doing good, and about atheists doing good, matters to me. It matters that the head of the Catholic church, a church to which a quarter of the US belongs, says that atheists are redeemed. It’s the message to believers that those of us who don’t believe are recognized as moral beings with the capacity of doing good, just as much good as a believer. Yes, I’ve read the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which states that atheism is “…a serious problem of our time ” and “a sin against the virtue of religion.” Agnosticism can express “…a sluggish moral conscience.”  Catholics are not Universalists, after all, the part of my faith tradition that believed in inclusive salvation. And that’s fine.

I’m not expecting open arms from all the Catholics I meet, although most of those I know already welcome me that way already. I do hope that those who only saw atheists as morally depraved, least sad sacks of selfishness, or angry or ignorant people wandering lost will take Pope Francis’s words to heart, listening to the call of love and inclusivity of his words on May 22. Let’s do good together to make this earth better for all its inhabitants.

Peace.

Spinning Stories

I’ve recently returned to the psychologist who helped me maintain my ground during my divorce. Life’s challenges were mounting up, and my feet were leaving terra firma more often than was comfortable. Seeking the objectivity and advice of an emotionally neutral person with a plenty of wisdom and a view beyond the confines of my head seemed the best course of action. After a few visits, I was feeling the Earth a bit more firmly, but life being what it is, shifted abruptly, and I found my newly regained balance broken.

At my last visit, I told my story of angst and the latest tremble. I’m fairly adept at finding my flaws and naming my demons, but when only seeing life from the inside of one’s head, it’s easy to miss stuff. After a longer recounting of my condition and concern, I paused. “That’s quite a story you’ve told yourself there,” she noted. “Perhaps you could spin a different one, one that would make your life more comfortable.”

She was right. I’d taken a set of happenings and situations, mixed them with my feelings, insecurities, and prejudices, and written a fine story that connected all the dots while both creating and justifying my angst. Of course, none of us ever knows exactly what is going on in the mind and hearts of others. We guess all the time. We take a bit of data (or even just second-hand hearsay) and mix it with our bias and out pops a story. Not the truth. Just a version of a possible truth. From there, the story spinning takes off. Every piece of data surrounding the event can then be added to the story, strengthening it in our minds. Never mind that the story makes us miserable and does nothing to build better relationships or improve anything. We spin the story and watch the person or world through that lens. Thus a drama is born.

A practical example is in order, and since I’d rather not incriminate myself or anyone else in the process, it is purely fictional. Let’s say you’ve had a conversation with a friend and shared something difficult and close to your heart. Rather than shoring you up or reassuring you, your tale is met with distance and even a bit of possibly condescending scorn. Confused about this behavior, which was unexpected and, to your mind, unwarranted, you start to spin a story. You start with a guess about the motivation of this behavior. Perhaps you decide this friend thinks you’ve made huge errors and that she’s a judgmental person with no compassion. From that point on, it will be easy to find evidence that she’s just that. With the story spun, every encounter will be woven into your tale about her, and that tale will grow so large it’s hard to see your friend behind it. The story colors your encounters with her, and your mind continues to add to the evidence that your spin is truth not fiction.

Let’s say you decide this story isn’t serving you well. Perhaps you miss the friendship. Perhaps you see that the data you’re seeing doesn’t fit the story you’ve woven, and all that jamming the data to fit the story is wearing you out. Perhaps others encounters with you challenge your story. Or perhaps you just told your story to a fine therapist. Whatever the case, let’s say you revisit the original event (which can be very hard to find after story creation — our memories of events change as we retell them aloud or in our minds). You decide to tell a different story with the same data, hopefully a more charitable story. This time, you decide that perhaps your initial sharing hit her in a personal way, so personally that she had to fend it off with defensive action. Or perhaps decide the event was an anomaly, more characteristic of a bad day or a slip of the tongue and temper than a sign of her true personality. Whatever the new story, it likely could be one that changes the color of the situation and allows you to open yourself to her friendship again or at least keep the first tale from renting so much space in your head. Either way, you’re at greater peace. You’re a bit more grounded.

So back to the therapist’s office. After hearing some options for respinning the story that was unpleasantly taking up so much space in my head, I picked one that worked better for me and that took some of the blame and responsibility off of the antagonist of my story. Rather than just shifting it to another character, I pictured my previous mental antagonist as like the weather, variable, and largely unpredictable. With that image, I could change my story and allow her whims no more power over me than the weather. Simple sounding, but profoundly effective. I was shocked at how that lightened my mood and altered the way I saw my struggle. I consider myself a fairly astute observer of my own mind, but this mental faux pas had escaped my mind’s eye.

