Monday, September 30, 2013

Who Has Time for Personal Development?

By Anna Bethea
UUCT Director of Religious Exploration

There are some weeks that go by in a blur and I don’t even know what happened.  I know I was busy, and I think that my busy-ness benefitted others, but sometimes I find myself questioning even that.

My best weeks are when I’ve taken time to care for myself first.  You know:  those rare instances when we get enough sleep, eat well, are active, and take quiet time to reflect, meditate and be mindful of our actions and thoughts.  The way I’d describe how and why these are the best periods of my life is that I feel a bit of spaciousness around me —a sacred bubble, so to speak.  It’s not a bubble that keeps the world out, but rather gives me the space to enjoy and savor it for all it is.

We live in a world of urgency and reactivity.  When our heads are constantly turned by the newest product, task, cause, project or newsfeed update, we don’t have the time to enjoy what’s right in front of us.  But if we don’t engage with what our society, culture, or community think are of highest importance, we may miss out on something great, or an opportunity to connect with others along common interests.

And on top of balancing the demands of the world, we have the demands of our heart to grow into better human beings:  to become better at handling arguments, to feel better about our in-laws, to pass on our best values to our children.  Or how about to feel more compassionate, more available for those around us and be able to set better boundaries?  And although we probably all acknowledge that these are important endeavors, they take a lot of time … time that’s often already taken up by everyday life.  Certainly, we can’t be expected to handle all of this in just 168 hours per week.

So, the obvious solution is to set priorities so we can better know what it is that we want from the hours of our lives.  But how do we do that?  There’s still the competition between what we want, what we think we should want, and what the world wants from us.  It takes time and insight, but many of our desires can boil down to something more basic when we really dig deep.

My solution is to find those things that give me the most joy and can also benefit those around me.  That is, how can I cultivate the spaciousness in my life in which I feel peaceful, and can therefore pass that peace on to others?  How can I find the time and presence of mind to appreciate the feel of the water on my skin while I wash the dishes, and savor the flavor of each apple I bite into?  What do I have to do with my other so-called priorities to be able to return to what’s right in front of me?

I still struggle often to return to my “best week” mode, but the importance is that we continue returning.  Spend your thoughtfulness and energy on those things that’ll bring you back to your true self and you are well on your way to having time for all of your heart’s true and most basic desires.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Knock, Knock: We’re Unitarian Universalists!

By Melinda Stuart-Tilley
UUCT member

Recently, I was approached at a  playground by a friendly woman who described herself as a Jehovah's Witness. She approached me gingerly before beginning her introduction.  In the course of our brief conversation, she asked me what religion I belonged to, and I quickly answered “Christian”— without elaborating further.  She began to describe her faith to me, and I mentioned one aspect of belief that I shared with her, about the time when humans would live on earth in harmony, saved by God.  She seemed surprised by this commonality, and I explained, “I am a Universalist.”

She cited her unfamiliarity with the term, and I told her that Universalism basically meant that God was too good to damn people, so we would all be saved. (I believe that this applies to all people, and not a select group; obviously, I part ways here with many of my fellow Christians.)  I had several restless young children with me at the time, and I didn’t go into detail about my church or how complicated it might be to be a self-described Trinitarian Christian in a mostly Humanist, self-described Unitarian congregation. (As my grandmother might say, “That’s a story for another time.”) 

When I left, I felt like I had missed an opportunity to talk further about who we are and what we do, and even why a Christian would want to be part of a liberal, deliberately pluralistic religious congregation.  I am not sure that I would have known even how to explain my feelings to her.  Why didn't I just tell her about my church?

I will be the first to say that there are many things about which I strongly disagree when it comes to the Jehovah's Witnesses—too many to enumerate in a single blog post.  That said, there is I admire about the Jehovah’s Witnesses:  they are willing to boldly share their faith with others.  I think Unitarian Universalists could do well with more of this.  Despite the fact we are an historically influential religion, most Americans still don't know about our denomination.  I think it's time to change that.

Growing our church and our denomination is one important aspect of this, and I think there is definitely a place for “UU-vangelism” among friends and in the wider public circle.  But what about just becoming more visible to others?  Would most of your loved ones know that you attended a Unitarian Universalist church, and would they know what it was?  We might not go knocking on other people’s doors or approaching frazzled mothers on playgrounds, but how will we witness our faith?

There has been much talk in recent years about Unitarian Universalists developing their elevator speeches.  (For those who don't know: an elevator speech is a personal summary of our faith or Unitarian Universalism in general that could be explained during the time that one is in an elevator with a stranger.) 

My response is something that I am still struggling with.  I feel very comfortable, for example, speaking with strangers whom I think will be sympathetic to our principles.  I feel comfortable inviting unchurched friends who have a similar world view to visit our church.  But I don't feel comfortable yet talking to my religiously conservative cousins about what Unitarian Universalists believe in detail, or why my family chooses this church over theirs, or why gay marriage is such an important part of that— for us, among other things.

Then what about strangers who are not sympathetic to our principles?  How do I engage strangers in a genuine, respectful dialogue that will leave them with a positive impression of Unitarian Universalists?

