The Urge to Fix

Sarah Richards
April 2, 2017

The Urge to Fix

I dug and dug
Deeper into the earth

Looking for blue heaven
Choking always

On piles of dust rising

Then once
At midnight
I slipped

And fell into the sky

I’ve been meditating on this poem, “Falling into the Sky”[i] this week. It captures, for me, a truth about transformation—it can’t be forced. Which is deeply frustrating for me, and those like me who like to identify a problem and fix it: voila! Transformation from flawed to perfection. This may work with inanimate objects, when one is a skilled craftsperson, but what about when we’re talking about transformation of a person, an institution, a human system? Have any of you identified a problem in a person you love very much, and because you love them very much, you set to “helping” them fix it? Or have you been the person who was being “helped”? How did that work out? We might know better from experience, but the urge to fix is so very strong—I know I’ve mentioned before one of the ground rules of Peer Discernment Groups, where people are trained to listen, and ask open, honest questions to the one who is discerning:

“No fixing, saving, advising or correcting each other. This is one of the hardest guidelines for those of us in the “helping professions.” And it is vital to welcoming the soul, to making space for the inner teacher.[ii]

This making space—resisting the urge to fix is difficult. And at least in my experience, it’s very difficult even you’re trying to fix yourself, the one person you can control. Although I have lots of more recent examples, here’s a story from my previous life in academia. Years ago, after finishing my field research, after months of trying, I found myself unable to make myself write up all my notes into a dissertation. So I went to a therapist to help me with time management. If she could tell me how to stop procrastinating and use my time efficiently, voila! I’d be done in no time. You know I was genuinely surprised to discover—very gradually—that it wasn’t as simple as a time management issue. I needed to stop digging at that particular hole, make some space and examine more carefully the heaven I was seeking.

So then, is transformation, especially personal transformation, just a matter of chance, of slipping and falling into the sky? To the contrary, I would argue that transformation of the self, or soul, takes attention, intention, patience, and effort… it also takes creativity and imagination. Did anyone else get the chance to visit the Justice Fleet Mobile Museum at SIU last week? This was an extraordinary interactive public art project focused on Forgiveness. The brainchild of Dr. Amber Johnson at St. Louis University, this is one of four planned museums on wheels that, to quote their website:

venture into various neighborhoods to engage community members in discussions about implicit and explicit bias, social justice, and communal healing through intergroup dialogueplay, and art activism. The first truck in production [which debuted on campus]… engages community members in a dialogue about radical forgiveness—the profound notion that we don’t have to live with fear, pain, hostility, or injustice because we have control over the way we perceive, understand, and act. Radical forgiveness is a fluid and deliberate process that allows us to heal the wounds from injustice.[iii]

Museum visitors were invited to read, ponder and discuss signs about Radical Forgiveness: offering forgiveness for both selfless (creates empathy) and selfish reasons (frees us from debilitating hatred, and burdens of the past); common misperceptions of forgiveness (like “Forgiving Doesn’t Absolve. Forgiveness does not mean letting yourself or someone else off the hook. For every action, there are consequences.;”; and the steps of forgiveness: understand, feel, heal, recall, let go.[iv] The final part of the museum visit was to make art in response to the experience, art that will be arranged together like a patchwork quilt or mosaic. While I was there, I listened to students talk about forgiving others, and the resistance to forgiving others. I looked at all the small paintings with myriad messages, and I remembered a sermon the minister of my home church gave once about the most important five words we can say: “I’m sorry, please forgive me.” When have you asked for forgiveness? When has someone asked you to forgive? How have the experiences transformed you, and your relationships?