What other stories was I spinning up there? What other situations did I see as intractable that were truly quite manageable and bearable if I only shifted my view of them? I found stories about my ex-husband, friends, acquaintances, and even my kids that definitely could benefit from a critical look and plot change. Some are hard to change. It’s not easy to look at an event or series of events, sometimes years past, and decide to reinterpret them in a way that causes you, the spinner, less angst and anger. Not that I’m full of angry tales of those in my life. I have very few of those, thank goodness. But I can see where my stories about situations have clouded my ability to find solutions to problems. It’s been worth taking the time and effort to look back and rewrite.

I’m not advising rewriting the facts themselves or tampering with the truth. Objectively observing the events in our lives is difficult but essential work, and our minds are wired to fill in the gaps, turning a few data points into a narrative. I’m advocating being aware that the story we spin around a fact can serve us well on our journey or serve us poorly. When a story takes our minds and hearts down roads that cause us more pain than the actual event, it’s worth taking another look at testing the veracity of the story.

Perhaps the best part of that recent session was the effect it had on how I started to meet uncomfortable situations. I watched my thinking and emotions more carefully. I observed the stories start and was more able to stop them before they spoke louder to me than the truth my senses had taken in. Most of these stories indicted me, for the stories I tell me about myself are by far the darkest in my collection. Self-doubt, worries about the future, misgivings about things said populate these tales. And as I watched  my mind this week, I found that my stories about myself and what I’d failed to do correctly popped into my head at a startling pace.

I’d like to say I promptly hit the delete button each time those terrible tales found their way to the surface, but that’s not an easy task. It is a worthwhile task, whether the story be in formation or years old. So go ahead. Try respinning a story or mindfully creating the next one that starts. Make it a charitable yet honest tale, limited by the truth but bound in love, inclusivity, and patience for all the characters it contains. Make it one worthy of the space it occupies in your head.

Namaste.

You Don’t Get It

You don’t get it.

These four words make me cringe. They’re rife with intolerance and condescension. I’ve read them several times this week, sometimes aimed at me and sometimes at other groups. I’ve heard them in religious circles, including UU groups. Those four words have left my mouth as well, never with favorable results.

You don’t get it.

After a rather (surprisingly, to me) controversial post on my homeschooling blog, Quarks and Quirks, I received these words in my inbox. They were written by well-meaning mothers who carry somewhat different beliefs about parenting than I. They seemed to be written to shock me into understanding how fundamentally flawed my reasoning was. I could see the sad, disapproving look and slow shake of the head that accompanied the authors of the words. One writer added she was sorry I missed the bus, since not getting it didn’t seem to elicit enough contrition in me. I told her I’m enjoying my walk.

They don’t get it.

This week, I stumbled over that phrase while perusing some blogs and online articles.   I regularly take time to read what “the other side” is saying to their inner circles, with the intent to better understand their point of view. This can be a frustrating process, leading to frequent despair.  I try to keep an objective eye, looking for they “why” behind the opposing point of view. But that distance is hard to maintain when I trip over that phrase: They don’t get it. In both cases, the phrase was aimed at those for free choice, specifically at Catholics for Choice. Catholics for Choice a group of Catholics who believe issues of conscience (contraception, abortion, reproductive technology, etc) are just that — issues of conscience that are not to be dictated by hierarchy of the church. “They don’t get it” was written by pro-life Catholics, over and over, sometimes with the sad shake of the head tone and other times with scorn. I sadly shook my own head, befuddled that any group would use that belittling phrase to convert the opposition, especially when the opposition shares the same faith.

They don’t get it.

I’ve heard and read the phrase within Unitarian Universalist circles as well. We’re a varied group, welcoming all, so we say.  Given that commitment to radical inclusivity, I’m always surprised to find that rather condescending statement come forth. I’ve seen these words written and heard them said in print, in conversations, and from the pulpit. They’re object is varied, generally pointing out to other groups but occasionally aimed at others within our tiny movement who believe differently about God or the way things work. The former is condescending. The latter is divisive in an already-small group of people working to forward an agenda of love and tolerance. We can’t afford that, folks.

You don’t get it.

