The following sermon was shared at the July 9, 2017 worship service at Chalice Unitarian Universalist Congregation.
Human beings. We’re capable of great good and capable of great evil. In so many ways, we are amazing: inventors, problem-solvers, compassionate, and generous. In so many ways, we are absolutely flawed: destroyers, fear-mongers, violent, and selfish. Even the best of us have our struggles: spiritual leaders like Mohatma Gandhi, Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King, and Cesar Chavez, all had their personal struggles and their flaws.
Unitarian Universalism is not a faith tradition that has historically focused on human frailty the way some of our religious neighbors do. We are not so interested in sin and self-flagellation. We tend to see the good in humanity—our positives, our potential, our inherent worth and dignity—more readily than we see the flaws.
But the outcome of that focus is that we sometimes don’t know how to make sense of human flaws. We don’t have a good framework for understanding that we DO make mistakes; we DO wrong things, bad things; we ARE fearful, violent, and selfish. Of course we are. The whole history of humanity tells the story of human frailty and, yes, human evil.
Our principles call us to a more robust and complex understanding of what it is to be human. Our free and responsible search for truth and meaning calls us to see clearly the negative, not just the positive, in human nature. And our principle promoting encouragement to spiritual growth calls us to strengthen our self-awareness, to know that each of us has the potential to hurt others—and ourselves—just as we have the potential to help.
It seems to be part of our human condition—part of our natural frailty—to struggle to do what we know is good for us. One of you said to me one time that you were glad to have a volunteer commitment here at church on Sunday mornings because it MADE you come to church, and you were glad it made you come to church. It’s a funny thing to say, right—if you want to come to church, just come—but I understood it absolutely. MANY of you have told me that you feel good when you come to church, but it’s still a struggle to get here on Sunday mornings. There are other things to do, including doing nothing, which is always so tempting.
Yes, we struggle to do what we know is good for us. Like eating our vegetables, exercising, balancing the checkbook, buying insurance, getting ourselves to the doctor, or the dentist, or the optometrist.
And just as we struggle to do what we know is good for us, we also indulge in that which is not. And if a little bit of indulgence is delightful, then more is even MORE delightful!
We tend to excess, don’t we? Or we struggle with it, at least. And many of us struggle all day long. Too much time on our electronic devices. Too many things to do. Too much dessert. Too much wine. Too much news. Too much information. Too much television.
Of course it doesn’t seem like too much as we move through the day. That’s just how it is. It’s only at the end of the day—or maybe on the weekend, or some quiet moment in the car or at the mailbox—that you suddenly wonder, was this how I wanted today to be?
Author and researcher Brene Brown calls this tendency of ours: numbing. In her book Gifts of Imperfection, she tells us that her research demonstrates three things:
1. Most of us engage in behaviors (consciously or not) that help us to numb and take the edge off vulnerability, pain, and discomfort.
2. Addiction can be described as chronically and compulsively numbing and taking the edge off of feelings.
3. We cannot selectively numb emotions. When we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions.
Now, we’re used to thinking of numbing as the kind of extreme addictive behavior we see in dramatic movies or read about in compelling memoirs. The kind of addiction that puts people into real danger, that causes them to lose their jobs and homes.
But numbing and addiction doesn’t always look that way. In fact, it may not even commonly look that way. I really loved the story of Hank the dog this morning; of course it’s meant to parallel the kind of support people get at 12-step meetings facing serious addiction. But I loved that the example was overeating hot dogs. Because how many of us have walked up to a table of food and eaten too much of the thing that you know you shouldn’t eat too much of. Or drink too much of the thing you shouldn’t drink. Stay up watching television long past when you should have gone to bed. Bought too many things at Costco or Nordstrom.
Brene Brown writes, “We’re desperate to feel less or more of something—to make something go away or to have more of something else.” (Daring Greatly)
It doesn’t have to be full blown addiction for us to be numbing, turning away from mindfulness and intention. Again from Brene Brown: “Most of us engage in behaviors (consciously or not) that help us to numb and take the edge off vulnerability, pain, and discomfort.”
But you might be surprised to hear how addiction is defined. It might be much more common than many of us think.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, an addiction meets at least three of these seven criteria. These about your own preferred numbing behaviors as I go through this list:
1. Tolerance. Do you need more and more of whatever it is?
2. Withdrawal. Have you experienced anxiety, when you stop? Emotional withdrawal is just as significant as physical withdrawal.
3. Unable to control yourself. Do you sometimes numb yourself more than you would like? Do you binge? Do you ever have regrets the next day?
