You, Me, Us

Continuing our September reflection on the theme of "Vision," Rev. Peter and Worship Associate Kathy Alston offer their thoughts about how we envision ourselves in relationship with others. Following on the heels of the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, we consider what it means to be in right relationship with those around us. 

Sermon: "You, Me, Us"; Rev. Peter Friedrichs

Have you heard that scientists are at it again? Once again, they’re debating whether or not Pluto is a planet. Pity poor Pluto. From the time it was discovered by astronomers in 1930, it was taken as truth that Pluto was the ninth planet in our solar system. Then, in 2006 – it seems like just yesterday, doesn’t it? But it was over a decade ago now – the International Astronomical Union declared that Pluto did not fit its modern definition of a “planet.” Just like that, our solar system went from 9 to 8 worlds and Pluto was demoted from “planet” to “dwarf planet.”

IAU scientists told us that Pluto cannot be considered a planet because its gravitational force isn’t strong enough to have “cleared its neighborhood” of other space stuff. Basically, what the IAU said is that, because Pluto is still within the influence of other nearby heavenly bodies, because Pluto is affected by the mass of icy matter that it travels with around the sun, it’s not its own separate entity like Earth or Jupiter or Mars.

This declaration from the IAU back in 2006 never really settled the “Is Pluto a planet?” question. And just last spring, a couple of astronomers, including one who worked on the New Horizons mission that flew a satellite by Pluto a couple of years ago, declared the IAU’s definition of a planet obsolete. They offered a new definition that would restore Pluto to full planethood, and would even add some of the bodies we have called “moons” to the nine other planets we’ve grown up with.

This debate over Pluto’s status may seem trivial or even totally irrelevant to us, given what we’re experiencing here on Earth these days. Who cares, ultimately, what we call it or how we classify it? Pluto itself hasn’t changed, and it won’t change, based on our classification of it. But here’s what fascinates me about this debate: Pluto was demoted because it hasn’t “cleared its neighborhood” of other matter. In other words, Pluto doesn’t count because it isn’t independent enough. Because it’s in relationship with the other space bodies around it.

Imagine if we applied this same definition to people. You’re not a “real person” unless you’re totally independent, totally on your own. Traveling in your own orbit, completely unaffected by those around you. That, to me, sounds like a cold and lonely existence far worse than Pluto’s fate. In fact, I would say that the definition of person-hood is exactly the opposite: we are people because we’re in relationship with others. With other people, with other living things, with the Universe. We can’t be truly, fully ourselves unless we are influenced and affected by all these outside forces and entities. “No one is an island,” the poet John Donne told us, “entire unto itself.” South Africans have a term for this aspect of our humanity, this interdependence: “Ubuntu.” Bishop Desmond Tutu, who headed up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in post-apartheid South Africa said that “ubuntu” is the notion that “my humanity is inextricably bound up in yours.” Or, to put it in its simplest form: “I am, because you are.”

To deny our essential relatedness is to make of ourselves not a planet, but the sun. If we believe that we are self-sustaining and can be self-fulfilling actors, we see the world and everyone in it revolving around us. We put ourselves at the center of everything. Life becomes “all about us.” We see ourselves as “apart from” instead of as “a part of.” We stand above instead of with. We assert knowledge, privilege and rights over instead of sharing them generously with others. There’s a name for this kind of self-centeredness: it’s called “narcissism.” Our narcissistic tendencies – and we all have them – seek to elevate us, and that usually comes at the cost of diminishing others. But beyond diminishing others, narcissism actually diminishes ourselves, too.

It’s ironic that our self-aggrandizement actually has the opposite of its intended effect, but it’s true. Think about a time when you’ve put yourself first. When you’ve acted selfishly. When you’ve spoken or acted in a way that you've put your own interest above that of someone else. How did you feel afterward? Guilty? Ashamed? Regretful? I hope you did, because that’s a healthy response. A life-affirming response. In its most extreme form – when you don’t feel those emotions after acting selfishly - narcissism is a psychological disorder. And when narcissism is combined with power, well, it can be outright dangerous, divisive, and destructive. We only need to look at what’s happened to our country in the past two years to see that. Just this week, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson sent out a tweet that I love, a great reminder for all of us. It said, “Since the Universe has no center, you can’t be it.”

And so, I wonder what your vision of yourself in relationship with others looks like? Do you tend to think of yourself as an independent actor? Someone who, perhaps not to the level of narcissism, sees themselves as more of an island than a continent? Are you a “Lone Ranger” or a “rugged individualist?” Are you reluctant to get close to or be dependent on others because, well, you’ve tried that in the past and it hasn’t worked out so well? Or does this idea of essential interrelatedness resonate with you? Are you comfortable seeing yourself “bound in a network of mutuality, wrapped in a single garment of destiny” as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King says? Do you view yourself as a point of intersection in the interdependent web of all existence, to use the language of our UU principals? What life experiences have affirmed your feelings of connectedness?

