Sunday, April 29, 2012

Humility: struggles with the two selves.


Sermon delivered at First UU Church of Austin on April 29, 2012.
Children’s story: green eggs and ham by Dr. Seuss
Reading: Every Riven Thing by Christian Wiman
Every Riven Thing
God goes, belonging to every riven thing he's made
sing his being simply by being
the thing it is:
stone and tree and sky,
man who sees and sings and wonders why
God goes. Belonging, to every riven thing he's made,
means a storm of peace.
Think of the atoms inside the stone.
Think of the man who sits alone
trying to will himself into the stillness where
God goes belonging. To every riven thing he's made
there is given one shade
shaped exactly to the thing itself:
under the tree a darker tree;
under the man the only man to see
God goes belonging to every riven thing. He's made
the things that bring him near,
made the mind that makes him go.
A part of what man knows,
apart from what man knows,
God goes belonging to every riven thing he's made.

Sermon - Humility: struggles with the two selves.
In the words of Christian Wiman, “Riven is kind of an old testament word that means broken, sundered, torn-apart.”  Riven is a weird place for me to begin a sermon, but the poem from Christian Wiman that we shared earlier resonated deeply with me as I was writing this sermon and I kept going back and listening to it over and over. 
God goes, belonging to every riven thing he's made
sing his being simply by being
the thing it is:
stone and tree and sky,
man who sees and sings and wonders why

I find it paradoxical that I, who have railed from this very pulpit against the idea that we are born broken, would be so taken, so transfixed, so transformed by this poem.  But one of the things that seems to become more and more clear to me is the deep relationship between paradox and wisdom. So this morning, in search of a deeper relationship with humility, one of my most vexing challenges, I am going to embrace this paradox and talk about some of the ways in which I, and from what I gather, the vast majority of my human brothers and sisters feel broken. 
I couldn’t settle on a single approach to humility, so I will use several: first, the perspective of Green Eggs and Ham, second as a manager trying to practice what I preach, and third as an aspiring leader and public speaker.  I will break between these perspectives with parts of Every Riven Thing and the serenity prayer.  At each recitation of the serenity prayer, I would like us to treat it as a unison reading, I will signal each recitation with folded hands, for this first recitation I ask that you repeat after me.
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.

Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss is what is on my son Simon’s nightstand right now, it is not the only thing on his nightstand, but it is seminal.  Green Eggs and Ham has become a method by which my wife and I can get Simon to try something new, sometimes.
The protagonist of Green Eggs and Ham has no name, which is bad for storytelling unless you are as talented as Dr. Seuss, which I am not, so I’ll call him I am Not Sam.
Now I am Not Sam does not like Sam I Am. Now perhaps this dislike comes from some experience.  Or perhaps it is because I am Not Sam dislikes introduction by signboard.  Or perhaps I am Not Sam doesn’t care for creatures who ride other creatures while carrying signboards.  Or perhaps I am Not Sam just doesn’t like being interrupted while he’s reading the newspaper.  Whatever the case we are unsurprised when I am Not Sam declines Sam I Am’s offer of Green Eggs and Ham.  Not only because of our own skepticism about green animal-based food products, but because we know, from our own experience, that we are disinclined to accept anything from people we don’t like.  As a matter of fact, the less we know about what is offered the more likely we are to substitute our opinion of the person making the offer for our evaluation of what is being offered.  What’s more, when we perform this cognitive trick we are generally unaware of what we have done.
Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman is what’s on my nightstand right now.  One of the lessons from the book is that we are amazing at inferring the general from the specific and lousy at deriving the specific from the general.  So here is a story:

I am Not Sam doesn’t like Sam I am.
Sam I Am offers Green Eggs and Ham.
I am Not Sam likes not Green Eggs and Ham.
Enter psychologist Kahneman.
Kahneman asks of I am Not Sam.
Where comes your opinion of Green Eggs and Ham?
Reasons abound from I am Not Sam,
For example, his mother’s allergic to ham,
And his brother’s misfortune while hunting wild Spam,
Plus, deviled eggs sicken poor I am Not Sam.
But among these reasons Not Sam has Given,
His dislike of Sam, he does fail to mention.
And this, my dear friends, is what makes him Riven.

