What We Do, Who We Are (text & audio)

Reading “Working Together,” by David Whyte


I have spoken in the past about the ways we are called to challenge one another to spiritual growth, and this is one marker of our status as a religious community. So, too, it is our work to support one another in times of tribulation and to celebrate with one another in times of joy. This kind of support is particularly useful in a religious context—It makes a difference when we receive support from our faith community.

For example, in the Dancing on the Edge of the Abyss class, we have been able to talk about ways that Unitarian Universalists faced with death might find comfort and meaning that are different from the more traditional religious perspectives. Secular support groups are deeply meaningful and essential for processing grief and finding connection, but they do not provide the opportunity for this kind of faith-focused support and reflection.

It is our work to support one another. A lovely sentiment, surely, but what does it mean in practice? A few weeks ago at a Pastoral Visitor training session, I overheard a snippet of conversation from one of the role-play groups:

The person playing a sad, upset congregant had been approached by the Pastoral Visitor, and said, “but why did you come up to talk to me?” and the PV said, “because that is what we do here, we care about each other.” Again, I was struck by the simplicity of the sentiment.

Because that is what we do.

This is a great example of the way what we do can become who we are. We’ve all heard the old adage, “actions speak louder than words,” but I tend to prefer the more ancient words of Lao-tze, because they are more nuanced, “Watch your thoughts; they become words. Watch your words; they become actions. Watch your actions; they become habit. Watch your habits; they become character. Watch your character; it becomes your destiny.”

It is much easier to care for one another on a regular run-of-the-mill Sunday morning than it is in a crisis or long-term difficulty. I know that many times we don’t say anything at all to a person we know and love, because we are just not sure what would be the “right thing.” I know I have been guilty of this more than once, and I’m a professional!

I spent the day yesterday at a conference called the Sacred Journey of Dementia, which brought together caregivers, professionals and people with memory-related diagnoses. One of the most poignant sharings I heard was part of the Early Memory Loss Collective’s panel discussion. The person said the most difficult thing is when you see someone quickly turn and cross the street to avoid talking to you. It’s not because they don’t care, it’s because they are afraid to say the wrong thing.

The LA Times recently published a wonderful article called “How Not to Say the Wrong Thing.” It outlines a simple and practical way to think about how we respond to a crisis in our community. They call it “the Ring Theory” and I think of it like the rings on a tree stump – a model of caring based on concentric circles. Imagine that the person with the crisis – whether it is emotional, financial, medical or legal – is in the center, the smallest ring. In the next ring is the person’s spouse, then children, closest friends, and so on, counting as many rings as you need to include everyone affected by the crisis.

After you’ve imagined this diagram, the rule is simple: dump out, comfort in. If you are speaking to anyone who is in a ring smaller than yours, your simple task is to offer support and comfort. If you need to express frustration, anger, sadness, fear or anything other than empathy and support, choose someone who is in a ring larger than yours. Dump out, comfort in. It is easy to get confused and worried, and this model gives us a simple reminder.

When something terrible happens to someone I care about, I feel sad, I feel upset, and I experience grief. But my grief is my own, and it isn’t the responsibility of the person in crisis to manage or alleviate my grief. That’s why I need to take it to some one in a larger circle than mine.

So, that is “how.” But we still haven’t talked about what is the “right” thing to say. I have been at hundreds of bedsides, sat with hundreds of individuals and families in medical crisis or experiencing trauma, and I’m here to tell you that this is one of those good news/bad news situations.

The bad news is that there is NOT a right thing to say when someone you love is in crisis.

But here’s the good news: There is NOT a right thing to say when someone you love is in crisis.

We want to be a comfort. We want to fix it. Ultimately, it is our greatest wish to end the suffering of a person we love. We want to stop the pain, cure the disease or fix the situation that is causing stress and pain. But since this is not possible, we try to say something calming or comforting – usually to make ourselves feel better. And remember, if I am trying to make myself feel better, I need to turn to an outer circle, not an inner one.

In the darkest moments, when people we know face the death of a child or loved one, the end of a relationship or any substantive loss, there is simply not a right thing to say.

When people tell you that your presence is enough, they are not lying or trying to make you feel better. They are telling you the truth. It is the only thing we have to offer. We apply our love to suffering.

Metta, or the application of love to suffering, is the sentiment expressed in the lovingkindness meditation that we sang earlier in the service. It is one of my most favorite things to sing – in fact, it was the closing meditation at the conference yesterday, because it is so simple and beautiful and effective. The words are not complicated, and the tune is easy to pick up. But the real power is in the slight difference between the three verses—we begin with “I,” then sing “you,” and finally “we.” This is a beautiful model to use in our everyday lives, as we internalize the practice of self-love, then love of those to whom we are close, and finally love to all beings.

Metta recognizes that all sentient beings are capable of feeling good or feeling bad, and given the opportunity will choose good. It can be described as caring for others, without judgment, and with no expectation of receiving anything in return. It is similar to the Greek word agape, meaning unconditional, self-sacrificing love.

For me, though, the closest comparison is empathy. Empathy is the ability to recognize emotions in another being—to share an emotional experience. When we practice metta, we are intentionally participating in active love – for self, for other, and for the unknown.

Each time I sing the meditation in a group, I am deeply touched by its simplicity and power – the universality of the language and practice. Beginning with yourself has almost become counter-intuitive in our culture, as we fight against the super-individualist social model that pits the good of the one against the good of many. But metta turns this model on its head and asks us to begin with “me” with the express intention of ending with “all.” I begin the meditation with myself not because I am selfish, but because I am responsible for my own well-being. Then my well-being is able to focus outward and impact the whole. It isn’t me for the sake of me, but me for the sake of us. “We shape our self to fit this world and by the world are shaped again.”

(step out of pulpit onto floor)

Blessing of Prayer Shawls

As strands of yarn, we come together from all directions to bless these shawls & lap robes, to expand our circle of caring beyond these walls.

From the East, the quiet breath of habit, sense memory and love

From the South the fire of inspiration, energy and passion

From the West, tears shed together in joy and in sorrow, tea grown cold as fingers flying warm

From the North, Earth nurturing, giving space together and a reason for wooly socks.

Wrap around us the tapestry of this, our beloved community, the variegated strands, the complicated patterns and the carefully knotted fringe… a garment woven, we rest in the circle created by our own hands, nurtured by each other and warming us all… the caring of men and women who know the beauty of the handmade gift, the heartfelt prayer and the gathered circle… as the loops of knit and purl are nothing without each other, two sides of a soft and fuzzy coin, so too, we gather

In this circle we gather.
In this circle we sing.
In this circle we care for one another.

And our caring extends outward to encircle those who cannot be with us in person, the warmth of this community wrapped around shoulders, warming knees grown cold with age or trouble.

We offer our blessings upon these symbols of our circle of caring.

This congregation is a “whole” – a community of memory and hope, pledged to care for and support one another – and we, in turn, impact the world around us. Beginning with the one, the individual who walks through the door, we form radiating circles of love that expand outward.

When we begin with compassion for ourselves, we allow ourselves to be human, which means that we acknowledge that we may not know the “right thing” to say, and that we know that our presence is sufficient. This community, I hope, is a place where we work to trust one another and share on a deeper level, which allows us to stick together when the going gets tough.

This is who we are:

We are a community that cares for one another.

We are a community that throws the door wide to welcome each other – and the stranger.

This is who we are.

This is what we do.

We care for each other.

May it be so.

Photo credit: © Marjanneke | Dreamstime Stock Photos & Stock Free Images