The Thanksgiving Story, As Amended


From Isabell Call, “Thanksgrieving"
Although both Native American and Europeans had feasts expressing gratitude during harvest time, the Europeans who arrived on this continent were incredibly destructive to Native American communities. The Wampanoag man often celebrated as a friend of the pilgrims, Tisquantum, spoke English because traders had enslaved him and forcibly taken him to England. When he finally escaped and made his way back home, his community had all died from smallpox his captors had left behind. He was friendly to the pilgrims who moved into the land of his people because none of his own people were left. He was able to find work with the pilgrims as a translator and helped them negotiate treaties. But as we know, treaties between European settlers and the indigenous residents of America have not been honored by the new arrivals.

And although there's some evidence of a shared meal between Europeans and Wampanoag people in 1621, the holiday may actually have started a few decades later, in May 1637, when English and Dutch mercenaries attacked the Pequot Tribe. They killed over 700 people, and the next day the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony declared a day of Thanksgiving in celebration.

Since then, various governors and presidents called for days of Thanksgiving to commemorate various events, but it didn't get formalized into an annual holiday until Abraham Lincoln chose a Thursday in November in 1863 to celebrate Civil War victories.

The 400-year-old story we've heard about harmony between people of different backgrounds just isn't true. The United American Indians of New England have commemorated a National Day of Mourning every fourth Thursday in November since 1970. They write:
"Thanksgiving day is a reminder of the genocide of millions of Native people, the theft of Native lands, and the relentless assault on Native culture. Participants in National Day of Mourning honor Native ancestors and the struggles of Native peoples to survive today. It is a day of remembrance and spiritual connection as well as a protest of the racism and oppression which Native Americans continue to experience.”
We celebrate Thanksgiving because gratitude is essential to human life. But grief is essential for healing our history of violence. It's really hard to be thankful and sorrowful at the same time. But this is life: sometimes, joy and sorrow come together.

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. Long ago, people attended to the stories of the wise ones in long cloaks called shamans. Today we attend to the stories of the wise ones in white coats called astrophysicists. Our story today is 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 things that would compel us to revise our story.

The astrophysicists’ story has a lot more math in it than the shamans’ story of old. 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. The old stories and the new story alike begin 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 seemed un-do-able. 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: the great and mysterious agent knew things and wanted things. It had knowledge and desires and intentions. How else could mountains, or people, come to be, except through the intention of some creative force? (It turns out, there is an answer to that question. But it’s an answer with 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, we will today retell the ritual story of Thanksgiving. It is that time of year, so let that story be today re-told. But we Unitarians are not only a story-telling people, as all people are. We are also a story-revising people, continually updating our story in light of new evidence, new understandings, and new sensibilities. Our openness to new evidence and readiness to revise is a distinguishing characteristic of our liberal faith.

So when we re-tell again the Thanksgiving story, we will be considering amendments as we go. You will have the chance to vote on those amendments by raising your voting card like we do at General Assembly – your voting card is your Order of Service.


BIRCH: [gavels] I call this story telling session to order. Story teller, you may proceed.

MEREDITH: 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, comes to microphone]

BIRCH: The chair recognizes the delegate from Norwalk.

DELEGATE 1: Mx. 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 of what is now called North America.”

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

[Delegate 1 sits]

MEREDITH: Let’s back up further, then, and say who did discover this land. This region we call North America was discovered by peoples who came over the Bering land bridge about 16 thousand years ago. They split into branches and spread across the continent. These were the discoverers of our land. [Delegate 2 raises hand, comes to microphone]

BIRCH: The chair recognizes the delegate from the south side.

DELEGATE 2: Mx. 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.

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

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

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

[Delegate 2 sits]

MEREDITH: 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 the area we call Massachusetts. 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, comes to microphone]

BIRCH: The chair recognizes the delegate from Clive.

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

BIRCH: Fact checker?

ELLIOTT: 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, comes to microphone and nudges aside delegate 3]

BIRCH: The chair recognizes the delegate from Beaverdale.

DELEGATE 4: Mx. 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.

BIRCH: Fact checker, was there some other name?

ELLIOTT: They were Puritans.

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

DELEGATE 3: I will.