God goes. Belonging, to every riven thing he's made,
means a storm of peace.
Think of the atoms inside the stone.
Think of the man who sits alone
trying to will himself into the stillness where

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.

So, I had my team at work take the VIA Strengths Index Survey, which is a positive psychology assessment that tells you what your strongest virtues are.  Now, since it is all framed positively and your strengths are just ranked from top to bottom, it isn’t supposed to be a criticism and the default results only show you your top 5 strengths.  But, I’m human so I had to click on the link that showed the full listing of all the possible strengths so that I could see my weakest strengths.  Not weaknesses, just my strengths that are less strong than my other strengths.  I’m going to give you about 0.1 seconds to guess what my least strong strength was… (humility). 
So, I’m in the staff meeting with my team, a few full time people and a dozen graduate students, and we are sharing our top 5 strengths and graphing on a chart where the team is strongest and where we aren’t, and we are talking about how to leverage the strengths we have against the kinds of challenges we face… you get the idea.  So after this team exercise, I just can’t keep my mouth shut and I say, “We aren’t going to talk about this today, it isn’t for public discourse, but I want each of you to take a look at your bottom 5.  What I want you to think about is how you can use your top strengths to offset whatever your weakest areas are.”  In and of itself, this was not a big deal.  It is the kind of pedantic shenanigans that we all have to tolerate from our bosses from time to time.  Here’s the problem: I have a rule for myself as a manager.  The rule is that I have to be willing to do whatever I ask them to do, or else I can’t hold them to it.  So, that was three years ago and here I am still working on the problem of how to use my strengths to develop more humility. 
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.

God goes belonging. To every riven thing he's made
there is given one shade
shaped exactly to the thing itself:
under the tree a darker tree;
under the man the only man to see

Manic-depression makes sense to me… it is so easy for me to see how little a change in the mind it would take for the tension between feelings of empowerment and feelings of powerlessness to just SNAP!  To live one’s life actively holding these two forces, these two facts of the human condition at bay, to keep them in tension with one another, to exist in that tension without surrendering to either force… To do this seems so much more profound and more amazing than wildly vacillating between the two polls or simply surrendering to either despair or megalomania.  Yet this is what most of us do.
In my struggle to find this balance, I have not found answers, but I continue to find value in the struggle. I have tended to frame my struggle as a search for a life course by which I can maximize the amount of change I can make.  I have found this approach mostly frustrating and recent revelations have caused me to suspect that this one-dimensional way of defining the problem might, itself, be problematic.
Several months ago my book club read ‘The Denial of Death’ by Ernest Becker, a celebrated psychoanalyst who completed this seminal work on the fear of death during the course of his own terminal struggle with cancer. The fear of death is a widely cited ‘root cause’ of many aspects of the human experience, both positive and negative.  But it was Becker’s concept of the immortality project that really struck me.  An immortality project is a thing that a person latches onto that mollifies or neutralizes their fear of death.  To give you an idea, here are some stereotypical immortality projects:
When parents try to live the life that they wanted through their children, they are making their children into their immortality project.
When architects sacrifice every human relationship to get a building or monument constructed, it is their immortality project.
When a poet places his life and his being on the altar of words, those words, those poems are his or her immortality project. 
There is a poem by Robert Bringhurst called “These Poems, She Said” that captures the spirit of pathology that I think immortality projects necessarily imbue on their objects:

These poems, these poems,
these poems, she said, are poems
with no love in them. These are the poems of a man   
who would leave his wife and child because   
they made noise in his study. These are the poems   
of a man who would murder his mother to claim   ­
the inheritance. These are the poems of a man   
like Plato, she said, meaning something I did not   
comprehend but which nevertheless
offended me. These are the poems of a man
who would rather sleep with himself than with women,   
she said. These are the poems of a man
with eyes like a drawknife, with hands like a pickpocket’s   
hands, woven of water and logic
and hunger, with no strand of love in them. These   
poems are as heartless as birdsong, as unmeant   
as elm leaves, which if they love love only   
the wide blue sky and the air and the idea
of elm leaves. Self-love is an ending, she said,   
­and not a beginning. Love means love
of the thing sung, not of the song or the singing.   
These poems, she said....
                                       You are, he said,
beautiful.
                That is not love, she said rightly.