I’ve shouted that statement to my loved ones. It’s trite but true that too often those we hold closest see the worst of us. I’ve help up my hands in frustration as those words rolled off my lips to one of my unsuspecting children. I’ve watched their faces fall, full of confusion about what the “it” is while stinging from words I’d never throw at a stranger in the street. These have been moments about which I am not proud. They’ve occurred when I’ve felt panic about some issue that did not deserve panic and frantic that my point needed to be understood NOW. I’ve let out an unholy, “You don’t get it!” at the children I love beyond all reason. I leveled it at my ex-husband (and he to me) too many times, and while I generally feel less remorse at that, I don’t doubt that the attitude that accompanies those words was some part of our undoing.

You don’t get it.

Whether written in an online rant or spoken aloud to another passenger on our planet, this phrase creates a hierarchical relationship where there shouldn’t be one or expands the gaps that naturally are between us. Between people in a friendship or partnership or even between debaters over a hot topic, “You don’t get it,” assumes that the speaker is privy to superior truths the listener or reader does not hold. The statement assumes a universal “it”. Add to that an innate desire to be understood by others, and it’s no wonder those words come out in times of stress and conflict. Perhaps what would be more true would be to say, “You don’t get me,” but that’s just too painful often to say. We want to be gotten, to be understood. And we’re often lousy accepting when what we understand to be true isn’t what another holds as true.

They don’t get it.

While the statement in the singular is a skewer designed to single out an individual, in the plural it’s a blunt tool designed to unite those who are already united and deepen the divide between “us” and “them”. Its hierarchical nature occurs on a larger scale, creating levels of understanding of the world (ours being better than theirs) rather than just circles of understanding coexisting side by side. When plural, this statement is almost never seeking greater understanding by the “they” but rather bemoaning just how dumb/incompetent/misguided/lost “they” are. There are no hearts, minds, souls, or votes won with those four words.

Here’s how I see it.

It’s time for a change in language. If you want to be understood by those around you, if you want your (limited, subjective) point of view out for others to consider (and accept or reject), face a few facts and change your language. My “it” and your “it” aren’t universal. My version of “it” is just that –my version. If my “it” is my theology or philosophy, that doesn’t make “it” any more irrefutable or holy to anyone other than me. “It” is most often is subjective and often bound by time, location, and the ever-changeable mind. Rarely is the “it” in “You don’t get it,” an irrefutable fact (as in “You don’t get it! Your shirt is on fire! Act now or die!”). It’s almost always subjective in nature. Changing language when communication would help. Use those ever-helpful “I” statements. “I feel/think/believe…” put the focus on the subjectivity of the “it”, which is appropriate. It decreases the pulling of rank that happens with “They/you don’t get it.” Owning beliefs is fine. Foisting your beliefs on another isn’t.

And that’s how I see it. 

Unitarian Universalism and Religious Pluralism: Do We Miss the Mark?

In a recent post about religious freedom, I wrote about rallies held by the conservative end of the Catholic church. These rallies protested regulations prohibiting the picking and choosing of health benefits offered by employers, all in the name of religious freedom. I celebrated my own Unitarian Universalism and its tradition of respect for religious freedom, offering a definition of religious freedom a bit different from the one proposed by protesting Catholics.

A commenter, Robin, begged to differ, not about my definition but about Unitarian Universalist commitment to respecting the free and responsible search for meaning of those of all faiths. Robin notes that within many UU congregations, real and virtual, there is a marked rift between the values of Unitarian Universalism and the practice of individual UUs, especially in the area of respect for the beliefs of others. Especially when those beliefs are theist (especially Christian), this commenter notes a palpable distaste for from the Humanist/Atheist wing of Unitarian Universalists.

Sadly, I’ve seen this in my own congregation. I’ve overheard heated rants about Christians and theism during coffee hour. It’s embarrassing, given the UU commitment to supporting free spiritual searches by all and to protecting the worth and dignity of all humans. I’ve called this behavior out in meetings, meetings where we discuss where we are as a congregation on our road to supporting interfaith movements in our community. Sure, we teach our children and ourselves about the religions of the world, but that’s not interfaith work.  And badmouthing any religion in a church committed to supporting religious freedom is downright contradictory to even beginning true interfaith work. But for years, I hadn’t put together the connection between our lack of interfaith work and a bias against theism all too common in UU circles.

