Becoming the People We Want to Be

On November 26, in a service also shared with [Worship Associate] Brian Weller, I spoke about self-deception: how easy it is to fool ourselves into thinking we are other than we are. How we protect ourselves from regret and the pangs of self-doubt by sometimes not looking too closely at the contradictions that we all carry within us from time to time. You can read the sermon on UUCPA’s website, if you missed it

That Sunday, the choir sang, and Brian read, a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke: “Contre qui, rose?” In it the poet asks the rose, Against whom are you arming yourself with these thorns? You wound the affection that is given you. Self-deception is like that: it’s armor, meant to protect ourselves–but in the end, it is a barrier between our tender hearts and those who wish to know us and love us, including other aspects of ourselves.

So I promised to suggest some ways to dismantle that armor, and here we are. There are many tools and they work together.

We have our friends, who hold up mirrors to us. Who, if we let them and ask them, will tell us how they see us, tell us they love us anyway, and so help us to see ourselves as we really are. One of the best antidotes to self-deception is a candid friend. The person who will lovingly speak the truth simultaneously peels away the armor and shows us that we don’t actually need it. It’s not easy to create friendships like that. But I’ll come back around to that question.

In addition to friends, we have our honest intellectual opponents, if we will engage them. The magazine of a different political bent that presents us with the facts we would prefer to ignore. The debating partner who cannot be dismissed as ignorant or bigoted and so challenges us to reconsider our opinions. The respected friend who has different religious beliefs and will give us a peek inside a way of being that we might have dismissed because it contradicts our own. If we avoid these challenging conversations on challenging subjects, we build up the armor.

Engaging only with opponents who are intransigent and unreasonable builds barriers as well–not only between us and them, but between us and the possibility of changing our own views. A worthy process deserves a worthy opponent.

So we have other people to help us break through self-deception, and then we also have the mysterious, blessed voice of conscience within, that makes us uncomfortable when we are not truly examining the truths we have received. One of the greatest vaccines against self-deception is the qualm.

It’s interesting to consider within the context of a congregation, because we usually use language about being comfortable in a religious community. We come to the one we do because we feel accepted here, welcomed here, it feels like home, even like family–we’re comfortable here. And yet an important role of a religious community is to help us with those moments of discomfort, those qualms: not to reassure us at those moments, “Don’t worry, I’m sure you’re right,” but to encourage us to listen to our conscience.

Religious communities, and philosophical traditions, are also a source of practices to help us face what is. The entire tradition of Buddhist meditation, for example, can be summed up as exactly that: practice in seeing things as they are, unflinchingly, without judgment or fear. Naturally, we don’t always do it without judgment or fear, and we flinch plenty. The mind has a thousand ways to avoid simply facing the truth; Buddhist teachers call them hindrances. A wandering mind; boredom; sleepiness there on your meditation cushion; excuses. But the practice turns us back again and again to simply being with whatever arises. By facing small slices of reality, we are practicing for the big ones: the ones that will demand that we change, make a sacrifice, suffer a loss.

It’s not only Buddhism, of course. Contemplative prayer traditions such as those expounded by Christian mystics have a similar aim: to help us simply to allow reality into our awareness, unfiltered by expectations or fears.

Another of our tools for knowing ourselves truly is a sense of humor. The process of dismantling self-deception is connected to a theological word that’s pretty big and heavy: humility. Humility doesn’t sound like a lot of fun. It sounds like humiliation and like being low down. But in fact, humility is about viewing ourselves with compassion: not expecting perfection, nor punishing ourselves for failing to attain it, but knowing that we have foibles and flaws and that that is what it means to be human. And humor can help us bridge that gap between who we are and who we would like to believe we are. If we can laugh at our foibles, we can recognize that we are flawed and make mistakes and that that is okay.

In liberal religion, something else we have is the sources of our faith, which promise (in the words of one of our hymns ) that “we can make a world of light out of the common clay” of humanity.

We have the sources of our faith, which promise that we can make a world of light out of the common clay of our humanity. A liberal faith has kindness at its heart: the loving insistence that we are better than the worst thing we have ever done, that we need not hide in shame from our flaws and errors, which are simply evidence that we are human. And it insists that being human is a blessing and it is blessed.

Specifically, we have our Universalist tradition. It began as the conviction that none of us is destined for eternal punishment, that all can be redeemed and saved. Universalism assures us that although we make mistakes, we are worthy of love; that there is no truth we cannot endure; that fear is no match for faith.

It is hard work to know ourselves. It is so much easier and more enjoyable to examine other people (whose self-deceptions are so obvious!) than to examine our own hearts and live the Socratic principle that an unexamined life is not worth living. But the rewards of knowing who we really are so that we may become who we want to be are immeasurable, the closest thing to heaven that we can know. And we need not labor all alone. It is difficult, as I said, to find friends who will be that frank with us. But the great thing is, the more courageous we are about listening to our consciences and trying to see ourselves truly, the more we empower others to hold up the mirrors that will help us.

I want to close with words of blessing by Jan Richardson, an artist, poet, and Methodist pastor, from the poem called “The Map You Make Yourself.”

You have looked
at so many doors
with longing,
wondering if your life
lay on the other side.

For today,
choose the door
that opens
to the inside.

Travel the most ancient way
of all:
the path that leads you
to the center
of your life.

. . .

Do not expect
to return
by the same road.
Home is always
by another way,
and you will know it
not by the light
that waits for you

but by the star
that blazes inside you,
telling you
where you are
is holy
and you are welcome

We are holy just as we are; we are welcome just as we are. And so, as we seek to know who we are, may we extend compassion to each other, receive it from each other, and dare we try?: offer it to ourselves.

So may it be.

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