from All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten by Robert Fulghum
It was the summer after my first year in seminary, and I was sitting at the bedside of a man roughly my age who had just undergone heart bypass surgery. I had never met this man before. His room was merely on the floor that I had been assigned to as a hospital chaplaincy student. Seminary training generally requires that each student take a unit in what is called “clinical pastoral education” to help them prepare for the visits they’ll be making as ministers later on. This was mine.
To say that I was assigned, though, is not to say that I felt in any way prepared. To be honest, what I felt, depending on the day, was somewhere between a novice and a fraud. I had essentially no experience in anything like making a pastoral visit and really no training for it in school.
So, there I was introducing myself to this man only hours after he had emerged from what was likely one of the most traumatic events of his life. No family was present in the room, and I had no indication that any would be coming. What should I say? What does “a minister” say?
I began with pleasantries, acknowledging what a scary experience it must have been. I don’t remember all that I said, but at one point his eyes started to well with tears. I slowed my banter. I held his hand. We sat together in silence. I may have attempted a prayer. Before long I moved along on my appointed rounds. What with the busy schedule of his rehab and my own heavy load of visits and group work with other chaplains I didn’t get to see him again before he was discharged. But somehow we had made a brief connection, and I got a glimpse into this work.
It’s an experience that I’m sure resonates with many of you. None of us enters the work of our lives fully formed. And it doesn’t matter how much classroom or book learning we get. The doing of it requires that at some point we just jump in, no matter how unprepared we may feel. It may seem forced or unreal at first, but we give ourselves to it until we find ourselves in it. You might say we fake it until we make it.
It occurs to me that our religious lives are like that, too. Last week we heard members of our Coming of Age class tell us a little bit about what a year’s worth of studying, reflecting and talking with each other, their teachers and their mentors taught them about what they set their hearts to.
It is the kind of exercise that we think of as distinctive to the path of this Unitarian Universalism. In this month when we are exploring the role of tradition in our religious, it is something that I would call central to our tradition. Because, for us, the religious journey begins, not with learning a doctrine about a text or great teacher, but with our own personal experience. Texts and teachers are worthy contributors to our wonderings, but what’s most important is that we get clear on where our hearts rest.
If there is a doctrine central to our tradition, it is that we are persons of inherent worth and dignity who are capable of building our own faiths, that bedrock that gives us an orientation to lives, from that which calls to our hearts. We trust in that capacity, believing that in time it will open us to lives of compassion, integrity, service and joy.
What makes it challenging is that there is no neat prescription for getting there. We empathize with our 9th graders who told us that being confronted with writing their credos they felt a bit at sea. Who doesn’t? But for them, as for us, the process begins by making a beginning, by planting our flag somewhere and testing what we come up with.
It was Mohandes Gandi who framed the work of his own spiritual development as, in his words, “experiments with truth.” In his autobiography, published some 20 years before his death in 1948, he describes how each formative event in his life – large and small, success and blunder – shaped an evolving and expanding faith that informed a life of principle and practices of nonviolent resistance that have changed the world.
To Gandhi’s eyes, though, his was no hero’s journey. In fact, he writes, “the more I reflect and look back on the past, the more vividly do I feel my limitations.” Instead, he said he saw his own journey simply as a paradigm of the journey we all travel toward whatever we may hope might be true self-realization: harmony, awareness, peace, or, in Gandhi’s words, seeing God face to face, or attaining Moksha, the Hindu state of bliss, release from the cycle of rebirth.
Yet, Gandhi warns against our dwelling on that cosmic sort of end. It can needlessly feed our ego, he says, and distract us from the more pedestrian work of discovering what he calls the “relative truths” that guide our lives. They, he says, “must be my beacon, my shield and buckler.”
The seeker after truth, he adds, “should be humbler than the dust. The world crushes the dust under its feet, but the seeker after truth should so humble himself that even the dust could crush him. Only then, and not till then, will he have a glimpse of truth.”