Along comes the UUA Common Read, Acts of Faith, by Eboo Patel. A few weeks back, I led a small group in a discussion on Acts of Faith, which is a mix of memoir and call for greater religious pluralism. Patel is a Muslim and founder of the Interfaith Youth Core, an organization dedicated to serving the world while promoting religious pluralism and true interfaith dialogue. Patel quickly points out that he means real interfaith dialogue, not just the sort where religious leaders gather and talk about common beliefs and threads. He seeks instead a group of people working for what all faiths believe is important — service to others — while encouraging interfaith dialogue among those present.

I’d venture a guess that most UUs would support that goal. Committed to social justice and open to the idea that there are many paths up the mountain, working side by side with those of other faiths should be a UU norm. It’s where Patel goes next that likely causes unease in some. Patel does not advocate gatherings of the most liberal of the world’s religions. Instead, he calls for an Orthodox Jew to work with an Evangelical Christian while alongside a committed Atheist, and he calls for conversation. Conversation. Not conversion. Patel reassures the reader and the leaders of youth that he’s not desiring to dilute anyone’s faith tradition.  He states, citing a particular conversation with a Catholic leader,

By proclaiming our strong commitment to our respective faiths, even intimating that we believed what we each had was superior, we had cleared the way for an honest conversation. Neither of us was offended by the other’s faith tradition. to the contrary, it had created a common bond – two men of deep but different faiths talking about religious cooperation. (165)

Not conversion. Conversation and cooperation, while accepting the differences, as stark as they may be. This is a tall order for anyone of strong conviction. Most of us like to be right, meaning we tend to protect the view we have of the universe even at the cost of relationships with others. To join with others with beliefs as strong as our own yet radically different takes a willingness to sit with some discomfort. To work with others who believe their path is superior to yours takes humility and the ability to let go of the ego a bit more than may usually be comfortable.

It’s hard. Honestly, it’s that kind of frank conversation that I generally avoid with my friends whose religious views vary most sharply from mine, although I’m not sure we suffer for it. Our long-standing bilateral commitment to friendship tend to keep us focused on what we have in common, which varies depending on the friend. These relationships, while definite bridges between disparate faiths, are not interfaith work. Simply, the faith is left out. We don’t encourage each other on our respective spiritual journeys, although we don’t ignore the importance of these journeys either. (See an earlier post, Sharing Friendship, Sharing Religion, for one example.)

But what about Eboo Patel’s call to action? What about his call to have the conversations that actually accentuate the differences and encourage individuals to identify strongly with and practice their own beliefs while working side by side for the common good?  His assertion that this step is necessary if we want to reduce hate between faiths and make a more peaceful world causes me to wonder about the religious tradition I espouse and practice.  Unitarian Universalist, at least in principle(s) seem to be in a unique position to facilitate this. And yet, we too often don’t.

I don’t have an answer, but I think I have a starting point. It’s time to speak out against language that is antireligion. It’s time to call out the conversations in coffee hour, online, and in the pulpit that work against the goal of building respect for those who choose a faith other than our own. It’s time to identify what makes us uncomfortable and work within ourselves and our congregations, as well as the UUA, to combat the bias against theism that creeps into our conversations and decisions. I’m not suggesting we become doormats for the religious zealots who spread hate for all those who don’t share their beliefs. I’m simply suggesting we don’t become like them by producing our own rhetoric and hate.

We are, after all, a religion based on respect for all people and dedicated to supporting justice, religious freedom, and the rights of conscious. We can be part of the solution to  the rifts religious division causes in this world. We can do this while first understanding then respecting the depths of beliefs held by others, even when these beliefs are quite different from our own. We don’t need to agree with others or try to convert them to our way of thought. Religious pluralism puts into action radical inclusivity, and that’s about as UU as it gets.  Eboo Patel says it like this:

We need all those people — the hymn singers and the sun saluters, the Qur’an reciters and the mandala makers, the speakers of Hebrew and the readers of Sanskrit, the hip-hop heads and the folk music fans — and more. We need a language that allows us to emphasize our unique inspirations and affirm our universal values. We need spaces where we can each state that we are proud of where we came from and all point to the place we are going to.

I fear the road is long. I rejoice that we travel together. (182)

Namaste. Amen. So be it. Peace.

Pondering the Patriotic

Flags over Fort Sumter

My boys and I have been travelling. We’re just home from a short week down south, splitting our time between Charleston, SC, and Savannah, GA. My younger son wanted to visit somewhere historic while my older just wanted to get away from home.  After a good deal of spirited debate, we decided to head toward some warmth and sunshine (my request).

