Last Tuesday morning, as I pulled out of my driveway on the way to church, I was hailed by a desperate-looking young man who beckoned me to stop. I was tempted to keep driving, as I live in an urban neighborhood and assumed he wanted money. Usually, I don't give money to panhandlers, but refer them to an agency better able to help them. But something about him made me stop, and roll down my window.
He said he was from Victor and had been walking all night to get to Rochester General Hospital where his wife was expecting their first baby. Her water had broken and birth was imminent. Noting my caution, he proclaimed he was not crazy, dramatically opened his coat to reveal he had no hidden weapons, and even showed me a roll of small bills. He did not want money - only a ride to Midtown so he could catch a bus to the hospital - he had enough money for that, but not enough for a cab. So, against my better judgment, I told him to get in. I was admittedly nervous. However, as we talked I learned that he works odd jobs - laying carpet and tile, doing tree trimming - when there is work.
Things are slow now. He hopes to go to Monroe Community College to study journalism. I dropped him off near the bus station downtown - much relieved.
I share this story, not to encourage you to emulate me, but to wonder with you what a sad commentary it is that I was so hesitant to do what simply became a random act of kindness. I think it was Blanche in Tennessee Williams' Streetcar Named Desire who said that she lived in the "kindness of strangers."
My young passenger set me thinking about how we treat those who are not strangers, but family members, co-workers, fellow worshippers, the people we meet and greet each day. We have all experienced domestic scenes where tempers flare, work venues where nerves are frayed, situations in which we say and do things in the heat of the moment we come to regret. We have all been there - done that. We have all experienced the unraveling of human civility in our society, the crudeness of language, our growing impatience with others. And people - sometimes ourselves - get hurt.
In the values clarification movement of the 70's there is an exercise that illustrates this breakdown in human relations - the IALAC story - IALAC for I am lovable and capable. The group leader holds a clean piece of paper before the group representing the lovable and capable person. A child who oversleeps is chastised by a parent, and a little corner is torn off the paper to show a loss of self-esteem. And the child's day goes on with withering criticism from parents, from a teacher angry about poor homework, a coach during gym and so it goes - each incident marked by ripping one piece off the original sheet until by day's end the child lies in tatters like the paper - no longer feeling lovable or capable.
That is a graphic reflection of the way things are - for many of us - much of the time. Often it seems we are more criticized than praised, more taken to task than taken to lunch, more scolded than celebrated, more knocked about than boosted up. And what is more, I am frequently guilty of these very sins.
There is the wonderful meal my wife has cooked for me, but there is a trace of meat in one dish, and as a vegetarian wannabee, I complain. There is the church volunteer who spends endless hours on a writing project; I find several spelling errors and note them with my merciless red pen and no "thank you." There is the politician who guards civil liberties tenaciously, but who digresses on one issue and I let him or her have it - of course, not having written to praise all their votes of which I have approved. There is the sensitive child who needs acknowledgment by a minister, but I am so busy in my after-church routines, I do not notice, and brush by without a greeting.
There is the waitress whom I chastise because my main course is cold. There is the church goer who has the temerity to criticize a sermon, whom I dismiss as a curmudgeon, failing to see what is behind the criticism - and, more important, not really knowing who is behind it. There is everyman and everywoman whom I judge without compassion, criticize without knowledge, condemn without pity.
I walk by the merchant who lies hurt and bleeding on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, fashioning my own rationale for not helping.
It seems to me that, whatever our theology, religion is about the way we treat one another. Harry Golden once asked his father, "If you don't believe in God, why do you go to synagogue so regularly?" His father answered, "Jews go to synagogue for all sorts of reasons. My friend Garfinkle, who is Orthodox, goes to talk to God. I go to talk to Garfinkle." And whether we talk to God or not, we do talk to each other.
Having grown up a Unitarian Universalist I think I understand my tendencies to judgmentalism: it is a theological issue. We have inherited our liberal religion from the Puritan tradition. That tradition worried not only that someone, somewhere was having a good time, but also worried about human perfection. The Puritans were a judgmental people - morality was strict - everyone was accountable - standards were godly.
In the intervening years we have changed the theological language: we don't talk much about piety; we're a bit more relaxed about human behavior; and we don't claim our standards were directly dictated by God. However, that same inner urge to perfectionism is with us still. We tend to want things just so. We have a hard time abiding the messiness of existence. And messy it is. And that, I believe, is why we need to hear the "boost, don't knock," mantra.
There is the parable of "A man who fell into a pit and couldn't get himself out. A subjective person came along and said, 'I feel for you down there.' An objective person came along and said, 'It's logical that someone would fall down there.' A Pharisee said, 'Only bad people fall into a pit.' A mathematician calculated how he fell into the pit. A news reporter wanted an exclusive story on his pit. A fundamentalist said, 'You deserve your pit.' An IRS man asked if he was paying taxes on the pit. A self-pitying person said, 'You haven't seen anything until you've seen my pit.' A charistmatic said, 'Just confess that you're not in a pit.' An optimist said, 'Things could be worse.' A pessimist said, 'Things will get worse.'
And then, depending on your religious persuasion, Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, Albert Schweitzer, Martin Luther King or Susan B. Anthony, seeing the man, took him by the hand and lifted him out of the pit."
