Saturday, August 19, 2006

Who am I? Really?

Our minister, Mark, likes to challenge traditional understandings of language, particularly religious language. While we can all agree that being a Unitarian Universalist is quite different than belonging to practically any other church community in North America, he is quite dogged in holding on to traditional Christian language in describing our culture as an organization, as a people. And while I understand that historically, our roots are Judeo Christian, and too that it is a good mental exercise to challenge the stereotypes we embed in the meaning of words, I wonder if we're doing anyone any favors. "Church," "sermon," "ministry" are all words that inspire a thought process inside of the minds and hearts of people. And I wonder if we are challenging stereotypes, or arm wrestling over them. We, as UUs, end up explaining ourselves a lot. We get raised eyebrows from people who have heard us talking about being involved in church and then hear us adamantly rejecting God language and dogma. There's even a much-revered process in the UU tradition, called the Elevator Speech in which you try to figure out how you would explain Unitarian Universalism in the length of an elevator ride to a stranger. I realize of course it is all for the sake of starting honest open inviting Creative Interchange. But I wonder how honest and open they are if they are so contrived? Are we really co-opting another aspect of Christianity that we don’t seem to honor so much, the art of witnessing, an art that I've always seen as recruiting? wonder some Christians don't like us so much. We take their language, their practices, and all their best ideas and wrap it around a package that is not theirs. How frustrating. How utterly rude.

At the same time though, we are humans, with both a desire to express ourselves, claim our right to be in society, to be a meaningful part of that society, and to do it on our own terms. One of my most beloved swiped ideas came from Maya Angelou. She once wrote, in a nutshell, that if a man tells you he’s a bad person, you should believe him. He knows himself better than you do. The original idea, I think was that people will reflect to you what they've already told you about themselves, because they are just setting up the story they've already written. A man who tells you he can't be faithful doesn't want you to fix him; he just wants you to know that he doesn't intend to be faithful. A woman, who tells you that she's always managed to find broken men, doesn't mean to tell you that she is changing her ways when she comes to you, but that she intends to find what’s broken in you. Of course, this is Maya's truth, and to some extent mine, and it, like all truths can be challenged. All the same, it is uncomfortable to look at some of the declarative statements I've made about myself, and claim them as my own responsibility, and yet somehow I must. When I say I'm shy and awkward, I must acknowledge on some level that I'm choosing that. When I've said that I don't love myself in the past, I must know that I have also chosen that.

UGH. My thoughts are so tangled up in knots!

So the reason I'm thinking about this is because I joined a book club. Ok, I didn't join, yet. A friend invited me and she said, this is the book were reading and I went out to pick it up. And I'm having a crisis about it. The book is by Anne Lamott and its titled Plan B, Further Thoughts on Faith. Initially I was skeptical...I didn’t want to be preached "the word of God" in my casual reading. That’s why I'm UU after all. But the women who invited me to this group are also UU, so I thought that there must be something to this, and I checked out some reviews, and bought the book. I opened up my mouth and said, "I am open minded, I want to see what this woman has to say." And I started reading.

Ms. Lamott is a liberal, anti-Bush, "its all about love" Christian. She's anti-war, pro-helping the helpless, and very much into the fact that we are all human "becomings" not necessarily human beings. Even on a personal level, I have much in common with her...struggling with lack of focus when it comes to meditation or prayer, guilt over anger felt for a dysfunctional mother, and the belief that with all things, you can only start where you are, and bumble your way out of it. And surprisingly, or maybe ironically, or maybe even predictably, will all that we have in common, I don't like Lamott at all. I find her weak kneed and self-indulgent. I see her grappling with an urgency to be kind to herself, but not so much to the people who love her. Mostly I find her wishy-washy, and it surprises me that it bothers me so much. She writes with pain-staking honesty about confusion and despair, and I wonder how much she chooses it. And I'm surprised to find that I'm thinking more conservatively than I ever have, but I'm modeling myself after a black poet laureate in my thoughts, rather than a white woman who sports dread-locks and is a New York Times best-selling author, and I wonder which is a more appropriate liberal role model. I tried to think of these two women on a continuum of Liberalness versus Conservatism, but I can’t even place them in the same universe, much less the same continuum. And this all makes me think that we approach this all wrong.

We tend to identify ourselves with people with whom we share a view of the world...religiously, politically, and philosophically, etc. But some things have happened in my life that have made me challenge the wisdom of this way of personally aligning yourself, of choosing your tribe. I have a good friend who is a very conservative Christian. We've butted heads loudly and with much anguish on subject matters that we both hold personally sacred. And yet we are drawn to each other like magnets. We revel in each others company, and I can tell you that I respect this woman so much more than I do Anne Lamott, with whom I should believe that I have so much in common. My friend and I have often wondered about why it is we are drawn to one another when our definition of the world is so different. But reflection on Anne Lamott, Maya Angelou and the language of Unitarian Universalism has made me realize that it’s not the world you have to agree on, it’s yourselves. My friend and I look from different eyes and see a different reality, but we define ourselves in much the same way...survivors, optimists, loving, loyal and strong. We are women who challenge ourselves and our society to do better and be stronger. We do not accept the wimpy voices that tell us we are just helpless little souls with no real power in the world. We know that we are only mortal, but we don't use it as an excuse to not try hard. She said it in a different way, but I think she's right - we don't share eyes; we share hearts.

I've been struggling with my labels lately. The way I define myself has been so limited. I don’t like being a theist or a non-theist. I don’t like being a victim or a feminist or a divorcee or a girl. I've said it before that the only label that defines me, even remotely accurately, is Eileen.

And even that has severe limitations.

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