We had a fine time, exploring the cities, visiting museums, and seeing the Atlantic Ocean (it’s a bit too cold to do more than see it). I’m not surprised it turned out this way, but a good amount of our activities revolved around war.  In Charleston, we walked through the Battery and White Point Gardens on the southern point of the peninsula that is the city. Cannon after cannon. War memorial after war memorial. The boys were delighted, especially my younger. He’s my history buff, and nothing says history to him like artifacts from wars.

One of many cannons in Charleston's battery along the water

The next day, we visited The Charleston History Museum, spending an inordinate amount of time with the exhibits on armory, the Civil War (referred to as the War Between the States on most of the signage), and one of the current special exhibits, Blasted, all about projectiles and explosives from the Civil War. Sure, they had some other fine exhibits, such as one on seasonal fashion at the turn of the 20th century and another on botanical quilts, but these didn’t pull my guys in like the ones about war. Oh, my older tried, at least a bit, to look at the others.  It was, however, a losing battle.

Fort Sumter followed the museum and was enjoyed by all of us, but of course that was all about war as well. Sure, we went down to the shore and checked out the delights low tide reveals, but war won out.  It was all entirely fascinating, although this pacifist mom can’t help but punctuate these explorations with sidebars about the concept just war, military propaganda, and the incredible amount of death all this warring creates.  The boys are used to that and able to carry on those discussions with enough interest and integrity to allow me to sleep knowing that war is no game to either of them.

A shell through a wall at Fort Sumter

Our last stop on the history tour of Charleston was Patriots Point. Patriots Point hosts a mock-up of a Vietnam support base, a Medal of Honor Museum, and USS Yorktown, an aircraft carrier built after and carrying the name of one sunk in the Battle of Midway WWII and used subsequently in the Pacific toward the end of the same war.  A submarine and destroyer were closed for renovations. We all agreed the carrier and support base were fascinating to tour. We also all agreed that a future living on an aircraft carrier didn’t agree with any of us. Whew.

Patriots Point aircraft carrier, the USS Yorktown

It was the trip to Patriots Point that took my thinking from history and war to patriotism.  Patriotism, as defined by Merriam-Webster, is “a love for or devotion to one’s country.” Just what does it mean to be patriotic? If it means hoisting a flag on particular days on the calendar or sticking “God Bless America” to the bumper of my car, I fail the test. If it means holding my country as superior in all respects, I fail again. If it means I support massive defense spending and deployment of troops around the globe to protect US “interests,” I fail a third time.

I don’t think any of that, however, is patriotism. For the past year, both my boys have been studying US history via live and online classes, readings, videos, and discussion. It’s impossible, if one is paying attention, not to marvel at our founders’ determination to make America a place of freedom. Yes, they bungled it at points (allowing slavery to continue after founding this land of freedom would top this list). No, the results weren’t perfect. But basically, the result was a system designed to adjust to a changing world and protect against tyranny. Sometimes that change is colossally slow, and rarely do we agree as a nation what “protection against tyranny” really means; an election year magnifies all our differences in these definitions.

Understanding where we’ve been and those that came before us is a step towards patriotism. Learning one’s history, warts and all, and appreciating the freedoms we have fosters a patriotism that reaches far beyond flag waving and anthem singing. One can be patriotic and recognize that, as a nation, we don’t have it all right. We can learn from nations far older than ours and even from nations that no longer exist.

I think patriotism with nationalism are often confused.  Nationalism, as defined by Merriam-Webster, is “loyalty and devotion to a nation; especially : a sense of national consciousness exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests as opposed to those of other nations or supranational groups.” A quick web search for “liberal patriotism” reveals that many conservatives are actually describing a feeling of nationalism when explaining why liberals aren’t patriotic.  When the definitions are scrambled, it’s no wonder liberals are tagged as not patriotic. Nationalism places a human creation over humans, and by that I can’t abide.  I’m not nationalistic. I’m for human beings, wherever they’re from, whatever flag waves over their human-created boundaries.

But perhaps I can claim patriotism. Not the kind that’s noisy or warmongering. Not the sort that invokes the divine to protect one set of humans over another. Just the kind that learns from the past, hopes for the future, and works in the present to keep this nation one of true freedom to live, love, and grow.

Peace.

Shutters on the Shed

Nope, ours aren't that reliable.

