Curiosity, the Bad Kind

Three Curiosities, part 3

The first curiosity (HERE) manifests as love of learning. The second (HERE) manifests as empathy. The third is curiosities that do more harm than good.

3. The Curiosity We're Better Off Without

There are some things better not inquired into. Here's an example from Walt Whitman, and I'm not sure I agree with him, but I can see why he might say what he does. In a part of "Song of Myself," he writes:
And I say to mankind, Be not curious about God,
For I who am curious about each am not curious about God,
(No array of terms can say how much I am at peace about God and about death.)
I hear and behold God in every object, yet understand God not in the least,
Nor do I understand who there can be more wonderful than myself.
Why should I wish to see God better than this day?
I see something of God each hour of the twenty-four, and each moment then,
In the faces of men and women I see God, and in my own face in the glass,
I find letters from God dropt in the street, and every one is sign’d by God’s name,
And I leave them where they are, for I know that wheresoe’er I go,
Others will punctually come for ever and ever.
It seems to me that if he is looking at things and seeing God in all of them, then he is being curious. He's paying attention, which is the crux of curiosity.

But I can kind of see his point. If we're thinking of curiosity as wanting to know enduring truths, Whitman is saying we don't need to always be curious that way. Pay attention to what's right there in front of your face: the ephemeral rather than the forever. That's all the God you need to know about. You don't need to investigate and examine abstruse theologies and determine which one you think is true. The divine is not about amassing a list of true sentences you memorize. It's about finding letters from God everywhere, and leaving them as you find them. OK, I get that. I'm a person who has spent most of my life being curious about God -- curious about the concept of God, how it works, the different things the concept has meant through history. But, at the end of the day, Whitman is telling me, it's good to be able to set aside those intellectual inquiries and simply feel the holiness of the presence surrounding me right now.

Whatever your feeling about the propriety of curiosity about God, there is a type of curiosity that we just don't need. Being nosy, prying into business that isn't ours, chasing after gossip -- this is the sort of curiosity that doesn't do anybody any good. Here are some popular sayings that make the point:
  • "If it doesn't involve you, it shouldn't concern you."
  • “Everything in life is easier when you don't concern yourself with what everybody else is doing.”
  • “Don't worry about what I'm doing. Worry about why you're worried about what I'm doing.”
  • "Every time you feel yourself getting pulled into other people's nonsense, repeat these words: not my circus, not my monkeys."
People have privacy rights. We all need to have aspects of our lives that are off limits to public scrutiny.

The gossipy, prying kind of curiosity is usually in support of judgmentalism. That's what gossip is: the passing along of such information as supports and encourages a negative judgment about someone. The judgment of others reflects anxiety we feel about how others may be judging us -- (and how, remembering that "self" is "generalized other," as George Herbert Mead said, we judge ourselves). Trying to manage our anxiety by judging others, we thus perpetuate the anxiety. If you can remember Curiosity #2 -- use curiosity as a replacement for judgmentalism, not as a means for judging -- then you'll have an easier time letting go of the urge to pry.

And if your curiosity about someone else's private affairs really is totally nonjudgmental, then refer to Curiosity #1: the love of learning. The libraries and bookstores are full of more interesting and worthwhile things to read and learn about. You'll never get even a thousandth of the way through all the books worth reading. There are so many better ways to direct a love of learning -- and they don't disrupt relationships the way that invading privacy does.

Appreciate people. See them in their best light. Use curiosity to help with that, rather than to hinder it.
Bob fell off the wagon.
Susan lost her job.
Sally's Dan is flunking out.
That Keith is such a slob.

Sympathies and judgment
Served up over tea.
So nice to not have those folks' faults, but
What do they say of me?

So nice to not have faults like those
Except I fear I do.
I share in all those named above
And several others too.

Anxiety is thus sustained,
Throughout the system felt.
Someone, perhaps, must do that job,
But maybe someone else.
* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of "Three Curiosities"
See also:
Part 1: Curiosity and the Love of Learning
Part 2: More Curiosity, Less Judgment


More Curiosity, Less Judgment

Three Curiosities, part 2

The first curiosity (HERE) manifests as love of learning. The second manifests as empathy.

2. Curiosity as Antidote to Judgmentalism

There's a kind of curiosity that is paying attention particularly to other people -- the living, breathing ones with whom you interact -- and being curious about them -- their feelings and needs. This is the kind of curiosity that the business consultants are talking about when they come in to teach about being curious. They aren't recommending that workers spend more time watching documentaries or reading about the House of Plantagenet. They're saying be curious instead of judgmental about the people around you: co-workers, and clients or customers -- and curious about yourself.

This is indeed a powerful use of curiosity.
"When you’re curious, you forget to be afraid. When you’re curious, you’re less attached to your ego and getting things right. When you’re curious, you’re open to new ideas and possibilities." (Sandra Possing)
Become the brilliant detective of your own life!

