Sunday, March 01, 2009

Sermon: "The Danger of Heightened Expectations" (Delivered 3-1-09)

The reading this morning comes from a book by leading anti-racist writer, educator, and speaker Tim Wise, from his book, White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son. Wise begins this section of his book by introducing the example of a school shooting in Oregon carried out by a white student in an overwhelmingly white, middle-class town. Watching the news coverage of the shooting, Wise observes,
I wrote down every explanation offered by commentators for what [the student] had done. There were dozens thrown out before the list was completed: everything from violent video games, to violent movies, to rap music, to sugary snacks, to antidepressant medications, to mental illnesses, to cold and unfeeling parents, to the removal of prayer from schools… among others.

But no matter the excuse, what was telling was what went unspoken…. No one thought to ask what it was about the culture in which [this young man] found himself that might produce dysfunction. That’s the kind of thing we might ask if the perpetrator of violence is black and from the ‘hood, but which we never ask when whites are the authors of mayhem. Their rage is inexplicable, it seems.

But what if it’s not?... What if the culture of privilege itself creates the risk of this sort of thing by generating a set of expectations in the minds of the privileged, which when frustrated (as they sometimes are) leads them to lash out, unable to cope with setback?

Before dismissing such a thing, keep in mind the now-accepted sociological explanation for why urban rebellions and riots occurred in the midsixties and not the midfifties. After all, one could argue that the midfifties were worse in absolute terms for black folks, and that by the sixties, various legislative changes due to the civil rights movement were beginning to create hope where little had previously existed… According to literature on the subject, when expectations start to rise, but the fulfillment of those expectations proceeds far slower than the aspirations, frustration builds and can result in an explosion.

If frustrating the expectations of folks who’ve never had very many can lead those on the bottom to lash out, why couldn’t the same happen… when the expectations of the privileged get frustrated as well?

It seems to be white who engage disproportionately in a wide range of strange pathologies, all of which are about control and domination, either of other or even oneself. Whites, for example, are more likely than blacks or Latinos to binge drink or use drugs excessively (contrary to stereotype). Whites are more likely than blacks or Latinos to commit suicide. Whites are more likely than black s or Latinos to develop eating disorders or to self-mutilate…

None of this is because of some genetic predisposition to these things, nor because white culture per se generates such tendencies. Rather, these pathologies are all about one thing—the need to assert and exercise control, of others, of one’s body, or of one’s pain. (p. 152-154)

This is a true story though the details have been altered for the sake of anonymity. A colleague of mine serves a Unitarian Universalist church in a bedroom community outside of a major city with a large financial district. About five years ago, a member of this congregation lost his job, a lucrative position that he had held in that city’s financial district. The man did not tell his wife. He did not tell his family. He did not tell his friends. He did not tell his minister. For the next year he woke up every morning, put on a suit, and commuted into the city where he did not have a job. It took this man a year before he was able to admit the truth to anyone.

I think of the story of this man. I replay this story in my own mind and I ache with sadness. I ache for the depth of his denial. I ache for his feelings of shame. I imagine the emptiness of this year of his life: ten or eleven or twelve hours a day, five days a week, an entire year spent alone on the train, alone in the city, returning home on the commuter train. This is a man of privilege who held heightened expectations for his life. There is danger in heightened expectations.

This morning’s sermon is really about how it could have been otherwise for this man I just described. But first I want to spend a little bit of time making this point about the danger of heightened expectations.

A few weeks ago I went to hear an amazing speaker named Tim Wise. It is the second time I’ve heard him speak in the past five months. I arrived early and had the chance to spend about twenty minutes talking with him. I asked him, “What does your analysis of race and privilege have to say about the economic struggles in our country?” His answer to me went like this:

He said he had recently addressed a class of college students and asked them, “Objectively, who is it that suffers the most during a recession?” Everyone agreed that it was those who were already marginalized, already poor, already disenfranchised. These people are disproportionately people of color. But, paradoxically, often these are also the people best able to cope with crisis. They’ve lived with loss and crisis and hopelessness before. They know how to make due when times are lean.

Wise points out that when the stock market crashed in 1929 it was white, wealthy, privileged men who threw themselves out of the windows on Wall Street. Poor folks did not come out from living under bridges or leave the slums, climb up skyscrapers and jump. They had been poor the week before the crash and the week before that.

The danger of heightened expectations is real. Eighty years later we witness two high profile suicides by extremely rich men who lost their fortunes investing with Bernard Madoff. I don’t mean to trivialize the losses on the part of these wealthy individuals. I don’t mean to deny their suffering, but I am certain that both of these men would have been able to enjoy a standard of living far higher than mine, higher than almost everyone in this room, and higher than about 99 percent of the people in the world, even after losing significant portions of their savings.

The danger of heightened expectations is not just about the risk of suicide. The danger of heightened expectations involves living with a fundamentally distorted view of the world. Last month, the New York Times ran a piece in which it asked executives what their lives would be like if they faced an income cap of $500,000 per year. Some of the people interviewed said they could not imagine how they would be able to live. They claimed they would not be able to make it. The items that these executives could not imagine living without included such things as: private schools and private colleges for their children, summer homes, and personal chauffeurs. The danger of heightened expectations involves losing touch with reality. These men and women who were interviewed by the New York Times were incapable of distinguishing between necessities and niceties.

If you think this is just about Madison Avenue and Wall Street, think again. Again, what follows is a true story from which I’ve removed a lot of the details. The story is about someone I knew in school. What I am about to say about this person may lead you to think this person grew up affluent. In fact, this was not the case. This person grew up in a rural area in a family that lived not significantly above the poverty line. In school this person sat down and decided to create a budget to figure out how much they would need to earn in order to live. The budget that this person created concluded that this person could not make due on less than one hundred and fifty thousand dollars per year. (By the way, at age 24 this person completed school and did go out and get a job earning $150,000 per year.)

I want us to stay with this for just a little bit longer. If we had continued to read from the chapter in Tim Wise’s book, we would have heard the story of a woman who called into a Minnesota radio show a few years ago and talked about her son’s drug addiction. Her teenage son’s life had begun to spiral downward. He had been dumped by his girlfriend, gotten his first bad grades in school, had begun to lash out at his family with rage, and then had turned to drugs and alcohol to numb the pain caused by the setbacks in his life. He belonged to an affluent family and his parents could afford to send him to expensive rehab and therapy programs. One day while leaving therapy the teen reflected, “I never realized how messed up it could be, being a white male. The world around me teaches me to always see myself as being in control, in charge, stable, together. It is like a constant message: always be in control. Always win. Then when a few things went wrong I couldn’t cope with it because I’d never had to cope with anything before.”

That is a perfect example of what it means when we talk about the danger of heightened expectations. Pressure. A feeling that you always need to be ahead of others. A distorted view of life. The need to win every single time. It is no wonder that white people are more likely than people of color to engage in self-destructive activities. Whites are more likely than black or Latinos to use illegal drugs, to binge drink, and are far more likely to abuse prescription medications. I can’t help but mention Tim Wise’s off-the-cuff comment in which he said that after he graduated from Tulane University he went to work as a community organizer in the projects of New Orleans. Wise says he saw more drugs used at Tulane, on the eighth floor of a dormitory, in a single dorm room (which happened to be his dorm room) on any given Saturday night than he saw cumulatively over two years spent in the New Orleans projects.

It is at this point that I want to switch gears. Thus far I have described the dangers of heightened expectations. Rest assured, I could continue to give examples for the duration of this sermon, through the KU-MU game this afternoon, and into the evening if I wanted to. Instead, I want to comment on methods of resistance. The danger of heightened expectations, the pressure of privilege, threatens to undo our humanity, to lessen our lives. I’m not saying that all or most of us here are at risk for the extreme forms of denial and injury I mentioned earlier. But when our own life does not live up to our expectations we are in danger of experiencing anger, panic, guilt, denial, or self-loathing. We are in danger of acting out those feelings in ways that are aggressive towards others or ourselves. We might feel tempted to foul our own nests—our relationships, our homes, our communities. We needn’t.

Right before the sermon we sang that sweet song, “How can I keep from singing?” I’ve always loved that hymn but there is a line in that hymn that never really hit home for me until recently. “To prison cell and dungeon vile, our thoughts to them are winging…”

“To prison cell and dungeon vile...” I want to confess that when I sing this line, I imagine something far away from my own experience. I tend to think of the types of people mentioned in mail solicitations for Amnesty International, those around the world who are the victims of human rights abuses. What I am saying is that when I plan out my week, I don’t expect to spend much time on prison ministry. In my six years as your minister, I’ve probably spent a dozen or fewer hours involved in ministry involving someone who is incarcerated. That is two hours a year.

However, when I just sang that hymn, I understood the concept of prison cells and vile dungeons differently, metaphorically: The man who lost his job taking the train into the city. The teen who turns to drugs and alcohol because he feels weak, because he feels he is not in control of his life. Are these not forms of imprisonment as well? And I ask what could be different?

“When friends by shame are undefiled, how can I keep from singing?” That line is about refusing to remain isolated. It is about being in community with others in a profound way where your pain and where your shame are able to be shared by another person who shares their pain and shame with you.