My father and stepmother live on an acre or so of land perched on top of a hill in rural Western Pennsylvania. Their home, a split entry ranch with enough room to house visiting children and accompanying grandchildren, sits at the center of their property.  Their backyard includes another set of rooms, with a deck leading to a comfortably furnished patio, followed by an expansive hallway of shady lawn leading to a fire pit.  Beyond the pit sits the shed.

Last summer, they had the house and shed painted. Painting is, of course, more than painting.  Shutters must first be removed, the surfaces cleaned, repairs made, paint finally applied, and finally shutters returned.  We’d arrived long after the project was complete, the point when one basks in the results but finds all the small things that didn’t quite turn out as hoped.  The house and shed did look attractive, and I couldn’t tell you now what the small problems were, except for one.

After the project, one of my parents asked the other about the location of the shutters for the shed.  It seemed they had not returned to their windows at the end the project. For some time, they searched for the shutters, large enough items that losing them was improbable yet that seemed to be what had happened.  The shutters were missing.

I don’t recall how long they looked or who asked the crucial question, but at some point someone asked, “Did the shed ever have shutters?”

Thought preceded the answer.  No.  It hadn’t.  The house had had shutters (and still did), but the shed had not. Pulling the shutters off from the house, seeing it shutterless for some time, then returning them to the windows emphasized their presence on the house.  It also suggested their absence on the shed, creating a memory of shutters where none had been before. My parents had lived there 25 years at this point and are certainly of sound mind. My father is a retired Biology professor; my stepmother, a retired therapist. They are well-read, intelligent people. And yet, their minds convinced them that shed had worn shutters when it clearly had not.

I have plenty of my own shutters.  There’s the simple stuff I think happened but didn’t:  the cumin I’m sure I bought at the store yet never appears on my shelf and the garden clippers I returned to the garage that I later find next to the bush I was trimming. These generally affect only me, unless I happen to hound a child about the whereabouts of the tool I misplaced.  Generally, the only consequence is that I end up annoyed with myself or cooking a different dinner than planned.

Memory is wily and not to be taken too seriously. This is hard to remember at exactly the times remembering it is most important. I find myself clinging to memories as if they were tangible, verifiable facts. While the nature of memory makes it hard to be sure when I’ve done someone wrong thanks to incorrect memories paired with a stubborn disposition, I’m sure my version of the story has been wrong plenty of times.

Many arguments with my then-husband circled around what we each held as truth.  “You said that, I remember!” one of us would fling.  “No!” the other would retort, “I never said anything of the sort!” What would have happened if each of us could have softened and considered that our memories may have failed us?  I doubt it would have saved our marriage, but it could have made some of it better.

Repetition aids learning.  Repeating a scenario from memory strengthens (and shapes) the learning of that version of a memory. Thus in the mind of the teller, the fish that got away gets bigger and the wrongs of another become more heinous (reconsolidation). When I wander over memories of my childhood, my marriage, even conversations I had in the past week, I wonder what is real and what is a mental mash-up of reality and distortion.

This could be deeply disturbing insight on the human mind, but I prefer to think of is as an opportunity to let go a bit of the tight grip I often hold on my version of reality. I can’t see a downside to allowing some doubt to enter my mind when I hear myself say aloud, “I remember.”  When I reflect on the malleability of memory, I’m more likely to pause before engaging in a battle of the “I said, you said” variety or even quibble with my kids about who left the front door open.  That can only serve to open me up to more possibilities than my (highly flawed) version of reality and lessen conflict with others. Not a bad way to spin quirk of our human nature.  Want a bit more peace? Take a lesson from the shutters on the shed.

For a bit more on memory:

Common Ground: Reversing the Polarity Social Media Encourages

I’ve heard it said many times that the internet has increased our polarity.  Rather than increasing our understanding of the vast variety of viewpoints in our world, we tend to herd (yes, like sheep) with those who think and feel just like we do.  We go to forums and join email lists filled with people who validate our worldview, or at least a little slice of our worldview.  We pat each other on the back, celebrating how right we are in our way of thinking.  At our best, we patronizingly ask what those poor fools on the other side of the issue are smoking, shaking our heads with a bemused, knowing smile.  At our worst, we ridicule them amongst ourselves or to their social media selves, calling them names and judging their character.

We’re human.  We seek out other humans who are like us.  We look for a neighborhood that we think fits our family. We look for a church that matches our belief system.  We seek an education for our children that fits what we think education should be.  It’s human nature and completely understandable.

