On Being a Compassionate People

DSCN1000A few weeks back, my younger son was having a hard time. He was anxious for reasons he couldn’t entirely identify, and when anxious, he acts irritable and stubborn with frequent outbursts. I know this about him. I have known if for years. I know that under that prickly, grouchy exterior is a kid who is worried, scared, and simply out of sorts. But two weeks back, as he became more prickly and grouchy, I responded with stubborn adherence to rules and withdrawal of computer privileges. Not surprisingly, this increased his anxiety, making him more prickly and grouchy. I suppose on some level I knew he was in distress, that he was worried or concerned about something, but I was focused on only my desire to have less opposition and conflict in the house and more sense of  control over the workings of our family.

In short, I felt his distress but overrode it with my own discomfort. Yes, I eventually broke through that override and comforted my son, working with him to find the source of his distress, the very process of which brought his anxiety down several notches. It was then that I expressed what Merriam-Webster calls compassion: Sympathetic consciousness of other’s distress together with a desire to alleviate it.

As humans, we are at out best when we are compassionate. Compassion occurs when we recognize and then respond to our shared situation of being human, namely being prone to suffering. We all suffer. We all watch others suffer. And, like it or not, we all contribute to the suffering of others. When my son was lashing out and melting down because he was suffering, I added to his suffering initially out of lack of awareness followed by a desire to maintain control of the status quo.  I didn’t act with malice. But I added to his suffering by reacting to his behavior without thought the cause. When I found compassion, his suffering decreased simply by the acting on my desire to alleviate his suffering. He knows as well as I that I can’t rid him of his anxiety, and yet knowing I would want to makes a difference.

I belong to a faith tradition that operates from a place of compassion. According to our second principle, Unitarian Universalists affirm and promote “justice, equity, and compassion in human relationships.” Compassionate people are whom we proclaim to be. Not compassionate to just some. To everyone.

Compassion can come easily. It is easy feel compassion for the injured child, the oppressed worker, and the abused woman. We generally express this compassion at a distance, with words, signatures, and financial contributions, hopefully also finding opportunities to work with our hands to ameliorate some of the suffering this world metes on its weakest and most disadvantaged. This is, however, the easy sort of compassion. While the world’s problems can bring us to despair, question the purpose of our lives, they can also bring us to our compassionate selves.

Compassion finds its voice in the UUA-sponsored Standing on the Side of Love campaign, “an interfaith public advocacy campaign that seeks to harness love’s power to stop oppression”. “Standing on the Side of Compassion” doesn’t roll of the tongue so easily, but the sentiment is the same. This organization advocates for those who are suffering at the hands of others for simply being themselves, whether GBLT, immigrants, or the otherwise oppressed. Immigrate rights and GBLT rights are close to the hearts of many Unitarian Universalists, receiving time from the pulpit, discussion from pews, and action from congregations. This sort of organized compassion also comes fairly easily, with these issues resonating with UUs, since they speak to fundamental equity principles we as those of a liberal religion find compelling, important, and immediate. In short, we see them and feel them and feel for those oppressed.

Compassion is harder when it’s more personal, especially when we feel injustice has been done to us. When we feel a sense of being the victim, we’re apt to struggle with the very human responses of anger, hurt, and even vengeance. To some degree, this is what I experienced with my son. It was easy to take his irritability and stubbornness as intentional actions to subvert my authority as the adult of the house. It was easy to forget that, like all of us, he wants to be good, to do right, and to be thought well of. Behaviors come from somewhere, and objectionable behaviors are no exception. Few people desire to be mean, thoughtless, hurtful, careless, or just annoying.  We do, however, become just that when we’re afraid, tired, overwhelmed, or simply because we’ve always done them and don’t know how to do otherwise.  All of us fall into that. It’s human

So back to compassion with those who sit closest to us, those in our homes and most imitate communities — our families, our workplaces, our churches, and our friendship circles. If these behaviors that look so intentional and therefore, well, mean and hateful, really come from fear, fatigue, and full plates, then what we are seeing in “bad behavior” is someone suffering. And the recognition of suffering calls for the desire to alleviate (and often first to understand the cause of) that suffering.  Therefore, we’re called to compassion in the face of bad behavior.

This is hard. Hurts can run deep if not addressed swiftly, and it can be hard to feel compassion for the person who seems to wrong you over and over. Towards its end, my marriage suffered, among other ailments, a loss of compassion. I imagine that’s true of many ended love relationships, although I don’t think it is a mandatory part of the finale. I’d like to have been able, during those failing years, to have been more compassionate to my now-ex-husband. Not because it would have saved the marriage but simply because I’d likely alleviated some of both of our suffering.