I have come to recognize that the pathological intensity with which I frequently desire to change the world is my immortality project and a source of much of my hubris.
Another piece of the puzzle came through my experience at the Dwight Brown Leadership Experience. One of the themes of the curriculum is family systems theory.  Through my exposure, I found out how normal it is for a first-born child of overly-young parents to develop a need to fix-the-world.  This got me thinking about how my desire to fix the world isn’t actually because the world is so broken, but it is because MY relationship with the world is so broken.  This is a perspective that I learned during my most formative years, and that I am still struggling to unlearn.
A third aspect of this puzzle came to my attention through my experience in the Leadership Austin Essential program.  A neighbor and classmate shared with me her sense of how I present myself as smarter and better than others and how condescending this often felt to her and others with whom she had spoken.  While I had come to recognize that how I am is a ‘turn off’ for a significant portion of any given group or audience, I had learned to rationalize away that problem so that it was about others and not about me.  This friend’s willingness, as a member of this group, to openly and honestly share her feelings, thoughts and impressions with me was invaluable.  What I have come to realize is that this sense of condescension that comes through in my personality is not about what I believe when I am thinking, praying or meditating.  It is about how I AM in the world, it is about my attitude about fixing the world.  An attitude which holds that I am THE ONE who should and CAN fix the world, an attitude which holds that the REST OF YOU are part of that world, and that I WILL FIX YOU in the process, whether you like it or not!  I may not believe it, but I have to learn to stop pretending that I don’t ACT like I do.
God goes belonging to every riven thing. He's made
the things that bring him near,
made the mind that makes him go.
A part of what man knows,
apart from what man knows,

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.

I value humility.  Through my struggles and my reflection I have come to honestly and sincerely believe in the value of what each of us has to offer, to believe that regardless of the way we write history books, we all make up the human story every single day. 
But that is just about what I think, when I am thinking.  It is what I believe when I am focused on believing.  It says nothing of whether or not I am humble in my being, in my way of being.  Just as I am sure that there are tremendously humble beings out there in the world who have never spent much time thinking of humility, I am sure that despite all of my thinking about humility, I am not yet humble. 
This, to me, is the crux of the two selves.  I come from a culture of orthodoxy and have too often and too easily believed that once I had come to believe the right thing I had accomplished my aim.  But the self that thinks and reflects and conjures the story of my identity, this self is only one part of me.  It is the conscious and reflective part, it is not the automated subconscious part of myself which sets the tone and acts based on the preconceptions formed by my own experience.  It is my remembering self and not my being. 
My other self, my acting self, my in-the-moment self, my being, can be retrained, is, hopefully, being retrained. This retraining requires me to be mindful, to be evaluative of who and how I am and skeptical of how I would prefer to think of myself. This retraining shifts my emphasis from orthodoxy to orthopraxy: increasing my emphasis on right behavior.  My spiritual practice, of which standing here before you today is a large part, is about finding these balances between what I think and what I do, between orthodoxy and orthopraxy, between empowerment and powerlessness, but not between hubris and humility!
Hubris is to live ignorant of my Riven-ness, to live blind to my blindness and callous to my callousness.
Hubris is to live in a state of perpetual self-righteousness.
Hubris is a childish thing that I struggle to put away.
Humility is to live like I am not the center of the universe.
Humility is to live like we are all in this together.
Humility is an aspiration that I struggle to live up to.
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.

God goes belonging to every riven thing he's made.

Amen

Benediction
We Riven Things go, belonging to God and to Each Other.
May we go in serenity and with courage
And, with a little humility,
may we be fortunate enough to pick up some wisdom on the way.

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