Monday, August 31, 2015

What Do We Reveal?

This is the text of the sermon I preached on Sunday, August 31, 2015 to the congregation of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist in Charlottesville, Virginia.  You can listen to a podcast if you'd like.

"I tell passer-bys what I have eaten, how I feel, what I've done the night before, and what I will do for the rest of the day."  Sounds about right, doesn't it?  I know that there are a number of you all who have made a conscious decision not to join the Facebook society, but it's estimated that worldwide more than a billion of us are active at least monthly. Over 1 billion people. That's only a couple of hundred thousand less than the population of India, and roughly one-seventh of the population of the entire world!  Facebook reports that last year there were over 1 trillion "likes" and 219 billion photos uploaded to the site ... mostly of cats. (I made that last part up.) It's interesting to note that this phenomena seems to cross racial and ethnic categories. According to data from a Pew Research study, people who identify as Hispanic or Latina use Facebook at a rate of about 10% higher than those who identify as White, and they use it about 5% more than people who identify as African American or Black. (That'd be, respectively, 85%, 75%, and 70% of their total population in the U.S.)

We live in an age when it is routine, even expected, that people will, as we heard before, "[Share] their opinions on every subject that interests [them] ... whether it interests [the people around them] or not."  I’ve  heard this, what I’ll call “FaceBook phenomenon,” blamed on an inherent narcissism. I've heard it said that our obsession with the smallest details of celebrities' lives makes it only natural that we should come to think that such details of our own lives might be important to others. I've heard it suggested that as the number and depth of real-world relationships are declining-- which they demonstrably are, at least within the dominant culture and those most affected by it -- I've heard it suggested that as real-world relationships are in decline there is a growing hunger for a feeling of connection ... even if only with that kid from high school that you don't really remember but who will "like" your posts because they're hungry for connection, too.

Yet whether we  use social media a little, a lot, or none at all, things like Facebook and Twitter only amplify and exacerbate an issue that we humans have always had to face -- how much of ourselves is it good -- safe, wise -- to share with others and how much ought we to keep private?  Perhaps even more important for us to consider, what does what we reveal reveal?

Those who were here last week heard the Rev. Jamie McReynolds cover some of this same ground, although from a slightly different perspective and along a somewhat different trajectory.  You might say that this morning is "part two" of what Jamie began last week.  I even want to hold up one of the same illustrations he used.  He noted that perhaps the most common moment in which we are called on to decide what and how much to reveal is that moment when someone asks, "How are you?"  
I found a website for the Instituto Interglobal that has information about culturally appropriate greetings from around the world. (It's really kind of cool to see them all laid out there.)  Here's what it says about the United States:

"Americans typically greet one another with a handshake. It is common to ask, 'How are you?' or 'How's it going?’  But most people don't take the question seriously, or answer it with sincere honesty. It's basically a greeting that comes without expectation."  The entry concludes, "You should not answer the question 'How are you today?’ with a list of problems. The proper response is, 'I'm fine, how are you?’"

The "proper" response is, "I'm fine," with the clear implication that this is the "proper" response regardless of its veracity. There was a great guy who worked at the UUA when I did and with whom I almost always rode the elevator in the morning.  His response to that "typical" greeting?  He'd say, "I'm above ground."  My neighbor, a man in his 90s, simply says, "vertical."  These are both non-specific, yet totally true, answers, and neither of them reveal ... anything.

Or do they?  My neighbor’s answer of “vertical” tells me that he has a sense of humor, and also that he’s well aware of how, at his age, he might very well not be able to get out of bed in the morning.  Many of his friends can’t.    His seemingly non-revealing answer tells me that his physical functioning is important to him and that he knows it won’t last forever.  (He’s also said to me, “any day I’m upright is a good day.)

And the guy on the elevator?  The guy who’s “above ground”?  Maybe I’m reading too much into all of this, but I get a message from him too – a message of resignation.  An African American man in his mid-60s, working as a custodian in a predominantly white institution I can hear in his response, perhaps, an acknowledgement that he doesn’t greet each day as a plethora of new possibilities.

It is, of course, quite possible that I am entirely wrong and that these people don’t intend to be sending those message at all.   It could be total projection on my part.  Even so, though, it points out that even when we are trying to be neutral in our exchanges, even when we are trying to be non-committal, we do, nonetheless, communicate something.  Whether we choose to reveal ourselves or choose not to, that choice reveals something.

So the real question we all need to wrestle with – dance with, if you prefer – is not so much whether to reveal ourselves but, rather, what we are going to reveal.  And I’ll repeat something I said earlier:  “whether we use social media a little, a lot, or none at all, things like Facebook and Twitter only amplify and exacerbate an issue that we humans have always had to face.”  I think discussion and debate about the “FaceBook phenomenon” really obscures the thing that’s harder for us to deal with.

You may not know that our Worship Weavers actively collaborate with me in shaping these sermons.  Our work together is kind of like a sermonic writers’ workshop.  And in looking at an earlier draft of this sermon one suggested that we focus so much on whether or not FaceBook or Twitter are good or bad things because they are still relatively young tools, and not always used well. Specifically, he said, we dwell way too much on the "media," and not enough on how we want to use it to be "social."

And that’s really it:  our desire – actually, our need – to connect with others.  We human beings are social creatures by nature.  (Yes, even us introverts!)  We need connections, we need relationships, as much as we need air, food, and water.  These modern media are really just new tools to facilitate this connection.  In one age you could really only connect with the people you could physically interact with.  Then it became possible to have relationships over great distances through mail (if you had patience).  Then came telegraphs.  Phones wired into our homes.  Mobil phones.  Facebook and FaceTime.  As one Weaver put it, “Social media has us connecting with people from across the decades and across the country, and around the world.”  Whether those connections are superficial or are deep is not dependent on the media – it’s dependent on how we use it.