Holding grudges and refusing to look at the causes behind a person’s suffering cause more suffering. When we deny the suffering of others, we deny the other the chance to be seen as simply a fallible human. When we compound that suffering with our actions, often on the grounds that they’ve wrongs us so we can wrong them, we increase the suffering for all parties. When I’m looking at suffering with a sneer and a swear, I suffer, too. I lose some of the tender part of humanity that accepts that none of us behave perfectly. I gain a gritty, tough exterior that places more distance between me and the other person, thus dampening my ability to see the person as a suffering human.

Being compassionate doesn’t mean being a marshmallow or doormat. It doesn’t mean allowing injustice to continue or wrongs to go unanswered. My compassionate response to my son’s underlying compassion didn’t reverse the consequence we have for tantrums, but it did make it less likely that the next tantrum would come, simply because the true cause — his suffering — was somewhat reduced simply by my caring. No, in the adult world it isn’t all that easy. Sometimes, as in my marriage, divorce is the most compassionate answer. Often, it means having challenging conversations and risking feeling uncomfortable and vulnerable. Consequences can come along with compassion, but we must take great care to let the compassion lead us to those consequences, with our eyes wide open to the process by which we hand down those consequences.

My younger son’s anxiety has lessened as of late. It’s not gone, but he is more comfortable.  During our rediscovered peace, I’m better able to listen to his words and actions, noting when the anxiety rises a bit. Knowing I’m attuned, he’s better able to check himself and ask for assistance, knowing a compassionate response complete with hugs, advice, and sometimes firm reminders are available from someone who understands that he, like all humans, suffers and who wants to reduce just a bit of his suffering.  And, perhaps not surprisingly, he’s acting more compassionate himself.


Come to the Table: Unitarian Universalism’s Six Sources

Most religions have creeds. Unitarian Universalists pointedly don’t. UU’s do have two lists of suggestions: the seven principles and the six sources. No, after five years in a Unitarian Universalist Church I don’t have them memorized. Yes, the Nicene Creed (and Apostle’s Creed), Lord’s Prayer, Hail Mary, Doxology, Act of Contrition, the Ten Commandments, and most of the Beatitudes are still at the tip of my tongue. I have passages at scripture that pop out when triggered, and I could certainly have responded appropriately in Mass, at least until Fall 2011, when the responses changed. 35 years in Methodist, Catholic, and Episcopal churches with plenty of repetition in school, church, and youth group implanted them deeply.

I can paraphrase the principles, although not in order, if given time. The sources? Not so much. The principles are words of intent that translate easily to a course of action. While not binding, they are the more prominent expression of common belief. Unitarian Universalists aren’t uniformly behind the principles (or even behind the idea of them), but they are a nidus around which we can discuss common ground. They’re debated (as is their existence), but what isn’t in a UU congregation?

The six sources, however, are less visible and less discussed. They are in the front of the hymnal and on several promotional materials, but they don’t get the air time as a uniting list that the principles do. Here they are:

Unitarian Universalism (UU) draws from many sources:

  • Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life;
  • Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love;
  • Wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life;
  • Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves;
  • Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit;
  • Spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.

The list is not hierarchical. One source isn’t better or worse than any other. The sources aren’t full-course meal, designed to be consumed in entirety. They are a smörgåsbord, a range of ever-ready choices for the seeker of meaning and truth. I delight in that smörgåsbord. I was raised with a mini-version of that table of bounty. Five years ago, joined a much larger table when I joined a UU church, a place dedicated to the belief that the choices are vast and mine to make. It is bountiful. 

Our sources that set us apart from other liberal traditions. Our principles would likely be acceptable among many progressive and liberal believers of many traditions.  The sources would not.  Our six sources distribute the weight of understanding about the world among the self, the prophetic and wise ones who walked before us, the world’s faith traditions, and the rational, scientific brain. This distribution is without bias, although individual churches may lean more heavily toward one or more source, while others lean in different directions. 

It is this distinction that also sets at odds with other traditions. We’re not one single thing. We’re not all believer or nonbelievers, and we’re not always what we started as. We’re a community in flux, ideally growing and learning continually and certainly always changing, celebrating the diversity of the table and welcoming those who eat from the opposite end as ourselves. As tolerant as other faith traditions are, I can’t think of one that offers this rich of a spread or one that would encourage the search that UUs are encouraged to take any and every day.