It’s also dangerous.

When the only voices we hear are the ones that validate our existing point of view, we miss the balance that comes from hearing what doesn’t match ours.  I’m not talking about the “hearing” that is followed by rolled eyes and online rants.  I’m talking about real listening to another side of the issue and to what the other person has to say.  Whether it be about politics, religion, a current community issue, or a standing social concern, the key here is really listening without judgement.

This is hard.  As  Unitarian Universalist, a member of a liberal religious tradition, I stand by the right for every human to search for what he or she finds true and meaningful, within the bounds of respecting the worth and dignity of every human being.  That can really be tough, requiring far more breathing and pausing than I sometimes care to practice.

To be sure, listening to opposing viewpoints does not mean agreeing with them.  It doesn’t mean never presenting a respectful rebuttal or providing additional (neutral) information.  It does require an open mind and heart and some creative thinking.  It takes creativity and openness to look at the world through another’s eyes, if even for a moment.  It takes knowing where your own buttons are, remaining alert what might threaten to set them off.  It takes love — the kind of unconditional love Jesus taught– and compassion — the sort the Buddha demonstrated — to quiet the mind and just truly listen.

Why bother?  Because, at best, ranting and raving at the other side accomplish nothing.  Because digging in, calling names, and making broad assumptions is the job of two-year olds and teens (the latter of whom we rightfully expect better).  Because, like it or not, much of life is a mystery, as is all of the future.  None of us have the market cornered on the best way of living in this remarkably complicated world.  Really. And no amount of vitriol and rhetoric actually changes anyone’s mind.  Does the adage, “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar,” ring a bell?

Just try it.  Try it on your public media of choice.  The next time someone posts a favorable link about the politician you hate, the church you can’t stand, or the cure-all that you’re sure is garbage, don’t just move on.  Click through. (Judiciously — I’m not advocating damaging your computer or being irresponsible.)  Read the link.  It may be a one-sided rant full of — wait for it — vitriol and rhetoric.  Or, more often in my experience, it may be a more thoughtful look at the other side of a subject. Before cursing it on or off-line, look for what’s behind it.  Google the politician, church, or cure-all and read more.  Listen while you read, to the people behind those messages that drive you out of your mind.  Listen to their fear, their hopes, their concerns.  Listen to your own heart and mind, noting judgement and your own fear, hopes, and concerns.

Repeat this exercise until you kind of get it.  Not believe it (although that could happen), but just understand that there could be another valid way of looking at the world.  That other way may be in stark contradiction to yours, and you may be more opposed to it than when you first began your search.  That’s fine.  The point is to know what the other point of view is about. After all, it came from human beings (and, if it’s via social media, it came from human  beings you call your friends).  It’s worth understanding where they come from.

Don’t be surprised if your heart softens a bit, even if you hold your stance as tightly as before.  Don’t be surprised if you find it harder to lambaste folks you don’t know online and off, now that you have a better feel for them as human beings.  Don’t even be surprised if you now find it easier to respectfully voice your own opinion.

The secret is this.  The more you know about another way of looking at the world, the more you understand just a bit of the people behind those crazy ways that are not yours, the more you see how you are similar to them.  The woman who opposes all vaccinations? She has fears for her children, just like you have for yours.  That’s common ground.  The man who rages against higher taxes for national health care?  Perhaps he worries about not having enough resources down the line, like so many of us do.

We have more common ground than we think.  Our internet communities can make it seem like we have none, breeding hate, anger, and fear.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Until we see what we share and at least try to recognize the thoughts and feelings behind another’s point of view, we’re living neither the message of Jesus or the Buddha.  We’re simply practicing polarity.

Post Office Encounters

‘Twas the week before Christmas, and the stack of items for mailing was complete. Off to the post office I went, with one package heading for my nephew, three PaperBackSwap books seeking new homes, and one Very Important Envelope requiring delivery confirmation.

I doubt I like or dislike the post office any more or less than anyone else. Less than a mile away and on my general route to almost anywhere, it’s convenient. The wait times is lower than that of the post office of my youth, although whenever possible, I avoid the line for a clerk and used the automated kiosk.