Something Christine said is so good I want to quote it at length:

While there are real life in-person support groups, and while there are professional networking groups both online and in person, there can be something really special about disclosing something about yourself and learning that someone you have already developed a relationship with "gets" this aspect of your life.  If you use Facebook, etc., to sometimes share authentic – and not so perfect – aspects of your life, you can go way beyond the superficial “highlight reel” experience. [You know, that sense the lives we see our friends living on their Facebook pages are so much more fun and interesting than the day-to-day, minute-by-minute lives we live.  That’s because, it’s been said, Facebook often functions as a kind of “highlight reel” of a person’s life.]  You may find that the connecting that you do on social media can actually be quite rich and rewarding. Of course, to do that requires the risk taking of exposing the NON-highlight reel. Real, rather than reel. 

And that’s the thing, isn’t it?  Really exposing ourselves is a risk.  I know that other people have a certain perception of me, and I absolutely know that there’s a perception I want people to have of me.  And I know that if I reveal too much of those parts of me that don’t reinforce these views … well … that that can be dangerous.

Here’s a personal example.  Over the years I have been intentionally very open about the fact that I have a mental illness, that I live with depression.  Many people in the congregations I've served have been tremendously grateful to me for doing so -- especially those who have mental illnesses of their own and know the stigma and isolation that often come with it.  I even heard recently about a group of Unitarian Universalist seminarians in California who were talking among themselves about their worries that their mental illness might affect their careers.  At one point, I’m told, someone lifted up my name as an example of someone who has modeled open, honest, and appropriate self-revelation.  As Jamie reminded us last week – you never know how what you do here might have impacts unimagined over there.

I am also aware, however, that in each of the congregations I've served there’ve been people who treated me differently than they would have if I hadn’t been so open: people who hesitated to reach out to me when in need of some pastoral or spiritual support because they didn't want to "burden" me; people who’ve tried to shield me from negative things for fear that my depression might get triggered and even push me to suicide.

But here’s the thing:  my Unitarian Universalist faith tells me that I have inherent worth and dignity just as I am.  Just as I am.  All of me.  Not just the “acceptable” parts.  My Unitarian Universalist faith tells me that I don’t need to earn it; that I don’t need to conform to some image or other to deserve it; that I don’t lose it if I struggle, or fear, or fall down, or fail.  In fact, our faith says just the opposite – that it’s in sharing our whole selves with one another that Beloved Community can be formed, and only in sharing our whole selves.  Anything else is pretense, and the pretense of sharing is not really sharing; the pretense of connection is not real connection.  Just like, I suppose, junk food isn’t real food – it tastes good, and it’s awfully well packaged, but it doesn’t really nourish.  Same here.

Now … am I saying that we should share everything with everybody?  Absolutely not.  Let me be clear – there are people in our lives with whom it could be particularly unsafe to share much of anything beyond, "fine, and how are you?"  What I am saying, however, is that each of us have things we are currently keeping to ourselves which it might be good both for ourselves and for the people around us if we shared them.  I am saying that when we only share our “highlight reels,” we aren’t really sharing our true selves.  Don’t forget:  even our choice to avoid revealing ourselves does, in fact, reveal things about us.  Wouldn’t it be nice to know that what we are revealing to others is the truth?  The truth about who we are?  Wouldn’t it be nice to know that when we feel someone else’s acceptance of us we can be confident that they are accepting us – as we are – and not just the pretense of who we think we should be?

The Sharing of Joys and Sorrows is coming up.  What would it be like to open up a part of yourself you’ve been afraid to show?  In the Social Hall after service there are sign-up sheets for a new year of our Covenant Groups – our small group ministry in which people gather twice-monthly with just a few others to share about their lives.  If you haven’t experienced the magic of a Covenant Group yet, why not sign up?  (And if you have and are returning this year, why not commit to going into it even more deeply than you have before?)  The Social Hour stands before us … could you dare open up a real conversation with someone?  Maybe even someone you don’t know well?  Don’t know well … yet?

The questions comes back to you, to me – What do we reveal?  What should we reveal?  Do we dare reveal who we really are?  I can promise you that if you do you’ll still, as we say, “have a place here.  [Because we all] belong here.”

Pax tecum,


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1 comment:

Cathy Finn-Derecki said...

Erik, you know where I stand on this stuff. To me, the role of the "fool" is a profound one. A mission, if you will. By wearing my foibles on my sleeve I sacrifice how I want to be perceived to a higher mission: helping others to better understand themselves. When I let go my control of my image in the eyes of others, and simply reveal who I am in service to the moment, I am more profoundly alive and connected. For that reason, I completely admire your need to be imperfectly human in this world, and not play the expected role of the solid, always-in-control creepy minister guy.

To me, the issue of how much to reveal is not an issue. The issue is am I revealing it due to my own narcissistic need to be understood, or due to a spontaneous and deeply human need to live and connect with others on a real level. Am I trying to distance others by being provocative, or trying to connect by being real? That line between performance and connection is something that informs my writing, and my daily living, and is a lifetime struggle for me. It is why singing in public is alternately painful and rewarding for me.

So much of this life asks us to play it safe, to not look deeper, to not understand, to avoid that which is uncomfortable. I maintain that the role of the fool, exposing your foibles and holding up a mirror for others, is a sacred role. The clown and the minister are one in the same. And the best ministers are clowns at heart.

But, you know that.