This Sunday’s reading was a poem by Robert Bly entitled “The Resemblance Between Your Life and a Dog.” Rather than reprint it here, you may find the poem here, here, and here.
A member of our church gave me permission to tell the following story:
Some years ago a friend of hers was faced with tragic circumstances. Her son had been involved in a horrible car accident and suffered a traumatic and life-altering head injury. As any good friend would do, our church member reached out to her friend and was rebuffed at every turn. The friend acted as if nothing was wrong, as if everything was normal. You could tell that the pieces of her life were falling apart around her, but even so, she shut her friends out from her pain. As a result, the friendship dissolved. The friendship now seemed superficial, almost false. What kind of friend will not share their pain with you? As you can imagine, from then on these two had a failure to connect. One member of the friendship refused to be her true self around the other person. When she was vulnerable, she put up walls and kept the other person out.
I distinctly remember a time in my early twenties when I experienced sudden vulnerability. It was also a car accident and at that time I was the intern minister at a church in suburban Dallas. I found myself stranded with a long commute, no automobile, and no means of acquiring one. I remember feeling a sense of shame and embarrassment with having to ask for a lift, with having to ask my internship supervisor for money from the minister’s discretionary fund so that I could rent a car until I figured out what I was going to do for transportation, and with having to go to my parents for help securing reliable transportation.
My internship supervisor said something insightful to me when I confessed my shame and embarrassment. He said, “This is why human beings live together as families. This is why they come together in communities and in churches.” This is why we form bonds with others, why we create community.
When he said this to me I was taken aback. “Of course, it was so obvious!” That is why we have things like families, like community. It was so obvious – and I kind of had to search myself and ask, “What was it about this moment of pain and need, what was it about this moment of necessity, that caused me to shrink inwards, to cut off, to distance?”
The sermon this morning is really an exploration of this question. It is premised on a couple of statements that I hold to be intellectually true. The first statement is this: When you are having trouble, when you are sinking, when you have need – that is the most important time to reach out for help. The second statement is complementary: Giving somebody permission to help you, to really help you, in your moment of need is one of the greatest gifts you can give to another person. Both of these statements are intellectually true, but harder to live by, at least for me and maybe for you.
And so I want to explore these statements a little bit. I want to explore why our actions are so often the opposite of what we might admit intellectually. I want to speak about the forces that cause us to distance in our moment of need and not to accept the hands that may reach out our way.
When I was thinking of a title for my words this morning I began humming the tune to that old Cheap Trick song. “I want you to want me. I need you to need me.” I could have just as easily thought of the Peter Gabriel song “Love to be loved” where he uses almost the same formula. “I need to be needed… like to be liked… want to be wanted… and love to be loved.” The musical choices are endless. I might have chosen The Beatles singing about getting by with a little a help from their friends, or, more obviously, “Help! I need somebody. Help! Not just anybody. Help! I need someone. Oh, please, please help me, help me.” Or, the good times, the bad times, I’ll be on your side forever more, that’s what friend are for. Or, as we’ll sing later in the service, “Lean on me, when you’re not strong.”
Pop music trivia does not count as advanced theology, but there seems to be something primitive, something innate and primal and natural, about these songs. Which is not to say there aren’t songs extolling the virtues of independence. Simon & Garfunkel’s “I am a rock / I am an island / and a rock feels no pain / and an island never cries” is just one example. But please notice: the Beatles did sing about help and did not sing, “I get by just fine, friends. Thanks for asking. No, really, I’m okay. Please leave me alone.”
So, if “all our lives we are in need of others” as George Odell puts it, and we each have a need to be needed, as Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick puts it, then what exactly gets in the way? How do we explain the turning away? How do we explain refusing to ask for or to accept the helping hands that are offered to us?
I am no psychologist, but I would tender a guess that modern psychology has pathologized neediness to a greater extent that it has pathologized independence. (And, no I have not consulted the DSM-IV in making this claim and no insult is intended to the many here more adept in psychology than I.) But, it occurs that we often talk about dependency issues and even co-dependency – a need for others to need us – as abnormal psychological categories. Dependency is often a term used to indicate addiction. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anybody saying, “That person has an independency issue.”
When we pay taxes, our government gives us tax breaks for the number of dependants living with us. They are such a burden, those dependents. If you tried to get a tax break for the number of independents living with you, you’d surely get audited. There is this mixed message going on. On one hand, we see emotional dependency as a diagnosable condition and economic dependency as a lower state of being. On the other hand, there is this primal sense that says that we all need others and that others need us. Which is it?