With the annual Jewish High Holidays just passed, the ten “Days of Awe” that begin with Rosh Hashanah and that culminate in Yom Kippur, or the “Day of Atonement,” I’ve been thinking a lot about how we relate to each other, how we’re connected and how those connections can be broken and, hopefully, restored. According to the Talmud, the Days of Awe are a time for us to reflect on and to try to reconcile our relationship with God. But in modern times, this concept of reconciliation has come to include the process of seeking to heal broken relationships not just with God, but with other people as well.

We UU’s don’t have a holiday that compels us to confront our shortcomings, much less to contemplate our sins. We don’t have a sacrament of confession and we certainly don’t look to our pastors to administer absolution. We struggle with, and even sometimes deny, the concept of sin altogether. Personally, I embrace the Jewish definition of sin, or chet, as “going astray” or “missing the mark.” Picture shooting an arrow toward a target. It’s not a sin to fail to hit the bulls-eye. Sin is when, even despite our best intention and our best effort, our arrow completely flies past or falls short of the target. By this definition, to be a sinner is not to be a bad person. It’s just to have fallen short of our ideals or intentions, to have missed the mark in our dealings with each other.

The High Holidays offer us guidance on how to seek reconciliation and repair of our relationships. It’s through the process of teshuvah, which is a Hebrew word that means “return.” The process of teshuvah entails four steps: Regret; Cessation; Confession; and Resolution. We first must acknowledge to ourselves whatever it is that we’ve done, and to have remorse or regret for it. We must immediately stop the hurtful action. Then we need to confess our mistake to the one that we’ve hurt and ask for forgiveness. Finally, we need to make a firm commitment not to repeat that behavior in the future. According to Jewish law, if we engage in the process of teshuvah with another person, that person is morally obligated to forgive us for our sin.

You might notice that this spiritual practice of teshuvah closely parallels some of the steps in the 12-Step program for recovery from addiction. Steps 4, 5, 8 and 9 call us to make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves, to admit our mistakes to God, ourselves and another human being, to make a list of those we’ve harmed and to seek to make amends where possible, unless it would do harm to them.

Where might you have fallen short or missed the mark in your relationship with those around you? Where have your connections broken down or been severed? What walls stands between you and someone else, and what was your role in building them? What prevents you from being in right relationship with your friends, your family, your co-workers? Don’t forget: If we are all interrelated, we are all the lesser for these “sins.” We are all diminished by them. Reconciliation heals not just the bonds between two people, but it repairs the very fabric of our society.

This past week, my Twitter and Facebook feeds have been inundated with tweets and posts from women using the hashtag #WhyIDidn’tReport. These messages have been posted in response to those who are questioning Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s allegation that she was sexually assaulted by Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Some are saying that, if the assault had “really happened,” she would have reported it. Hundreds of women, if not thousands, are posting the reason that they never reported sexual violence perpetrated against them. Their pain and their rage is palpable. So is their courage. In response to Dr. Ford’s allegations, we’ve seen a circling of the wagons by men in power, and death threats have meant that Dr. Ford has had to go into hiding.

All this unfolding during the Jewish High Holidays makes me think about how different it would be if once, just once, a man in a position of power were to say, “Yes, I did this.” If he were to confess to his sin, as it were. And what if he were to not only confess, but to apologize, to seek to make amends, to genuinely and with humility say, “I was wrong. I am sorry. Please forgive me. My power means nothing if it comes at the expense of your pain.” I’m not saying that a man who didn’t actually assault a woman do this, but I’ve got to believe that there are men out there who did. Why haven’t we heard one instance of teshuvah from one of them? Think how far it would go to healing the wounds not just of the woman whom he assaulted, but the wounds that patriarchal power in our country have inflicted for centuries.

As I mentioned before, our faith doesn’t have a practice that compels this kind of fearless accounting of our impact on others. But it’s the beauty of our faith that we can adopt the practice if we so choose. We can be a community that encourages and supports courageous self-assessment, admission of our shortcomings, and the reconciliation of relationships that have been harmed. Let’s not be a place where we see ourselves as planets, spinning through space entirely on our own. Let’s instead be a Pluto-place, where we treasure those we’re in relationship with, where those around us make up a deep and meaningful part of who we are.

This day, and every day, I wish you peace. Amen.