I gave my address to the Jehovah's Witness church member (on purpose), and she is coming by today to talk with me.  I plan to be a good “UU witness” and listen to her perspective on things.  I also hope to speak boldly about those aspects of my own faith that are important to me and to Unitarian Universalism.  I am not sure of the exact words that I will say, but I think that will come more easily with practice.

If someone asked about your faith and about Unitarian Universalism, what would you say? 

Monday, September 9, 2013

Five Steps to a Humane Life

By Rev. Robin Gray 

Confucius said: “You are humane if you can practice five things in the world: respectfulness, magnanimity, truthfulness, acuity and generosity.”

The sage Confucius wrote to clarify for his audience ways in which wise beings should comport themselves in social relations. He sought to inspire families, workers and governments toward good practices in their relationships. His goals were practical and yet elevated by the promise that improved interactions offered his contemporaries. That promise infuses his words with import that we cannot ignore, even 2,500 years later.

Though Confucius never imagined us, we share his dream of being humane. We want to be a people who exemplify the best of human attributes. Therefore, we can consider whether the five disciplines Confucius points toward are still an excellent foundation for humane living in our little corner of the world.

Respectfulness: The practice of holding other human beings in high esteem and treating them with care never goes out of style. In our times, the word “respect” has a tinge of the hierarchical about it, suggesting that some are indeed deserving of more or less respect because of their station, accomplishments, gender, age or status. Yet, the attitude of respectfulness as it arises in one person’s heart need not be governed by considerations of relative position in society. Respectfulness as a discipline requires extending positive regard to all the people we meet.

Magnanimity: Magnanimous people are slow to take offense. They do not see offense where none was offered, and they don't keep any kind of inventory of minor offenses even when the offender acted with intent. Magnanimous people are not to be confused with doormats. They know when they have been offended and they are resourceful. They are able to enlarge their thinking, address their feelings, and extend forgiveness to others. In churches, as in Chinese society, the mutual practice of magnanimity takes the sharp edges off our interactions with each other. We can address slights or offenses with open minds and hearts. We can see how our own actions might offend others and offer sincere apologies when needed, practicing a bit of magnanimity in our own behalf.

Truthfulness: Being true to oneself, speaking the truth in love, and being honest and forthright in all our interactions are phases of the truthfulness that lead groups toward greater cohesion. Yet, the truth offered to others must always be accompanied by respect and magnanimity. Criticisms disguised as “truth” are wolves in sheep’s clothing; they might seem harmless, but they have a ferocious bite. Anger and animosity dressed up to look like a “truth you should know for your own good” are equally dangerous. The only truthfulness we can offer each other is the truth of our own experience; our own feelings, our own hopes. Everything else has sharp teeth and long ears.

Acuity: The word suggests having a keen vision, as well as the wisdom to move toward it. As individuals, we have to have a vision for our lives. A clear, sharply defined vision helps us to focus on goals and to reach toward those goals. Acuity also helps us to determine whether this vision or that is a good fit for our skills and limitations. With a vision in mind, we know when we’re missing the mark as well as when we are on the mark. Acuity encourages us to evaluate, judge, and refine or redesign the vision so it remains in focus. A keen vision, shared by the members, also helps to build cohesiveness in a group. Acuity isn’t the shining goal itself, but the vehicle that helps us move toward the vision.

Generosity: Generosity begets gifts. People can be generous with their time, their energy, their money, and their talents. Generosity arises in the intersection between what we have and what we are able to give away without regret. Regrets are useless once the gift has been given. More time may be lurking around the bend. We might find our energies renewed. More money can be earned. Our talents may expand in days to come, but the gifts of each, once given will not return to us. This is the ultimate lesson in “letting go.” Generosity does not seek an accounting for its gifts. It learns to rejoice in the abundance that made the gift possible.

I can only imagine that our community will benefit if we each seek to carry these five practices into our life together. May it ever be so.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Truth in Advertising

By Chandra Snell

We’re all familiar with them:  The dumb blonde or jock. The homely, repressed, spinster librarian. The clueless dad left all alone to do laundry, or—horrors—watch the kids. I could go on, but I’m sure you have a few of your own you could add.

I’m talking about stereotypes, of course. Said to be based on some partial truth (this is debatable), they provide a superficial, quick way of assessing individuals when little information, other than readily observable traits, is available. 

Some stereotypes may be thought of as harmless, or even beneficial (i.e. Asian Americans as “model minorities,” though they are beginning to chafe at this label); others are unquestionably harmful. The problem with any stereotype is that it reduces individuals to categories based on race, gender, age, sexual orientation, etc., without taking their individuality into account.  For example, is “woman,” “gay,” “Indian,” the sum total of all there is to know about anyone? Most people of reasonable intelligence would say not. Why, then, are Americans as a whole so tolerant of persistent stereotyping in the media?  It could be just me, but the problem seems to be getting worse. 

