There is a story told of a rabbi in ancient times who gathered his students together very early one morning, while it was still dark. He put this question to them: "How can you tell when night has ended and the day has begun?"
One student made a suggestion: "Could it be when you can see an animal and you can tell whether it is a sheep or a goat?"
"No, that's not it," answered the rabbi.
Another student said: "Could it be when you look at a tree in the distance and you can tell whether it is a fig tree or a peach tree?"
Again the rabbi answered: "No."
After a few more guesses the students said: "Well, how do you tell when night has ended?"
The rabbi answered: "It is when you look on the face of any person and you see them as your brother or sister. If you cannot do this, then, no matter what time it is, it is still night."
This is a difficult teaching for me right now. I have heard so many lies, conspiracy theories, and hate speech over the past four years in our country and most especially during this election cycle. Maybe the same thing has happened in past election cycles, but it just seems to be impacting me so much more right now. And I find it increasing difficult to look upon the faces of some people and see them as my relative, sibling, even possible friend. I am not even sure I want to be their acquaintance. I know I am supposed love thy enemy as thy self and if anyone slaps me on the cheek, I'm supposed to offer them my other cheek so they can smack me again. I know I am supposed to listen to all sides in a disagreement to effectively resolve a conflict. I aspire to justice, equity, and compassion in human relations. But I am really struggling with some people right now. And I am wondering how I will listen to some people after this election cycle is done, when I am already sick to death of their voices. How am I going to do that? How are you? Or, are you?
On the night after the 2016 election, I remember opening my church to anyone who wanted to come. I began our shared time with a chalice lighting and an explanation of how I would hold the space for everyone to share their thoughts and feelings. I could not believe what I heard from some people. They spoke of never being able to talk again to lifelong friends. They spoke of fractured families. They spoke of bankrupted respect for certain politicians. Well perhaps that last one about politicians not being respected was not really a surprise.
In 2016 this became more personal for me as a couple members in my extended family were espousing certain ideas and political affiliations that I couldn't understand. Even my best friend's mother, whom I have known since I was in Junior High, was in tears over her eldest son who had become aggressive toward the rest of her family because they wouldn't believe in his new-found conspiracy theories. Now, here we are 4 years later. I wonder if some of you can relate.
I know this country needs to find a way to heal and come back together, not that we have to agree with one another politically, but we need to find a way to listen to one another again. But how do we listen to people who are accusing democrats and movie stars of being pedofiles, holding rallies saying "save the children" when they are doing nothing to actually save children, and proclaiming that pizza joints are places where pedofiles gather. One Qanon follower declared that pizza is a code word for pornography, cheese pizza means child pornography.
Perhaps things will settle down once the election is over, but I still wonder how all this rancor, conspiracy theories, and bald-faced lying has affected how I listen to others. I ask myself will I be able to listen to those who have ideas seem so destructive and damaging to certain people and to our country? I don't know if I can. And yet I know healing for our country will come from listening to those who I disagree with.
A teacher in the Insight Meditation community, Christina Feldman, in her article "Doing, Being, and the Great In-Between” wrote: "The Buddha pointed out that the seeds of liberative understanding and clarity, of kindness and compassion, lie within each of us. And the path to their fruition lies in our commitment…. I would suggest that it is the beautiful and the good that we aspire to and value above all else. In the midst of the beautiful and the good, we feel most alive, most awake, and most present. The Buddha’s teachings are about cultivating the beautiful and the good, the seeds of possibility that live in every human heart: generosity, kindness, and compassion. These qualities ennoble our hearts and leave no residue of regret in our minds."
So many of the world's religions hold the concept that the seeds of generosity, kindness, and compassion lie in every human heart waiting to be nurtured and cultivated. It is essentially what I heard growing up Catholic. And I think the same concept is at the foundation of our seven Principles, the idea that people can change, that the world can change, and there can be a world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all, that there can be justice, equity and compassion in human relations, and respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
I have always believed that listening to one another, deeply listening to one other, and for that matter listening to what is within ourselves, is the main way that we can achieve the over-arching goals of peace, justice, equity, compassion, interdependence that we Unitarian Universalists affirm and promote.
Maybe I am a little idealistic about listening to one another. Time, as it so often does, taught me that listening can makes a difference. I have had some successes with Republican legislatures, with evangelicals, with conservative union workers. We found common ground on things so we could work together on issues. Issues like getting mentoring for disadvantaged children of color, helping a city rise up from a devastating 500-year flood, and working on marital equality. I've had enough positive outcomes that I'm not quite yet ready to put my idealism aside.