A friend of mine coined the term “terminal uniqueness” to describe that condition where you believe that nobody can possibly understand you, that your experiences or beliefs or whatever are somehow different. A lot of Unitarian Universalists suffer from “terminal uniqueness.” A lot of our churches suffer from it.

And yet, the first way of living in resistance to the dangers of heightened expectations is community. It is communion with others, becoming one with others. It involves literally losing those parts of ourselves that cause us to hold others at arm’s length. It means disabusing ourselves of our own notions of “terminal uniqueness.”

This church can be that place of communion if only we dare to step inside. If only stop acting like bystanders or detached sociologists. If only we dare to go deep, to go deep in our connections, to go deep in our own spiritual lives, to go deep in our commitment.

This Thursday I received a letter in the mail. The letter contained a $5,000 check written by a donor who wishes to remain anonymous. The money was being given for the people in this church who need emergency assistance because they are really hurting financially. This church can be a source of help for those who are hurting.

Connection through community is an important, perhaps the most important, path of resistance. There are additional ways of resisting the danger of heightened expectations. One of those ways is justice work that leads us into compassionate encounter with those whose lives might be very different from our own.

A friend and colleague of mine spent her sabbatical in the Khasi Hills of India, living among the Khasi Unitarians. How tribal people living in isolated villages in India became Unitarians is an interesting story that is not germane to this story. But the point is that this experience forever altered her sense of self. It changed her notion of her place in the world and her ideas about success. You don’t need to travel to the Khasi Hills of India. Intimate, deep connection with others, whether it takes the form of volunteering with the Interfaith Hospitality Network or volunteering with Head Start or teaching literacy or serving as a Big Brother or a Big Sister can serve as an antidote to ways of thinking that distort reality. Service and justice work widens our view and, in so doing, causes our own souls to expand.

To these practices of resistance I might add just one more, which is the practice of radical generosity. I use the term “radical generosity” intentionally. Usually, we think of the word “generosity” far too narrowly. We think generosity has to do solely with matters of money. By radical generosity, I mean a generosity that is more expansive, a generosity that begins with a generosity of spirit. Do we assume the worst of others? Do we focus excessively on their shortcomings? Do we find ourselves counting our complaints? These things demonstrate a lack of generosity of spirit. During times of stress and distress, fear and consternation it is difficult to practice generosity of spirit. A generosity of spirit that leads us to charity in our opinions of others will lead to a generosity of self, a willingness to share our lives liberally with others. Such a generosity of self I see in this church with our new pastoral care teams, with the stories I am told when I visit someone in our church at the hospital and am told not only of those who visited, but those who took the time to send a card or a simple email, those who’ve brought meals and run errands: this generous sharing of your life with others.

And of course you know that I am going to mention financial generosity which is but a subset of this holistic idea of radical generosity that includes generosity of spirit and generosity of life as well as generosity of time and labor and talent. And how have I gotten here? By what route have I traveled to leave the story of that man on the train, the story of Bernard Madoff suicides, the story from the New York Times of those wondering how they can possibly live on $500,000 per year… how did I get from there to here? Remember part of the danger of heightened expectations results in an obsession about always being in control, always winning, always being ahead. Radical generosity has to do, paradoxically, with refusing to insist upon control.

Generosity of spirit has to with refusing to cling to the judgments we make about others. Generosity of life and of time has to do with opening ourselves to others. Generosity of wealth has to do with letting go of that need to live with utter control over our wealth, or maybe it is letting go of having our wealth exercise utter control over us. Those who have lost control, lost control to a credit card company, to a stock market fund, or even to a job know what it is like to serve a cruel and fickle master.

I’ve been challenging you with a hard message all morning here. So, let me go all the way. If generosity of spirit liberates us from contempt of others, and if generosity of life liberates us from living only for ourselves so that we may in fact live in part for others, then generosity of wealth liberates us from the palaces that don’t really serve us well.

Buddha taught that there is life abundantly outside the walls of the palace. [This is a reference to my children’s story about Buddha’s childhood.] Buddha taught that life spent entirely inside the palace was not life at all, but an illusion, a distortion of reality. To walk away from the palace was to embrace the fullness of life.

I am grateful for a congregation that will dare to listen to a challenging message like this one. Like any good Unitarian Universalist sermon, it does not end when I say, “Amen.” It goes forth with you for you to discuss, to consider, to wonder on, and, perhaps even to live out.

I end with the words that Tim Wise uses when he concludes a lecture. James Baldwin said, “The world is before you and you need not take it or leave it as it was when you came in.” Amen.