“The Cheapest Room in the House”
For the Unitarian Univeralist Church of Palo Alto
July 17, 2016
©Rev. Mary McKinnon Ganz
These are lines from a play by Christopher Fry, written to capture the dark forces gathering in the world as World War 2 was looming:
[An excerpt from the play, A Sleep of Prisoners by Christopher Fry]
I chose “fear” as the topic of this sermon last spring. Before Nice. Before Orlando. Before Dallas, and before Baton Rouge and St. Paul. But not before Trump. I wanted to explore fear because I wanted to understand the people I saw on TV at a Trump rally, yelling, “build a wall!” I thought fear might be a way in.
One of the things I do as a spiritual practice is walk in the streets near the Faithful Fools’ building in the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco. As you may know, this is a district that guidebooks warn tourists away from; it’s the district where the City has, for decades, funneled the impoverished of the City through conscious planning decisions. A lot of the people you see in the Tenderloin do look kind of scary. Some of them look like they haven’t slept in weeks, or if they have slept at all, it’s been with the aid of various controlled substances, and quite possibly on a sidewalk.
These days, those aren’t the only people I see in my ambles. There always have been children in the Tenderloin, more than you’d probably think, but nowadays I also see increasing numbers of young adults, men mostly, men who are clean and thin and wearing very different kinds of beards than the untrimmed ones on the faces of some of my other TL neighbors. It is a very interesting time in the Tenderloin, a time when even this catchment area for the poor and homeless is under pressure as developers seek to respond to a housing shortage occasioned by 531,000 new jobs created in the Bay Area in the past five years. In that same period, permits have been issued for fewer than 100,000 new housing units.
And so we are in a situation of scarcity in the Bay Area, as regards housing.
As Faithful Fools, we pay attention, when we walk, not only to what we see going on in the streets around us, but also what we notice arising within us — emotions, thoughts, judgments. Recently on one of my walks I encountered two men of the young, well-trimmed variety, laughing and looking back over their shoulders at a man of the sidewalk variety, who was gesturing angrily at them and yelling something. I sensed that the young men were laughing at the street person, and perhaps had even done something deliberate to provoke him. I noticed I was feeling angry toward these young men, these newer Tenderloin inhabitants, these — I might say — gentrifiers. And then I looked more closely. I saw, as they ducked their heads and laughed in solidarity with one another, how they quickened their step to get away. I saw their fear.
My anger ebbed, and compassion flooded in. The Tenderloin in this moment is a story of displacers and displaced, true, but it is not only that simple story. There is fear all around, and as Yoda said, fear creates anger, anger creates hatred, and hatred creates suffering. The young men laughing were covering up their suffering, trying not to feel their fear. Just as Steve told us.
And so are the people chanting, “Build a wall!” – covering up their suffering, and their fear. So are the people who say, “Make America great again!” – when “great” is, sadly, equated with a might-makes-right stance in the world.
And Steve is right, the path to freedom from that fear is acknowledging it, facing it, being – I would say – curious about it. I’ve spent years being curious about things I was taught to be afraid of, and that would include that homeless-looking guy yelling on the street. I’ve spent hours wondering why I should ever have been afraid of someone who is suffering so obviously. I have often been the person quickening my step to get away from someone who looked like some of my Tenderloin neighbors, but what was I afraid of? Afraid of knowing, maybe; afraid of seeing obvious human suffering, without any obvious solution of anything I could do to help. Afraid of losing something — my sense of the world as a fair and friendly place? — or maybe just my time, the time it might take me to dig my wallet out of my bag and fumble for a dollar to give a person on the street.
This reflective process supports me as I consider the broader political moment in America, which is rife with fear. As is the world. Well, fear is the cheapest room in the house, as the poet Hafiz said, and we all should be living in better conditions.
But I have a complex relationship with fear. Maybe you do, too? I court it, sometimes, when I binge-watch television shows that set my pulse racing – shows like “The Americans” and “House of Cards,” which afford a glimpse into cultures run by values that make my blood run cold. Why do I do that, I wonder? My daughter, the preschool teacher, suggests maybe there’s something pleasurable about holding tension, “like 3-year-olds holding their pee.” (As I said, she’s a preschool teacher). Or maybe, she went on, it’s the brain’s attempt to normalize a state of tension – the state of tension we all are living in now.
What are we so afraid of? It is a time when we seem headed into scarcity even of what once we felt to be abundant – clean air and water, for example — let alone housing. And likely we are all afraid that what happened in Nice will happen again, “jihadism on impulse” as George Packer wrote in a New Yorker blog. We are afraid it will happen closer – to us, to those we love. Maybe, for some of you here, it already has.
We are afraid of the increasing violence in this country that grows out of our ever more visible divisions. Some of us remember the 1960s – the assassination of a president, a senator, a leader; the urban disturbances; the courtroom attack in Marin County that left four dead, including the judge. We none of us want to live through that again, and we don’t want our grandchildren to live through it, either.
When I think about this, I remember interviewing people in China, just before the tanks rolled in to Tiananmen Square. As a newspaper reporter, I talked to people who were around the age I am now, elders who were the parents of the young adults demonstrating for democracy. These people remembered the upheavals of the Cultural Revolution, and they were hoping against hope that the young people leading the pro-democracy protests would just go home, and let the political system go back to being its imperfect, peaceful self. I am afraid of that “peace-at-any-price” complacency, even as I am afraid of the dislocation of change.
I am afraid of the forces of Fascism that are brooding over our country, finding such ready community in those who are afraid.
I don’t know what to do about any of it, and I’m afraid of my own impotence.