[Delegates 3 and 4 sit]

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

MEREDITH: 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 the help of Tisquantum – also called Squanto -- there probably wouldn’t have been a harvest to celebrate that fall.

[Delegate 5 raises hand, comes to microphone]

BIRCH: The chair recognizes the delegate from Polk City.

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

BIRCH: Which was?

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

BIRCH: Fact checker?

ELLIOTT: 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.

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

[Delegate 5 sits]

MEREDITH: The harvest celebration of 1621 was not a solemn religious observance. It was a three-day festival that included drinking, gambling, athletic games, and even shooting practice 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, comes to microphone]

BIRCH: The chair recognizes the delegate from West Des Moines.

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

MEREDITH: 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?

MEREDITH: 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?

MEREDITH: 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?

MEREDITH: 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 a Puritan 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 have about the 1621 harvest celebration?

[Delebate 6 sits]

MEREDITH: Uh . . . Fact checker?

ELLIOTT: 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. And that’s the story of how we got the story.

BIRCH: Thank you. Story-teller, please resume.

MEREDITH: 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, comes to microphone]

BIRCH: The chair recognizes the delegate from Johnston.

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

BIRCH: 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.

[Delegate 7 sits]

MEREDITH: Five times out of seven, the fourth Thursday in November IS 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, comes to microphone]

BIRCH: The Chair recognizes the delegate from Waterbury.

DELEGATE 8: Mx. Chair, I move the following resolution. Resolved: That those present at this worship service of First Unitarian Church of Des Moines 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.

[Delegate 8 hands the motion up to Birch, then sits]

BIRCH: The motion is: [Birch repeats the motion.]

Resolutions require a second. Is there a second? [Waits for a second] All in favor of the motion raise your Order of Service.... Opposed?... The motion carries. Seeing no one else at the microphone -- and there being no further business -- this story-telling session stands adjourned until it’s time to review our Christmas Story. [Gavels]


Sometimes you feel happy. Sometimes you feel sad. Those are opposite feelings, and life brings them both, though usually not at the same time. 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. Air! 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.

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 none of us are free until all of us are free. As long as there are others doing worse, then we’re doing worse. 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 the great good fortune to be able to care. The greatest blessing is to have the capacity for compassion. As Isabell Call said in the opening reading:
“We celebrate Thanksgiving because gratitude is essential to human life. But grief is essential for healing our history of violence. It's really hard to be thankful and sorrowful at the same time. But this is life: sometimes, joy and sorrow come together.”
Actually, I would say, if you’re paying attention, joy and sorrow always come together. When we seem to be having only joy, or only sorrow, it’s because we’re not paying attention to the other. Noticed or not, grounds for each is always right where we are standing.

Joy and sorrow manifest as gratitude and compassion. Gratitude and compassion are dishes best served together. May you find them both amply supplied at your Thanksgiving table.



Interdependence is our theme for November, and trust is what allows our interdependence to best function and flourish.

Trust. Sissela Bok says:
“Whatever matters to human beings, trust is the atmosphere in which it thrives.”
Whatever matters, trust is the atmosphere in which it thrives. How is that atmosphere in your life? How is it in our congregation? Maybe it could be better.

In the 1992 Disney cartoon movie, Aladdin, there are two moments when Aladdin holds out his hand to Jasmine and asks her, “Do you trust me?” The first time, Aladdin is a street urchin, and Jasmine’s in disguise as a commoner. The second time, he’s in disguise as a prince and she’s in her element as a princess in the palace. Would you trust him?

Neither time does she have any reason to trust him. But both times she says yes – and takes his hand. It’s a risk. She might get let down, hurt – maybe killed if she falls off that magic carpet when it takes a swerve. She takes the risk. Why? We don’t know. I don’t think she knows.

Jasmine’s world has been trustworthy enough that she feels she can trust a stranger – take that leap. And because she can trust, what opens up for her and Aladdin is, well: “a whole new world . . .”

