Our Own Right Size

The Rev. Alison Cornish

February 6, 2005 – 

Author and artist Sue Bender opens her recent book, “Stretching Lessons,” with an anecdote. She relates a short conversation between a friend and her 4-year old nephew. “How big you’re getting,” she told him. “Oh, I’m bigger than that!” he replied.

Bigger than that. We probably all remember times, growing up, when we wished, hoped, aspired, even thought we were “bigger than that.” Childhood is filled with anticipation and enticement, always, it seems, stretching towards the next stage, the next developmental moment. How many times did you yearn to be older, or taller, or have more privileges?

How many times were your questions or pleadings answered with, “someday … when you’re older … not yet … maybe when you’ve grown a bit”? As the adults around us fretted about “how times flies,” and “they grow so fast,” childhood desire sped time up even faster – oh, I’m bigger than that.

It is difficult, as a child, to understand the idea of being “just right,” with all that means.

Parents and grandparents tell kids “you’re just right – I love you just the way you are.”

Teachers, coaches, scout leaders and Sunday school teachers build the self-esteem and self-worth of their charges with the assurance that diversity and difference in ability and size are OK. “You’re doing fine – keep it up” they encourage.

We all know that to be comfortable just as one is is far from easy – in fact, for some of us, it’s a lifelong journey. The quest runs through an obstacle course set by our culture-at-large, those forces that generate a desire to be other than who we are. Children are the targets of both advertising and entertainment that aim to accelerate growing up – especially to look or feel like pre-teens and teenagers, who will likely spend lots of money to help them look and feel older, more sophisticated. But there is another “desire” promoted by this media world that so envelopes us, including children and teens, and that’s the desire to be enlarged – that is, the idea that we should be “living large” by the almost manic acquisition of goods and experiences. Cars and electronics, vacations and extreme sports, eating out and shopping from home – “supersize” and “bigger is better.” These messages all seem to say that whatever we have, whatever we do, whatever we are, we ought to be “bigger than that.” But where does it all ultimately lead?

To be honest, we are alive during one of the most affluent eras in recorded history, and live in one of the most privileged parts of the world. When we consider this topic, “our own right size,” we must begin with this question – what happens when we allow ourselves to become more than who we are – when the temptation to be ”bigger than that” succeeds?

As humans, surely we do “live large” on this planet – so large, in fact, that we have forgotten that we are a species living on a planet, rather than the operative center of the universe that we too often imagine ourselves to be. And, as North Americans, we consume vast quantities of non-renewable resources, and despoil the environment at an alarming rate. We take up a lot of space – and water, and soil, and energy. Call it what you will – the addiction to a lifestyle, or unconscious living, or a sense of entitlement, or filling a void, or short-sightedness – any way you label it comes out the same. Our collective carbon footprint, that measure of the impact of human activity on the Earth, is frighteningly large.

In fact, this same question, “what happens when we allow ourselves to become more than who we are,” might be directed towards any number of situations and issues swirling about these days. For example, when CEOs walk away with salaries that are larger than the national economies of several small nations – combined – has supersizing gone far too far? And what happens when our country intervenes, even in the name of democracy, in a place such as Iraq? Are we being “more than who we are?” “Bigger than that?” In the words of Sue Bender, do we need to spend some timethinking about how we “lower our own noise”?

The consequences of a desire to be larger than ourselves are painfully visible all around us. I suspect that together we could generate quite a list. But to more fully – and fairly – explore this topic, “our own right size,” we have to look at the other half of the formula.

Bill Jones has written extensively on the issue of racism. He says, “there are two ways to create a corrupting influence: (1) regard yourself as more than what you are, and (2) regard yourself as less than what you are.” Jones offers this as a succinct capsule of how oppression, due to race, or gender, or any prejudice, continues to thrive. It takes both populations – those who see themselves as more than they actually are, and those who see themselves as less than they actually are – to make the equation. Can you see the symmetry and equity? Both are corrupting influences. Seeing yourself as larger than what you are is damaging; but seeing yourself as less than what you are is also damaging. His words, “corrupting influence,” are important because they mean that damage is not limited to one person, or one group. The corruption is felt by all. That’s why the damage of racism is not limited to the oppressed, but includes the oppressors as well. We all suffer, we are all diminished.

