This month's (November) worship service theme is Holding History. And so I have been pondering our country's recent history and how to hold it within me pondering how this congregation might hold our recent history and how those beyond these walls are holding it as well. This past year and a half have been unlike any other that many, if not all of us, have ever experienced, with Covid and its many resurgences, and political and social divisiveness, with violence and bigotry in the headlines almost every day. I have been spending time thinking about how I, and we as a society, might create meaning of these past couple years.
So, with regard to this, I want to construct a framework that we might use to make meaning from our experiences. Let's start with the message that Jewish scholar Eliezer Shore shared about history and meaning. We each take in the world through our senses, what is going on around us, and make personal meaning of it, yes, but is this meaning limited and self-centered? And at first it is oriented toward self; that's only natural. Opinions and interpretations must be tested against what you know to be your truths. It is only after we've codified our interpretations that we can then sit with them a little while, resting in place with them as they mature and solidify, that we can then expand from the meanings we make from the center of our own personal universes and begin to successfully our lives, our history, greater meaning, more significant meaning, by considering something larger than ourselves when taking in additional experience or broadening our understanding history—including in our understanding of history the importance, the value of "family, community, humanity and [or] …the Oneness [or] Presence of [a] Divine…[This is when we] reach…the transcendence of the self as final mediator of truth…[and] in the moment when self-preoccupation ceases, we becomes vessels for something greater." Vessels for something greater. I don't know about you, but a lot of times these days I feel like my vessel is already filled up. Sometimes I'm not sure I want to even think about becoming a vessel for something greater.
I have to admit that current events seem to have a greater effect on me, more than they might have in the past. My resilience has stiffened up and my emotional reactivity is more easily impacted by events that in some ways seem far removed from me and my life. I watched the election results come in from the Virginia governor's race a couple weeks ago. And when Republican Glen Youngkin won, something snapped in me, completely unexpectantly. All the build-up of existential fear and catastrophizing that had been apparently lurking within me burst into my consciousness. "We are going to become an authoritarian country" "Racism will win" "Marginalized people's rights will rolled back" "Women will lose reproductive rights" "The environment will get worse, perhaps beyond repair". I felt panic and had to stop watching the news for a few days to regain my emotional balance.
I have come to believe that many people are like me right now, a little too close to some last straw that will break the emotional camel's back within us, whether we are aware of it consciously or not. And so often people in the midst of that panic and fear find these feelings propelling out sideways toward others, and particularly toward others whom they love. People's feelings about the mix of politics and Covid are causing divorces, causing schisms in families, and friends, even life-long friends, renounce their friendships. It's chaos out there. What will future historians think about this time? How will we make meaning of this time? What lessons or meaning will we take from this time? And how are we supposed to do that when we're still in this chaotic time?
In August, I offered a presentation to our UU Miami Humanist Group called the "Psychosocial Effects of Living through the Pandemic". I talked about how some nurses in neonatal units were noticing that babies were showing fewer facial expressions than would be expected. Some research is showing that facial masks have decreased face to face interactions between caregivers and babies. I talked about how Zoom meeting have resulted in increased fatigue because our normal perceptions and interpretations of body language are overtaxed trying to read other people's behavioral reactions online. And I mentioned that "a study conducted by a researcher at the Department of General Psychology and Methodology, University of Bamberg, Germany, [adult] participants [were confronted] with [masked] faces showing six different emotions (angry, disgusted, fearful, happy, neutral, and sad) […]. The results indicate[d] that emotion recognition was strongly reduced with the exception of fearful and neutral faces…" I went on to also talk about the benefits, including learning, from Zoom—more opportunity to see people we love anytime, regardless of where they live and more opportunities for learning as more institutions are providing programming online, from education classes, to musical presentations, to social justice grassroots organizing. Not to mention more accessibility for people with mobility concerns. But my presentation leaned into the negative effects of Covid. I noticed something, some of the people in the presentation reacted against the negative impact I presented and instead expressed the more positive impact that this Covid time had had on their lives. Now, maybe that was because they were coping with negatives as best as they could already and didn't really want to have to deal with anyone who was highlighting them, but there are the people who could be vessels of hope for others, like myself, whose fear and exhaustion color the lenses through which we perceive current events.