It’s important to note that Jasmine’s trust is not a virtue she has. If we said it were, then we’d have to say that if she’d said “no,” she’d be lacking some virtue. But no: if she’d said, “No, I don’t trust you, I am not taking your hand,” there’d be no basis for finding any fault. Jasmine’s trust is not a virtue of Jasmine, but it is a virtue of the conditions in which she grew up that those conditions have taught her that trusting strangers is a risk she can sometimes take. The conditions of her upbringing also taught her that she can trust herself in new situations. As the saying goes: “A bird sitting on a tree is never afraid of the branch breaking, because her trust is not in the branch but in her own wings.” Because of that combination of trust in herself and just-high-enough willingness to trust strangers, she answers yes. She takes his hand; takes the leap.

Trust is a virtue of social systems, not of individuals. So we need to think about trust in a different way than we think about trustworthiness. Trustworthiness IS a virtue of individuals. It’s your responsibility to be trustworthy, but it’s not your responsibility to trust. Trust may come to you as a grace, but don’t force it. If you don’t trust some situation, then trust your mistrust and back away.

At the same time, I want to urge today, that, after you have backed away, and you’re in a space that feels safe, interrogate that experience. Was that a situation where maybe daring the risk of trust would have been worth it? Maybe it was and maybe it wasn’t. It's good to reflect on the question.

Trust, in any case, is a collective rather than an individual virtue. Trust is built – if it is built -- collectively. Our individual task is to discern how we can contribute our part to collectively building it – not take foolish outsize risks in clearly untrustworthy situations. David Brooks gives this example:
“In a restaurant I trust you to serve untainted fish and you trust me not to skip out on the bill. Social trust is a generalized faith in the people of your community” (Brooks, "America is Having a Moral Convulsion," Atlantic, 2020 Oct 5)
It’s trusting that most people will do what they ought to do most of the time. Not everybody. Maybe not anybody all the time. But most people, most of the time. Some level of shared norms – general agreement on what counts as “what one ought to do” – is necessary.
“If two lanes of traffic are merging into one, the drivers in each lane are supposed to take turns. If [one] butts in line, [others] honk indignantly. [They] want to enforce the small fairness rules that make our society function smoothly" (Brooks)
Francis Fukayama’s 1995 book, Trust, coined the phrase "spontaneous sociability." He said that where social trust is high, spontaneous sociability increases. We can spend less time and energy checking each other out, looking for signs of untrustworthiness – less time and energy guarding and protecting ourselves from being swindled – and can much more efficiently move into cooperating and helping each other out. Spontaneous sociability means that people are “able to organize more quickly, initiate action, and sacrifice for the common good.”

Increased trustworthiness, the individual virtue, helps. When more people have the virtue of being worthy of trust, that facilitates trusting. But that’s not enough. Social trust has been falling precipitously in this country, and it’s not clear that the institutions that are less trusted are any less trustworthy than ever.

Scammers prey on the elderly. Why is that? We tend to suppose, well, the elderly don’t think as clearly and can’t follow how they’re being scammed. That’s sometimes a factor. Another factor, though, is that those who are now our older citizens come from a generation that was much more trusting – a generation whose trust allowed them to accomplish together such things that they are called the greatest generation.
“In 1964, 77 percent of Americans said they trusted the federal government to do the right thing most or all of the time.”
Then came Vietnam, and Watergate, which certainly undermined trust in government. And Reaganomics -- not just economic policies that said government isn’t here for you unless you’re rich, but a stream of rhetoric that said government is the problem. You may remember Reagan had that line: "The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I'm from the Government, and I'm here to help." That one line may have done more harm than his policies. Many people trusted that their government actually could do a lot of very helpful things – which is to say, they trusted their neighbors to be able to work together collectively through elected officials for the common good (which is what trust in government is). Reagan turned that trust into the butt of a joke.
“By 1994, only one in five Americans said they trusted government to do the right thing.”
In 30 years, then -- from 1964 to 1994 -- trust in the government to do the right thing fell from 77 percent to 20 percent.

Even so, when phrased as a question of trust in the political competence of their fellow citizens, most people still affirmed that -- for a while. In 1997, 64 percent of Americans had a great or good deal of trust in the political competence of their fellow citizens. “Then came the Iraq War and the financial crisis and the election of Donald Trump.” Today only a third of Americans say they trust in the political competence of their fellow citizens.