The opposite of this sort of curiosity is judging.
"When you default to judging things, you contract. You shut yourself off to the limitless possibilities all around you. It may feel good temporarily, because it makes you feel superior, which feeds the ego. But, in the long run it just breeds negativity." (Sandra Possing)
A judging mind obscures a broader, more realistic picture of self and others. This leads to greater emotional suffering in the form of low self-esteem, anxiety, irritability, and depression.
"Unfortunately, negative evaluation of self and others is quite pervasive in our culture here in the United States; for many, it’s their default way of relating to the world. But, the good news is that, with some practice, it’s possible to shift thought patterns in a more positive and rational direction, by cultivating more curiosity, rather than judgment." (Kim Pratt)
Of course, being discerning, thoughtful, reflective, and wise are good things. Judgmentalism, however, is the prioritizing of evaluation -- good or bad, better or worse, liked or disliked -- over open presence to and acceptance of what is.

On occasion, some evaluation is called for, but these occasions are a lot rarer than we seem to think. Living in "should" instead of "is" is a recipe for discontent. Curiosity, on the other hand, imparts the clarity of a more rational view and fosters inner peace and better emotional and interpersonal functioning. Curiosity helps us tap into compassion and kindness -- for oneself and others. When we have greater understanding and compassion, we're
"we’re smarter human beings that can take more skillful internal (self-talk) and external action." (Kim Pratt)
In fact, you won't even learn very much about the House of Plantagenet if your main focus is on blaming Henry VI instead of understanding the historical forces at work.

So here's a good exercise for moving out of judgment into curiosity. At the end of the day, write down the most judgmental thought you had that day. The write some related more curious thoughts about that.

Suppose you found yourself self-judging: "I'm not smart enough to do well on that exam." Write that down. Then think of some ways to be curious about that subject. "I wonder what will actually happen when I take the test. I wonder what I'll learn from preparing for this exam. Where did my drop in confidence come from? What factors help me feel more confident? What are some study and preparation strategies I could look into?"

Or suppose you saw a Mom who brought her kids to story time at the library, and while the other parents there were engaging with the story along with their kids, this one was off to the side looking at her phone. Suppose you had the judgmental thought: "Look at her! She's not even paying attention to her kids! What's so important on her phone that she has to look at it right this second?" Write that down. Then think of some ways to be curious about that subject. "Could she be waiting for an important email from a family member or friend? Is she using he phone to search for a new job? Did she have an incredibly rough morning, and just needs to zone out for a few minutes while her kids are in a safe environment? Maybe she talked over with her kids that it was time for them to exercise just a little bit of their own responsibility for paying attention by themselves. Is it any of my business if she's looking at a gossip website or texting her friends?"

The point here is not to satisfy the curiosity, but to merely think of possible explanations. Perhaps you've heard the slogan, "Assume best possible motive." That's an excellent way to approach people and situations. The problem is that we're often not very good at doing it. I don't mean that we forget to assume best possible motive, I mean that our imaginations get so clouded over by judgment that even the best possible motive that we can imagine isn't a very good motive. In order to assume better possible motives, we have to be able to imagine better possible motives -- and that requires exercising and strengthening our imagination. Doing this exercise at the end of every day for a month will help expand your capacity to imagine reasonable explanations for why good people would behave in the ways that you had an impulse to judge.

Every time a feeling of annoyance, irritation, impatience, or anger arises, right there, I've got two questions to be curious about:
  1. About the person that is the immediate trigger of my feeling, what conditions would lead a person to act that way -- and, in those conditions, what are they feeling and needing?
  2. What's going on in me that would cause me to have the reaction I'm having?
When judgmentalism catches you, imagining possible answers to these two questions is typically enough to open you to a more rational, peaceful perspective. Often, the first step of an investigation is to imagine possible answers to the question. You don't need to reach satisfaction that you've ascertained the truth of the matter -- but you do need curiosity to spur you to this first step.

Next: The Curiosity We're Better Off Without

* * *
This is part 2 of 3 of "Three Curiosities"
See next: Part 3: Curiosity, the Bad Kind
See also: Part 1: Curiosity and the Love of Learning


Curiosity and the Love of Learning

Three Curiosities, part 1

Curiosity killed the cat, the saying goes. Shakespeare didn’t say that. In Much Ado about Nothing, there’s a line that care killed a cat – meaning worry or sorrow. The earliest known appearance of the phrase "curiosity killed a cat," replacing Shakespeare's "care" with "curiosity," is in an 1868 newspaper. It must have been in use before then, since by 1873 “curiosity killed the cat” was included in a handbook of proverbs.

The image conjured up is of a cat – a naturally curious animal – investigating something and getting into fatal trouble from messing around in something better left alone. The idea is to warn us about dangers of unnecessary investigation or experimentation. Leave well enough alone. But that’s often not an option. Life is ever moving on, and keeping up with it means investigating.

By the 20th-century, it seems some folks were getting tired of being warned against investigation and experimentation. A newspaper in 1905 added a phrase: “Curiosity killed a cat, but it came back.” The cat, you see, is such a useful metaphor because not only is it a animal whose curiosity is particularly obvious to humans, but it is also said to have nine lives – giving proponents this natural rejoinder: it may have been killed, but it comes back anyway.

It wasn’t until 1912 that the earliest know inclusion of the word “satisfaction” appears: “Curiosity killed the cat, but satisfaction brought it back.” The new proverb is a push-back against the “leave well enough alone” argument. There may be risks from investigating into the unknown, but the satisfaction of finding out new things is so powerful that it will resurrect the dead.

And indeed curiosity does make us feel alive, resurrected from the walking death of not investigating what’s going on, or, anything.

