How Can You See Yourself?

Several years ago, while serving a congregation in Mankato, Minnesota, I sat with a congregant as they shared some of the challenges of their life: two teenagers in crisis over their identities, and sometimes bullied at school for it. Living as a recovering alcoholic, with a spouse also living as a recovering alcoholic. A history of religious trauma, of family trauma, of neglect and rupture and estrangement. Professional challenges and financial woes. Many of the usual everyday human challenges, and unique and individual as each of us experiences them. But so many of them, too many of them. Now, mind you, this person was not complaining or whining at all. They were just stating the facts as they were experiencing them. These challenges defined the requirements of their daily living, and they were finding ways, always new ways, of managing, of dealing with it, of living without a plan B and making the best of it.

My heart ached as I listened. Not in pity, mind you, but in sympathy. In compassion and companionship. My role as a minister is to listen with an open heart, to bear witness to the story of another person. Anyone can do this. It is not exclusive to ministers. But as a minister, it is my job, my responsibility, and my privilege. To make an open space for someone to tell their truths, truths that are not my own, maybe not even like my own, but always rich with history and emotion and humanness. I merely accompanied, serving as a companion as someone learns their own truths and confronts their own journey.

As I sat, I heard all the details, all the intricate circumstances. And I could also hear, I could sense the weight of it all bearing down, the load that they carried, accepting it, not beaten but resigned. This was their lot in life. Nothing could change the challenges of the past. They would not in any way avoid the challenges of the present. How could they? Those very challenges bore the marks of resilience and strength and love, of connection.

As I listened, as I sensed the weight and the acceptance, it occurred to me to ask a question: “You know that first principle of Unitarian Universalism? The inherent worth and dignity of each person? Have you considered that it applies to you as well as to everyone else?” They paused, took a breath. Took another breath, and then the tears flowed.

Many of us know the rule when flying in an airplane: Put on your oxygen mask before assisting others with theirs. In our faith tradition, we have moved away from notions that we are inherently sinful, even depraved. Unitarian Universalism is defined in part through a concept known as “high anthropology,” a notion that human beings are generally good. Humans deserve to see themselves as basically good, even as we recognize ways that we could be better—more loving, more caring, more humble. Our faith encourages us to see ourselves as good as we are, even as we can be better than we are, and we should be. And yet caring for ourselves, believing that we are each of us worthy of care, believing that we should be granted the dignity of our humanity, well, sometimes that is hard to do. Sometimes it is harder for some of us than for others.

As in the story The Heart and the Bottle, we often witness self-confidence and self-love in children, before anything happens to us to damage our sense of our own goodness. In a therapeutic setting, humanist psychologist Carl Rogers popularized the notion of “unconditional positive regard.” Rogers explained that “unconditional” means, "No conditions on acceptance…It is at the opposite pole from a selective evaluating attitude" or judging. That “positive” means, "A warm acceptance of the person,” and that “regard” means that, "One regards each aspect of the client's experience as being part of that client. It means a caring [. . .], but not in a possessive way [. . .]. It means caring for [each as an autonomous] person, with permission to have [their] own feelings [and] experiences." While unconditional positive regard is relevant between people, positive self regard, seeing ourselves through this lens, is relevant as well, often achievable through the spiritual and religious aspect of our lives.

If we are lucky as children, we go along in abandon and exploration, sure of yourselves, anchored in our feelings and thoughts and bodies, living fully embodied and integrated wholly. Living in positive self- regard. But so often such delight is short-lived. Trauma, oppression, unkindness, illness, grief and loss, judgment about our identities, all these experiences and more disrupt our sense of our own goodness, our own inherent worth and dignity. Children are traumatized all the time. Children are shaken out of their positive self-regard much too early and too often. We put our hearts away, we make them small to protect them, and such acts disengage us. Hearts, and our capacity to feel for and with others, shrink and get put away, as a form of self-protection from hurt and anguish. Certainly, this leaves us isolated from others, since other people are so often the cause of hurt and anguish. And still, perhaps we don’t consider enough how protecting ourselves actually isolates ourselves from ourselves.

Honestly, I wonder sometime, given the toxicities in our physical environment, given generational trauma, given the polarizations in our culture, our challenge to see clearly and respectively our different histories and experiences. I wonder sometimes if there is ever a time we are ever living fully embodied and integrated wholly. As the writer Yolo Akili Robinson says, "Our children did not get their wounds alone. They were created by the actions of our family, our communities, and our world. They were created by the things we choose to believe in, the causes we chose to champion, and the despair we chose to neglect.”