There are three things I try to remember to do, when I don’t know what to do. One: I often look to poetry. Not that I find answers there – I don’t – but somehow I find ways to be more comfortable with all that is unresolved in my heart, as Rilke put in his letters to a young poet.
Two, I go looking for role models.
And three, I try to embrace my vulnerability, that superpower that Steve talked about.
As I was thinking about this sermon, I re-encountered the lines from Christopher Fry that we began with. What would it be like to be grateful we are living in these times, “when wrong comes up to meet us everywhere?” What if the thunder we are hearing really is the sound of the breaking up of the misery of centuries – systems of patriarchy, racism and oppression under which all of us have lived, frozen? What if we think of these times as our opportunity, to set things right?
Now that’s scary.
If I were to hold my life like that, I would definitely need role models. Three that come to mind are Nelson Mandela, Etty Hillesum, and Bree Newsome.
Mandela: Most of us in this room know nothing, or less than nothing, of the kind of oppression he faced down in his lifetime; or the kind of fear that stalked him during his time as a leader in the African National Congress, his arrest, his imprisonment for 27 years.
Mandela often talked about the dignity of every person. Early in his work with the ANC, he urged his colleagues to go into the homes of the people, to get to know them like their own family. In his autobiography, he lifts up the countless acts of kindness that sustained him during the long years in prison. He talked of freedom as refusing to give into hate.
“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion,” he wrote. “People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart.”
Etty Hillesum: the young, sweetly self-absorbed young woman who kept her diary not far from where Anne Frank and her family were in hiding, during the horror of the Third Reich. Etty worked as a typist for the Jewish Council, which served at the behest of the Nazis, handling details for the Jewish community as the Nazis began the transfer of 100,000 Dutch Jews first to a holding camp at Westerbork. From there, they would receive “call-up orders” to “work camps,” usually Auschwitz. As time went on, and none of those “called up” was heard from again, Etty and her community began to understand what “work camp” actually meant.
“Mortal fear in every fiber,” Etty wrote. “Complete collapse.” But then, she toughened: “I shall not burden others with my fears.” In her diaries, we watch her grow her soul into that of a young woman who works to make her every act one that blesses others. She seeks out those who are suffering, and lends a shoulder – with special tenderness toward younger women who were overcome by fear, girls of Anne Frank’s age who were on the transports.
Finally, Bree Newsome – the young, African-American woman, a Rosa Parks of our time, who climbed the flagpole in Columbia, South Carolina, and took down the Confederate flag flying on the Capitol grounds. That picture of Bree at the top of the flagpole, the hated symbol of oppression flying triumphantly from her hand, swells my heart with courage – which is what I need, to embrace my vulnerability.
So, to get right with my vulnerability, I need to get curious. What is my fear about? What are other people’s fears about? Who are those people, chanting, “Build a wall!” I’m afraid of them, but why? Is it because I won’t know what to say to them, about their pain? Is it because I am afraid there really is no meeting ground? But if we are both afraid, if we are both in pain, can we meet there?
Driving here to Palo Alto from my home in Walnut Creek has prompted me to search out new podcasts, and recently I discovered “Invisibilia” on NPR. Last week’s episode included a story about a town in Denmark with a sizeable Muslim community, whose young men were heading off to fight with ISIL in horrifying numbers. A team of police officers decided they would try something different with these young men. Instead of meeting their hostility with hostility, they met it with compassion, maybe even love. They invited them for a chat over coffee, asked them what was troubling them about their lives in Denmark. They got curious about them. And, one by one, they returned; every single one who had one of these coffee chats with the police officers, returned. One of the young men from the town said, “If they treat me like a terrorist, I’ll give them a terrorist. But once they started treating me like a citizen, I became a citizen.”
This isn’t simple, of course. Meeting hostility with curiosity requires getting curious and real about our own fear and vulnerability, and being willing to fail. I don’t think we can do it unless we find something to replace the fear. Call it compassion, call it vulnerability, call it love. For me, a good test of my impulses is to measure them on a love-fear continuum. “To what extent,” I ask myself, “am I acting out of love? – or am I acting out of fear?”
Walking with love and fear in my mind and heart is a practice, a useful reminder. On September 11th, Multifaith Voices for Peace and Justice is sponsoring a walk here in Palo Alto, calling on all of us to say no to fear, to say yes to reconciliation, to compassion, to love. Supporting this walk is one way any of us can practice our own walk along the love-fear continuum; save the date and look for information upcoming in the Bulletin.
“You can’t think straight with a heart full of fear, for fear seeks safety, not truth.” Those are the words of the great orator and minister, William Sloane Coffin, who continued: “A heart full of love, on the other hand, has a limbering effect on the mind.”
To live in these times, my friends, we need limber minds. We need hearts full of courage, the kind of courage born of great love, the courage of a Mandela, an Etty Hillesum, a Brie Newsome. May we each find models for these days. May we be grateful for the opportunities we have to take a soul-sized step toward a world where none of us – not a one of us – must live in fear.
Sermon Sources & Inspirations
- Etty Hillesum & Eva Hoffman, Etty Hillesum: An Interrupted Life
- “Flip the Script,” Invisibilia podcast, July 15, 2016
- Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela
- George Packer, “The Tragic and Unsurprising News from Nice,” The New Yorker Daily Comment, July 15, 2016
- Kathleen Pender, “Bay Area Building Boom May Not End Housing Shortage,” SF Chronicle, April 2, 2016
- Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
- Goldie Taylor, “Bree Newsome Speaks,” Blue Nation Review, June 29, 2015