The distrust turned explosive.
“Explosive distrust is not just an absence of trust or a sense of detached alienation—it is an aggressive animosity and an urge to destroy. Explosive distrust is the belief that those who disagree with you are not just wrong but illegitimate” (Brooks)
It’s not that way everywhere. In Denmark and the Netherlands, trust has been growing. In Denmark, “about 75 percent say the people around them are trustworthy.” In the Netherlands, “two-thirds say so.”

In the US, on the other hand, in 2014, only 30 percent of Americans agreed that “most people can be trusted.” That’s the lowest number since the survey started asking the question in 1972. It becomes a vicious downward spiral: when we don’t trust each other, we don’t form or sustain networks that we can trust, and then trust falls further. When people believe they can’t trust others, that others aren’t trustworthy, they become less trustworthy themselves.

So our younger people, growing up under conditions of mistrust, have more mistrust.
  • Percent of Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) who agree "most people can be trusted": 40
  • Percent of Generation X (born between 1965 and 1980) who agree "most people can be trusted": 31
  • Percent of Millennials (born between 1981 and 1996) who agree "most people can be trusted": 19
We need to acknowledge that sometimes, in some ways, American social trust has been intermixed with delusion.
“Only 35 percent of young people, versus 67 percent of old people, believe that Americans respect the rights of people who are not like them. Fewer than a third of Millennials say America is the greatest country in the world, compared to 64 percent of members of the Silent Generation.” (Brooks)
Believing the US to be the greatest country in the world has always required highly selective measures of greatness – and on many measures we’ve been falling further and further behind. And the gap between how highly Americans thought of themselves for respecting the rights of people not like them, and how much they actually did respect those rights is only recently beginning to narrow. So, good for the younger generations for increasingly disavowing those delusions of grandeur.

Yes, it seems to be the case that those delusions did foster social trust. But delusions inevitably collapse. Sustainable, nondelusive social trust is possible, and maybe we’ll get there. In the meantime, it’s helpful to name the condition we’re currently in – name the water that, like a fish, we might not notice because we’re immersed in it.

What we’re in the middle of right now doesn’t have to stay that way. Our country was once a place of trust – and might be again. But as I was saying, it’s not up to you to try to make yourself a more trusting person. That might not be a good idea. If you get an email from a Prince of Nigeria asking for your help transferring some funds – or an email purporting to be from me asking for Apple Gift cards – don’t trust it. Making ourselves more trusting in a world that is often untrustworthy is not the issue.

What we can do is be on the lookout for opportunities to relate to others in ways that grow trust, and to do that, we have to know how that happens. What grows trust between two people? What grows trust among members of a group, or within a congregation?

I turn here to Brene Brown, who wonderfully combines a scientist’s respect and quest for data with a heart-centered gift for understanding it. She says Trust is built in very small moments. When people talked about trust in the research, they said things like, “Yeah, I really trust my boss. She even asked me how my mom's chemotherapy was going.” Or, “I trust my neighbor because if something's going on with my kid, it doesn't matter what she's doing, she'll come over and help me figure it out.”

One of the top things Brown found as a small thing that engenders trust: attending funerals. Someone shows up at your sister’s memorial service, it really adds to your sense of trust in them, that they care for you.

Another big factor: asking for help when you need it. Trust emerges between and among people through the accumulation of little things done for each other. Looking over the data, Brene Brown discerned seven factors that develop trust. Don’t try to make yourself trust people or situations that are untrustworthy -- but do be on the look-out for these factors. Be attentive to the emergence of where a higher level of trust might be warranted.

Brown arranged the seven into an acronym that spells: BRAVING. When we trust, we are braving connection with someone.

B, boundaries. Healthy boundaries define who we are in relation to others. They also help us to know what the extents and limits are with others. Personal boundaries are how we teach people who we are and how we would like to be handled in relationships. Boundaries help you to say, “This is who I am.” Be explicitly pro-active about what you’re not comfortable with, and what your needs and commitments are. If you’re not clear about who you are, I can’t trust you. I trust you if you are clear about your boundaries and you hold them, and you're clear about my boundaries and you respect them. There is no trust without boundaries.

R, reliability. I can only trust you if you do what you say you're going to do -- over and over and over again. In our working lives, reliability means that we have to be very clear on our limitations so we don't take on so much that we come up short and don't deliver on our commitments. In our personal life, it means the same thing. The key part to keeping commitments is not committing more than we can keep.