“One reason we tend to become fixated and polarized is because of individual and collective trauma that associates with a profound sense of insignificance,” says Psychologist Kirk J. Schneider. In this state, people may feel that they don’t matter and fear “ultimately being wiped away or extinguished,” he adds (The polarized mind: Why it’s killing us and what we can do about it, 2013, University Professors Press)… “Research indicates that the divisiveness will continue to grow if fear of the other and the wounds fueling that fear are not addressed.”
My heart is heavy about the divisiveness and fear so prevalent in our country. I find myself reflecting on the continuing impact of January 6's insurrection on our democracy and its possible ripple effects, as well as the increase of verbal and physical violence against marginalized groups, and increased overt racism and so many other isms. The increased boldness in militia and hate groups scares me. The threats and violence in school board meetings about vaccinations and masks worries me. The restrictions on reproductive rights and voting rights take my breath away. It feels like the loudest and most aggressive voices, even though they lack facts and scientific truth, and base their views on misrepresenting facts and on conspiracy theories, are having a field day.
How do we not just survive, but thrive in such a setting?
Comic John Early says, "I feel there's no greater testament to the fact that our public institutions have failed us than the fact that comedians are somehow moral authorities of this moment. We give so much power to comedians and their platforms, and I'm absolutely horried by it." (as quoted in "Comedians Speaking Truth to Power", Vulture.com 07 28 2020).
A few days ago, late night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel showed videos created by Far-Right Congresswoman Lauren Boebert that featured multiple conspiracy theories to random people on the street in LA. He told them that the videos were created by Saturday Night Live. And then he asked the people on the street if Saturday Night Live had gone too far in mocking Boebert. Most people thought they were too hard on Boebert, making fun of her. That is they thought the videos were parodies. They didn't realize Boebert herself had created and approved them.
And actually on Saturday Night Live last week, you might have caught the sketch of Goober the Clown. The sketch was in response to the Supreme Court taking up the Texas Abortion law restricting all abortions after 6 weeks. The character of Goober became a metaphor for women. Why should women's autonomy be respected after all? They're just silly clowns. The whole issue, by extension, become a joke, not to be taken seriously.
Goober the Clown's subversive humor, the character's ability to speak truth to power only if she presents herself as harmless, shows another way we can cope with or respond to the destructive voices and legislations around us. Humor can sometimes open the door to talk about difficult and charged topics, addressing the fear of such topics, and perhaps even helping us find a way to see each other through our connection as people rather than through a perception that otherizes them.
History is the knowledge of and study of the past. It is the story of the past and a form of collective memory. It includes the meaning, interpretation, and significance we put on past experiences and situations. History is the story of who we are, where we come from, and can potentially reveal where we are headed.
My friends, remote and recent history are important to study because it provides essential context for all of us in understanding ourselves and the world around us. We stop, reflect on our past, and respond in the present. History can help provide us with a sense of individual and collective identity. This is one of the reasons that history is still taught in schools around the world. History helps us to understand present-day issues by asking deeper questions as to why things are the way they are. History can help us become better informed citizens. It shows us who we are as a collective group, and how being informed and reflecting on our past is a key element in maintaining a democratic society. This knowledge helps people take an active role in the political forum through educated debates and by refining people’s core beliefs. History is the story of us; we are all part of history. History helps us understand and cope with change. It records and helps people understand successes and failures. And history helps us to determine how we want the future to be.
One last thing, history is not just how we as individuals analyze and understand the world around us, it is also how we collectively as a community analyze and understand the world around us. And how we make meaning of the world together. One of the reasons we gather here in this sanctuary and on this campus and in Zoom rooms, is for us to make meaning of our experiences and the many changes going on in the world around us. To look at both remote and recent history and decide how we collectively will respond to current events. UU Miami is a place where we can become vessels for something greater, to see deeper meaning, and take collective action to make the world a better place for all. Here is a place you will never have to be afraid of asking a question, or doubting a viewpoint, or analyzing something that happened. Here we embrace history, looking at humankind's successes and failures, reflecting on the complicated world we live in. Here we help create active citizens, ready to respond to divisions in society. Here we understand that events can happen, like Covid, that can have impacts that we might not be able to predict. Here we hold history as important, significant, valuable.
This is a safe and brave space to hold history and together become vessels for something greater--to meet the needs of the world today. Rev. O. Eugene Pickett, former president of the Unitarian Universalist Association wrote: "For our human community, our common past and future hope, our oneness transcending all separation, our capacity to work for peace and justice in the midst of hostility and oppression: We give thanks this day." Let us give thanks for this congregation and our willingness not only to hold history, but make meaning from it that can bend the arc of the world toward justice.