We have overactive minds which from time to time do not let the heart have its say. We know the dangers of good intentions gone astray - the road to hell, we know is paved with good intentions - as well as with delicious gratifications.
And then, too, Unitarian Universalists have been called the bureaucrats and technicians of the establishment. We are, by and large, "successful" people in the world. We work, and we work hard. We are insatiably driven by our task mentality. After all, our theology is not salvation by faith for the next world, but salvation by works in this one. We are impatient to complete those tasks, impatient with those who interfere with them. I could be wrong, but I rather suspect many of us complain and scold far more than we cheer and praise. We tend to knock, not boost.
Somehow the cool rationalism of Unitarianism - valuable a religious tool as it is - controls the warm heart of Universalism - as necessary a possession as it is. And Universalism, as you know, was built on a theological foundation - the final harmony of all souls with God. Ultimately all would be forgiven, no matter what our sins happened to be. There is a soft side to Universalism in contrast to the hard edge of Unitarianism - I can say this with some degree of pride, since I am a born Universalist.
One of my more poetic colleagues puts it this way: "You don't believe the way I do....It's strange I am so fond of you....Our differences are wide apart....What wonder I can share your heart....The way you act is odd to me....How come I hold you trustingly?
I guess because despite direction we share the gift of imperfection."
After all, as has been said, "Honest criticism is hard to take, particularly from a relative, a friend, an acquaintance, or a stranger."
No, I am not advocating a wholesale retreat from critical reason - accepting all people uncritically, forgiving all sins - but a much more nuanced approach to other people. I think we still tend to see things as too black and white - and I don't mean racially - I mean we tend to judge people in stereotypical ways.
We are in danger of falling prey to a self-fulfilling prophecy. When we expect people to be unpleasant, we treat them that way and they tend to respond in kind. So we were right - they are unpleasant. As in studies of school children, teacher's expectations were a major factor in their achievement. Higher expectations meant higher achievements; lower expectations brought lower achievement.
We all know people we tend not to like. What I have discovered, however, is that if I allow myself to get to know them at a deeper level, there is always - I mean always - something to like and to admire. The line between good and evil goes right down through the middle of friend and stranger, ally and adversary, liberal and conservative.
It has been said that judging people is like reading a book, only "if people are books, they're mysteries. We're all multi-layered, psychologically tangled, emotionally intricate beings. Everyone is having a hard time. Give people a break. It's not easy doing a life."
Years ago psychologist Gordon Allport suggested six criteria that mark the mature religious sentiment, as he called it. His first criterion is what I have in mind here - the mature religious sentiment is well-differentiated - that is, it is not given to absolutes, is open to ambiguity, it can tolerate the messiness of life and the complexity of human beings.
His example is the differing ways in which two daughters describe their fathers. One wrote, "Dad Is a perfect father. He loves his family and his family loves him....He is looked up to in all the town, highly admired....He will help anyone. He is noted for his fairness and honesty. Fairness and honesty are Dad."
Another daughter describes her father in the following way: "He is somewhat unsocial, but dramatic enough to be pleasing in company; irritable, but not at all ill-natured; conscientious, hardworking, puritanical; timid in some things, dogged in others. His imagination is shown in his love of travel, but is not much in evidence otherwise."
Perhaps you will agree that the first daughter tends to romanticize her father - she finds no fault in him - he is perfect. But no one is perfect. Surely, if she were honest, she could have found some flaw in him. But the whole account is undifferentiated, like some letters of recommendation which do not tell it like it is for fear it may hurt that person's application for college admission or a job. Frankly, I am suspicious of all such recommendations. I look for a much more nuanced approach which enables me to see beneath the surface of another person.
The second daughter, one has to think, loves her father as much as the first, but isn't afraid to see him as a real person, flaws, foibles, feet of clay and all.
I trust her description more than the first daughter's because she has discovered the mystery of human ambiguity; she seems to know that human beings are very complex creatures and we judge them uncritically at our peril.
That capacity to see with discerning eyes is caught up in a simple poem, "I have shelved my youthful absolutes along with all my passionate lovers. Now I live with kindly relatives, some more beautiful than others."
The way we treat others - by boosting, not knocking - has implications, not only in our human relations in the wider society, but also in the context of a church community where we ought - one would think - be on our best behavior. But listen to this, my fellow congregants, and see if you see yourself. A Unitarian Universalist minister detected an unwillingness on the part of "newcomers" and "old-timers" to greet each other at church, and decided to do something about it. He announced that, beginning the following Sunday, there would be a time in the service for everyone to turn to those seated near them and greet them with a friendly hello.
After the service, one member of the congregation turned to the person in the next row back and said cheerily, "Good morning!" The other stared back in shocked indignation, and snapped, "That doesn't start until next Sunday!"
Well, it doesn't start next Sunday. It started many Sundays ago and it will be true many Sundays hence - Gilbert's rule, that is - always be a little kinder than necessary.
In the Tao Te Ching we read, "I am kind to others who are kind to me. I am also kind to those who are not kind to me. Thus there is an increase in kindness."
After all, liberalism at its best means generosity of spirit. And - you never know - the person sitting next to you - sharing your home - working with you on the job - in the car up ahead - just may be - might be - the Messiah!