What Gandhi is raising up here is not an end but a process. Seek the truth in every encounter, he says. Let your life teach you. Take what you learn seriously, but don’t take it as final. Let each experience, each experiment shape your understanding. Key to humility is being wary of presumption. Perhaps it’s better to understand what we bring to an encounter as hypothesis, something we are testing, treating as true – faking it, in a sense – until experience confirms or disconfirms what we have come to believe.
Robert Fulghum’s story that you heard Bob read earlier has a heartbreaking episode at the center of it – the man with terminal cancer who died without telling anyone he was sick. Fulghum links it in a clever way with the children’s game of hide-and-go-seek happening outside his window and the boy who, he says, “hid too well.”
Have you ever known anyone who hid too well? The story couldn’t help bring to mind the man I told you about earlier who I met on the heart surgical floor during my chaplaincy training. I don’t know if he was hiding, but it sure looked to me as if he hadn’t been found. There is, as Fulghum puts it, a grown-up version of hide-and-go-seek that we don’t talk about much. It has to do with wanting to hide, needing to be sought, and being confused about being found.
Like the doctor in Fulghum’s story, we frame it as being considerate, but there’s also a darker side to that: a fear that we will be thought lesser of or we’ll think lesser of ourselves if we reveal ourselves. There is an image – well, let’s be honest, a fiction – that we cultivate to project the appearance that we’re in control, that we have it all together. So, even if we’re not OK, we strive mightily to maintain that image of control. I’m just fine. No problem.
How does this happen? It seems like the game begins in early adulthood when we scatter to the four winds, and work hard to develop that bullet-proof public persona that is so polished that no one will know what’s inside. We don’t actually frame it quite so grimly, but that’s its net effect.
Of course, the truth is that’s not what we want, not by a long shot. What we want is to be known, what we want is love and connection of all kinds. But we fear that who we are, who we really are might not be acceptable to those people who we want to connect with. So, we hide in plain sight and hope that maybe they’ll seek us, or at least they’ll let us hang out with them. If we’re lucky we do get found – really found – by people who not only accept but cherish us. But others of us are burrowed deep in the leaf pile, secure that our true self is safe: safe from disapproval, safe from abuse, safe from shame.
I get it. I understand why we go there. But, oh my, at such a cost. Maybe there’s another way. Maybe there’s a way that opens the door a crack and admits the possibility of opening further.
And it brings us back to our topic today: a way of getting found. It begins, once again, with giving ourselves to something until we find ourselves in it. In order to make a change we need to put ourselves into a place where change can happen.
It’s something like Robert Fulghum’s game of sardines. Instead of scattering, waiting to be found, we align with the ones we seek. Even when it’s uncomfortable at first, we err on the side of building relationship. We may not be sure at first if this connection is going to work, but we stick with it. We fake it in the hope that in time we will make it, that we will create lasting connections that offer a way for us to enter fully into the picture.
There’s no guarantee that any particular connection will work, or will fulfill our initial hopes for it. But at a minimum it gives us practice and at best we create a new node in the web of relationships that supports us.
This applies not only to new people we meet, but even to those who are closest to us. We all experience frustrations with parents, children, partners, siblings and friends, and sometimes we find ourselves in destructive patterns that tear at those vital links in our life.
The same strategy applies. We stay connected, stay in the game. Even if in the moment it feels inauthentic, we affirm how we care. Yeah, OK, we fake it a bit until we have reconnected with the authentic feeling within us.
This is part of what we here can give each other: permission to shift the game from hide-and-go-seek to sardines, to acknowledge that in one way or another we are all at sea struggling to come to terms with that on which we set our hearts.
So, friends, olly-olly-oxen free! Let go of the fears that have kept you hidden away. Come in from wherever you are. It’s a new game and you’re part of it. Get found. Lay claim to your truth. Plant your flag. And share your vision, your wisdom with us that we may each be enriched.