It Is I Who Must Begin
by Vaclav Havel
It is I who must begin.
Once I begin, once I try —
here and now,
right where I am,
not excusing myself
by saying things
would be easier elsewhere,
without grand speeches and
but all the more persistently
— to live in harmony
with the “voice of Being,” as I
understand it within myself
— as soon as I begin that,
I suddenly discover,
to my surprise, that
I am neither the only one,
nor the first,
nor the most important one
to have set out
upon that road.
Whether all is really lost
or not depends entirely on
whether or not I am lost.
by Peter A. Friedrichs
You can stand on the stage,
the most skilled illusionist,
madly conjuring card after
card from thin air, or
producing doves like some
crazed, relentless peacemaker,
astounding even the most
jaded, jeering crowd.
But in the end Lucretius was right:
Given seven days, or seventy,
or even seven thousand,
you cannot create out of nothing
even a single grain of sand,
much less an entire Universe.
Ex nihilo nihil fit.
And yet, each day you are called
to make a world out
of nothing more than hope.
From the bombed-out rubble
of yesterday’s drone strike,
ordered by some unseen enemy
or, worse yet, someone you trusted,
you must claw your way back
to light and air and, concussed,
dust yourself off to begin again.
After the earth has shifted
without warning, you find yourself
digging by hand through a maze
of twisted rebar and memories,
fingernails torn and knuckles swollen,
desperately trying to reach your own
barely beating heart, so faint
that only the rescue dogs can
sense your thready pulse.
From the shards of glass that
pierce the tender flesh of your palms,
today you must piece together
yet another mirror that reflects
some semblance of the face
that you’re willing to
present to the world.
Sermon “Self & Other”
Identity is personal. And at the same time, identity is corporate, or communal. It is something we experience profoundly as individuals, and it is also something we share with others – some we know, and some we will never meet. And so we struggle with what Vaclav Havel calls living “…in harmony with the “voice of Being,” as I understand it within [ourselves]…” which then allows us to connect to more universal truths.
When you think about a short sentence that articulates your values or your identity, you must naturally direct your statement both internally and externally. Our individual identity impacts the way we approach our relationships.
First we ask, “Who am I? Who are you?”
And that brings us to, “What do we become, together? How do our individual identities impact our communal identity?”
A few weeks ago I was off on a Sunday, and it happened to be a gorgeous day out, so we piled in the minivan and went to walk around at the Carl Sandburg Home. It was idyllic. Rolling hills, beautiful paths, the quaint country home, a pretty bridge, and a quiet stream. The boys got to pet the goats and meet the chickens. It was a perfect day.
Cindy asked me if I wanted to pick out an artsy quote from the gift shop for my office. She knows I love Sandburg’s work. She knows about Sandburg Hall, that this congregation has a connection to him. And I looked at some lovely quotes. But then I thought, “No. No. No more. No more quotes from rich white men. No more.”
Then I think to myself, “You don’t mean that. You’re not a man-hater. You love the words of Sandburg and Berry and Whitman and Parker and Thoreau, they’ve been inspiring you for years.”
And then we left the shop and I stood there on the path looking around me, we walked past the caretaker’s cottages and the carefully manicured landscape, and I found myself filled with a simmering rage. I was so angry. And so deeply, deeply sad. Because the whole property, the 264 acres of mountainside rolling pastures and trails, was originally created and maintained — mostly by women and marginalized men, for the sole purpose of giving Sandburg a place to retreat and think his lofty thoughts. What a gift to be able to do that.
And how painful to understand the consequences of this social construct, in which George Vanderbilt built his home with 47 bathrooms. In which generations of human beings were brought to this country and enslaved. In which women provided unpaid and undervalued physical and emotional work. In which Henry David Thoreau, known for living “in the rough” actually came out of the woods regularly to have dinner with the Emersons, and to have his mother do his laundry each week.
This is not news to me, this social construct. I’ve studied it, I’ve wrestled with it, I’ve lived in it my whole life. I know you have, too. But somehow it hit me in a different way that day. Perhaps because of the way we are experiencing the patriarchal white supremacist culture take its place in the leadership of our country in a more overt way than it has previously. And yet, none of this is new. It’s not new information, and it’s not new experience, and we can’t blame it on the Other.