Radical forgiveness is one way of making space, of putting down the shovel and opening oneself to transformation. It’s a big risk, obviously. But this is something we need to do as Unitarian Universalists, especially now. This week, the President of the Unitarian Universalist Association, Rev. Peter Morales, resigned. The immediate cause was a controversy over racial discrimination in leadership hiring, the underlying cause was the long history of white privilege embedded in the UUA, and in Unitarian Universalism as a whole. A detailing of the many missed opportunities to fully welcome people of color as members, clergy, and professional staff can be found in recent volumes like The Arc of the Universe is Long, and Darkening the Doorways, and in curricula like Journey Toward Wholeness, in many, many articles and sermons, so I won’t go into it here. The statistic that gives me pause is that according to 2015 UUA census data, 83% of the association’s service workers—the lowest paid category– are people of color, and 86% of Executive and First Management levels are white[v]. White privilege is a real threat to our living tradition, what are we doing, what can we do to make a difference? Kenny Wiley, Senior editor at UU World magazine and a leader in Black Lives of UU (BLUU) posted a call to action on social media to congregations from a network of UUs of color and white UUs, religious educators and lay leaders. We are called to “shift worship programming to hold a Sunday morning worship and/or teach-in on racism and white supremacy” on either April 30 or May 7. I’m going to quote from the post at length, because I know that not everyone is on social media, or you may not have seen my repost on my Facebook page.

Over the past few weeks, many have been responding to calls by UUs of color to look critically *within* our faith communities–including hiring practices, power brokers, and cultural habits–for the ways racism, sexism, and supremacy live….

Why “white supremacy” as the term here? It conjures up images of hoods and mobs. Here, we mean: “White supremacy as a set of institutional assumptions and practices, often operating unconsciously, that tend to benefit white people and exclude people of color.”
In 2017, actual “white supremacists” are not required in order to uphold white supremacist culture. Building a faith full of people who understand that key distinction is essential as we work toward a more just society in difficult political times…

Why change your worship plan? Many of us work in congregations, and know that such shifts require work and can challenge our comfort levels. That’s precisely why we feel it’s important. We believe that hundreds of UU churches signaling to their own members and to the larger community that “our faith takes racism seriously, especially within our own walls” will push our faith toward the beloved community we all seek.

Whether your UU community has dozens of members and children of color, or just about everyone is white, the commitment to combat white supremacy must be strong and urgent. Battling racism in its many forms is not easy. Everyone has to start somewhere, and it takes a commitment to disrupt business as usual.[vi]

When I posted this call to FB, I received commitments from some CUF folks, and if you’d like to be involved, please let me know—we’re planning our Sunday Service/teach in for May 7. We’ll be joining hundreds of congregations and thousands of people doing the same. It is vital work for Carbondale Unitarian Fellowship, and for Unitarian Universalism, AND it is not sufficient.

We can’t do one thing – have a teach in, make a few leadership hires of POC, of marginalized populations and say, voila! We need to do more than fix this problem, we need transformation of our system, of our beloved living tradition to embody its cherished principles. We who are white need to ask for forgiveness, remembering that forgiveness doesn’t absolve responsibility for our actions – and inactions. We need to ask for forgiveness, and keep paying attention, keep doing the work, remembering that forgiveness is a fluid process. We white people of privilege need to resist the urge to fix, lay down the shovel, ask for forgiveness, listen, learn, keep paying attention if we –along with UUs of color—are to be a community of transformation.

Amen.

[i] Breeden, David. “Falling into the Sky” in Falling Into the Sky: A Meditation Anthology, Abhi Janamanchi & Abhimanyu Janamanchi, eds. Boston: Skinner House Books, 2013, p.1.

[ii] Palmer, Parker J. and Megan Scribner. The Courage to Teach Guidelines for Reflection and Renewal. John Wiley & Sons, 2007, p. 18.

[iii] https://www.thejusticefleet.com/ accessed 4/1/17.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] https://uuchristinarivera.wordpress.com/2017/03/27/on-being-a-good-fit-for-the-uua/ accessed 3/28/17.

[vi] https://www.facebook.com/kennywiley/posts/10158368301800545 accessed 3/29/17.