A, accountability. I can only trust you if, when you make a mistake, you are willing to own it, apologize for it, and make amends. I can only trust you if when I make a mistake, I am allowed to own it, apologize, and make amends.

Next is keeping confidences – but since she needs a word that starts with V, she calls it the vault.

V, the vault. What I share with you, you will hold in confidence. What you share with me, I will hold in confidence. It goes in the vault, and it’s sealed from public view. And it’s not just whether you hold my confidences. If you gossip with me about someone else -- share with me a story that isn’t yours to tell – then my trust in you is diminished. The Vault means you respect my story, and a key way that I come to believe you will respect my story is that I see you respecting other people’s stories.

I, integrity. I cannot trust you and be in a trusting relationship with you if you do not act from a place of integrity -- and encourage me to do the same. Integrity has three pieces: choosing courage over comfort; choosing what's right over what's fun, fast, or easy; and practicing your values, not just professing your values.

N, nonjudgment. I can fall apart, ask for help, and be in struggle without being judged by you. And you can fall apart, and be in struggle, and ask for help without being judged by me.

Under some conditions, helping people can actually lower trust. That can happen if we feel that the help is coming from someone who’s judging us for not being able to work it out ourselves, judging us for needing their help. If you’re the helper, you can offer reassurances: “Oh, this happens to me all the time.” “There’s no way you could’ve known how to do that.” “Wow, it’s great that you got this far on your own.” “I’m impressed.” But there’s still that little edge of suspicion that your assessment of the person’s competence might have slid just a hair. The only way to really remove that hint of judgment from helping someone is for you to take turns asking them for their help. Only then are the vestiges wiped away of the thought that competence is a ground where we’re competing with each other to see who has more of it – which is not a ground of trust. Whether I’m conscious of it or not, if I think less of myself for needing help, then when I offer help to someone, I think less of them too. You cannot judge yourself for needing help but not judge others for needing your help. Real trust doesn't exist unless help is reciprocal because only when it’s reciprocal is it free of judgment.

G, generosity. Here we’re talking about interpretive charity – charitably interpreting what the other person says. Trust requires that we evince a generosity of spirit in how we understand and interpret each other. Our relationship is only a trusting relationship if you can assume the most generous thing about my words, intentions, and behaviors, and then check in with me.

Arriving at the most charitable possible interpretation of someone else’s words and actions often takes practice and imagination. "Assume best intentions" is a wonderful slogan. I’ve noticed, though, that its usefulness is limited if our imagination is limited. If the only two interpretations you can imagine are “they are evil” or “they’re stupid” – you may have a hard time deciding which one is the more generous explanation.

When you’re hurt and betrayed, your imaginative capacity shrinks. At those times all you can do is just say you don’t know why they did that. You just don’t know. As you heal a bit, get a little distance from the wound, your creative empathetic imagination can start to do a better job of imagining a more generous interpretation.

This BRAVING acronym works with self-trust, too. If braving relationships with other people is braving connection, self-trust is braving self-love. We can't ask people to give to us something that we do not believe we're worthy of receiving. An African proverb says, Beware the naked man offering you his shirt. And you will know you're worthy of receiving trust when you trust yourself above everyone else.

These are Brene Brown’s tools for interpersonal trust. To do our part in rebuilding social trust, we take those tools and join organizations, using those tools of trustbuilding in the development of clubs, associations – and congregations. That you are a member of a congregation – in these times when increasing numbers of people aren’t – already puts you at the forefront of builders and nurturers of social trust.

As David Brooks writes:
“Whether we emerge from this transition stronger depends on our ability, from the bottom up and the top down, to build organizations targeted at our many problems. If history is any guide, this will be the work not of months, but of one or two decades.”



It’s November – the month of elections, and of Thanksgiving – and Veterans Day, which used to be called Armistice Day. Leaves fill up the yards. Sweater weather segues into parka weather. And our theme of the month this November is Interdependence.