Process theologian Catherine Keller describes how this construct unfolds in the context of the story of Odysseus & Penelope, “In the classic Western novel, Penelope waits while Odysseus wanders… he creates an ego of epic independence, positing it over and over against a world of dangerous opponents… After his separation from home, he completes the archetypal hero’s journey by returning to faithful Penelope. Having created nothing, she merely remains: intact, yet “wasting away.” Daily weaving and unweaving her tapestry, she has preserved herself… for him, in a fixed space, in a cyclical time. He is loosed, she is bound.” (Creating Women’s Theology, p. 85)
Through centuries, the construct of the independent male supported by the invisible – or unacknowledged – work of women has been paramount. It creates a narrative in which the male is the picture of full human being, and the woman the shadow. A picture which, of course, negates the woman, but at the same time it negates all other genders and relational constructs. But not only that, it negates anyone of any gender, any identity, who does not express themself as the powerfully independent, stereotypically masculine being.
We are steeped in this construct, all of us.
Have you ever had a negative experience because you didn’t fit in to one or another aspect of this picture?
In any case, it took me a bit to figure out why it was hitting me so hard that particular day. I’m sure it was partly because of current events. But on a deeper level, I paid attention for the first time in a meaningful way to the way this culture underpins my own tradition. Unitarian Universalism is built on these norms, just like American culture in general. I have allowed myself to stay in the present and pretend that we are somehow better than this, that we have it all figured out.
I have been sitting with the truth that the tradition to which I have committed my life is complicit in the challenges we face today. It is complicit in the misogyny, the racism, the ableism, the transphobia. All of it. And I am entangled. We are all entangled. Committed. We are all mixed up in it.
I make mistakes — I inadvertently erase the experience of people who are different from me. And the truth is that I am surrounded by amazing men who work every day to create a different kind of world. Men who understand what it means to make space for women to own their own experiences and independence. White people who understand what it means to do the same for people of color. The list goes on. And when we are able to make that space, we begin to see how it can also set us free to live in ways that don’t fit the dominant narrative but feel more authentic and truthful to our individual identities.
And so we come to the questions I have wrestled for the past few weeks: What do you do when your identity is dependent on a paradigm that breaks your heart and wouldn’t allow you full agency? What if it gives you full agency, and leaves out people you love and care about? What if it gives you full agency, and leaves out people you will never meet?
I’m not sure yet. But what I do know is that I am unwilling to walk away from it, and I am committed to understanding the legacy we bring forward.
This is the challenge of existing with our eyes open — no system is pure, no tradition is without blind spots or faults. No matter how hard we try, we are all entangled in the domination system. And so again and again we must be clear about our values and commitments today at the same time we continue to pick apart the tangles of our history. We do not want to be held responsible as individuals for the oppression perpetrated by those like us, and at the same time, we must take responsibility for the role that has been given us, and how we use that role to break down the paradigm.
Nearly all of the harmful policies and orders that have come forth in the past month impact individuals on the sole criteria of their identity.
Identity is core to our existence.
And so we come back to the problem of a core piece of one’s identity which is built on concepts or truths that are antithetical to the values you hold today. This experience is not unique to me. Perhaps you were raised in a fundamentalist religious tradition which you no longer follow, perhaps you were socialized female but identify as male. You have changed. Your understanding has evolved. And you still feel connected to those past realities.
Do you throw it all out? Maybe. Maybe not. But usually even when you try to separate yourself from it, you can’t. Even the most enlightened of monks can struggle to leave the woman at the side of the river.
I cannot separate myself from the origins of my faith. I must reconcile who I am today with where it all began. And if there are values within those origins that do not match my values today, I have to acknowledge them, and then decide what I’m going to do with them.
Because the truth is that my foundation, too was built on white supremacy and patriarchy. There is so much to learn, so much to un-learn. I learn things every day about how I am complicit in white supremacy. I also find myself perpetuating patriarchal culture because it is so familiar to me that I don’t even realize I’m doing it. It’s hard work to wake up and see the system for what it is. And we must continue to do this.
Because what matters is not how we were in the past. What matters is how we move into the future, whether we can own our past, work to transform it, and continue to create a Unitarian Universalism that is inclusive and life-giving to ALL people.
As my colleague Peter Friedrichs says, “And yet, each day you are called to make a world out of nothing more than hope.”
Who am I?
Who are you?
And who will we become, together?”
Keller says, “If the other enters my experience, then it enters as an influence upon me: it makes a difference, and so I am no longer quite the same.”
Let us use hope to create a new world.
Let us allow one another to change us.
Let us exist with our eyes open.
May it be so.