Curiosity has been the subject of a lot of psychology research lately. We’re confirming that curiosity makes the mind active instead of passive, makes us observant of new ideas, opens up new worlds and possibilities, and brings excitement into life. Curiosity might kill you – but you won’t die bored.

And, anyway, as best as we can determine, the incurious also die – and probably at about the same average age. Possibly younger, on the principle that active engaged people are healthier, though that hasn't been established.

The business world seems to have started paying attention to the virtue of curiosity. A popular book a couple years ago was called The Power of Curiosity: How to Have Real Conversations that create Collaboration, Innovation and Understanding. And I discovered that there is now such a thing as "The Curiosity Institute" which consults with businesses to help workers improve communication skills by reducing reactivity and increasing engagement through: curiosity.

So that’s great. Yay for curiosity. As Bill Maher said, “Curious people are interesting people; I wonder why that is.”

In my own wonderings, it seems to me there are three kinds of curiosity to look at.

1. Love of Learning

First, there’s simply loving to learn. Wanting to know stuff. These are the folks who read nonfiction books voraciously and magazines like Scientific American. They go to museums. Their taste in films runs toward the documentaries. They are curious to know about medieval Chinese history, or the life and times of Sigmund Freud, or the basis of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle or how quantum entanglement works, or why people are having less sex these days. They just want to know.

I can relate to that. I was a guy who would not stop going to school – I just loved sitting in graduate seminars, doing the reading, hashing over sophisticated concepts. I didn’t stop going to school until I was well into my 30s and had five college degrees in four different fields. I also had, by that time, an 11-year-old daughter and a 9-year-old son, and really couldn’t put off any longer that curiously unreal-to-me world that people insist on calling “the real world.” And even that wasn’t the end of it, because I went back to seminary in my 40s – to learn some more interesting stuff.

There are a couple of pitfalls in this sort of pursuit of knowledge, but in my experience falling into either is relatively uncommon. The first is the danger of merely amassing factoids. The goal of education and learning, of course, is not merely to be able to recite long lists of tidbits of information, or even to become a champion of trivial pursuit or quiz shows. The point of the information is the meaning made of it – the integrating the separate factoids together into an overall, more-or-less coherent, yet very detailed, sense of how things are. And in my experience, this is indeed what people who really want to know stuff do: they but it together in meaning-making ways.

The second pitfall of loving to know stuff is the lure of thinking that you do. If you become certain that what you’ve found out is the permanent truth, and now that you know it, you will never have to revise that knowledge – that’s a problem. What begins in curiosity leads to knowledge, which then kills the curiosity. But curiosity shouldn’t be like hunger. The aim of hunger of is to get you to eat so you won’t be hungry anymore. The aim of curiosity is not so you find out stuff and aren’t curious anymore. The true aim of curiosity is to always be learning, but never knowing -- full of possible explanations but always looking for new ways to understand anything, or new nuances to add to one’s understanding – always holding what has been learned as a maybe-useful-maybe-not tool for approaching what is unique in the given situation.

Knowledge can become an excuse to not pay attention. You say, “I had a botany class, I know about oak trees, that’s an oak tree, don’t need to look at it any further. I know what needs to be known – I’ve got my category for the object, and don’t need to investigate this object.” The true botanist, instead, uses knowledge of oak trees to frame and focus the way she looks and curiously investigates the particular uniqueness of the oak tree in front of her.

If we use knowledge of general truths as an escape from curiously engaging with the unique particulars we face, that’s a pitfall. Paying attention to the unique particulars of the situation you’re in right then, right there is the segue into the second kind of curiosity.

Next: Curiosity #2

This is part 1 of 3 of "Three Curiosities"
See next: Part 2: More Curiosity, Less Judgment
Part 3: Curiosity, the Bad Kind


Thanksgiving: A Parliamentary Tale


Religion is stories, and music, enacted in ritual.
Our ancestors gathered around campfires.
There would be drumming and dancing, chanting or singing.
And there would be story-telling.
The stories helped them make sense of themselves.
The stories told the people’s history.
They would tell of how the world came to be, and how the plants and animals came to be, and how they themselves, the people, came to be.
They didn’t know how the world, and life, came to be so they guessed, using imagination to fashion a tale that seemed to them credible.
We do the same thing today.
Our story today says that there was a singularity 14 billion years ago that expanded into the universe as we know it.
Our story today is continually revised by the results of experiments that we designed for the purpose of learning to revise in our story.
Our story today has a lot more math in it.
But our story, like the ones our first story-telling ancestors told, has, at its heart, mystery.
We don’t know what made the singularity happen, and our early ancestors didn’t know what force had brought forth the soil, mountains, rivers, sun, moon, stars, plants, animals – and themselves.
It all began in mystery.
And then it unfolded.
When the unfolding involved something that didn’t seem to fit what people could do, what animals or plants could do, what earth or sky or wind or fire or water could do, the story-teller brought another character into the story – with an agency that could do what otherwise couldn’t be done.
We might translate the name of that character as spirit, or Great Spirit.
It was something mysterious, and there were a lot of very different stories about it, but what the stories had in common was: it knew things and wanted things.
It had intentions.
How else could mountains, or people, come to be, except through the intention of some creative force?
(There is an answer to that question. But there’s a lot of math in it.)
The stories and the music and the dance were done in a ritualized way – or were done together with ritual.
These were ways, maybe, our ancestors sought to influence the mystery that had powers, knowledge, and desires.
They were ways to help them feel connected to this mystery with powers and intentions.
It helped them be at peace with the mystery they could not control or influence.
We continue today to gather – have music, a little ritual, and tell stories about where we come from, to help us know who we are.
Different religions have different stories, different rituals, different moral codes, and play different music.
They aren’t so much different paths all headed up the same mountain as different paths headed up different mountains.
But they are all religions – which means they have stories, music, and ritual to convey a sense of who we are, what is our place in the family of things, what is ours to do, what we are here to try to be.
Who are we? Where do we come from? And why do we share in practices of Thanksgiving?
Therefore, let the ritual story of Thanksgiving be told.
And because Unitarians are a story-revising people, continually updating our story in light of new evidence, new understandings, and new sensibilities, the floor will be open to amendments as we go.