We live in a consumerist culture, one that tells us we must buy, we must have, we must accumulate if we are to be worthy. And it is a self-perpetuating culture, because there is never an end to buying, having, accumulating. We are always figured in this culture as not-enough, always lacking: we are always too poor, too fat, too ill, too unsightly. We are the wrong color, race, gender, class. Our families internalize this notion of value, and then turn it onto children. And we learn it, and we find we are never good enough. And I know these feelings don’t live within all of us, but they do live in many of us.

We dwell within a dominant culture that has fostered competition and judgment—winners and losers, those who are permitted to exploit and those who are exploitable. A dominant culture that creates the conditions of homelessness and poverty and hunger. None of us need to directly exploit to know that we are of the kind of people who can. We know the peoples from whom land had been stolen, treaties and other agreements broken. We know whom gun violence most directly affects, who has the worst health outcomes, whom has the least access to educational and economic opportunity. Whether you think it’s the social systems or individuals who are responsible for these plights, a culture holds the pieces in place, and we suffer external indignities that work their way into our minds and thus our ways of thinking about ourselves and each other.

I agree with what Charlotte said at the beginning of our service, about relationality within and among our Eight Principles. We need each other to practice the principles fully. We need others in order to see our own worth and dignity more clearly. This is a reason to choose living within a faith community such as ours here. If we can share our most vulnerable fears about ourselves, if we can listen and bear witness, reflecting and upholding the worth and dignity of the person in front of us. If we can really get in front of each other to witness, and behind each other to support, we live more fully into our First Principle by caring for each other and by expanding our own capacities, by becoming ever-more worthy and dignified. These are not finite qualities. You don’t do some caring, and then you are done. It’s more like muscle building—you work at it and maintain by doing it more. Being caring creates the capacity for more caring and for caring more. Recognizing and affirming worth and dignity creates the capacity for more recognizing and affirming and for recognizing and affirming as a normative practice for living our everyday lives.

It is easy to distance ourselves, even to hate, too easy, especially if we do not hold ourselves as worthy and dignified. Low self-regard is a practice that enables hate. I’m not suggesting we should become arrogant or self-righteous or holier-than-thou. Rather, we ought to practice being lovingly humble, gentle and tender, even while we hold the line to treat all respectfully and not just a few we deem deserving.

So let us remember together, let us affirm in our thoughts and hearts this morning: Your body-mind- spirit is welcome here, all of it. Yes, even that part. And that part. And yes, even that part. The parts you love, and the parts you don’t. For in this place, we come with all that we are, all that we have been, and all that we are going to be. We come to be accepted, and we are. We come to practice acceptance, that all may feel accepted. We do this together.

And we should make commitments to ourselves, because we all have healing to do, we all live with some form of trauma and internalized oppression. It is good, even necessary, for each of us sit with the reality of uncertainty and impermanence, and allow it to temper our desire for control. It is good, even necessary, for each of us to listen without judgment to others' reactions, which may be different from our own. It is good, even necessary, to forgive ourselves and each other when stress brings out our shadow selves. It is good and necessary to feel our feelings, knowing they are temporary. It is good and necessary to try to move away from people, situations, and experiences that do not serve our highest good. It is good and necessary to strengthen our connection to our sources of spiritual strength so that we might each continue to be replenished. It is good and necessary to acknowledge the nearness of death as a key motivator for living a full life. It is good and necessary to remain open to new ways of being, surprising sources of joy, and unanticipated discoveries every day. All of this good and necessary for each and all of us if we are to promote and respect the inherent worth and dignity of every person, including, and especially ourselves.

Some terrible things have happened to us. Events that debilitate us, render us helpless or hopeless. And we deserve to be healed. So that we may find peace within ourselves. So that we might enter into relationships with each other in healthy and wholesome ways. So that we may have the fortitude to do the work in the world that we can do to make it better. You are part of the plan for this world’s salvation, of that I have no doubt. The world needs its oceans of people striving to be good to carry us to the shores of hope and wash fear from the beach heads, and cleanse all wounds, all the hurting of our beautiful world, so we can heal.

I take care of myself first, because I am deserving of exquisite care. I take care of myself to maintain the capacity to help others. May you all allow yourselves exquisite care. Rest, if you must, then, like the swimmer lying on her back who floats, or the hawk carried on cushions of air. Rest in [chairs] made to hold weary lives in space carved out for the doing of nothing much but being. You are enough, as you are and as you might become. Enough, when you cultivate all your goodness and strength through deepening your connection to spirit. Enough, when you add your own inherent worth and dignity, your presence, your strength, your liveliness in a commitment to making the world better. May it ever be so.

Unconditional Positive Regard (Wikipedia)
Person-Centered Therapy (Rogerian Therapy)
Low Anthropology