Turning to the Bible, we find dependency clearly in its passages. You don’t have to go very far in to find the first needy character in the Bible. It is the first character in the Bible: Adam. Now, I know that this story is problematic for many reasons. Just as Genesis 1 has been used to justify environmental degradation and unsustainable relationships with other living beings, so has Genesis 2 been used to justify every sexist and heterosexist argument known to humankind. But it is telling just how quickly need comes up in this story. In Genesis 2, God makes Adam. God gives Adam everything he needs to survive. It is not enough. Adam turns out to be utterly needful of others.
Now, don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of sexist ways to read Genesis 2. And I don’t want to dismiss those readings. You can read it, as many have, in a way that suggests that a woman’s reason to exist is to serve and satisfy the needs of men. But that is a reading I want to resist, because I think that the meaning is more general than that, and more profound. The general truth that I believe is evident in these earliest chapters of the Bible is that we all have need for others and that we all have a need to be needed. Alone, the garden is a lonely place.
These truths are obvious to me. They are evident. I hear them and I say, “well, duh.” So what gets in the way of us understanding this? Why do we not accept our vulnerability? I think there may be a couple of reasons for why this is.
The first reason comes from our Unitarian theological tradition that has long upheld individualism. Unitarian Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote about Self-reliance, and told people to “refuse the good models and go alone.” William Ellery Channing wrote about something called “self-culture”, a complex concept that told us that our genius and our strength should come from inside ourselves. Channing said, “There is no moral worth in being swept away by a crowd.” In Unitarian Universalism, you build your own theology. These ways of thinking, I would argue, often lead us to deny that we need others.
Individualism is not the sole province of Unitarian Universalism. While it may have been the Unitarian minister Horatio Alger who coined the phrase, “pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps”, that is far from the only individualistic saying out there: “If you want something done right, do it yourself.” “Where there is a will there is a way.” There’s also my favorite feminist quotation, “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.” And just go to any bookstore and check out the “self-help” section. I’ve never seen an “other-help” section. These kinds of examples seem to be very prevalent throughout American culture.
And, I think they are particularly prevalent in American suburban culture, which emphasizes privacy, the insulation of discreet family units, and the keeping up of an image no matter what might be happening inside. I dare anyone to drive through an economically disenfranchised neighborhood in Kansas City, Kansas or Kansas City, Missouri. What you find is what I call “the culture of the front porch,” where people sit in rocking chairs or lawn chairs and look out at what is happening to their neighbors and on their streets. Then drive around your average neighborhood in Johnson County. The houses around here don’t have front porches. They have backyards and decks. This makes it hard to make yourself visible, put yourself out there, let others know what is going on in your life. In your daily living, are you more of a “front porch” type, or “back deck” type?
In the poem by Robert Bly that we heard for our reading, Bly suggests metaphorically that we imagine that in our lives we will be like winter sparrows – impervious to the cold, flying free. (Like the words of another pop-song about independence, in which Nelly Furtado sings, “I am like a bird, I’ll only fly away.”) But, though we may aspire to a sparrow-y life, Bly tells us that our life will come to resemble that of a dog. When it comes to that time where we are road-weary, hungry, and cold we will come to the door and beg to be let in, fed, and warmed by someone other than us.
In Admire the Moon, her book of poetic meditations, UU minister Mary Wellemeyer uses a different image. Here is a short sample from the poem “Country Waltz:
Contradancing, in lines
to old timey music,
Lots of laughter
and changing of partners
An invisible window may open sometimes,
With a rush of feeling.
Not so much sexy,
and somehow dangerously delicious.
Is this dance an entrance
to a more luscious life?
As we wind down, I want to tell you something. Sometimes I think there are two types of sermons. There are those sermons that the preacher knows so well and lives so seamlessly that the preaching comes effortlessly out of this faith and conviction. And then there are those sermons that a preacher gives because they feel like they need to remind themselves of it. The sermon is being preached to the preacher as much as to anyone in the congregation. That is the type of sermon this one is. Vulnerability is not something I excel at. Revealing my needs is not always easy for me. I aspire to front porch, but I’ve got some back deck in me. I know I’m like the hungry dog, but think I can live like the flighty sparrow.
To get better at this requires practice. And practice begins with acknowledgement.
So, I would like everyone to begin with something easy. First, I invite everyone here to be silent and to think to themselves of something that other people depend on you for. What needs do you serve? [Pause for silent reflection.]
Next, we’re going to get a little bit more difficult. I invite everyone here to be silent and to think to themselves of a need that you have expressed to others and that others have responded to. [Pause for silent reflection.]
Finally, and here we are going deep, I invite you to a quiet place where you think of something you need that you have been too shy, too independent, too ashamed, too proud, too embarrassed, too self-sufficient to admit. [Pause for a final silent reflection.]