Staying Awake

Sarah Richards
January 29, 2017

Staying Awake

Yesterday morning, I received a text from my sister, a cartoon without any accompanying comment. It’s by New Yorker cartoonist David Sipress. It shows a couple walking down a street, and one says to the other, “My desire to be well-informed is currently at odds with my desire to remain sane.” Does that resonate with anyone here? We liberal religious, defenders of the Free Church are facing this dilemma every day. And it’s not only in the information overload from all of the various media we consume. It’s also the continual calls to action that vie for our attention every waking moment. We may agree with the statement, “if you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention,” but it is not necessarily healthy or productive to sustain a high level of outrage over days and weeks, months and years. The UUA-UUSC Declaration of Conscience that was read and distributed last week – and that many of us have signed online, concludes with this vow: As people of conscience, we declare our commitment to translate our values into action as we stand on the side of love with the most vulnerable among us.

How shall we, people of conscience, members of a community of prophecy, stay well-informed and translate our values into action for the long haul? I know that some of us are veteran social justice activists, some are relatively new to taking action, most of us are somewhere in between. No matter where we are on that spectrum, we all have much to share with each other in this journey on the side of love. This morning, I invite us all to take a cue from the one little pig and consider the nourishing benefits of making time for reflection.

I first encountered the concept of the action – reflection model in my years teaching applied social science. More recently, I saw it was used The New UU membership class curriculum – some of you might remember it. It’s pretty simple: the relationship between action and reflection is an on-going interaction, a kind of feedback loop. For example, you write a letter to a government official about a particular issue. You reflect upon that action, its impact on you, its potential impact on the official’s decision, and other factors. From this reflection, you decide to call the official, to write another letter to another official, or to call inviting friends to write letters, or maybe an entirely different action regarding that issue, or maybe a combination of actions. Following that, you take time to reflect again, maybe on your own, maybe with others who are working on the same issue, sharing your thoughts about what went right, what didn’t achieve what you’d hoped, how you might learn from the lessons of previous actions. The reflection part of the action-reflection model is not just to do better, but to be better, it contributes to internal personal development.

When Jan and I were talking about this spiral of action-reflection interaction, she mentioned a related concept from a book she was reading, by Buddhist author and teacher Thubten Chodron. Chodron’s focus is on absorbing the Dharma teachings of Buddhism rather than working for justice, but her explanation of the cyclic learning – thinking – meditation approach is broadly applicable.

“Learning about the teachings is the first step, but it’s not sufficient for gaining realizations. We need to think about what we heard to cultivate a correct understanding. In other words, we activate our reasoning capabilities to see if the teachings hold up to intelligent scrutiny, and we apply the teachings to our lives to see if they explain the world around us.”[i] Chodron goes on to explain that this reflection includes discussion with others to check and deepen one’s understanding. But in order to integrate this understanding, or wisdom, in daily life, there is another step: meditation. She says, “Integrating the teachings into our thoughts takes both practice and time. It doesn’t happen quickly or easily. There’s no shortcut to get around this process.”[ii] There is thus a logical order to the process of developing the mind: hearing and listening, critical reflecting, meditation. If our one little pig had added meditation after her reflections, she may have developed compassion for the wolf – and other animals to work towards an interspecies dialogue. Buddhist meditation is one way of integrating the wisdom gained from action and reflection into our way of being, as individuals, and as a covenanted community. What are additional ways we can attend to the internal and external processes of growth and change?

Activist Mirah Curzer gives us some relevant advice in her recent blog, “How to Stay Outraged Without Losing Your Mind.”[iii] Her first point is to periodically take a break from the incessant bombardment of awful news. Time spent focusing on people and activities outside of the political realm will prevent us from accepting assaults on civil and human rights, and statements of alternative reality as normal. This is critical for our sanity and also our existence and effectiveness as people of conscience.

Similarly, Curzer advises individuals to choose just one or two issues to work on, trusting that there are others who will be passionately addressing all of the many threats to democracy and humanity we face. She writes, “You can’t show up to every march and donate to every cause. You can’t write treatises on every issue and argue with every [person who disagrees] on your Facebook page. If you want to be effective on anything, pick an issue or two that matter most to you and fight for them. Let the others go.”[iv]

I think this point is applicable to this community as well, and finding the issues of highest priority to our congregation is one of the functions of our upcoming Listening Campaign.

Curzer’s third tip is to “make activism fun.” I love her declaration: “you don’t have to suffer to make a difference.”[v] I agree: this is NOT to say that activists haven’t suffered and even died to make change, and those martyrs are rightly honored and revered. That said, we will have to make sacrifices, but suffering is not required, and it’s not optimal for sustained justice work. Curzer says, “Don’t let anyone tell you that humor has no place in the movement, or that you aren’t allowed to be proud of your contribution, or that it’s unseemly to have fun while you’re doing serious work.”[vi] Those of us who participated in the Women’s March last weekend can attest to that truth.

Curzer’s last lesson is to “take care of the basics.”[vii] Here is where all of the self care activities – and I’d add spiritual practice – comes in. Exercise, eat and sleep well, see your health care providers for check ups, in short, remember your physical health is part of your mental and spiritual health. And also reflect– make time for private contemplation, talk with your therapist, your minister, your friends. There are many opportunities for these kinds of reflective discussions here at the Fellowship, both of the unstructured coffee hour/intergen potluck type, and the structured Roundtable Readers, Social Justice Group, Awakening Heart Dharma Group variety.

Friends, if we are going to keep our sanity along with our principles, our identity as a Free Church along with our open hearts and open minds, we must pace ourselves. We must take time to reflect on our actions, and act on our reflections, to integrate what we’ve learned into our daily life, and to be as intentional about self care as we are about fighting for the causes about which we care. If we are going to stay awake as a prophetic community over time, we need to take time to reflect, renew, and recharge for the long journey together.



[i] Chodron, Thubten. 2012. Don’t Believe Everything You Think: Living with Wisdom and Compassion. Boston: Snow Lion, pp. 23-24.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] (Mirah Curzer) accessed 1/26/17.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid.