Practice Loving Kindness
Unitarian Congregation of West Chester
April 15, 2018
Rev. Dan Schatz
I become more and more certain, as the years go by, that wherever friendship is destroyed… or precious ties are severed, there is a failure of imagination. Someone is too intent on justifying [themself], never venturing out to imagine the way things seem to the other person. Imagination is shut off and sympathy dies. If we know what it is that makes other people speak or act as they do, if we knew it vividly by carefully imagining all that may lie behind it, we might not quarrel. We might understand. Often we could heal the wounds. But even where that is not possible – and of course, we have to admit that it is not always possible – even where fuller understanding only leaves us rather sad and helpless, it would still give us the power to be kind – to act, yes, but still to be kind – to go on being kind. And in a harsh world, God knows that even that is something – to go on being kind.
– A. Powell Davies
A traveler in the old West once came to a town, looking for a new place to settle. He saw an old man sitting on a porch, and walked up to the fence. “You there!” he shouted. “What kind of people live in this town?” The old man looked down from his rocking chair. “Well that’s a good question,” he said. “What kind of people was in the last place you lived?”
“Why, they was a low down, rotten, backbiting bunch of scoundrels.”
The old man nodded to himself. “I guess,” he said, “That’s about the same kind of people you’ll find around here.” And the traveler went on his way.
A few days later another traveler came through town, looking for a new home, and happened upon the same old man. “Excuse me! What kind of people would you say live around here?” The old man looked over the rim of his glasses. “Well that’s a good question,” he said. “What kind of people was in the last place you lived?”
“Why, they was the nicest, most generous folks you ever met in your life.”
The old man nodded to himself. “I guess,” he said, “that’s about the same kind of people you’ll find around here.” And the traveler settled happily and lived there for many years.
Of all the spiritual practices I have attempted in my life the most enduring and important to me is that of loving kindness, seeking and finding the best in others. I don’t pretend that I’m always successful in that endeavor. It’s a demanding practice, particularly when we’re confronted with people and situations in whom the good is hard to see. As Tom Lehrer once said, “I know that there are people who do not love their fellow human beings and I hate people like that!”
So it was that on Thursday morning, the day I generally set aside to do the bulk of my sermon writing, I woke up and checked the news. I saw one story about the Federal government instituting a new policy that permits states to require people in need of food stamps to have jobs. I saw another about the aftermath of the chemical weapons attack in Syria. And I read new details about the death of Eric Brown, a 26 year old man cut down by a bullet just eight blocks from this room.
Then I sat down to my computer looked at a mostly blank page, and tried to think about finding the best in others. It was going to be one of those kinds of days. I made myself another cup of tea, and started writing.
Then on Saturday, in the name of “human rights,” our government dropped bombs on a country from which we refuse to accept refugees.
There are times that seeking and finding the best in others really does take discipline. It is easy to love people who show their goodness. It is hard to love people who damage the things we care about. It’s easy to love a saint. It’s hard to love the violent, the unethical, the villains.
But if the practice of loving kindness is to have any meaning at all, it has to apply as much to those we see as villains as it does to those for whom our love comes easily. When Jesus asked his followers “Love your enemies,” he didn’t ask them to do so only when it was convenient. “If you love those who love you,” he asked, “what more are you doing than others? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?” “God makes the sun rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”
To me, this is the essence of Universalism, a powerful lesson and a true spiritual practice. Love those who do not love you. In Jesus’s religion, even God did the same.
It isn’t easy, and we can be forgiven if we do not waste too much emotional energy on loving the political villains of the moment. It might be time well spent if we could learn to understand them better, but loving may be too high a bar, and that’s all right. The real discipline comes not in our images of public figures, but in the messiness of day to day, ordinary relationships. Sometimes it’s hard enough just to love the people who aren’tour enemies.
Things get in the way. Life gets in the way. Ill chosen words get in the way – and our own lack of confidence can get in the way too. When we are frustrated or anxious, it’s easy to see others as willfully subverting our plans and goals.
Consider this poem by Phillip Lopate:
We who are
your closest friends
feel the time
has come to tell you
that every Thursday
we have been meeting,
as a group,
to devise ways
to keep you
in perpetual uncertainty
by neither loving you
as much as you want
nor cutting you adrift.
Your analyst is
in on it,
plus your boyfriend
and your ex-husband;
and we have pledged
to disappoint you
as long as you need us.
In announcing our
we realize we have
placed in your hands
a possible antidote
indeed against ourselves.
But since our Thursday nights
have brought us
to a community
rare in itself
with you as
the natural center,
we feel hopeful you
will continue to make unreasonable
demands for affection
if not as a consequence
of your disastrous personality
then for the good of the collective.
I always suspected as much.
The danger is that when we are caught up in conflict, or when we are frustrated by the actions or inactions of people around us, or simply when we have needs that are going unmet, we start to imagine motives. Perhaps they don’t like us, we might think. Maybe they have something against us. What if they’re hiding something? They hurt me because they are hurtful people. Or they are lazy. Or they don’t care.
The trouble with these kinds of explanations, natural though they are, is that they are born from our own emotions, rather than other people’s intentions. We are hurting, so we look for an explanation, and we assign blame.
This is normal. It is human, and I can’t think of anyone who never does this. But in almost every case, there’s more at the root of our impressions than we think. I remember, years ago, blowing my top completely when someone treated me in the worst way I could imagine. I was furious, and the only thing that could quell my anger was when somebody asked me, “Who does she remind you of?” “Oh that’s easy,” I said, “She’s like all of those bullies in junior high school…. She… she…” And I realized in that moment, maybe this just all about her. Maybe some of it was about me.” Maybe some of it was about healing that I still had to do.