You might be thinking: What kind of theme is that? It’s like saying our theme was bipedalism. Yes, we humans walk on two legs – as do birds – so what? How is that a spiritual value to explore, to cultivate, to unpeel layers of meaning of? In the same way you might say yes, we are interdependent. If you use money, you can’t make it yourself – that would be counterfeiting. So we are necessarily dependent on customers or clients or an employer. And if you went off into the woods to live by yourself surviving on nuts and berries, you’re still dependent on Earth and sky and plants to provide nuts and berries. Besides, that’s a miserable way to live. So, yes, we are interdependent. But how is that relevant to the spiritual path?

Let’s look into how this interdependence works and let’s just see what we discover about spirituality, shall we? We are made to need each other, to rely on each other. We are a social species. We aren’t the only social species. The list of species that are highly interactive with their own kind to the point of having a recognizable society and whose psychological well-being is associated with social interactions is a long list. According to the Animalia web site, 2,826 species have so far been identified as social species. These include: wolves, lions, raccoons, rodents, sheep, horses -- chickens, ravens, pigeons, and many other bird species – whales and dolphins – otters and beavers. Even a number of reptiles are counted as social species.

Some social species, however, take their sociality to a much higher level. These are called eusocial. The eusocial species have cooperative brood care (including care of offspring from other individuals), overlapping generations within a colony of adults, and a division of labor into reproductive and non-reproductive groups. Eusocial species include ants, bees, termites, wasps, some shrimp species, the naked mole-rat – and -- some biologists argue -- humans.

Perhaps the better term for characterizing homo sapiens would be hypersocial. Not only are we fantastically cooperative – which ants, bees, and naked mole-rats also are – but our ability to imagine ourselves into each other’s heads is amazing. Your brain is not only looking out for you, but it is also simultaneously running a sub-routine mimicking how the brains of people around you are looking out for themselves – including, mimicking the part of their brain that’s running an analogous sub-routine to mimic your brain. You see me – and you see me seeing you – and you see me seeing you seeing me.

And yes, we often make mistakes when we imagine how the world looks through another person’s eyes, and we do need to be humble about claims to know what someone else is going through – but the amazing fact is, we kinda do know what others are going through. We inevitably miss some of the details that may be quite important to the other person, but it’s actually astonishing that human brains can get the basic gist of what it’s like for other people in completely different circumstances.Sometimes someone else might know me even better than I know myself.

How did evolution produce brains that can read other brains so well? Our brains – like all vertebrate brains – are built to do three things: find food, avoid becoming food, and find a mate. That’s their purpose. Keep us alive long enough to reproduce – and maybe also stick around to help our offspring do likewise. Each species has its own unique set of abilities that dictate its strategy for reproducing itself and there are a gazillion different workable strategies – and, of course, a gazillion squared strategies that don’t work.

It’s a very challenging problem for genes to make an animal that can stay alive long enough to reproduce, and most of its experiments end up failing. Still, there are over 2 million known animal species currently extant, and about 380,000 known plant species, not to mention the fungi, protista, and monera – and, while some of them are endangered, many of them are doing fine – and they’re doing fine without the ability to imagine what’s going on in each other’s heads with anywhere near the level of detail that humans can. It’s kind of amazing that a species that can do what we do could ever have emerged.

The earth has had five mass extinctions:
  • 440 million years ago,
  • 365 million years ago,
  • 250 million years ago,
  • 210 million years ago, and, most recently,
  • 65 million years ago.
Six times life has covered the globe with ecosystems full of species, and five times mass extinctions wiped out between 70 and 95% of all Earth’s extant species. In the wake of each mass extinction, very different new species popped up, and all those millions of species, over the 2 billion years life has been on earth, emerged and lived out the arc of their extancy being reasonably good for their time at keeping themselves alive to reproduce – and every one of those millions of species except a handful in the genus homo, of which just one species survives today, did so without needing more than a rudimentary ability to imagine themselves in each other’s heads.

Through this super-power, at some point in about the last million years, our ancestors developed shared intentionality – that is, the ability to share mental representations of a task so that multiple people can work on it. Take something as seemingly simple as one person pulling down a tree branch so that another person can pluck the fruit, and then both of them can share the meal. That’s a simple example of shared intentionality. Chimps don’t do this. Chimps are highly intelligent and highly social: they have hierarchical leadership structures, they monitor their status within the group, they bargain, they do favors for one another, expecting and usually receiving reciprocation later – yet even a simple case of shared intentionality seems to be beyond them.