Perhaps, it’s this freedom of choice that keeps us from growing. The elevator speech for Unitarian Universalism requires a mighty tall building with a slow elevator, preferably maving several stops. The answer to the inevitable question, “What do UU’s believe?” is long and unwieldy. Even if the seven principles roll of your tongue, you’ve only partially answered the question by the eighth floor. “But what do you believe?” is either spoken or implied. “Where to you get your wisdom? What is your source? What one thing/idea/person/deity is your bottom line?”

The floors tick by, and your questioner grows impatient and perhaps uncomfortable. This is the hard question. It’s the one that takes the courage to answer. The principles are easy. The sources take admitting uncertainty, and uncertainty is not the hallmark of any other faith. If, before the twelfth floor, you manage to mention that we draw from the wisdom of the world’s religions, you can rest knowing you’ve summed up three of the six. It will likely take three or more floors to explain that doesn’t mean you believe in all those deities or none of them, and that really that’s a moot point.

If you recover your sensibility and still have an audience, you may mention reason or science, but don’t know if I’ve made it that far. I’m worn out by then, and generally ready to be rejected outright or tuned out. Also, I admit I tend to forget the other three: personal experience of the wonder of life, the words and deeds of the great men and women who have come before us, and science and reason. I don’t forget because they’re unimportant. They’re essential. They just don’t roll off my tongue.

And I don’t think they sit easily with others. You’re likely 20 stories up by now, and your audience is either riveted and asking for directions, looking at you with pity since you’ll never “get”it, or asking another question. “But what do UUs believe?”

“So many different things.”

“Come and see.”

“If you’re asking the questions (and still listening to the rambling answers), it’s the place for you.”

It’s not an easy question to answer because there is no one answer. And that likely keeps many folks from checking us out. Why come if there’s no one “thing”? Why come if a member can’t even tell you what the place is about. What’s the point? In a busy world where speed matters and speed toward a goal matters more, why join a group of people who are rather vague (as a group, at least) about what they hold to be true? And why join a group where the person to your right and the person to your right may hold a vastly different view of the meaning of life and truth than you? You might as well celebrate your own truth at the IHOP or Starbucks Sunday morning. What’s the point of choosing a church that doesn’t tell you what to think and believe?

I don’t have an answer, but I’d like to hear what you say. As I see it, the lack of a clear answer — a single truth — is what makes us UU and makes it hard for us to grow our congregations and spread the larger values of Unitarian Universalism to more people. It is what appeals to me personally and concerns me institutionally. We’re shrinking, and in an increasingly complicated world, people seem to be seeking firm, simple answers. We’re not competing for those who want simple answer Sunday morning  — there are plenty of places for them. Rather we’re seeking those who can live with uncertainty, share the values of our big, somewhat messy set of suggestions, and want to work for a better world.

We have such bounty at our table, so much to share. So how do we do it? How do we market ourselves in a world where deep seeking and questioning are not the norm? Do we need a unifying message, concise enough for a shorter elevator yet still expansive enough to include us all? If so, how do we communicate that? Your turn.

Growing Pains: 161,502 UUs

Principles under construction — somehow it seems fitting.

I’ve sat in the pew of a Unitarian Universalist for nearly five years. I’ve been a member of the Universalist Unitarian Church of Farmington for about the same amount of time. I can’t recall a point in those years where growth hasn’t been part of the conversation at that church. Even before I took a seat at the Program Council table (a group of committee chairs meeting monthly to accomplish tasks requiring cooperation), I was well aware that promoting growth of the church while retaining members was considered a top priority. I’m just as aware that we’re not managing to meet that growth goal, a quandary which we share with other congregations and the faith as a whole.

So when UUworld.org released the news that Unitarian Universalist membership dropped to 161,502 from the previous year, I wasn’t surprised. I’ve largely lurked on a Facebook page dedicated to discussing growth strategies, lurking because after only five years in this faith tradition, I don’t know what to add. I read the ideas others post, follow links about the general decline of adherents to liberal religion, and wonder about what it means to try to grow a religion.

I’d love to see Unitarian Universalism grow. I have absolutely no idea how to do that. In theory, a creedless religion open to those on any path up the mountain should pull from a large swath of humanity. We are the “come as you are” denomination, theoretically welcoming the marginalized, the uncertain, and certainly not conservative religious. I’ve already mused that we may not be as welcoming as we say we are, with theists taking a hit in some congregations while, if the comments to my blog posts are any indication, atheists feeling squeezed out by other congregations. But on paper, we should draw a large group.  But we don’t, not as an individual congregation and not as a faith tradition.