Alas, the Very Important Envelope precluded use of my automatic friend. Eight days before Christmas, I’d have to wait my turn in line for a real person. The queue was surprisingly short for the time of year, but my stomach plunged when I saw the available clerks. There she was: my post office nemesis, whom, for convenience and politeness, I’ll call Nancy. Plenty of other names cross my mind when I see her, but none would be respectful or polite, and even if I knew her given name, using it here would be unwise.

I did what I do when Nancy is at the counter. I counted the people ahead of me and tried to estimate given package load of those customers and the status of the current transactions who’d be my clerk. I’ve repeated this ritual my past four trips in the counter line. It makes no difference in the outcome, of course. Every time, Nancy is mine.

Nancy and I go back about three months. Progeny in tow, I stopped by to mail some homeschooling curriculum (workbooks and a textbook) to family across the country. My automated friend doesn’t work for media mail, so I headed directly for the line. After a reasonable wait in line, I found myself in front of Nancy. Nancy asked the usual question about the contents of the package (bound, printed material, etc). I affirmed its acceptability for media mail status, adding that it was homeschooling curriculum.

Rule number one. No small talk or additional information with Nancy. A sharp look from her was followed by sharper retort that curriculum was not media. Thrown, I answered that I’d sent this type material several times. For years, in fact. I received it that way as well. It took a few minutes to convince her that we were indeed talking about the same thing: bound, printed material. She then proceeded to the questions regarding hazardous or fragile contents, firearms and the like. My children, sensing tension, decided to start talking. “What’s media mail, Mom?” my younger asked.

Rule number two. Don’t talk to Nancy about post office regulations of past or present. I answered my son, referring to the book rate designation of the past. “There was never a book rate,” interrupted Nancy. After a brief, stunned silence, I quietly returned that indeed there had been — I’d mailed many a book that way. From there, the conversation became bizarre. A tirade followed, a litany of items people attempted to mail via book rate (yes, she used the term freely at this point), including coats and car parts. She became combative, even starting in on homeschooling as well as postal crimes of the past. I used a tactic I’ve generally reserved for my younger son: I told her we needed to end this conversation, as it didn’t seem to be very productive. She harrumphed. We left.

As the fates would have it, I was to require counter service a few other times over the next few months. Once, my automated friend was out of service. Another time, I needed another media mail transaction mediated by a human. Each time, I found myself with Nancy. Even without any confrontational postal exchanges, I found myself sweaty and tense approaching the counter, bracing myself and using as few words as possible. Until last Saturday and the Very Important Envelope. I rarely have Very Important Envelopes to mail, and this was the first required certified mail and delivery confirmation. I perused the possible forms in the counter cubbies next to the line, choosing one that seemed promising, and approached the counter.

Rule number three. Don’t ask Nancy questions about post office stuff.  This seems counterintuitive, since she’s a postal worker and all, but trust me on this one.  Nancy rapidly listed what I needed, so I returned to the form area and produced three choices. Two were correct, and with some prompting, she agreed to tell me which two.  My additional questions to clarify some details were met with cryptic answers in an annoyed voice, but somehow I made it through with (I hope) the proper documentation required.  Somewhere in all this, I ended up mailing a 15 ounce, $15 paperback to Arizona for the $9.61.  I’m sure that was above and beyond for the eight days remaining until Christmas, but the transaction occurred without my involvement while I was figuring out the Very Important Envelope’s journey.  I briefly questioned Nancy about that and was quickly rebuked.  I let it go.

I left fatigued and irritated.  As with the other Nancy encounters, I also was a bit shaken, wondering how someone could get through each day with that much hostility and anger. I also left wondering what I can learn about me from Nancy and folks like her. I wonder if those encounters could be spiritual work.

I can’t change Nancy, but I can change my response to Nancy. Okay, I could also change my post office, but that would be pretty inconvenient.  I didn’t exactly enter these encounters with good will and patience, at least not after the first one.  I entered tense and ready for conflict.  I never swore or treated her disrespectfully, but I was hardly warm and compassionate.  And Nancy did not disappoint.  I almost wonder if she enjoys seeing customers squirm as their blood pressure rises.  So I wonder what would change, at least for me, if I greeted all that vitriol and unhelpfulness with a smile and warm comment.  Would she respond by softening?  Maybe, but that’s not the main question (although that would be a fine outcome).  What matters would be what happened inside me.  I just might soften, and I’d likely leave far less shaken, irritated, and fatigued.  I might even walk away with a smile, if for nothing else than the knowledge that I’d not allowed another person’s misery to become mine.  Certainly, it’s worth a try.