STORYTELLER: Our story. The Pilgrims were not the first people to land on the shores of New England. The area was first discovered in 1524 by Giovanni de Verrazzano, who explored the Atlantic Coast from Florida to New Brunswick.

[Delegate 1 raises hand]

CHAIR: The chair recognizes the delegate from _______

DELEGATE 1: Mister Chair, I move to amend. Giovanni de Verrazzano did not discover New England. There were people already here. Say instead, “Verrazzano was the first European to explore the Atantic Coast.”

CHAIR: Those in favor of incorporating the amendment, raise your Order of Service. . . . The amendment is incorporated.

STORYTELLER: Let’s back up further, then, and say who did discover this region. This region between the Atlantic Ocean and the Delaware River, was discovered by peoples who came over the Bering land bridge about 16 thousand years ago. As they split into branches and spread across the continent, one of the branches of these people discovered our region about 14 or 15 thousand years ago.

[Delegate 2 raises hand]

CHAIR: The chair recognizes the delegate from _____.

DELEGATE 2: Mister Chair, move to amend.
These people did not discover this region either. There were animals already here. I might mention in particular the Carolina Parakeet, extinct since 1918. I’d nominate them for discoverers of our region.

CHAIR: Perhaps we should remove the word “discover” altogether?

DELEGATE 2: Yes, that’s the amendment I propose.

CHAIR: All in favor of striking the word discover, raise your Order of Service. . . . The amendment is incorporated.

STORYTELLER: As they split into branches and spread across the continent, one of the branches, about 14 or 15 thousand years ago, became the first humans to inhabit our region.
Then in 1524, Giovanni de Verrazzano explored this area.
John Cabot and Jacques Cartier also charted in the vicinity.
In 1609, Henry Hudson made his way up what we call the Hudson River.
These explorers sometimes captured and enslaved natives – and they brought diseases.
Europeans had developed immunity to these diseases, but the natives had not.
The Wampanoag, for instance, in 1600 numbered 50,000 to 100,000, occupying 69 villages scattered throughout the region that is now southeastern Massachusetts and eastern Rhode Island.
The plague from Europe killed up to two-thirds of them.
Many also were captured and sold as slaves.
In 1614, a Wampanoag boy named Tisquantum was abducted from his village, Patuxet.
Tisquantum was sold as a slave in Spain, then escaped to England.
After several years, Tisquantum was able to get back to Turtle Island (what we call North America).
When he returned to his village, he discovered there were no other surviving Patuxet -- the rest were either killed in battle or died of disease brought from Europe.
In 1620, the Mayflower landed at Plymouth rock bringing 102 Pilgrims.

[Delegate 3 raises hand]

CHAIR: The chair recognizes the delegate from ________

DELEGATE 3: Mister Chair, point of factual clarification.
Did these people call themselves “Pilgrims”?

CHAIR: Fact checker?

FACT CHECKER: They did not. Not until the 20th-century did Pilgrim come to refer to the people who came over on the Mayflower. They called themselves “Saints”.

DELEGATE 3: It’s disrespectful to them to call them something they didn’t call themselves. I move we call them Saints.

[Delegate 4 raises hand]

CHAIR: The chair recognizes the delegate from ________.

DELEGATE 4: Mister Chair, I oppose this amendment.
It may be disrespectful to them to call them Pilgrims, but it’s disrespectful to us to call them “saints” – because we’re pretty sure they weren’t.

CHAIR: Fact checker, was there some other name?

FACT CHECKER: They were Puritans.

CHAIR: Will the delegate accept an amendment to the amendment, to call them Puritans.

DELEGATE 3: I will.

CHAIR: The amendment is to call the people on the Mayflower “Puritans.” All in favor, raise your Order of Service . . . the amendment is incorporated.

STORYTELLER: These . . . Puritans settled in an area that was once Patuxet, the Wampanoag village abandoned because of the plague.
The English did not see any Wampanoag that first winter at all.
They only caught a rare glimpse of a fleeting shadow of the land's inhabitants until March 1621 when Samoset, a Monhegan from Maine, came to the village.
The next day, Samoset returned with Tisquantum.
Tisquantum had learned English during his abduction, so he could talk to the settlers and serve as a translator.
Tisquantum showed them how to plant corn, fish and gather berries and nuts.
The crop seeds the colonists had brought with them failed, so without Tisquantum – also called Squanto -- help, there probably wouldn’t have been a harvest to celebrate that fall.