We humans are profound collaborators, connecting our brains together to solve problems that single brains can’t. We distribute the cognitive tasks. No individual knows everything it takes to build a cathedral, or an aircraft.

Our species success comes not from our individual smarts but from our unparalleled ability to think in groups – to make bigger brains by interlinking our individual brains. Our great glory is how well we rely on each other’s expertise.

So even if you could be independent – by yourself in the woods surviving on nuts and berries – that would be a miserable way for a homo sapiens to live and no sane human manages it for very long. We aren’t made to be that way. We are made to be dependent – not just on the earth and its provision of food and air – but on each other. Now that we understand that about each other, what shall we do with that understanding?

The first thing to notice is that interdependence feels good and is good for us. It feels great to be on a team working together, contributing our part to a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

We have this amazing capacity for interlinking our brains, for cooperating and collaborating, for shared intentionality, but we don’t always have it fully activated, and we don’t always notice the ways that it is engaged. The fact about what sort of species we are becomes a path of our spiritual growth when we commit ourselves to cultivating mindful awareness of connection, interrelationship, and mutual reliance. We can more consciously notice our interdependence with each other in our hypersociality, and also more consciously notice the interdependence of all life on our planet.

As Unitarian Universalists, this is our faith path. Our denomination’s current statement of purpose, adopted 40 years ago, describes our covenant in seven principles, the seventh of which is “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” The proposed new statement of purpose includes interdependence as one of seven values of which love is the central one. It says:
“We honor the interdependent web of all existence. We covenant to cherish Earth and all beings by creating and nurturing relationships of care and respect. With humility and reverence, we acknowledge our place in the great web of life, and we work to repair harm and damaged relationships.”
To understand who we are is the central mission of the spiritual quest, and who we are is each other. To commit to live in the unwavering awareness that the self, what I am, is the whole Earth, the whole universe – that’s the spiritual path. To commit to live in the unwavering awareness that anyone’s suffering is mine – and also that anyone’s act of violence, anyone’s cruelty, anyone’s evil is also my very own – that’s the spiritual path.

The Vietnamese monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, put it this way in his poem, “Please Call Me by My True Names.”
“Don’t say that I will depart tomorrow —
even today I am still arriving.
Look deeply: every second I am arriving
to be a bud on a Spring branch,
to be a tiny bird, with still-fragile wings,
learning to sing in my new nest,
to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower,
to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.
I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry,
to fear and to hope.
The rhythm of my heart is the birth and death
of all that is alive.
I am the mayfly metamorphosing
on the surface of the river.
And I am the bird
that swoops down to swallow the mayfly.
I am the frog swimming happily
in the clear water of a pond.
And I am the grass-snake
that silently feeds itself on the frog.
I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,
my legs as thin as bamboo sticks.
And I am the arms merchant,
selling deadly weapons to Uganda.
I am the twelve-year-old girl,
refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean
after being raped by a sea pirate.
And I am the pirate,
my heart not yet capable
of seeing and loving.
I am a member of the politburo,
with plenty of power in my hands.
And I am the man who has to pay
his “debt of blood” to my people
dying slowly in a forced-labor camp.
My joy is like Spring, so warm
it makes flowers bloom all over the Earth.
My pain is like a river of tears,
so vast it fills the four oceans.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and my laughter at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up,
and so the door of my heart
can be left open,
the door of compassion.”
This awareness is ultimately what spirituality is. It’s why I, materialist that I am, use the word spiritual: because this awareness of interbeing is not intellectual, not cognitive, though it includes and draws upon intellection and cognition. Nor is this awareness emotional, though it includes and draws upon emotions. There is something not reducible to head or heart and that is, in short, awareness of interbeing – or, even shorter, spirituality.


We haven’t always seen, and don’t always see, awareness of interbeing as the primary spiritual task. Sometimes the world feels more like a battlefield, or a proving ground than like our very selves. Joanna Macy describes the “world as battlefield” paradigm that some people explicitly embrace and that sometimes sneaks into the thought patterns of all of us. In this paradigm, good and evil are pitted against each other, and we are on this earth to fight on the good side against the evil side. The world is our battlefield.

