Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Sermon: "The Dark Side of Self-Reliance" (Delivered 2-20-11)

[This sermon was originally delivered on February 20, 2011]

I do not tell this story because I think you are all that interested in stories about ministers. Actually, it’s probably healthier for you not to be interested in stories about ministers. I do tell this story (actually a composite of several stories) because I think it is unlikely that you’ve found yourself in exactly this situation, which makes it a safer story.

Andy (not his real name) was a middle-aged, second career minister whose first call was to a large church. It was a church with a lot of high achieving professionals as members, a culture that prized accomplishment. It was a church with a proud history of celebrated and prominent pulpiteers.

Not long after beginning his ministry Andy felt over his head. The work was demanding, intense, and even all-consuming. He experienced feelings of inadequacy, especially in the pulpit. He never felt that his sermons measured up. One week, after responding to a whole series of pastoral crises and administrative conflagrations, he came up empty when it was time to write his sermon. In a moment of desperation he went on-line, found a sermon that another minister had written, copied and pasted it, and preached it as if it were of his own authorship. It was well-received.

The consequence was not what Andy had intended. Instead of experiencing one-time relief, a singular respite, Andy’s sense of self-doubt and inadequacy increased, multiplied. Future sermons would have to be as good as the one he had stolen and faked. He fell into a pattern that grew compulsive. He received many positive comments on his sermons and the parishioners began to insist that the sermons be posted on the church website. Each compliment magnified his own feelings of inadequacy, shame, and his crushed self-esteem. He had dug himself into a pit and he kept digging. He alternated between poles of delusion and rationalization and self-hatred. Subconsciously, he wanted to get caught. And, eventually, he did get caught.

Some time ago I served a three year stint as a member of the Executive Committee of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association. Part of the work of that group, the most important and challenging and sobering work of that group, involved intervening in cases in which ministers found themselves in trouble. Sometimes the trouble was of the minister’s own making, sometimes it wasn’t. But, by the time these situations reached us, a lot of the better outcomes that had been possible earlier were no longer possible.

In the situations where we had to intervene, there was one common denominator that was shared by almost all of the ministers who found themselves in trouble. That common denominator was isolation, a determination to struggle privately and discreetly. The struggling person becomes guarded and constructs an increasingly elaborate fa├žade. The psychic pain leads to withdrawal, emotional and relational isolation. Among professionals, especially those who work in fields such as ministry, not meeting with other professionals in your field is taken as a sign that you are in danger, that you are in trouble. Isolation is a warning sign. It signals that something is wrong.

Two weeks ago I preached the first part in a two part sermon series on Ralph Waldo Emerson’s famous essay, “Self-Reliance.” Self-reliance, I said, was a loaded term that has been used, misused, and abused in different ways over the past one hundred and seventy years. Self-reliance, as Emerson intended the term, had to do with self-confidence in one’s own thought and in the ability for the person to stand up and stick up for his or her own principles even when those views are in the minority, even when the crowd is moving in a different direction. Emerson writes, “Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles.”

For all his talk about keeping the “sweetness of solitude” while in the midst of the crowd, it is a misreading of Emerson to think that he was advocating a futile kind of self-isolation. As one person who read my sermon from two weeks ago commented, it can easily be argued that Emerson was a major proponent and advocate for community. He was, after all, the founder of an intellectual club that included both men and women, that was modeled after the coffeehouses and salons of England and the European continent. Intellectual understanding was best pursued in the company of other co-learners. He was not, was never, a solitary genius. He was always part of a fellowship of thinkers.

And, two weeks ago, I talked about how the term self-reliance has been co-opted to mean something entirely different than what Emerson had meant. Self-reliance, self-sufficiency, self-determination, individual responsibility, personal freedom: in our contemporary society these are all used as code words for right wing economic and social policies.

Social change theorists have pointed out that since the mid-1960s, the concept of rights has been slowly losing ground as the dominant lens for understanding social issues in the public arena. And, since the 1960s, issues have increasingly been understood as matters of security, individual responsibility, and values (with the caveat that values are taken to mean right-wing Christian theocratic values.) What I’m saying, what these people who think about social change theory are saying, is that while most of us here in this room probably consider public education a human right, and health care a human right, and workers’ rights to unionize and receive a living wage and bargain collectively to be a human right, by and large most people would say that these things are matters of individual responsibility. The concept of personal liberty trumps the concept rights in the court of public opinion. This is a painful thing to hear and points to the need to develop new understandings and new ways of talking about and explaining and framing these issues.

What do I mean when I say that the frame that speaks of things in terms of rights has diminished in potency and the frame that speaks of things in terms of security, individual responsibility, and conservative Christian values has ascended in power? All you need to do is name an issue and see which frame has proven more successful in the realm of popular opinion.

Take, for example, the Patriot Act. When the vote came for that blatantly unconstitutional piece of legislation, the discourse that opposed it on the basis of human rights and civil liberties was completely annihilated by the discourse that framed the legislation as a matter of security.

Or, take the issue of unions. Right now we see this drama playing out in Wisconsin and Ohio. Proponents of unions have long held that unions function to protect the rights of workers. Opponents have maligned unions, accusing them of creating situations in which individual responsibility is compromised. Unions have been slowly losing power in our country since the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947. Proponents of unions, according to the analysis of thinkers such as George Lakoff, need a new way to talk about unions that is not based on a notion of rights.

It is easy to point to areas in our culture and in our politics in which we can say that a kind of rugged individualism, a survivalist ethos, and a preoccupation with individual responsibility are at play. And, it is also easy to deflate the balloon and let the hot air out of many of these arguments. It is easy to point out when someone was born already standing at third base and thinks they’ve hit a triple. It is easy to question someone’s claims of self-reliance when they have dozens of lobbyists on their payroll or when they cash bailout checks from the government.

It is harder to point out those moments when we ourselves practice a distorted and self-defeating type of self-reliance. It is harder to point out because it flies in the face of what we know.

We know, thinking back to that example of the plagiarizing minister, that things began to go bad when he was unable to reach out to colleagues, to mentors, to his board, and to outside resources to help manage the intense stress he was under. We know he set himself up for trouble when he closed himself off and insisted he could manage it all by himself.

We know, in looking at the major issues we face as a society, that improvements don’t happen through individual fortitude and stoic suffering. We know that it takes collective action, coalition building, organizing, and cooperative action to bring about change.

We know that the George Odell reading from our hymnal is true, that “We need one another when we mourn and would be comforted. We need one another when are in trouble and afraid… All our lives we are in need, and other are in need of us.”

We know this. We know this. But a lot of Unitarian Universalists tend to do otherwise. I’ve been having discussions will trusted colleagues, talking about a troubling pattern we’ve seen in our congregations. The pattern is that when a person finds themselves in trouble – an illness, a family crisis, a job loss, money problems, health problems, relationship problems – often when someone in our congregation finds themselves in trouble, they pull away. They pull away from church. They pull away from their friends here. They isolate. And, I’m not talking about stepping aside from a leadership position for a little while. I’m talking about refusing to ask for help and support and turning away the help and support that is offered.

And, from what I can tell, it isn’t just something that happens here in this congregation. And, I’m perplexed and frustrated trying to understand why this is the way it is. And, the only tentative hypothesis I have is that we’ve bought into a distorted idea of self-reliance that causes us to isolate and face hardship alone. Maybe you have another idea. If so, I’d love to hear it. I want your perspective on this.

During the time that I was an intern minister living in Dallas I managed to total my car. I remember my internship supervisor driving across town to pick me up and taking me to a rental car agency and offering to let the church cover the cost of a rental car until I could arrange for my own transportation. I remember feeling embarrassed by this, by my own lack of self-reliance. When I expressed this, my internship supervisor told me to be quiet. “Listen,” he said, “Humans did not survive, from an evolutionary biology perspective, because of their sharp teeth and claws. We did not survive because of our speed or strength. Not because of our thick, protective hide or our warm hair. We survived because of cooperation and taking care of each other.”

When you turn to another person from help, you are fulfilling a biological role as well as participating in a moral imperative. “All our lives we are in need of others and others are in need of us.”