[Delegate 5 raises hand]

CHAIR: The chair recognizes the delegate from _____

DELEGATE 5: Mister Chair, I move to include what the Puritans wore.

CHAIR: Which was?

DELEGATE 5: Beats me. I was wanting to find out!

CHAIR: Fact man?

FACT CHECKER: The Puritan colonists did not wear black, large hats with buckles on them, nor buckled shoes.
The 19th-century artists who painted them that way did so because they associated black clothing and buckles with being old-fashioned.
Actually, their attire was bright and cheerful.

DELEGATE 5: I move to include that information in the record.

CHAIR: All in favor raise your Order of Service . . . The information is incorporated. Pick up from there.

STORYTELLER: The harvest celebration on 1621 was not a solemn religious observance.
It was a three-day festival that included drinking, gambling, athletic games, and even target shooting with English muskets -- a not-so-subtle way to warn the indigenous peoples that these colonists could shoot them.
The Wampanoag chief, Massasoit, and 90 warriors made their way to the settlement in response to the sounds of the gunfire.
They thought the colonists were under attack, so they came prepared for battle to help defend the colonists.
The Wampanoag were probably not invited, and the settlers were probably rather nervous having them around.

[Delegate 6 raises hand]

CHAIR: The chair recognizes the delegate from _____.

DELEGATE 6: Mister Chair, I have a number of questions, and I move to go into Q&A format.

CHAIR: That’s quite and extraordinary parliamentary procedure.

DELEGATE 6: This is quite an extraordinary story.

CHAIR: Very well, there’s a move to suspend the rules for a round of Q&A. All in favor, raise your Order of Service. . . . The motion carries. The delegate may begin questioning.

DELEGATE 6: We’ve heard what the Puritans wore. What did the Wampanoag wear.

STORYTELLER: They were not wearing what is often pictured: woven blankets on their shoulders and large, feathered headdresses.
They wore breechcloth with leggings -- and perhaps one or two feathers in their hair in the back.

DELEGATE 6: How long did the Wampanoag stay?

STORYTELLER: The Wampanoag stayed for three days, during the course of which they contributed a large portion – perhaps most – of the food.

DELEGATE 6: Was the 1621 harvest celebration in November?

STORYTELLER: November would have been much too late.
It was some time between late September and the middle of October.

DELEGATE 6: So the first Thanksgiving, then, was in September or October?

STORYTELLER: The colonists celebrating in 1621 did not call their event "Thanksgiving."
For them, “thanksgiving” was a day of fasting – and this was a feast -- the opposite of their thanksgiving observance.
Calling any event involving white settlers in North America "the first Thanksgiving" overlooks the fact that, for thousands of years before Europeans arrived, Indigenous people throughout Turtle Island (North America) celebrated seasons of Thanksgiving.
'Thanksgiving' is a very ancient concept to the first nations of this continent.
The 1621 celebration was a one-off that was not repeated -- and, in any case, wasn't thought of as a "Thanksgiving."

DELEGATE 6: Last question: What is the source of the misinformation we about the 1621 harvest celebration?

FACT CHECKER: Everything we know about that 1621 feast came from a description in one letter by colonist Edward Winslow. That letter was lost for 200 years.
After it was rediscovered, a Boston publisher, Alexander Young, in 1841 printed up the brief account of the feast.
Young dubbed the episode “The First Thanksgiving.”
White Americans, craving a romanticized story of their past, latched on to it.

CHAIR: Thank you. We conclude our Q&A section, and resume the regular story.

STORYTELLER: The first European-recognized Thanksgiving came in 1637, when Governor Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony proclaimed a Day of Thanksgiving.
The proclamation focused on giving thanks for the return of the colony's men who had traveled to what is now Mystic, Connecticut where they had gone to join in battle.
The thanks that was foremost in Winthrop’s proclamation was thanks for their “great victory”.
The roots of the American Thanksgiving holiday are a celebration of a massacre of hundreds of Native people.
It grew into a general celebration of genocide.
For example, a Proclamation of Thanksgiving in 1676 thanks god that the "heathen natives" had been almost entirely wiped out in Massachusetts and nearby.
Thanksgiving proclamations a century later continue to be connected with war.
In the midst of the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress issued Thanksgiving Proclamations each year from 1777 to 1784.
Thus was the way paved for Abraham Lincoln, in the midst of the Civil War, to make Thanksgiving a US National Holiday.
Lincoln set the US National Holiday of Thanksgiving as the last Thursday of November.

[Delegate 7 raises hand]

CHAIR: The chair recognizes the delegate from _____.

DELEGATE 7: Mister Chair, I move to include how the holiday moved from the last Thursday of November to the fourth Thursday of November.

CHAIR: Would the Assembly like to hear how the holiday moved from the last Thursday to the fourth Thursday? All in favor, raise your Order of Service. . . . Opposed?
The motion carries, so tell us.

STORYTELLER: Five times out of seven, the fourth Thursday in November is the same thing as the last Thursday.
The other two times – like this year – November has five Thursdays, and then the fourth one is not the last one.
The holiday moved from the last Thursday to the fourth Thursday in 1941.
Franklin Roosevelt made the change because November 1941 had five Thursdays, and by moving the holiday up a week he gave merchants a longer Christmas shopping season every year with five Thursdays in November.

