Staying Sharp

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Reflection offered Sunday, January 1, 2017

I had the privilege to be in this pulpit Thanksgiving weekend, just a few weeks after the election. And like many of us, I was feeling very raw and vulnerable and truly frightened by what is happening in this country. I felt afraid for my own personal safety and that of my little queer family; I felt frightened for my neighbors in a climate of emboldened anti-Semitism, xenophobia, transphobia, racism, and state-sponsored violence.

Since the election, we have witnessed the empowerment of an agenda that is in many ways at odds with our Unitarian Universalist values. Many of the things we care about most dearly -- care for “the interdependent web of life of which we are all a part” through climate action; affirmation of “the inherent worth and dignity of every person” and “justice, equity and compassion in human relations” through civil rights, human rights, and gender equity; the use of the “democratic process” through our national institutions of governance (I could go on and on) -- are being directly threatened by the new administration and by emboldened acts of hate carried out by ordinary citizens.

I am noticing that, even among Americans who feel hopeful and encouraged by the election results, there is a tremendous and anxious uncertainty about what will happen next, to our nation and to each of us personally. Most of us feel like we do not have a map for this next bit of the journey. We don’t know if we’ll be safe, and we don’t know if the things we care about will be safeguarded.

In my meditation at Thanksgiving, I reflected on my practice of celebrating the solstice. I said, 

It is a dark time. And it feels like things are getting worse. But I do believe, though I cannot mark the day on my calendar, that the time when it is getting worse is finite.

And so, I will carry this faith with me into the darkness. I will remember to light candles. I will celebrate in community even before the last worse day. I will remember to share what I have with those around me. I will push myself to remain open and curious. I will practice hope. I will remember that I have been frightened and confused countless times in my life, and I have found ways to be brave. And these ways have always, always, required me to open my heart. And they have always, always, brought me more joy, more love, and more connection, on the far side of my fear.

Since the election, lots of people have checked in with me personally, have asked how I am doing. And my stock response has become, 

“I am a tool of the resistance and I am working hard to keep the blade sharp.”

The Rev. Paul Brandeis Raushenbush [in the reading I shared], expresses much of what I mean by “the resistance.”

But what am I saying when I tell people, “I am keeping the blade sharp”?

Some of the regular attendees of this service know that I am a long-time devotee of girl-power-pop-culture, action movies, and martial arts, so there is that element of cheekiness in my worldview.

But, as in my solstice meditation, I am trying to remind myself of something deeper. Something I think is necessary for the days and years ahead.

The resistance needs me. It needs all of us. Our world needs the things that we hold dear in this house of worship: Covenantal faith that calls us to be our best selves no matter what is coming at us. Our aspirational commitment to justice and equity. Our reverence for this planet. Our curiosity about and respect for and connection to one another’s theological beliefs, religious practices, and faith journeys. Our elevation of one another’s dignity and worth.

The resistance needs us: Inside the government and outside the government; in the streets and in social service agencies; at the city council and at the water cooler. The resistance needs us.

This next bit of work we’ve got to do here, in this country, isn’t about any one of us personally. It’s about the light our faith has to offer the world.

But it’s going to take each of us personally. Which is why I am “working hard to keep the blade sharp.” This is not the time to fall apart, to panic, to sink into despair. This is not the time to react to each bit of news coming across my social media as if it were an immediate, in-the-moment danger, downloading the whole cascade of fight/flight hormones from my brain into my body, priming me multiple times each day for an action-movie fight scene.

This is a time to build resilience, to shore up what the social workers call “protective factors.” Because the world needs our faith and our vision, the world needs me. And it needs me calm, and strong, and thinking with the evolved and sophisticated front part of my brain. Not the primal fear/danger center that sees every challenge -- whether a digital headline or an incoming punch -- as an equal and immediate threat.

What is it that keeps us sharp? Research suggests that it’s important to begin with enough -- to have our basic needs met, to have stability in our day-to-day life, which usually means living free of violence, including the violence of poverty. We need, quite literally, for punches to be coming in very, very, very infrequently, preferably not at all. We need safety and acceptance. We need to be able to live in a way that is authentic, to be seen and loved for who we are.

I am incredibly privileged, blessed, and grateful, that this is true in my life. I hope that this is true for you too. I hope for us together that wherever we are on the continuum of safety and security, we continue to move towards greater wellness. And I stand committed with this congregation, through actions like the Living Wage Campaign and the Safe Relations Team; our support for the Hot Chocolate Run for Safe Passage, the Hampshire County Interfaith Help Fund, and the refugee resettlement effort in Northampton, to ensure that these basics are in place for all of us.

What else do we need to “keep sharp”? Resilience science offers some clues, and they might be surprising. To be our best, we humans need play. We need opportunities to be relaxed, creative, joyful, and physical. We need spirituality, connection to something bigger than ourselves, whatever that may be. And we need each other. We need love and connection.

That’s why I’m thinking of this service -- my favorite service of the whole year -- as important. I’m making singing together in this Great Hall a priority. I’m considering it an essential ingredient of my resistance.

Because it’s fun. Because it requires me to be in my body -- breathing and playing. Because it makes me feel close to all of you. Because it makes me feel like I belong, like I am part of a greater whole, and like there is something bigger than myself in this world.

I’m thinking of the big meal I’ll be serving my extended family in a few hours the same way. Like it’s important and essential. And also my practices of reflection and meditation, the time I find to be alone in nature, the time I find to swim and dance and run, the time I spend listening to my daughter make music. And the time I spend laughing until my sides hurt with my ridiculous little family.

There is so much work to be done. And I am going to make sure that I show up to do it as strong and resilient and well-resourced as I possibly can.

This is what I want to say to all you beautiful people at the beginning of this new year: You are not a luxury. We need you. The resistance needs you. What are you doing in 2017 to keep yourself sharp?