Telling a New Story

Sarah Richards
November 13, 2016

Telling a New Story

What a week this has been. The denouement of rancorous campaigns – negative attack ads on every level, the dehumanizing of the opposition, ugliness that split families, communities, the country – it left us emotionally bruised and spiritually tired. And then results of the presidential election were…surprising – shocking even, for all voters, regardless of whom they voted for. Some of us are still reeling from the results, and searching for answers about what the heck happened. One way of looking at this psychic upheaval is that “President Trump” does not fit into the stories we’ve created about this country. We are looking for stories to explain what happened, to make sense of our surprise, to console and fortify us for the future. I’ve got some stories to share with you this morning that will not do all of those things…but my hope is that they will help us to move forward and give us fodder for understanding and action.

The first story is “Darmok.” Star Trek: Next Generation fans remember that episode? It’s one of my all-time favorites—the Enterprise crew encounters aliens—Tamarians–whose language confounds the universal translator. The alien captain beams Captain Picard down with him to a planet with a deadly monster – he says a lot of strange phrases like “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra” and “Temba, his arms wide.” Picard is very confused and suspicious and only after the alien captain is mortally wounded by the monster, does he realize that–spoiler alert!–the Tamarians speak solely through references to their cultural stories. The alien captain tried to communicate with Picard by re-enacting the legend of Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra[i].

I’m a fan but not a full-fledged Trekkie, so I haven’t looked at all of the probably hundreds of different interpretations of the Darmok story-within a story. One reason I like it so much is because it shows how much we humans rely on stories to make sense of the world and communicate with each other. We may falsely assume we’re communicating, when we’re drawing different meanings from the same stories. What are the stories of our country, of our region, of our community, of ourselves that we have heard and told, whose meanings we now realize are not universally shared as we thought?

James Luther Adams, the pre-eminent Unitarian Universalist theologian of the 20th century said that “Often at moments of crisis or at moments when we see something essentially human, we think of these stories.[ii]” By these stories, he was not referring to Star Trek, but to culturally familiar Biblical parables, like The Good Samaritan. [Some of you might remember we just told that story in the Time for All Ages last month.]

I quote from an article about Adams’ writings:
The power of a parable, Adams suggests, is not that it answers questions but that it reveals questions. …… “Parables are tales that tell what life is like, yet without telling us what we must do—for that we must decide for ourselves.” One of Adams’s favorites is an apocryphal tale about the Protestant reformer Martin Luther. When asked what he would do if the world were about to end, Luther replied, “I would go out and plant a tree.” Adams’s tragic sense and his faithfulness are woven together in this saying; a perfect parable, it asks us to judge our commitments, too.[iii]

What are the stories by which we judge our personal commitments as people of faith and principles?

We have a rich trove of stories from Hebrew and Christian scriptures to turn to for comfort and challenge, as Adams noted. We can also look to what William Murry calls “the sacred story for the religious humanist: the story of the long struggle of the human race for freedom—the story of the struggle for political as well as religious freedom.[iv]” He traces that theme through reform movements throughout centuries and across diverse world religions. “It is the story of the men and women who have worked for equal rights for people of color and for women and for people of all sexual orientations. The humanist story is the story of all those who have worked to make human life more truly free and therefore more fully human, and it is an ongoing story that each of us can still make as long as freedom is incomplete.[v]

James Luther Adams, a Christian UU, is absolutely part of that story of working to make human life truly free. Adams’ transformation of liberal religious theology from overly optimistic, even complacent to addressing the “uncomfortable” themes of evil, sacrifice, guilt, and tragedy comes out of his own story of being a student in Germany during the rise of the Third Reich. He wrote:

Let me put it autobiographically and say that in Nazi Germany I soon came to the question, “What is it in my preaching and my political action that would stop this?” . . . It is a liberal attitude to say that we keep ourselves informed and read the best papers on these matters, and perhaps join a voluntary association now and then. But to be involved with other people so that it costs and so that one exposes the evils of society . . . requires something like conversion, something more than an attitude. It requires a sense that there’s something wrong and I must be different from the way I have been.[vi]

What are the ways we are now, or we might be in the future, involved with other people so that it costs? What are the ways we must be different, as individuals and as a faith community from the way we have been?

I think we might adapt or borrow the concept of self differentiation from Family Systems theory in order to live what Adams sees as conversion, what activists today call being “woke” – the sense that there is something wrong and I must be different from the way I have been. Self differentiation is really complex, but a shorthand version has three components: self definition, self regulation, and staying connected. Defining one’s self includes being clear on one’s principles and beliefs. Self regulation is controlling one’s emotional reactions or “reactivity.” This does not mean suppressing emotions and being coldly logical; it’s more like mindfulness – you feel the feelings but don’t react out of them. Lastly, you stay connected. Even, or especially when there is conflict or discomfort, you resist the temptation to avoid or ignore. You try again. Self differentiation is not an endpoint, but a life-long practice. Not surprisingly, it involves gaining perspective on family stories from childhood about what kind of a person you are, and how you relate to others. It involves listening carefully to others’ stories, and the ones you tell about yourself to see the difference between what is said and what is actually done. And it is not only a process of individual self awareness and principled action. It applies to groups like families, and congregations.

As a religious movement, we Unitarian Universalists have defined our principles, and so has this Fellowship, in its vision, mission, and covenant. We are even in the midst of self-definition in the Building a Culture of Generosity Listening Circles right now. These are the values that can ground us in these days of post-election bewilderment. And how shall we control our reactivity? Well, what are the stories of how it’s been done in our history? How can we stay connected in the service of those principles, particularly those of justice, equity and compassion in human relations, and the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all?

I’m sure you’ve got some ideas there, here are just two: as individuals, we can wear safety pins to communicate that we are a “safe place” to those in our community who might be feeling especially vulnerable: Muslims, African Americans, LGBTQ folks, immigrants, Hispanics, people with disabilities. Jess Jobe alerted me to this practice, and she and Mary Campbell have safety pins for us to put on after the service.

As a faith community, we can be a visible presence at the Carbondale in Thanksgiving service on Tuesday night. Bethel AME is hosting the 20th annual interfaith gathering at 7pm. Staying connected to our Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Pagan, Jewish, Buddhist neighbors and friends is more important than ever. And the canned food and monetary donations will go to the Good Samaritan Ministries food pantry, homeless shelter and soup kitchen.

Friends, there are stories in us and around us–from the Bible to Star Trek to the family lore passed down generations–stories through which we can define ourselves, by which we can be challenged to control our emotions, to which we can commit ourselves to taking great risks to further freedom, and to fight what we know is unjust. May we commit together to tell new stories of courage from confusion, stories of gratitude from despair.

[i] accessed 11/12/16.
[ii] accessed 11/12/16.
[iii] ibid.
[iv] Murry, William R. “Humanistic Religious Naturalism” in Religious Humanism, vol. xlvi, no. 2, Spring 2016, p. 59.
[v] Ibid.