There was a time, in the not-too-distant past, when I would experience a quick burst of righteous indignation, or, more likely, mild irritation, upon witnessing the more flagrant flaunting of stereotypes in the media, then peacefully resume my day. But now—whether due to advancing age or the fact that, as a mother, I care more now than before about the state of the world my child will inherit—my tolerance threshold seems to have radically decreased, and continues to diminish.

 A couple of years ago, Chevrolet had a commercial, in heavy rotation, particularly on Oprah Winfrey’s OWN channel, which it called “America the Beautiful” in celebration of its 100th anniversary. The commercial featured sepia-toned photographs harkening back to a time in the country, when, apparently, there were no Black, Hispanic, Asian, or Indian people, no single-parent households and, most assuredly, no gays. Only White people are featured: postwar, wholesome, nuclear families and carefree friends sharing the joys of their Chevrolets. All this with, ironically, Ray Charles singing his soulful version of “America the Beautiful” in the background (and produced during a time when we have our first U.S. president of color).

Incensed, I went to Oprah’s website intending to ask how she, as a woman of color, could countenance running such an ad on her network. But, unable to find a viewer feedback section (my heightened nerves may have been to blame), I went to Chevrolet’s site and wrote:

“Re your new commercial featuring the song ‘America the Beautiful’: Really? I am disappointed that, although an African American man is performing this iconic song, no African Americans—or any other people of color, for that matter—are shown. Have African Americans and other people of color not purchased Chevys over the years? What ‘America’ are you living in? The vision of this country that you are apparently trying to evoke does not exist; in fact, it never existed. Really Chevy—this was a bad call. What were your marketers thinking? I have spoken to other African Americans, and they feel the same.”

Two days later, a Chevrolet Customer Service Specialist named Aya e-mailed me. The response read, in part:

  “… As the world’s largest automaker, GM markets vehicles to all Americans, and we value all of our customers. We are highly interested in learning about the experiences and opinions of our customers. This type of information is very important to us in evaluating public reaction to our advertisement.

Feedback from customers like you is very helpful to us. We have taken your comments very seriously, and they have been brought to the attention of the appropriate people in our organization for future consideration. Because of your concerns, we will review and continue to monitor our advertising practices to ensure they are consistent with our policies.”

Now, you may scoff, but I never saw this commercial again. Of course, I’m not presuming that it was discontinued as a direct result of my lone complaint, but I, at least, never saw it again.

Contrast GM’s response to my feedback with that of Progressive Insurance, which is currently running a commercial, part of its popular “Flo” series, which fairly revels in stereotype. The commercial features a loud, fat, aggressive African American woman shouting, “Where’s Flo?!” When she accosts Flo, Flo cringes as if she’s about to be smacked. Enough said?

Encouraged by GM’s positive reception of my note, I e-mailed Progressive last month, writing:

“I am a Progressive policy holder, and I am highly offended by the most recent ‘Flo’ commercial featuring a ‘stereotypical’ African American woman. As an African American woman, I believe this loud, pushy, overweight caricature is a derogatory representation. Just as you ended your highly offensive ‘Chinese restaurant’ commercial, please end this one, or replace it with a normal portrayal of an African American woman. Most of us are not loud and pushy. Please do not perpetuate this harmful stereotype. I have spoken with other African Americans who feel the same way. Do you not conduct focus groups before you release new ads? If you do not do something soon, I may switch to another insurance company.

The next day, a Progressive internet representative Aimee C. responded:

“We make every effort to deliver a positive message that will appeal to all our customers. I’m sorry to hear that for you, we missed the mark. We take your feedback seriously, and I’ve already passed it on to our advertising department …”

Needless to say, my e-mail has had no discernible impact. In fact, the commercial seems to have gone into even heavier rotation since my e-mail to Progressive. I don’t know whether Aimee C., forwarded my note to the appropriate department, or assuming she did, whether anyone even read it.  Now of course, I didn’t expect that my threat of cancellation would leave Progressive quaking in its boots, but I seem to recall hearing somewhere that one consumer complaint is considered by large companies to represent 100,000 consumers who don’t bother to make contact.

I’m sure many people find the ad funny and/or amusing. Their positive feedback likely outweighs my objection by far. So what does this all have to do with Unitarian Universalism?

 “The inherent worth and dignity of every person” is the first of our seven principles. When we tolerate the propagation of seemingly harmless stereotypes in the media, by either not speaking out and/or continuing to financially support the purveyors of such stereotypes, we are complicit.

And lest you think I’m overreacting, stereotypes taken to the extreme, as we’ve seen in the George Zimmerman case, can, and have, had tragic consequences. Zimmerman assumed that because Trayvon was Black and wearing a hoodie, that he did not belong in Zimmerman’s neighborhood and was a physical threat to him. (For more information on Unitarian Universalist  response to the Zimmerman case, see Lynn Unger’s “I’ll Stand Her Ground” in the Fall 2013 issue of UU World.)

“Every individual” should mean that each and every one of us is taken to be a unique entity, and not a mere representation of some random, socially constructed category. One characteristic, however you define that characteristic—gender, sexual orientation, race, etc.—does not define an individual. Any transgression of a person’s individuality should not be tolerated.