[Delegate 8 raises hand]

CHAIR: The Chair recognizes the delegate from _____.

DELEGATE 8: Mister Chair, I move the following resolution.
Resolved: That those present at this worship service of Community Unitarian Universalist Congregation give thanks for all the good in our lives and all the blessings we enjoy,
That we remember also the pain and loss of the Indigenous people.
And that our list of gratitudes include thanks that we have the capacity to face the truths of the past, to learn from them to love others better, and love the rich diversity of humanity and of life.

CHAIR: The motion is [repeats motion]. Motions of this type require a second. Is there a second?
All in favor of the motion raise your Order of Service.
The motion carries. Next on our agenda is the reading of the gratitudes.


Sometimes you feel happy.
Sometimes you feel sad.
Those are opposite feelings, and life brings them both, though usually not at the same time.
It can happen.
It is possible to be both happy and sad at the same time.
Have you ever felt happy and sad at the same time?
It can happen, but it’s unusual.
Usually being happy means not beings sad, and being sad means not being happy.
How about these two: being grateful and remembering suffering?
These are not even opposites at all.
They are the natural extensions of each other.
There is much to be grateful for.
Take a breath, and be thankful for air!
Thank you air.
And we have trees and sunshine to be grateful for – the beauty of this world.
We have cardinals and nuthatches and chipmunks.
Thank you, trees!
Thank you, sunshine!
Thank you, cardinals and nuthatches and chipmunks!
Gratitude chases out loneliness.
You can’t be lonely when you’re feeling thankful – because as soon as you say, “thank you,” you have company, companions, friends.
The air, trees, sunshine, birdies and wee beasties: your company.
Compassion also chases out loneliness.
Caring about other people, caring about whether they suffer are treated unfairly, also chases out loneliness.
Compassion brings other people into our lives, even if only in our imagination.
We have company.
Thankfulness recognizes the companionship that is all around us.
Compassion reaches out to extend our companionship outward.
For as the world is our good company, it makes us want to be good company for the world.
So gratitude and compassion – thankfulness and remembering suffering and unfairness – are not opposites.
They naturally go together, for they are both about: having company in our life.
We are not alone.
We have the companionship of everything that we are grateful for and everything we have compassion for.
I remember when I was a kid, the extended family and always a few unrelated guests gatherered around the table for Thanksgiving dinner each year.
My Mom found a recipe for oyster stew one year early on, and liked it so much she made it every year thereafter, so, I know it’s weird, but in my mind, Thanksgiving is associated with oyster stew.
Thank you, Oysters.
Thank you, Mom.
And we’d go around the table and talk about what we were thankful for.
I don’t remember if it ever came up at the Thanksgiving tables where I was, but it seemed a common thing around Thanksgiving to talk about being grateful for how well we’re doing when others are doing so much worse.
That seems weird to me.
I suppose the point is to remind us not to take our blessings for granted, and that’s a good point, but the even better point is to be reminded that our blessings are limited.
As long as anybody isn’t free, none of us are free.
As long as any being isn’t treated fairly, none of us has the blessing of living in a world where everyone is treated fairly.
We have company – we aren’t alone.
We have the great good fortune to be able to care, to have compassion.
Gratitude and compassion are dishes best served together.


What's Your Hospitality Challenge?

Welcome the Stranger, part 3

We are not such a diverse lot ethnically, or in terms of socio-economic class. Yes, we do have members from various ethnicities and economic classes, but not in numbers proportionate to the general population. Nor are the political opinions among us reflective of the general population. Even theologically, people with conservative forms of their religion are probably going to be more comfortable somewhere else.

We say everyone is welcome in our congregation. And we do mean it. At the same time, the people likely to make us uncomfortable themselves feel uncomfortable and don’t come, or don’t come back. We don’t say anyone is unwelcome, yet we can pretty much count on it that the people who stay will be basically like us. And, of course, I understand how good it feels to be among my people, to be with the people who think like me, people among whom I can relax and be myself, and don’t have to be afraid I’ll say the wrong thing.

At the same time, we are called to connect with people who are very other.