This is the worldview of George Lucas’ Star Wars movies -- the forces of light battle the forces of darkness. It’s not clear, in the universe of those movies, what’s so bad about the Empire, or why life for beings throughout the galaxy would be any better if Luke Skywalker and the rebels were to prevail, but we’re told Luke is the good guy, that Darth Vader has turned to the dark side of the force, so we cheer for Luke.

People for whom some “world as battlefield” story is the context for making meaning of their lives, will be oriented toward “courage, summoning up the blood, using the fiery energies of anger, aversion, and militancy.” The “world as battlefield” paradigm is good for building confidence. It’s a story that reassures you that you are on the right side, and your side will eventually win. Even if you don’t really believe this paradigm, it’s fun to indulge it sometimes, which is why so many people, including me, have flocked to Star Wars movies.

A variation on the “world as battlefield” paradigm is the “world as proving ground” paradigm. The “world as proving ground” paradigm views the world as a kind of moral gymnasium for showing your strength and virtue at the snares and temptations of the world. We are here on this Earth so that the mettle of our immortal soul may be tested prior to admittance to some other realm. That’s only a slight variation on the “world as battlefield.”


The second paradigm is the “World as Trap.” As Joanna Macy describes this one, our spiritual objective “is not to engage in struggle and vanquish a foe, but to disentangle ourselves and escape from this messy world . . . to extricate ourselves and ascend to a higher, supra-phenomenal plane.” Not in some future life, but in this life, the objective is to escape the trap, to live with contempt for the material plane, prizing only the rarefied life of mind and spirit, aloof from the world of strife and desire.

This “world as trap” paradigm engenders a love-hate relationship with matter – for aversion inflames craving, and the craving inflames aversion. Wherever we see people vigorously denouncing something and then being caught at doing that very thing – whether it’s extramarital relationships, or eating fatty foods – we are seeing the playing out of a love-hate relationship that comes from seeing the world as a trap.

I have seen people be attracted to Buddhism out of a feeling that the world is a trap, and a hope meditation will take them to a place removed from worldly entanglements. I tell them that the Buddha taught detachment from ego, not detachment from the world. And that even with ego, he taught being present to it, seeing it clearly for what it is, not suppressing it or ignoring it.

For people who see the world as a trap, social justice may still be a concern, but their approach is to get themselves detached and then help others detach -- escape the trap of the material world.


A third paradigm Macy describes is “The World as Lover.” This view beholds the world as an intimate and gratifying partner. With training, one can see in every experience something of the beauty and sweetness of primal erotic play. Since lovers are impelled toward union and oneness, this view can then segue into the final paradigm: “world as self.”


In the Western tradition there is more talk of merging self with God rather than with the world, but the import is about the same. When Hildegard of Bingen experienced unity with the divine, she gave the experience words like Thich Nhat Hanh’s. She wrote:
“I am the breeze that nurtures all things green....I am the rain coming from the dew that causes the grasses to laugh with the joy of life.”
In riding a bicycle or driving a car we can quickly come to feel the vehicle as an extension of our own bodies. In the same way, the whole world is an extension of your own body. Yes, sometimes it does things you don’t want it to and can’t control, but the same is true of your joints and organs (increasingly so as the years go by). Truly, everything in the world is your joints and organs, sinews and bones, glands, skin, and hair. And brain and mind.

These paradigms – world as battlefield, proving ground, trap, lover, or self – are ways to answer the crucial question: “In the face of what is happening, how do we avoid feeling overwhelmed and just giving up?” How do we not give up our responsibility, not simply succumb to the many diversions and distractions of our disjointed, frenetic, consumer society? Each paradigm provides an answer. I think most of us are attracted to numbers 3 and 4 – world as lover and world as self. But most of us probably waffle a bit. Sometimes the world does seem like a battle-ground or proving ground: everything is a test, and I am constantly being judged – sometimes well, sometimes poorly.

The simple act of identifying “world as lover” as a world-view helps me feel the joy of that view, helps me live into it more consistently. Identifying “world as self” as a world-view helps me stay in it. As Joanna Macy says,
“We are our world knowing itself. We can relinquish our separateness. We can come home again – and participate in our world in a richer, more responsible and poignantly beautiful way than before in our infancy.”
May it be so.