by Unitarian Universalist minister Reverend Gary Kowalski
How many of you like to go hiking? A walk in the woods isn’t a race, after all. It’s not all about seeing how fast you can go, or how quickly you can get to the end of the trail. A walk can be like a meditation, a series of moments to be aware of all the sights and sounds along the way. If you’re in too big a hurry, you forget to hear the birds sing and might not see that little mushroom growing under the tree, the one with the yellow cap.
But even when you take your time, a walk can sometimes be tough going. What if it starts to rain? And what if there’s a wet, soggy, boggy place where the stepping stones are few and far between? Well, in those cases, I’ve found a couple of things that help. First of all, it helps to have a friend or two along, because then even if it starts to pour and the raindrops are trickling down your nose, you can always sing a song together, and it’s hard to feel sorry for yourself when you’re singing an old Beatles song. And for those soggy, boggy places, if you can’t have a friend along, there’s nothing like a walking stick, which helps you keep your balance, and whether you’re walking up hill or down makes you a little steadier on your legs.
Walking sticks make me think about our faith, Unitarian Universalism, which is a little different from other religions. Because for us, life is like a long walk, or a journey. It starts when we’re little children and just learning about our world, and then grows as we grow. With each step, we’re always gathering more information and gaining more experiences, finding out about ourselves and as we explore our beliefs change. The things we imagine might be true when we’re six years old are different from the dreams we have when we’re sixty. And none of us is just certain where or how the trail ends, or what we’ll find when we finally reach the mountain top. But we know that other people have walked this way before and that gives us the hope and courage to continue on the adventure.
Now just like on a long trail, life sometimes gets a little tough and can even be scary. And that’s why it helps to have friends, and a spiritual community like this one. And at times we start to lose our balance and begin to fall down. And then it’s handy to have a walking stick along.
Unitarian Universalism, our religion, is like a walking stick. It’s not a religion that solves all our problems. It’s not a religion that can magically lift us over the muddy places. It’s not a religion that spares us the necessity to dig deep and struggle when there’s a big boulder we have to climb over or other challenges come along. But it is a religion that can help us keep our equilibrium, that helps us keep our feet on the ground, which reminds us when the going gets hard that each of us is strong, each of us is resilient, each of us is capable, however we identify our gender, our ethnicity, our race; whether we’re big or little. And Unitarian Universalism is a faith that encourages each one of us to find and make our own beliefs—not a one-size fits all religion—but one we constantly tool and re-tool as we go.
So this is my personal walking stick. Perhaps each of you will have the opportunity to make your own stick sometime, just the right size and weight, the right thickness so you can have a firm grip, to help you go wherever you need to go. And as Unitarian Universalists, you too can find and make a religion you can call your own.
Last month I was wondering how I might preach about intuition to rational, logical, scientific Unitarian Universalists. And then the Coronavirus came. And all my bandwidth went to figuring out how to cope with a world changed by a Pandemic. I thought how could I talk about intuition when so many people are in tangible need of support, caring, understanding; when people are feeling disconnected from others, not even able to touch one another, feeling food or toilet paper insecurity, concerned about access to physicians or medication. And there is some information and a lot of mis-information about the virus that is starting to spread.
And yet, intuition can be a useful tool in our personal toolbox. Webster’s defines intuition as the ability to understand something immediately, without the need for conscious reasoning. Intuition is that gut feeling that we get about a situation or a decision. It is not something that is thought-out or considered; it is just there. For instance, you’re about to walk across a busy intersection and you see a driver in from of you looking left as they try to go right on red, but not looking right to notice that you’re about to step into the crosswalk. Sure you have the right-of-way, but what does your intuition tell you?
Intuition can be negative, positive, or neutral. I have heard people who are in tune with their intuition say that they trust the vibes they get in situations. Whether they are talking about reading the body language of the person they are on a date with or a decision they made about investing in a toilet paper company. They totally trust their gut.
For me, I have had mixed feelings about trusting my gut. Sometimes these immediate understandings or readings of a situation have been helpful. For instance, years ago I made the decision to apply for a job that a friend of mine had told me about in confidence because she was in line to get the job. I immediately felt in my gut that this decision was the wrong, but I ignored my gut and applied anyway. But my gut kept bugging me, so, I withdrew my application and told my friend what I had done. She forgave me and we are still friends. Paying attention to my gut helped me maintain a connection to a friend, which was really more important than getting a certain job, and equally importantly, allowed me to act in a way that was truly congruent with my Unitarian Universalist Principles and values.
But here’s the thing, sometimes this intuition, this gut feeling, I have found is based on prejudice, bias, and racism. For instance, I am walking down a street in downtown Chicago late one night and I see a large African American man walking toward me, my intuition tells me this is a dangerous situation—this feeling is big, immediate, in my face. But that’s childhood conditioning and the message of a system of white supremacy, not intuition; they are two different things, but sometimes it is hard to tell the difference.
So, I have mixed feelings about intuition. I am not always sure I can trust it. Right now as I consider Coronavirus, my gut tells me at times not to worry about touching someone’s cell phone or touching my mail, and at other times, when I sway too close to someone in a grocery store, my spider sense goes off and I feel this is a horrible, awful, no good situation. Neither of these extremes is fully accurate. I only realize this when I step back from the situation and consider what happened using logic and reason.
How do we ground ourselves to trust both our gut and our intellect in a situation that is both out of our control—an invisible danger—and in our control—social distancing, washing hands, and sneezing and coughing into our elbows. Well, I have to tell you it is not by hoarding food for fear of not having any. And it is not pulling the covers over our heads for the next couple, few, or many weeks.
What is it that will get us through this time of disengagement, fear, seeming scarcity, and invisible threats? I am not here to tell you exactly what will work for you, but to give you some reassurances and maybe a few things to consider. The most important one is that this community, the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Miami, is still here and is still part of your life. Unitarian Universalists are known to be creative problem-solvers. Phone calls, Zoom meetings, sharing videos, sending emails, and even snail mail letters. For now, we will need to lean into the soul connections rather than the physical connections of being with one another. For now, we will need to see each other through a screen or window, rather than across a room. For now, we will need to attend to each other’s voices through a speaker rather than from mouth to ear, and really, we’re still hearing each other’s voices, just in a different way. We can do this. This week for instance, one of our members set up a Virtual Art Zoom meetup, where people saw each other’s faces, heard each other’s voices, and worked on individual art projects together. If you want to set up a Zoom meetup for a Sci/Fi book club, a discussion of Unitarian Universalist history, or to just be in community and check in on one another, let me know and I will set up Zoom for you. You can host whatever meetup you want.
This is a brave new world, but with this new world, there are new opportunities. We are finding new ways to stay connected. We can now livestream our Sunday services. We are re-learning how important it is to intentionally make time to stay connected. These are connections we should not lose when the world returns to some semblance of normal.
This is also a time when we can find that healthy balance between intuition and rational evaluation. Perhaps Unitarian Universalism, our “walking stick” for equilibrium, can help us out. The Principles and Sources of our faith might be a place to start. You might do some reading and reflecting on the Principles and Sources on your own to find those that will help you with your equilibrium. I want to reflect on one of them that gives me some equilibrium and balances my intuition with rational evaluation, our first Principle, affirming and promoting the inherent worth and dignity of every person.
In this new Covid 19 reality, each person is reacting in a different way. And for that matter, my intuition and behavior has been affected by it as well. How I read situations now is influenced by an invisible threat, each surface and person could be a threat to my health or even my life. And each person is responding to that reality in unique ways. How do I, how do we, affirm and promote my worth and dignity and affirm the worth and dignity of other people when my, our, health and life might be at risk and so might that of any other person I, we come into contact with?
Letting others know what our boundaries are important. Again, people may have very different understandings of what social distancing means. Martha went to the pharmacy a couple days ago and found a 35 foot strip of blue painters tape on the floor at the check-out. The tape was cross-taped every six feet, so people would know how far to stay away from one another. We do not need to always understand each other’s boundaries, but we need to respect them. It would be easy to say to someone, your boundary is irrational, not based on medical facts as we understand them right now. My friends, in a moment of heightened anxiety and fear, many people are not in a place to discuss what is rational and what is irrational. Perhaps during a calm period, when nerves are less fragile, a discussion of medical facts can be had. But in the moment, it is better for you and the person you are in contact with to respect each other’s boundaries, not discuss them.
And as we think about setting boundaries, I know many of us are thinking about are we doing enough to keep ourselves and others safe. We are washing our hands and staying away from one another physically, but is that enough? That question, is that enough, can cause anxiety, fear, even result in feeling paralyzed. We each and together need to affirm in our hearts and with one another that we are doing enough, right now, as we understand the situation. There might be more or less to do later, but we are doing what we can right now. This will give us some semblance of peace.
An aspect of our first Principle that is often overlooked is self-care. You deserve to have joy and health, because, just as you are, you have worth and dignity. And right now you need to attend to your self-care, to make time to exercise, go outside and breathe in fresh air, eat healthy meals, and find joy in life; where in simplicity we may move at the speed of natural creatures and feel the earth's love beneath our feet; where step-by-step we may feel the movement of creation in our hearts. This can be a time to reconnect with the joy of watching a lizard race across the sidewalk or noticing how the wind blows the leaves in the trees or touching the petals of a flower or walking a labyrinth. You can still come out to the property and walk the labyrinth as a grounding meditation; there is no risk in doing that. This is a time to reconnect with simplicity, with joys and blessings. A time to open your heart to all those things around you that in your pre-Covid 19 life, you may have been far too busy to notice.
And our first Principle is also about connection to others. We all deserve time with others and they deserve time with us. I will say this emphatically, you can reach out to anyone in this community at any time you need because you have worth and dignity. That person also has worth and dignity. We are all in different places right now, with different needs, but we all need to stay connected with others. We cannot let ourselves believe that either we don’t need anyone to get through this time or that we aren’t important enough for anyone to give us some of their time. I know I sound like I am preaching, and I am. This is really important. Find ways to stay connected, you, we all, deserve it and need it to thrive.
My friends, this is a difficult time, but it also provides us many opportunities. Let us not ignore those opportunities which connect us with life and each other in new and different way. And perhaps we will find new connections with each other that we didn’t know we had. This congregation is not a building; it is a people. People who might be able to grow closer during these next few weeks by spending some time, other than just Sunday during the service, with one another. It’ already happening, because that’s who we are. We are the ones who say “yes” to opportunities to connect with life and each other, in whatever form we can. And let us keep a balance between our intuition and our rational understanding of life, in times of change like this, when everything, including our perceptions, seems a little wonky.
I care about you all and wish blessings and love to you. I am here to help, we are all here to help, one another. Let joy fill our hearts and love center our actions as we move through this challenging time together.