When we feel hurt or let down by another, we tend to create narratives, and the narratives that come most easily to us are the ones that match our previous experiences and our biases. That doesn’t make them true; it just makes them easy to believe.
Political scientists sometimes talk about a phenomenon known as “The Devil Shift.” The idea is simple – in any given conflict, each side will tend to see the other as both more ill-intentioned and more powerful than it actually is. When we then respond out of these assumptions, we become protected, aggressive and defensive, and we reinforce both our presumptions about the other side, and their presumptions about us. Particularly if we are angry, and have voiced that anger, we become invested in it. It can be hard to back down when we have decided that another person means ill, and harder once we have said as much.
The fact is, people make mistakes. There are no exceptions. People forget things, we speak without thinking, we make assumptions, we are pulled in too many directions, we fail to consider other points of view, and sometimes we just make bad decisions. This doesn’t make us bad; it makes us human. But in the heat of hurt feelings, it is easy to forget that failings are a normal part of what makes us human, and to assign evil intent. We confuse human frailty with malevolence. Part of living in community is coming to peace with the fact that other people are sometimes wrong, just as we are sometimes wrong. Our spiritual task is to acknowledge our feelings even as we assume the good intentions of others.
It may or may not be true. Sometimes we aren’t just paranoid; sometimes others really are out to get us. And in a world where racism, White supremacy, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and xenophobia are not only real, but right in front of us every day, it would be naïve to believe otherwise.
Assuming goodwill is not the same as naïveté, and there are times when we need to name and acknowledge bias and oppression. Too often women, people of color, and members of the LGBT community who call out bias for what it is get accused of being overly sensitive, or using “identity politics,” or playing the “whatever it is” card. This is a reality we need to deal with. When something is wrong and immoral, we are right to point it out.
Still, it is worth remembering that in most run of the mill interpersonal conflicts, we are far more likely to inspire goodness in others when we act with charity and forgiveness than when we act out of impatience, anger, or defensiveness. This doesn’t mean turning a blind eye to ill-doing, explaining away bad behavior or leaving ourselves vulnerable when we have been hurt too many times before. It definitely doesn’t mean sweeping things under the rug, or talking behind people’s backs. What it does mean is that even when we are convinced that someone is in fact acting out of real hurtfulness we still try to see them as whole people.
The television writer and producer Joss Whedon once talked about his approach to a particularly hard-edged figure on one of his shows. This character was violent, self-absorbed, and obnoxious and he’d betray his friends as soon as look at them, but somehow, he was also strangely sympathetic. “I had to find a way to write him,” said Whedon, “so that he wouldn’t be a two dimensional character.” In the end, he made the character fully human by always keeping in mind this simple principle: “He thinks he’s the hero.”
That’s a useful reminder in any quarrel. When we learn to see those with whom we have been in conflict as three dimensional people rather than caricatures, we begin to see beyond the moment to the person within. For some, this is a matter of seeing God in another people; for others it’s a question of inherent worth and dignity. In either case, we are called to honor the sacredness in all people, and this makes every interaction a spiritual act.
On Sunday, May 6, we’re going to come together as a congregation to make promises to one another about how we will be with each other – in general, and in times of conflict. I hope everyone who is able will stay with us that afternoon to be part of this creative process.
We call these promises a “covenant,” because our community is a spiritual one, because how we are with each other is part of our collective spiritual practice, and because it’s important to be intentional about that. And when we falter, when we don’t live our spiritual practice of community in the ways we intend, the covenant calls us back. That’s what makes a covenant different from a set of rules – its objective is not to assign blame or to punish, but to call us back to what intend to be.
Every interaction is a spiritual act, when we honor each other’s worth and dignity. This is even more true when our goal is to reclaim the sacredness of the relationship itself. A covenant helps, and so does imagination. If we can imagine what might have led others to whatever act has put us at odds, we can begin to find empathy and forgiveness. Communication helps, too, especially when we talk directly to the people we’re upset with, taking responsibility for our own feelings and our actions, and taking into account not only how we see others, but also how we may appear to them. That means listening, hearing the feelings behind what is said, and approaching the conversation with loving kindness.
It doesn’t always mean reconciliation. We’re under no obligation to repair every broken relationship. But it’s one thing for a relationship to be broken, and it’s quite another for the people in that relationship to emerge broken. We have within us the ability to find peaceful resolution even when reconciliation proves too high a bar.
And when all else fails, we might ourselves one final question – “How have they suffered?”
Everybody suffers. We share this human condition with the most brutal dictator in the world, and the stranger on the street. Everyone has suffered in some way and at time in their lives. Some of that suffering is self-inflicted, and this is further pain. Other suffering simply happened, and nothing anybody did could have changed it. Sometimes we ourselves may be tied to that suffering. When we can see the people with whom we struggle, even those we abhor as real and suffering human beings, then we will be one step closer to loving kindness. Perhaps we can learn to better understand why they are as they are, why they have been so hurtful – and perhaps not. But in acknowledging their humanity we will have preserved our own. And that is precious.
The ancient Rabbi Kotzk once asked a group of visiting scholars, “Where is the dwelling place of God?” It was a surprising question, because every scholar present believed with all of their heart that the glory of God filled the entire world. He might have easily asked, “Where is good?” and shocked them just as much. In a world filled with holiness, the good always surrounds us.
In either case, the rabbi’s answer might be the same. He said, “God’s dwelling – the good on earth – can be found wherever human beings have opened our hearts to let it in.”