Everywhere we’ve lived Martha and I have heard a knock on the front door and opened it to find Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons. I wonder what it would be like if Unitarian Universalists went knocking at people’s doors? Would we say something like “We’re Unitarian Universalists, and we are unsure how to describe our religion.” or “We’re Unitarian Universalists, could you tell us about your religion.” or “We’re Unitarian Universalists, could we offer you a cup of coffee in a bright orange mug with a chalice on it?”
Knowing who we are as Unitarian Universalist is one thing, but knowing who we are period, is one of those ultimate questions of existence that we all answer either consciously or unconsciously as we live in this world. Earlier in the service we sang “even to question truly is answer.” What I want us to consider today is how we each experience the question “Who am I?”
Sometimes you might answer that question by describing or naming what you do or what roles you have, or sharing how other people refer to or name you, or sometimes you describe who you are through metaphor: “I am the blossom pressed in a book, found again after two hundred years. . . .” It’s a short question, but it’s a really big one. It can seem like no answer, no matter how long or detailed, is really complete. And that’s because no answer is really ever complete.
Recently, I have been struggling with who I am in terms of what I have I done in my life, and whether any of my accomplishments, for want of a better word, have any worth. How many of you have heard of Erik Erikson? How about his stages of psychological development?
With each stage Erickson suggests we have the opportunity to grow psychologically and learn more about who we are, perhaps gaining some core values as we grow—wisdom, trust, purpose. In brief, at each stage we struggle with two opposing dynamics, like trust vs. mistrust from birth to about a year and a half. During this stage we experience the consistency with which our needs are met, and if we develop trust that our needs will be met, we develop hope. The same dynamic exists throughout all the stages of development.
I have been wondering if I could describe myself by how I have resolved each of these psychological dynamics. For instance, right now I have found myself considering stage 8, even though I am not 65 or thinking about retirement. I have found that many Unitarian Universalists seem to be fairly fluid across the stages of development, addressing each according to their individual readiness to do so rather than by a particular maturational age. Erickson suggests that it is during this Ego Integrity vs. Despair time that we contemplate our accomplishments and can develop ego integrity if we see ourselves as leading a successful life.
I have found myself comparing my accomplishments to those of my peer group and my siblings. What I have found is that it is easy to get caught up in financial accomplishments, time when people are able to retire, ability to enjoy a range of choices in how to spend retirement. Really these are less important to me. However, they are benchmarks that are easy for me to become obsessed with and they will certainly impact the quality of my life. What seems more important to me is how I embrace the kind of accomplishments that don’t really fit into the normal definition of an accomplishment: treating someone with worth and dignity, trying to really understand someone different than me, helping a community, group, or non-profit accomplish something amazing. The thing is I have to remind myself that these non-mainstream accomplishments exist, and that I determined a long time ago that they’re important. They don’t seem to pop into my head unsolicited like finances and retirement seem to. But the reality is these are the achievements that are meaningful to me and that are more descriptive of how I see myself, who I am and who I want to continue to be.
I am deeply concerned that too many people are defining who they are by what they see on social media. I can tell you I have been tempted by the social media yardstick myself. But as Cox said, I am only seeing the “highlight reel”, not the realities of a person’s existence with all it normal functioning, difficulties, and failures. Think about how easy it is to compare yourself to someone else’s highlight reel. How does that impact your sense of self?
So how do we answer the question “Who am I” if we don’t use comparisons to others. And how do we answer the question of “Who am I”, if we are not static beings, never changing how we think, feel, or act. Buddha said after a man spit on him and later asked for forgiveness: “Forgive [you for spitting on me]? But I am not the same man to whom you did it. The Ganges goes on flowing, it is never the same Ganges again. Every person is a river. The man you spit upon is no longer here. I look just like him, but I am not the same, much has happened in these twenty-four hours! The river has flowed so much. So I cannot forgive you because I have no grudge against you. And you also are new. I can see you are not the same man who came yesterday because that man was angry and he spit, whereas you are [now] bowing at my feet, touching my feet. How can you be the same man? You are not the same man. Those two people, the man who spit and the man on whom he spit, both are no more.”
I was working with an African American evangelical preacher in Chicago, Reverend Dr. R. J. Saffo. We both were highly committed to our relationship and the relationship between the church I served, DuPage Unitarian Universalist Church, and his collaborative group of local African American evangelical churches (PTMAN). However, on one occasion members of DuPage UU and I were at a breakfast hosted by his organization, and one of the speakers spoke extensively about how sex should only be between a man and a woman, and that the woman should be submissive to the man. Needless to say this didn’t go over well with me and the DuPage UU members who were in attendance.
As it turned out that morning, earlier at that breakfast I had spoken about how Dupage UU was happy and thankful to have a growing relationship with PTMAN. I had announced that we were going to financially support PTMAN’s black youth initiative to help black youth in the area have summer internships.
But now the members of DuPage UU and I were so disturbed by what we heard that morning that some wanted to quit the relationship with PTMAN, and at least one did. I committed to sit down with Rev. Dr. Saffo to discuss our concerns. When I did, I shared with him how the presentation about heterosexuality and submissive women distressed myself and members of DuPage UU. He was surprised by our feelings. As it turned out he was going to contact me about something I said. He and the members of PTMAN were offended by my use of the word “black” in reference to their youth. They felt this word was degrading. Rev. Dr. Saffo and I wanted our relationship and the relationship between our organizations to continue, so we both expressed “What next?” We both apologized and then worked on ways to deal with these issues, and committed to stay in communication when issues like these came up in the future.
Was I the same person after this experience? No, I wasn’t. Was Rev. Dr. Saffo the same person after this experience? No, he wasn’t. In fact, we were different people by just being in relationship with one another.
So “Who I am” is a challenge for me and I think any Unitarian Universalist to answer. Answering the question of who I am, at least today, has two parts. One is the part that I present to the world—minister, father, husband, male, heterosexual, Unitarian Universalist, all the titles that I have taken on or been given by others—selecting the ones I choose to accept. That is the functional way of defining who I am.
Indian born spiritual leader Eknath Easwaran writes: “The glory of the human being is our ability to remake ourselves. The Buddha is very rightly called the Compassionate One because he holds out hope for everybody. He doesn’t say our past has been dark, therefore our chances are dim. He says whatever our past, whatever our present, the sky is bright for us because we can remake ourselves. The Buddha says, ‘be a good woodworker. Consciousness is the wood, and you can make it take any shape you like. Just as a carpenter works the wood to build a house or a fine piece of furniture, similarly we can fashion the responses and attitudes we desire: love, wisdom, security, patience, loyalty, enthusiasm, cheerfulness. As an irrigator guides water to the fields, as an archer aims an arrow, as a carpenter carves wood, the wise shape their lives.’”
If you consider being an archer, aiming with your life toward your values and purpose, you will need to shape who you are one day at a time. You might consider being with people and in places that remind you of who you choose to be. Or read about the values and purpose you want to foster in your life and keep those values and purposes in the forefront of your mind. Or meditate or pray about those values and purposes. And when you make a mistake, miss the mark, run into a stone in the middle of your river, you can step back and learn from that experience, examine it as it relates to the values and purpose you aspire to embody. You will answer the question of “Who am I” multiple times in your life, probably with different answers each time you ask. By asking the question, you will learn more about yourself, you will have the opportunity to refocus on the things that are really important to you, then you might follow that question with the question what’s next—and wait in expectation for what life offers you.