2021-03-28

Hypocrites! part 1


Here’s the roadmap. We’re going to go through Browning, the nature of art, and why hypocrisy, as commonly thought of, isn’t a problem. We’ll swing briefly by Mary Katherine Morn, and then go to ancient Greece. We’ll see that integrity and belonging are really the same thing, and drop in on Brene Brown. In part 2, we’ll hang out with Jesus for a while, see what spiritual practice is for, and how we answer our call. It’ll be fun. We ready? First stop, Browning.
“Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, Or what's a heaven for?”
wrote Robert Browning in 1855. A woman’s reach should exceed her grasp. A person’s reach should exceed zir grasp. We should aim higher than we can actually attain.

Browning is describing the creative imperative. The line appears in Browning’s poem, “Andrea del Sarto.” Del Sarto was an Italian renaissance painter, known as “the faultless painter” due to his exceptional technical abilities. Browning seems to be suggesting that art can be faultless only if you know when you start out exactly what you’re aiming at, and then you attain that aim. You grasped exactly what you were going for – and then you reached what you had grasped. But Browning is calling for a creativity that doesn’t have the goal clearly in mind, creativity driven by a vague and inchoate yearning for je ne sais quoi – something, I know not what.

This is a creativity that reaches for what has not been grasped, that seeks to create something that cannot be understood until it is created. Such an art cannot be faultless – and, for that matter, cannot be flawed -- for there is not a standard against which fault or flaw may be assessed.

We are all artists, creating a life. Our every act is a brushstroke, a word in a poem, a musical note or chord, a dance step. And in creating the art of our lives, we reach for what we cannot grasp.

Some of what we reach for we can articulate and measure. Some of what we reach for, we can articulate, but can’t measure. Some of what we reach for, we can’t even articulate, though we feel that we’ll know it when we see it.

So hypocrisy, as it is commonly understood, is not something I worry about much. Our theme for March is Integrity, and our ideas about hypocrisy are bound to be one aspect of our ideas about integrity. But if hypocrisy means that we don’t live up to our ideals, that’s not a problem. If that’s what hypocrisy means, then we are all hypocrites, and we should be. We need ideals that we don’t live up to. In fact, if you’re living up to every one of your ideals, then it’s time to get some new ideals. Someone who seems to you to not be practicing what they preach is probably trying to – and that’s a good thing. We must reach beyond what we grasp.

Last week, if you were with us, you heard Rev. Mary Katherine Morn say,
“If we lived in full and vivid awareness of how we are connected, how different our world would be. Have we learned this? Will we? I forget, every day. But I promise I will continue to call myself back to this -- to hear the call that arises in our communities of faith and conscience -- to remember the call of people around the world who need us to know this.”
She forgets every day. I do, too – I forget to live in full and vivid awareness of how we are connected. Maybe you do, too. Many Unitarian Universalists – like Mary Katherine, and me, and perhaps you – recommend living in that full, vivid awareness of connection. But we forget to. If hypocrisy means not living up to our own ideals, then we are hypocrites.

In politics, each side accuses the other of hypocrisy. In anything as large and varied as a political party, there are going to be some cases of people acting in ways that are easy enough to interpret as violating the very principles that party criticizes the other party for violating. “Hypocrisy” is such an easy charge to level against whichever party for you is the OTHER party – but I don’t think that’s what hypocrisy is really about.

I preach. Do I practice what I preach? Some of it. On a good day. But I don’t think hypocrisy is about how well or poorly I practice what I preach. Hypocrisy means pretending to virtue. This may include, as philosopher David Runciman says, “claims to knowledge that one lacks, claims to a consistency that one cannot sustain, claims to a loyalty that one does not possess, [or] claims to an identity that one does not hold.” So if you frankly acknowledge falling short of your own ideal – as Mary Katherine did -- then that’s the opposite of pretending to virtue, the opposite of hypocrisy.

Of course she falls short; of course we all do. Our reach must exceed our grasp.

The word hypocrisy comes from “hypo,” and “crisy.” “Hypo” means low, or under, as in hypoglycemia for low blood sugar – hyposensitivity for undersensitivity – hypotension for low blood pressure – hypodermic for under the skin. It’s the opposite of “hyper.”

“Crisy” comes from a root that originally meant to sift, decide, to sieve and thus to discriminate or distinguish. In classical Greek, the meaning evolved from “separate gradually” to “answer” – as one might sift or weigh one’s answer to a difficult question. From there, the meaning evolved to “answer a fellow actor on stage.” The ancient Greeks, remember, had theatre.

And from, “answer a fellow actor on stage,” it generalized to mean “play a part.” So hypo-crisy is under-playing a part – that is, not really living up to the part – in particular, claiming the part of a virtuous person, without actually having the virtue. The hypocrite plays the part only when on the stage – but underperforms by not following through when no one is watching.

We think of hypocrisy as being about integrity, our March theme. And it is. But to dig deeper, what’s going on here is ultimately about belonging – our February theme. What we begin to see, exploring this issue of pretending to virtue, of showing off, and where it comes from, is that integrity and belonging are interwoven. Showing off comes from trying to belong – to fit in.

When we truly understand our inherent belonging, then we can just be who we are. What appears when we are on stage coheres with who we are out of sight. We come into a wholeness that is the ground of integrity.

True belonging, as we saw in February, means belonging to ourselves – the courage to stand alone. And that courage comes from the recognition that we are never alone. So, yes: the courage to stand alone comes from knowing that we never stand alone. We are connected to one another – not by membership in a group that we tried so hard to fit into, but connected by love and the human spirit – indeed, our animal spirit.

We are connected by and through being part of the same spiritual story. As we read from Brene Brown for February, “fitting in” is the opposite of true belonging. “True belonging means abandoning our ideological bunkers and living from our wild heart rather than our weary hurt.”

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