We know how expertly we are taught to desire ourselves as more than what we are.

What about the other side? Writing from the point of view of a 60-something-year-old woman, Sue Bender has a lot to say about seeing herself as less than what she is.

She observes:

Trying to be someone else’s idea of who we are makes us smaller than.

If we can’t speak what we know – without fearing the consequences – we are diminished. We … hide our bigness and magnificence out of fear of criticism and jealousy.

I’ll admit, as a woman, Bender’s observations resonate with me. Though not exclusively the experience of women, I do think “trying to be someone else’s idea of who we are,” fearing the consequences of speaking what we know, and hiding our “bigness and magnificence” describes well the lives of far too many women. Dpending on who we are, where we grew up, what our gender or ethnicity or color is, we could surely add to Bender’s list of what keeps us regarding ourselves as “less than” what we are. What keeps us quiet. What (we hope) will keep us safe. What makes us invisible. I our success-oriented and driven society, the stories of those who have spent parts – or the whole – of their lives living as “less than” are not what we hear everyday. But those who have can testify that living from a place of “less than” makes it impossible to claim one’s own worth and dignity. Bender speaks directly to us as Unitarian Universalists when she says:

How important it is for each of us to see our own dignity – our own worth.

From that place, how much easier it is to see the dignity of others – their own worth.

So, with these words of Jones and Bender, we are faced with this dilemma: how do we avoid the twin pitfalls of being more than what we are on the one hand, and less than what we are on the other? Is there a way to allow ourselves to be more of who are, not more than who we are? How is it that we, as individuals, as a congregation, as a nation – yea, as a people, how might we become “our own right size”?

In search of an answer, I turn to one of my favorite Unitarian theologians and ethicists, James Luther Adams, and his thoughts on power. Unlike many of us, Adams was not at all reticent about engaging with the concept of power. In fact, he considered power and religion to be at one with one another. In his words, “Power always has a double character: first, as the expression of God’s law and love; second, as the exercise of human freedom.” (By the way, Adams also used the phrase “that which ultimately concerns humans” for the word ‘God’ – and some of you might be more comfortable thinking in those terms.) These two expressions, power as love and law, and power as freedom, are always linked in Adams’ writing. To him, “God is creative, redemptive, active power … People possess creative freedom to influence themselves and others; this [too] is active power. But people are also influenced by participating in God’s power; that is, by being affected by God’s law and love and by other people’s behavior.” Thus power is always relational. It only exists within a network of relationships.

Now I should pause here and make sure we’re all on the same page when I use the word power, for I imagine the connotations many of us hold of that word are not positive. Because Adams identified the origin of power as God’s law and love, power, to him, had inherent goodness. It was first and foremost about justice. That’s not to say that Adams believed that power was never used inappropriately. “The creative element of power is divine,” he tells us, “[but] the destructive element of power appears wherever power is divorced from an understanding of its source in the divine.” Though Adams spoke about the “power of” rather than the “power over,” he was certainly not so naive as to think the latter did not exist – he did, after all, witness the rise of Nazism first-hand.

For me, Adams’ idea that “human power exists as the way we respond effectively to our possibilities of being” points to the way we might be more of who are, not more than who we are. What we desire, I think, is to be empowered – to have the power to participate, to influence and be influenced. We want to have the power to hear, and be heard; to receive and to give. And we want these powers to be held mutually, not as power over one another, but for all to exercise with freedom and choice, free of domination. In Adams’ view, this is what the free church, our liberal tradition, was intended for – to create the conditions, and to hold fast the relationships, that would help empower individuals and congregations to transform society. In his words,

I call that church free which in covenant with that divine community-forming power brings the individual, even the unacceptable, into a caring, trusting fellowship that protects and nourishes his or her integrity and spiritual freedom.