What gives? I’ve joked that we lack the threat of hell. Without eternal damnation or heavenly reward, Unitarian Universalists lack the stick and carrot that accompanies much of our competition. Okay, so religious conservatives aren’t the most likely bunch to show up on a Sunday morning, where the sermon may revolve around marriage equity, interfaith work, or illegal immigrant rights. That saddens me as a citizen of this planet, but it’s not exactly surprising that we’re not drawing that crowd. The liberal adherents of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and the like are often discussing the same issues from their pews, pews filled with people who hold to more common theological ground than that found in any UU gathering.

But what about the fifteen percent of Americans who identify themselves as nonreligious? Half of those people count themselves as theists but don’t identify with a particular religion. The other half are agnostics, atheists, secular humanists, and all those who answered “none” when asked their religion. Those in this sizable portion of the religious belief pie seems to hold the greatest potential to be drawn to Unitarian Universalism. (UUs, however, fall into the “other” category on this chart, with 500,000 claiming it as their faith, a number more than three times the number of members on the books at UU churches. This is significant.) We are at once a religion of those with faith in humanity and the workings of the universe, with beliefs ranging from nothing to science, the self to God, nature to the atom.

And that’s the problem. How do you bring together people of such diverse paths to truth and meaning? How do you connect the liberal theist with the staunch atheist? Where does the Wiccan with Buddhist leanings fit into a church with contemplative Christians and abundant agnostics? In short, what is our common ground, and is that common ground firm enough to support a religious movement?

Bound up in this line of thought is the question of what Unitarian Universalists believe. In the past, I’ve admittedly given the rather flippant and unfortunate answer I’d heard others give: “Whatever they want.” It’s shorter than listing the seven principles, which don’t actually bind us together in any formal sense anyway.  Here they are, as listed on the UUA website:

  • The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
  • Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
  • Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
  • A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
  • The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
  • The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
  • Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part

I like the principles. All seven. They’re hardly objectionable, even to many belonging to liberal religious theistic traditions. But they are not a creed, and being creedless is perhaps key to what sets Unitarian Universalists apart from other faith traditions. I think it’s also key to our dwindling numbers. A faith community, be it church, coven, synagogue, association, congregation, or gathering, needs an overriding agreement to bind the members together. While the UUA offers the seven principles as a list of what UU churches affirm and promote, these are not a creed nor faith statement. They are a guide, a suggestion, and apt to be revisited and revised in years to come.

And perhaps that’s the dilemma and blessing all wrapped up in one. We’re a church of change, growing and shifting as the world shifts. We are not static and therefore hold to no static truth. As a faith that encourages seeking for religious truth, we are unique. I’ve often wondered if with all our openness to the many paths of truth that lead to meaning if we don’t chase many of our members and potential members out the door, encouraging them to scurry down those paths that pave a more definable route up the mountain. In contrast to the clear paths laid by Jesus, the Buddha, Mohammad, Bertrand Russell, and other, Unitarian Universalism provides a Hogwart’s-like maze of moving staircases. I can see why many are drawn to the clarity of a faith with a proscribed path.

I’m not alone in preferring the Hogwarts model, however. I have at least 161,501 companions on those staircases. I enjoy walking a flight of stairs with others on my journey and yet revel in the freedom to separate my path from their when we differ in opinion. While I’m not a fan of writing mission statements or any other writing done by committee, I understand the purpose of revisiting and revising these individual church pieces as well. We are a faith open to the realities and quandaries a changing world present, and this requires a willingness to look again and again to what we hold — even loosely — to be true.

But as far as winning and keeping members, I think this openness to change and lack of creed shoots us in the proverbial foot. It’s hard to articulate what Unitarian Universalism is about and impossible to answer the question, “What does a UU believe,” with more than the flippant response noted earlier. Few elevators are long enough for a concise explanation of Unitarian Universalism, and frankly, most people have short attention spans.  I’ve often joked that as an aspiring writer, I would have done well to pick a faith with more adherents if I planned to write about religion. But here I am, and I plan to stay with the loose, gossamer confines of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Like many here, I find comfort in elusive, evolving nature of this faith tradition. I remain concerned about our future and uncertain what I or anyone else can do to present Unitarian Universalism to the wider world in a way that makes it appealing for more than a quick stop on a road up the mountain. I don’t have answers. Fortunately, that fits my faith tradition perfectly.

Peace, Namaste, Blessing Be, Amen, and all of that.


For more on the principles: