Friday, December 16, 2016

An Unselfish World by Reverend Tom Capo

“I am an unselfish person living in a world of selfish people.”
            I found this quote in Google images without any attribution, and I spent a little time wondering about it.  I do make frequent efforts to be unselfish, and I have seen a lot of selfish people.  I went to a potluck several years ago; I think it was a church dinner, not here; and the man in front of me in line took two huge scoops of candied yams, leaving none for me or anyone else.  And there was a person who, along with so many others, took selfies during turtle nesting season, scaring the mother turtles so much that many of them did not nest or lay eggs.  And what about government state and national representatives who take money from lobbyists to pass legislation that benefits the rich at the expense of the poor, or those legislators in Springfield who refuse to pass a budget, leaving those with mental health problems in Illinois without services. 
            I could go on, but I know that many of you, like me, wonder about these behaviors; you see them all the time.  You too wonder if we live in a world of selfish people. 
            To be selfish is not inherently a bad, destructive, hurtful, or an evil thing.  To be selfish is just trying to make yourself happy.  My wanting to have shrimp gumbo and shrimp etouffee on my birthday, which I did by the way, to make me happy is not a harmful thing.  If I wanted to eat shrimp gumbo and shrimp etouffee on the back of a mother turtle during nesting season, well that is another thing all together.  
            We all want to be happy.  However, I have three things for you to consider when wanting to make yourself happy: 
·         Will what you are doing for yourself really make you happy?
·         Will there be negative consequences as a result of making yourself happy and how far are you willing to go?
·         What values or ethics you might be willing to compromise, to make yourself happy?
Intense desire can blind us to reality.  We all have this tendency.  If a little bit of chocolate cake tastes good, a lot will taste better, even if eating the cake negatively affects our weight, cholesterol, and blood pressure.  And will the extra chocolate cake make us happy, really?
            All religious traditions warn against letting our selfishness, our desire to make ourselves happy, go too far.  In the Tao Te Ching, it is written:
“There is no crime greater than having too many desires;
There is no disaster greater than not being content;
There is no misfortune greater than being covetous.”
In the Hindu Scripture, Allama Prabhu:
“They say that woman is an enticement.
No, No, she is not so.
They say that money is an enticement.
No, No, it is not so.
They say that landed property is an enticement.
No, No, it is not so.
The real enticement is the insatiable appetite of the mind.”
And in Christian Bible book of James:
“Let no one say when he/she is tempted, ‘I am tempted by God’; each person is
tempted when he/she is lured and enticed by his/her own desire.” 

A Decision to Make Yourself Happy
            Think for a moment of a time when you were selfish, in other words, a time when you made a decision to make yourself happy.  You might find yourself feeling okay about this conscious decision.  You might regret something about this decision.  You might wonder if you made the right decision.  There are times when we do need to put ourselves first for our mental, physical, emotional, or spiritual health.  Heck the week before last I took an extra day off and didn’t do any church work.  I exercised, had a massage, had an acupuncture treatment, and napped on and off for the rest of the day.  Do I regret this decision?  Not in the least.    There is nothing wrong with taking care of ourselves or treating ourselves with extra care and compassion from time to time.  However, there needs to be some balance between making yourself happy and caring for the interdependent web of all existence of which you are a part. 
Buddhists refer to this as selflessness, when we consider the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part as part of our decision-making process.  Someone named Daphne wrote of this experience:  “Every day I walk down the mall to get a cup of cappuccino, and every day I get hit up for spare change.  Every day.  The panhandlers all have these wonderful stories but you never know what to believe.  After a while it gets to be an irritation, and then I find myself getting upset that I’m so irritated over what is really just spare change.  One day this person came up to me and said, “I just ran out of gas.  My car is about six blocks away from here I have two kids in the car and I’m just trying to get back home.”

     I said to myself, ‘Here we go again.’ But for some reason I gave him $10.  Then I went on and got my cappuccino.  As I was walking back to the office, I again saw the man standing by his car, which had run out of gas right in front of my office.  Seeing me, he came over and said, ‘Thank you, but I don’t need the full ten,’ and handed me $2.
        Now I find that being asked for money no longer bothers me and I give whatever I can every time I get the change.”[i]        
            I think we can all relate to the experience of this person’s struggle with being unselfish.  Wondering if being generous to “certain people” will be helpful or harmful.  Wondering if we’re being duped by professional panhandlers.  Wondering if our small gestures have any meaningful impact.  I have certainly struggled myself.  Sometimes I’ve given to street people asking for help; other times, for whatever reason, I didn’t give anything and tended to avoid their persistent pleading looks at me, treating them as if they were invisible.  What is your decision-making process when you see a man or woman or family by the side of the road holding a sign saying, “Homeless”?  Will our unselfishness result in really helping someone who is really in need?  Should we always choose to “teach someone to fish?” Is it okay to sometimes just “give a fish” to someone?
            When I reflect today’s opening words by the Buddha, “To live a pure unselfish life, one must count nothing as one's own in the midst of abundance”, I wonder what does that mean? 
            Most of us are familiar with the Buddhist concept of no “possessions”, but what does this concept really mean?  Does it mean that if I don’t want to give up, say, this tie, one of my deceased father’s favorite ties that reminds me of him every time I wear it, that I can’t be purely unselfish?  Is it okay to be somewhat unselfish?  Does it still count?
         I invite you to think of a time when you were unselfish.  When you made a choice or decision that made you feel intensely connected to the web of existence.  Many times, these kinds of acts don’t focus on ourselves, don’t “put the glory” on us.  More often, these are times when we’ve put our energy and resources toward a greater good or common goal, when we’ve put the “other” before ourselves, and in so doing have found a part of ourselves in the other.
             Let’s go back to the Buddha’s statement: to live a pure unselfish life, one must count nothing as one’s own in the midst of abundance.”  If this statement is to be incorporated in a useful way into our lives as Unitarian Universalists, we probably need to let go of the concept of “pure unselfish life.”  As I’ve already said before, we are a “both/and” faith, and our rationalism helps us, we recognize that “pure unselfishness” is an ideal.  But recognizing this does not mean the statement is without practical meaning.  Here’s a simple example:   I don’t have to stop feeling a little possessive about my dad’s tie.  It makes me happy to think about him when I wear it.  I do have to realize that those feelings aren’t in the tie itself; they are in my heart.  The tie just brings these loving feelings to the front of my consciousness.  If I were to lose my dad’s tie tomorrow, I would be sad, but I wouldn’t lose my feelings about my father.  After all, it is just a tie.
            There used to be a saying going around, especially in churches around the annual budget drive time, pledge season.  “Give until it hurts.”  I don’t think that’s a particularly helpful saying, and I don’t think that is what the Buddha is saying.  In fact, as its core, I think it’s a harmful saying, because it de-emphasizes our connectedness with each other.  It is our connectedness, our sharing of our lives, our spiritual and ethical journeys, our being together that is most important.  I see the fruits of your unselfishness when you live lives of spiritual and ethical abundance, of love abundance, of friend abundance, happiness abundance.
             I’m proud to be among spiritually and ethically abundant people.  Unitarian Universalists who will not refuse to do the something we can do to make a difference.  A people who know themselves to be part of the interdependent web of all existence and act accordingly, unselfishly, affirming and promoting our Unitarian Universalist principles.   

            Volunteers from the DuPage Unitarian Universalist Church canoed, walked and picked up trash along the West Branch of the DuPage River, Illinois, October, 2016.
           Do you feel you are an unselfish person in the midst of selfish people?  I don’t.  I feel free to give enough to myself to be happy; I make time to be loving and compassionate with myself; I have an abundance in my life.  It’s okay for me to be a little selfish.  And I feel that this community gives to me, gives to each other, and gives to people beyond these walls because we feel the abundance of this community.  We, this community, have love enough, compassion enough, heart enough to share.  I want to be with people who want to be of use in this world, who can be selfish enough to take care of themselves and selfless enough to try to change the world. 

[i] (; Random Acts of Kindness by the Editors of Conari Press; Daphne)

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Microaggression by Reverend Tom Capo

What are “Microaggressions?”
            This year during Ministry Days at General Assembly, our yearly denominational meeting, the issue of ableism came up.  “Ableism” is the term used to describe the prejudices and the negative beliefs that are held about people who have some physical or emotional limitations, and the resulting behaviors toward this population.  There is some sensitivity about language that can be experienced as a microaggression toward those with some limitation. 
            Derald Wing Sue Ph.D. defines micro- aggressions as the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.  Here are some examples of micro aggressions that I think most of us recognize:
            A White man or woman clutches their purse or checks their wallet as a Black or Latino man approaches or passes them.
            An assertive female manager is labeled as a "bitch," while her male counterpart is described as "a forceful leader."
            Two gay men hold hands in public and are told not to flaunt their sexuality. 
            Let’s think about mircoaggressions in terms of ableism.  I have to be honest with you—this is something that wasn’t even on my radar before a few weeks ago.  Black Lives Matter and institutional racism?  I feel like I am making progress toward understanding that.  Gender equality and gender fluidity?  Again, I by no means think I am doing everything I can in relation to these issues, but I am at least aware and doing my best to be an advocate for change.  But the idea that I was, unwittingly or not, committing ableist microaggressions just about every time I open my mouth, that took my breath away.   

Parade of congregational banners at the annual UUA General Assembly. UUs are committed to Seven Principles that include the worth of each person, the need for justice and compassion, and the right to choose one’s own beliefs.  Picture credit:

In response to the issues at Ministry Days, one of our retired ministers, Reverend Tom Schade, wrote in his blog:
The most prominent example of ableist language in our movement, however, is our social justice arm: Standing on the Side of Love ...  The point here is not to convince you that ableist metaphors are a problem.  The point is that we often think, even if it is ableist, ‘Standing on the Side of Love’ is a done deal and it would be too hard to change it.  I'd like to offer a different possibility.  I think we need to change this, and it's possible to change this.  The important part of the ‘Standing on the Side of Love’ isn't the ‘Standing,’ it's that we're acting ‘on the Side of Love.’
He then went on to try to come up with a solutions to ableism in Unitarian Universalism: 
Start including our non-standing bodies in the message.  Without changing the name officially, widen the images and merchandise.  Start by offering ‘I Roll on the Side of Love’ or ‘Rolling on the Side of Love’ or ‘Sitting on the Side of Love’ t-shirts, bumper stickers, and other items. Make it easy for people to get these items …  Share (images) on your webpage … Offer more and more words as options -- we can dance, pray, sing, and act in lots of ways ‘on the Side of Love.’ 

Other options Rev Schade suggested:

Preaching on the Side of Love’ or ‘Serving on the Side of Love’ for ministers or ‘Teaching on the Side of Love’ or ‘Growing on the Side of Love’ for DREs.  “Let's fix it, folks,” he says.  “We're better than just throwing up our hands and saying, ‘Oh well.’”
            I recently changed the words that we use to ask you to join in singing our hymns.  Instead of saying “I invite you to stand in body or spirit”, I said “I invite you to rise in body or spirit.”  What do you think about that change?  What are other changes in our language that come to mind?

The Conundrum: Not Knowing What is Okay to Say  
            However, in our sincere desire to be sensitive to every one of every class, race, sexual there be a time when we are unable to speak or act for fear of hurting or disrespecting someone else.   How do we affirm and promote the worth and dignity of every person if we find ourselves unable to communicate for fear of what we might say or do?  Does the choice then to slip into “I don’t know what I can say so I won’t say anything?” I just don’t think so.
            What does it take to really treat a person with worth and dignity?  When talking with gender fluid youth, they don’t feel respected if you are unwilling to use the pronouns they choose for themselves.  When talking with Reverend Soto, she feels respected when I reach out to her as a whole person, not trying to discern what it is like to live in her body.  When I read Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehesi Coates, he wrote that he has difficulty feeling respected as a black man in a room full of white people.  How do we treat each one another with respect, worth, and dignity?
I can only tell you that I have come up with for myself.  I will reach out to everyone—not just the folks who seem like they are different from me because let’s face it not every difference is on the outside--and say to them, “The world is a very complicated place and I get so many confusing pieces of information, please let me know if I say or do anything that hurts or disrespects you, because I do not want to hurt you or disrespect you.”  So that with that person, in that situation, I can adjust how I communicate with them.  Not to be politically correct, but because I want to accept them as they are and as they want to be accepted.

Some of you might be thinking, “Are you going to use inclusive language during worship services? What if you’re quoting Universalist Hosea Ballou or the reading is by Unitarian Henry David Thoreau?”   My answer is well sometimes I will make the changes if I can do so and maintain the integrity of the author’s message, but if modernizing and sensitizing takes away from the message I probably won’t.  If I don’t change the language, I will say that this piece is from the 18th century and the language is not inclusive. 
            Will I stop using the hymns that use language of standing or running?  Probably not entirely.  I will try to be more sensitive to the hymns and readings and really try to be more aware of the inherent privilege and power and microaggressions in the readings and hymns.  But I am not perfect.  And I want to use hymns and readings that create a service that helps us affirm our values, provoke us to look within ourselves, and that pastor to the greatest number of you.  Worship is a cohesive experience.  From the moment we begin a service to the moment it ends, all the parts are designed to help create an experience that will hold before us our values and Principles.  
I want to accept you as you are and as you want to be accepted.
            If something in a worship service causes you hurt or makes you feel disrespected, please come and tell me.  I want to know.  I will only be more aware of what I am doing if each of you help me.  I am a privileged white male who has been brought up in a culture that affirms my privilege, and I am not always able to see through your eyes, through your experiences, through your pain. 
            Our First Principle calls us to treat one another with worth and dignity.  Without increasing our awareness, we can very easily unintentionally hurt or disrespect those around us.  This Principle is not easy to live, but it is one I am committed to try to live out.
            We are, each and every one of us, special, unique, and worthy of being treated with dignity and respect, worthy of being treated as we ask to be treated.  And we are, each and every one of us, called to treat others as special, unique, and worthy of being treated with dignity and respect, as they ask to be treated.  Sometimes that’s hard work.  Many times we are not even aware that we are hurting and disrespecting those around us.  I am going to do my best, you’re going to do your best, we here at this church are going to learn more about how to communicate with those who are different from us, and sometimes we will get it right and sometimes we will get it wrong.  But we’re going to keep trying, because that’s who we are.  We’re the love people.  We’re Unitarian Universalists.