4. Negative consequences. Have you continued to use even though there have been negative consequences to your mood, self-esteem, health, job, or family?
5. Neglected or postponed activities. Have you ever put off or reduced social, recreational, work, or household activities because of your use
6. Significant time or energy spent. Have you spent a significant amount of time obtaining, using, concealing, planning, or recovering from your use? Have you spend a lot of time thinking about using? Have you ever concealed or minimized your use? Have you ever thought of schemes to avoid getting caught?
7. Desire to cut down.
Now, as a spiritual person, I have to tell you that I’ve never been especially interested in spiritual practices that ask us to GIVE UP things. I’ve never given up anything for Lent. I’ve never fasted. Coming from an earth-centered spiritual tradition, my preference has always been to enjoy and celebrate the blessings and abundance of our beautiful world.
But I have been noticing the ugliness of excess in our world. There is too much everywhere. Too much noise, too much advertising, too much that retailers would like me to buy, too much waste. And it’s not just that all that is out there, it’s that our human tendency is to want to indulge. We WANT to buy more, eat more, drink more. We WANT to read exciting, upsetting fake news all day long. As much as these things aren’t good for us, a part of us also likes it. That’s our struggle. Our human struggle.
So I have a new appreciation and a new curiosity about the spiritual practices that invite us to give up something we want. Spiritual practices that ask us to experience less, to have less. Abstinence practices like fasting, silence, solitude, sacrifice, frugality, and simplicity (celibacy, secrecy).
Islam, Judaism, and Christianity all have seasons of self-restraint: Ramadan is the month of fasting during daylight observed by Muslims. Yom Kippur is a day of fasting that concludes the Ten Days of Repentance at the start of the Jewish New Year. Lent in the Christian tradition is a six-week season of self-denial to prepare for Easter.
Perhaps these traditions and practices have something to offer us.
I attended my first five-day silent retreat in 2014. The retreat was held at a Catholic retreat center and led by Catholics, but I was welcome. I thought it would be difficult to be in silence for five days, but instead it was liberating. What a lot of time and energy I spend in thinking about what to say next. How lovely to let go of that. I attended again in 2015. I liked it so much that I wanted to plan a similar retreat for Unitarian Universalists: a five day silent retreat. So I did plan that, and it was held last year in Santa Barbara, and we are having it again this year in just a week: a few of you are coming. It’s called SpiritRest Silent Retreat, so this will be my fourth year in a row in silent retreat during the summer.
Engaging in this retreat, this practice, each year at roughly the same time has had a powerful effect on me. It’s changed me. A few months ago, I was walking out of a loud and crowded place—I didn’t remember where—but as I left, I thought, “I wish I were going into silence.” My body YEARNED for silence. That never used to happen before. It’s only because of the experience of being in silence, repeatedly, over several years. For someone who makes a living in large part by speaking, the practice of silence is a counterbalance.
Again, abstinence practices are those like fasting, silence, solitude, sacrifice, frugality, and simplicity.
From our reading:
We’re desperate to feel less or more of something—to make something go away or to have more of something else….
I didn’t start drinking to drown my sorrows: I just needed something to do with my hands. In fact, I’m convinced that if smart phones…had been in fashion when I was in my late teens, I never would have started smoking and drinking. I drank and smoked to minimize my feelings of vulnerability and to look busy when all of the other girls at my table had been asked to dance. I literally needed something to do, something to help me look busy.
I wonder how much of your life you do because you need something to help you look busy. Something to minimize your feelings of vulnerability.
I’ve spoken of addiction and numbing as if they are simply minor variations of the same discomfort, and I want you to know I don’t take addiction lightly. Both my grandfathers were alcoholics, and both of them died younger than they should have at ages 50 and 63. I never got to know either one of them. And so I do not drink.
It is a great joy to me when those of you celebrating sobriety let us know in a candle card. I know that overcoming addiction is not easy, and it’s never over.
What I hope you hear me saying today is that whatever we call it—numbing, addiction, taking the edge off—whatever we call it, most of us have tendencies to excess that are not good for us. And we don’t need to wait until we’re in crisis to recognize that a habit or behavior may bring harm in addition to pleasure. Sometimes too much of a good thing is too much.
Maybe next year I’ll invite you to observe Lent with me for the first time. We can learn about self-denial together.
Whatever our individual struggles, may each of us here feel ourselves held by the interconnected web of love and mutuality that is the source of all that is good in our lives. May it be so. Amen and blessed be.