When hospitality was our theme three years ago, the issue of On the Journey back then included a list of some example of cases that have in recent years challenged the inclusivity of some Unitarian Universalist congregations. Three years later, it’s worth remembering and reflecting on that list. How welcoming would you be – how welcoming would we be to each of these? Each of these (with the possible exception of the one particularly contemporary example, which I haven't heard about actually occurring at a UU congregation) has at some point in the past for some Unitarian Universalist congregation been a stranger difficult to welcome. Some of them I think we can honestly say are not difficult for us, here and now, to welcome. Others, maybe, remain a bit difficult for us. Consider:
  • A young woman with an infant in her arms who, when the baby starts to whimper during the service, begins breastfeeding;
  • A Native American with long dark hair and tribal dress;
  • A man from a Pentecostal background who waves his hands in the air during the singing of every hymn;
  • A beautifully bedecked woman in a flowered print dress, with matching high heels and purse. She is 6-foot-four, and clearly transgender;
  • A person whose gender cannot be determined, whose nametag displays a unisex name (like “Pat,” “Alex,” “Jamie,” “Riley,” . . . or “Meredith”) and who prefers to be referred to with pronouns “ze,” and “zir”;
  • A person who speaks out of turn and can’t follow the hymns. He seems to be mentally ill;
  • A well-dressed opposite-sex couple: the man has an American flag in the lapel of his suit, and they have their Bibles with them;
  • A homeless man who hasn’t bathed in a week – and whose clothes have evidently been worn daily without being laundered for longer than that;
  • A couple whose smiles reveal that neither of them have enjoyed the benefits of a lifetime of reasonable dental care;
  • A woman with a guide dog;
  • A man who mentions during the social hour that he has just been released from prison – where he was serving time on a conviction for child pornography;
  • A person who, during the social hour, mentions the color of people’s auras;
  • A service man back from Afghanistan, in uniform;
  • A 21-year-old who just graduated from a West coast college and has moved here to find his first job. He knows no one in town, and he is African American;
  • A woman, skin-tone consistent with being middle-eastern, wearing head covering we recognize as the Muslim Hijab;
  • A couple wearing large “Make America Great Again” buttons;
  • A group of Latino youth who speak among themselves in Spanish;
  • A forty-year old man who comes in holding hands with a woman – and his other hand is holding hands with another woman.
Which ones are “no problem” for us – and which ones might be challenging? I’m asking that question at two levels: Which ones might you personally struggle to extend the most gracious hospitality toward? And second, knowing this congregation as you do, which characterizations on that list would some members of the congregation find it difficult to make feel welcome?

Also: which ones are “no problem” only as long as there are only a few of them, or irregularly attending? One or two cases like these each week, is one thing. But what if there were a lot, and they were here week after week after week? What if half the people here on Sunday morning fit one or more of those descriptions I listed? What if that continued to be true for a couple years, with no apparent end in sight? This place wouldn’t be your comfortable club of like-minded friends anymore. What then? Would you then become the one who, not comfortable, stopped coming?

Or would you delight in this challenge to expand your circle of “us”?

All great literature, said Leo Tolstoy, “is one of two stories: Someone goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town." What happens when a stranger comes to our congregation town? Are we prepared to learn what would feel welcoming to them? Are we prepared to then extend that hospitality? We lit our chalice this morning with words of Bill Schulz:
"It is the mission of our faith to teach the fragile art of hospitality."
May it be so.

* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of "Welcome the Stranger"
See also Part 1: You Were Strangers
Part 2: Defined, Yet Porous


Defined, Yet Porous

Welcome the Stranger, part 2

We are here to be in service to something. It need not be vertical. When we speak of a higher authority, or a deeper truth, these are vertical metaphors: up to the higher, down to the deeper. The something that we commit our lives to might be horizontal. I’m not so sure about a higher power, but I believe in a wider power. I stand on a level plane with the others of the community, the nation – the other beings of the ecosystem – of which I am a part.

This something – whatever it is that is the purpose we choose, or accept, for our life – it must have two features, and they are opposites: definition and porousness. Biological systems, ecological systems, and political and economic systems must all have both definition and porousness. They require boundaries -- this is what defines them. At the same time, those boundaries must be porous. For national political economic systems, for instance, the porousness usually includes trade: goods or currency going out and coming in.

Your body sustains your life through these two features. You are bounded and defined by your skin. But if you were sealed off, you’d first suffocate, and if somehow you didn’t suffocate, you’d starve. And if you couldn't eliminate waste, you couldn't stay alive. Things have to come in and go out.

Your skin itself is porous. The average adult has 7 million pores on their skin: 5 million hair follicle pores that secrete oils, plus 2 million sweat gland pores. Your pores secrete and also take in -- as the use of, for example, nicotine patches attests. You have to have boundaries – definition. And there has to be a flow through those boundaries.

(Aside about Hurricanes. Physical objects and phenomena are typically defined by their outer edges. A hurricane, however, is defined by its eye at the center. Hurricanes are definite objects -- we even give them names -- but their outer edge is indefinite. Bodily, the human self is defined by its outer edge: it consists of the skin and what the skin contains, with some vagueness at the orifices. Spiritually, the self is more like a hurricane: defined by its center, with indefinite outward extent.)

The something that we are in service to, whatever it is, needs to be defined, but not too defined. It has to let in the new – that which is not part of it – the strange, the stranger. Letting in the stranger is an essential part of life. In Leviticus 25:23, Yahweh explains:
“But the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me.”
The land and the trees and the water under it and flowing over it – and we ourselves -- belong to the earth, belong to all life.

Yahweh reminds his people over and over, “you were strangers in Egypt; you were strangers in Egypt; you, too, were strangers once.” And then caps it off by telling them, “and you are strangers still.”

It’s a point echoed by Thomas Long in words included in this month’s issue of On the Journey:
“We show hospitality to strangers not merely because they need it, but because we need it, too. The stranger at the door is the living symbol and memory that we are all strangers here. This is not our house, our table, our food, our lodging; this is God’s house and table and food and lodging.”
There will always be things that we call ours. I do not propose the dismantling of the system of property rights. Property rights help give us definition – a measure of security.

We can have our property rights and also recognize the spiritual truth that they aren’t real. They are fictions. They may be useful and necessary fictions, but are fictions nonetheless. The spiritual reality knows no property rights. Everything belongs to that to which we are in service, that wider context – whatever you may conceive that to be -- which gives us a reason for living.