And maybe some of you here at UU Miami are also not yet quite ready to cast off your idealism. Think of the work you've done personally and as a faith community. Members of UU Miami with various religious and secular groups closed down the Homestead temporary shelter for unaccompanied immigrant children. And think of the work UU Miami forebears have done. On January 2nd 1950 UU Miami members set up Miami's first integrated nursery school. To quote Rey Baumel, "In our pulpits we have had Rabbis, priests, ministers, swamis, Hebrews, Blacks, African Americans, Native Americans, Black Panthers, Grey Panthers, gay men. Their voices could be heard here…and former presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy spoke here [in the late 1960's]." Historically, even when there was pushback, like a cross being burned on the lawn of the church, members of UU Miami listened voices of many people and worked with them to achieve significant social justice reform. It makes sense that you would have some of the same idealism that I have about what can be achieved when we listen to ourselves, each other, and the voices of those who thoughts and ideas are different than our own.
And so today, I wonder, as James Thornton does in his article “Radical Confidence”: "How does one come to a confident and positive view that is not naive, given the state of the world? By walking through one’s own anger and despair and emerging into serenity." I don't want to be a naïve idealist. I want to be an informed idealist. I want to face my own feelings of anger and despair, and not get stuck in them, but use them as a springboard toward hope. Toward making a positive difference, even with the divisiveness in this country. There are voices I don't think I can listen to right now—voices that try to convince me of conspiracy theories and whose voices that are flat-out lying. But there are so many other voices I can listen to with empathy and compassion.
Recently I took a class called the Compassionate Warrior Bootcamp for White Allies, the Unitarian Universalist version with Dr. David Campt and Unitarian Universalist religious educator Allison Mahaley. They have an idealistic vision of teaching white allies to speak to other white people about racism. In so doing they hope to change the minds and hearts of 10% of white people about the issue of racism in this country. Not 100. 10. They taught me a way of talking to others who have different ideas than mine. They called it the RACE Method. RACE is an acronym for Reflect, Ask, Connect, Expand. This method encourages the use of curiosity, compassion, and empathy in discussions about difficult issues. Reflect has to do with considering your own feelings and issues before having a conversation, in other words preparing yourself for a difficult conversation. Ask has to do with actually reaching out and being willing to ask the thoughts and feelings of another person, someone who you have some differences with. Connect is sharing some of your own feelings and thoughts that are similar to the person you are talking to, not to affirm that you agree with all of their thinking, but to express empathy for what they are thinking and feeling. And then you can Expand the conversation to go deeper into issues and feelings with that person. This Expand step might occur over many conversations. The ground work of showing that you will listen to their thoughts and feelings and not reject them, out of hand, builds the trust for future conversations. If you are interested in more in-depth learning about this method, let's talk.
I shared a brief overview of this method with you because I believe, as UU idealists, we are being called to reach out to people in our country to begin a dialogue to heal the rift that exists in the fabric of our nation. I know this is might be a lofty goal, but haven't we, at one time or another, tried to achieve something that felt enormous or even impossible? I think there are people out there who are ready to listen and hear; people perhaps we would not ordinarily talk to. After this election has passed, I am committed to initiating these conversations with people on the other side of the political and religious spectrum from me. I haven't lost my belief that we all human beings have some common feelings, values, and desires for positive change. I believe in the power of conversations to make real change happen. That's why I, along with Terry Lowman and other Unitarian Universalists, talked to Marco Rubio's staff on Wednesday about environmental justice. In that conversation we all came to some common ground, and identified some things Rubio's staff member felt that Rubio is willing to work on.
I have, as many of you have probably have, concerns about the healing of our country. But I still hold hope, idealistic, irrational, or otherwise. And I invite you to search within yourselves for hope as well, because deep down in you, it's still there, and because there is work to be done. We do not have to listen to everyone, but we do have to listen to more than one or two who have different ideas than we do if healing is going to happen. Hellen Keller may or may not have said the following, but they're still powerful words that are strengthening me as I face this post election time, and perhaps you might find them empowering, too.
"I am only one,
But still I am one.
I cannot do everything,
But still I can do something;
And because I cannot do everything,
I will not refuse to do the something that I can do."