A caring, trusting fellowship exists to nurture the individual. This is a significant key to helping people become “their own right size.” A religious home that protects integrity helps all of us to see when we are caught up by the desire to live larger than we are, helps us to resist the seductions of a culture awash in more, more, more. A congregation that nourishes spiritual freedom helps us to listen for the invisible and hidden stories that so many of us carry within us, and to heal the wounds that cause us to live smaller than we really are. We bring our whole selves to our religious communities – our families; our joys, sorrows and concerns; our traditions; our longings and hopes; our failures and disappointments. The commitment we make to one another in joining together to create and sustain a religious community creates the agent for transformation – of ourselves, of one another, and of the larger world. Ultimately, “becoming our own right size” is not about just us as individuals, but allowing ourselves to be open to the transformative possibilities offered by the presence of others. Again, in Adams’ words, “I call that church free which in charity promotes freedom in fellowship, seeking unity in diversity. This unity is a potential gift … but it will remain unity in diversity.” It is this diversity that, as Unitarian Universalists, we both cherish and wrestle with – but we agree to do it together.

Later this spring, our congregation is going to move into a home of our own. For more than 15 years we have borrowed this “shell” for our weekly gatherings and other events.

Like Hermit Crab, we are about to leave a home that we have finally outgrown. The first thing we will gain by moving is a building designed for our own needs and purposes – a custom shell, if you will. When we “wiggle and waggle about inside it,” it will feel terrific. And, at long last, our children will have bright and clean spaces that belong to them. We’ll get to leave the chairs out from one week to another. The sign will be on a fixed post! We will have room to grow. Our new building will help us to become “our own right size.”

But there’s another aspect of this move. By living temporarily in this shell, we have had a limited public presence on the East End of Long Island – if you don’t find us during this hour on Sunday morning, it’s tough to figure out who we are, where we are, and what we’re all about. It’s been hard to get the message out that there is a liberal religious congregation devoted to social justice alive and well on the East End. Much of our energy has gone into meeting the basic needs of a “virtual” congregation with no real home of its own. In lots of ways, we have been living as if we were “less than.” This is our hope – when we move into our new home, we’ll be empowered to explore the question “how can we best be more of who we are in the coming years?” How might we become “our own right size” as a force for social justice here on the East End of Long Island?

As anxious as we are to make this move, we also know that any change brings loss with it. Last November, at our annual retreat, we named some of what we would lose: a drafty old building, low rent, intimacy, familiarity and smallness, a history in our old building, a team effort to construct a church-in-a-box, a bonding experience, a major highway on which to demonstrate, the anticipation of moving.

We know what it is that we stand to lose. But in listing those things that we will gain in moving, much of what we named was preceded by the words “the opportunity to” – the opportunity to use the building when we want, to grow a garden, to make money with the rent; the opportunity to create more programs for ourselves and our community, to become a community center, to provide radical hospitality; the opportunity to sink down permanent roots, to make longer term plans, to think of the generations of children to come, to have artwork on the walls, to gain a home. These are all possibilities. I recall James Luther Adams’ words: “human power exists as the way we respond effectively to our possibilities of being.” That is what this congregation is about to do – to be empowered to respond to our possibilities of being – to be more of who we are.

Sue Bender writes, when we allow ourselves to be more of who we are – it is a risk.

My hope is that, in our moving, we remember that to engage our possibilities means that each of us remains open to the transformative possibilities offered by the presence of others. For it is as a congregation that we will make a difference in this world – in Adams’ words:

I call that church free which does not cringe in despair, but by casting off fear is lured by the divine persuasion to respond in hope to the light that has shone and still shines in the darkness.

Closing Words Bruce Southworth (adapted, Goethe)

Whatever we can do, or dream we can do, let us begin it, this day.

Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.

May we be bold in our loving and in our living.

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