How is your congregation living the spiritual reality that we ourselves are but strangers here, and therefore we must welcome the stranger – love the stranger as ourselves?

Through the decades, I have been with many, many groups of Unitarian Universalists – including many at CUUC – in which the question was asked, “What drew you to Unitarian Universalism?” I’ve found that two basic answers predominate.

The number one answer is some variation of: “At last, hallelujah, I found a place where people think like me.” A number us love this place because, we report, we can be ourselves here. We can be understood by people who share our assumptions, our values – and our prejudices.

The number two answer is the opposite – variations on the theme of: “I love how different people are here. I love the diversity I find – everybody’s got different ideas. It’s very stimulating.”

So we have one prominent answer that's about definition and another that's about porousness. The first answer affirms who we are, supports the definition we give ourselves. And the other prominent answer invokes change and growth into something different – strange and new ideas.

The fact is we do have a fair degree of theological diversity: we have Christians, Buddhists, humanists, pagans, Jews. Some of us are vehemently agnostic – finding it particularly important to emphasize not knowing – and most of us are at least nominally agnostic just in the sense that we’re polite enough not to claim that we’re certain we’re right (even if secretly we feel pretty sure we are). Some of us put the emphasis on what we do believe, and some put the emphasis on what we don’t. We are a diverse lot, theologically.

NEXT: Not Such a Diverse Lot Ethnically or Socio-Economically

* * *
This is part 2 of 3 of "Welcome the Stranger"
See next Part 3: What's You're Hospitality Challenge?
See also Part 1: You Were Strangers


You Were Strangers

Welcome the Stranger, part 1

Reading: "Dwell in an Artist's House"

Leo Tolstoy said:
“All great literature is one of two stories: A man goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town.”
One may wish that it had occurred to Count Tolstoy that women go on journeys, too – and their stories have as much literary potential. Still, one sees his point. In either case – embarking on a journey or a stranger coming to town – it’s about the encounter with something new, something different, and what that encounter does to us. This is the compelling subject of literature and of life.

Without that encounter with the stranger – whether we head out or the stranger comes to us – life is a flat unchanging monotone. To open ourselves to the stranger – whether it is a human being who “isn’t one of us” or a part of yourself that you haven’t gotten to know very well – that you tend to repress – is to open ourselves to life.

Life is strange, as many have observed. More to the point, life is strangers – one stranger after another – from without and from within – met on our journey, or intruding into our town.

Hence the Torah, the central and most important part of the Hebrew Bible and which Christian tradition knows as the first five books of the Old Testament, urges hospitality to strangers. Exodus 22:21, in the King James Version, reads:
“Thou shalt neither vex a stranger, nor oppress him: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
The original Hebrew word is geyr (gare) -- a guest; by implication, a foreigner:--alien, sojourner, stranger. The New Revised Standard Version and the New American Bible translate geyr as “resident alien.” The New International Version and the New Living Translation say “foreigner.” The English Standard Version says, “sojourner.”

But the Jewish Publication Society – the JPS -- translation of the Torah is arguably the one we should use to properly honor the fact that this was originally Jewish scripture long before being appropriated as Christian scripture. JPS uses the same word the King James Version uses: "stranger." So let’s go with that. I’ll be using today the most recent “New JPS” translation of 1985.
“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
What does this mean for us, today? You may be skeptical -- and I share that skepticism -- about treating this ancient text as a moral authority. After all, the sentence immediately before that says:
“Whoever sacrifices to a god other than the LORD alone shall be proscribed”
– that is, put to death. And I don’t think we are inclined to view that as a moral imperative. Still, there is this emphasis about strangers. The point keeps being repeated. Exodus 23:9 makes the point with additional appeal to empathy:
“You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.”
Leviticus 19:33 makes the stronger point that not only should we not oppress but should treat them as citizens and “love them as yourself.”
“When the stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
Why would the Hebrew people want to emphasize this point this way? What human truth, what psychological or spiritual need, were they tapping into?

When they made it a rule not to sacrifice to other gods, they were saying, “look, we’ve got to stick together here. We are surrounded by Assyrians, Phoenicians, Philistines, Moabites, Hittites, Ammonites and others who will slaughter and enslave us if we can’t stick together and be loyal to each other. All of us sacrificing to the same god, is the most powerful effective way we have of doing two things: (1) expressing our loyalty to the group through demonstrations of dedication to the group’s symbolic authority figure, and simultaneously (2) enhancing and strengthening that loyalty.”

That’s why I think that part is in there. Group loyalty and cohesion was essential for survival. Leviticus also prohibits planting different crops side by side, prohibits wearing cloth woven of two kinds of material, and imposes extensive dietary rules. Why? Because having some restrictions that we all share helps foster group cohesion and loyalty -- even if, or especially if, those restrictions are entirely arbitrary.

But the one about strangers is different. It is in fact the opposite of “let’s be insular and protective and loyal to each other.” It’s precisely because this requirement of hospitality goes against the grain, that I think these passages about strangers are particularly important. It speaks to a spiritual need greater than survival itself – for it speaks to why we should bother to care about whether we survive.

This is part 1 of 3 of "Welcome the Stranger"
See next: Part 2: Defined, Yet Porous
Part 3: What's Your Hospitality Challenge?