Monday, December 2, 2013

Be Good For Goodness’ Sake

Be Good For Goodness’ Sake
Rev. Dr. Gaye Ortiz
Unitarian Universalist Church of Augusta
December 1 2013

The poet Robert Frost wrote these lines: “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to let you in.” (Harold Kushner, How Good Do We Have to Be? 1996, p.44) How many of us feel that, at the start of the holiday season, we rather they would bolt the doors from the inside and save us from the feelings of inadequacy, resentment, guilt, and shame that rear their ugly heads? The remarks about our weight, our vices, our lack of education/our overachieving by going to college, how we raise our children/how to raise our children, our jobs/ lack of jobs, and – gasp! – our strange religion… Any self-possessed, confident human being can emerge at New Year’s a blubbering wreck after too much family time, so imagine what it is like for people whose guilt complexes regularly go into overdrive.

 This morning I want to pay a visit to the ‘swampland’ of the soul; we are going to metaphorically ‘put on our galoshes and walk through and find our way around shame’ and the role it plays in dragging us down. (as Brene Brown puts it in her TED Talk “Listening to Shame,”

Shame tells you you’re not good enough - we become paralyzed by shame. And there is a difference between guilt and shame, we can suffer from them both. But guilt is about behavior: “I’m sorry, I made a mistake.” Shame focuses on the self, “I’m sorry I am a mistake” (Brown, “Listening to Shame”). Shame is highly correlated with depression, eating disorders and other compensatory or self-punishing behaviors. And no matter what we do, and how good we want to be, we can never shake the feeling that we are worthless, and that we must hide our pitiful defects as human beings.

In his book How Good Do We Have To Be, Rabbi Harold Kushner says that: “When Charles Darwin shocked the 19th century world with his theory that human beings and apes had a common ancestry, someone asked him whether there was still anything unique about the human being. Darwin answered, “Man is the only animal that blushes.” That is, human beings are the only creatures capable of recognizing the gap between what they are and what they can be expected to be, and of being embarrassed by that gap. (P.35)

Brene Brown studied shame for 6 years. She is the researcher and TED Talk phenomenon who we’ll see during the after-service discussion talking about the power of vulnerability. One of her findings was that shame feels the same when it 'washes over' us, it doesn’t matter if we are male or female, but it is 'organized' by gender: women feel shame because of the expectation that we should be able to do it all, perfectly; the unattainable expectations for men center around the need to not be perceived as weak.

And so the pressure to conform with cultural norms sets us up for failure – what we see in our tv shows, commercials, what we read in magazines or hear in our popular music. And when we internalize these cultural norms, shame grows in us…and we believe we are flawed and thus unworthy of love.

Shame is an epidemic in our culture, and much of it originates in what we are taught by our faith traditions.

A new film, Philomena, starring Judi Dench, is based on the treatment of young girls in 1950s Ireland who became pregnant and were sent off by their families to convents to have their babies. The nuns reinforced the tremendous shame they felt with a phobic disapproval of sex and sexuality; the mothers had to ‘pay back’ the nuns for giving birth in the convent with 4 years of hard labor in the convent laundries. many babies were sold and adopted out without the mothers’ approval or even knowledge. Imagine the trauma and shame that these young girls experienced and continued to hold inside for the rest of their lives.

Rabbi Kushner says that he is embarrassed by the way so many religious leaders play on our guilt and shame as a way to control our behavior.

He tells the story of a woman who was a client of a therapist, she was a devout Southern Baptist lady who would never let herself get angry because she believed that anger was a sin – so even when she was justified in getting angry, it was a source of shame and guilt that she tried desperately to avoid. The therapist “directed her to read through the Bible and write down all the passages in which God or Jesus gets angry.” (p.43)

One religious leader who seems to be bucking that trend of enforcing feelings of imperfection, so as to keep us cowering behind the pew, is no less that Pope Francis. This past week he wrote a papal exhortation, which one reporter described as sort of like an official platform of how he plans to exercise his papacy. And Pope Francis is asking for the focus on compassion to overtake that on perfection, especially when it comes to access to the sacraments like Holy Communion: "Everyone can share in some way in the life of the Church; everyone can be part of the community, nor should the doors of the sacraments be closed for simply any reason," Francis said.

"The Eucharist, although it is the fullness of sacramental life, is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak." (

He must have been reading Rabbi Kushner, who says of religion that it “…sets high standards for us and urges us to grow morally in our efforts to meet those standards: ‘You could have done better; you can do better.’ But listen closely to that message. Those are words of encouragement, not condemnation. They are a compliment to our ability to grow, not a criticism of our tendency to make mistakes…Religion condemns wrongdoing. It takes us to task for lying and hurting people. But religion also tries to wash us clean of disappointment in our selves, with the liberating message that God finds us worthy of divine love.” (P.7)

He states that “the fundamental message of religion is not that we are sinners because we are not perfect, but that the challenge of being human is so complex that God knows better than to expect perfection from us.” (P.10)

Rabbi Kushner describes how the renowned psychologist Carl Rogers would approach every therapeutic session, by reminding himself that in dealing with his clients “I am enough. Not perfect. Perfect wouldn’t be enough. But… I am human, and that is enough.” (P.7)

Kushner goes on to say that “not everyone is wise enough to know that they are good enough, even if they are not perfect.” We may have gotten this message of perfection from parents who genuinely loved us and wanted the best for us, and acted out that concern by correcting our every trivial mistake and constantly urging us to do better. Or we may have gotten it from parents who were emotionally stunted, disappointed in themselves, angry at the world, and incapable of showing us the love and approval we yearned for…and we… thought we were responsible for their sour mood and didn’t deserve to be loved.” (P.11)

When I read this it reminded me of the Philip Larkin poem “This Be The Verse,” which some of you may know contains the ‘f’ word – but Larkin used it because there was no other word that could possibly fit:

They f**k you up, your mum and dad.   
    They may not mean to, but they do.   
They fill you with the faults they had
    And add some extra, just for you.

But they were f**ked up in their turn
    By fools in old-style hats and coats,   
Who half the time were soppy-stern
    And half at one another’s throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
    It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
    And don’t have any kids yourself.

There is a bestselling author, John Bradshaw, who famously quoted a psychologist who said that 96% of families are dysfunctional. Rabbi Kushner says that this figure is correct “only if we define dysfunctional as being anything less than perfect.” The approach of Philip Larkin, who advises us not to have any kids if we want to end the cycle of shame and misery, is refuted by Kushner, who reminds us that “children are resilient enough to survive most of our parental mistakes, especially if they occur against a background of love and support, free of expectations of perfection on our part or theirs.” (P.89)

Rabbi Kushner says that if our parents cannot handle our mistakes, if they have trouble loving us…it may be because they need us to be perfect to reflect credit on them. (P.55)

Rabbi Kushner quotes the philosopher Immanuel Kant, who said “Out of timber as crooked as that which man is made of, nothing perfectly straight can be carved.” He goes on to say that he believes God never demanded that we be perfect or never make a mistake, but only asks us to be whole.

“To be whole means to rise beyond the need to pretend that we are perfect, to rise above the fear that we will be rejected for not being perfect, And it means having the integrity not to let the inevitable moments of weakness and selfishness become permanent parts of our character.” (P.180)

The 3 things shame needs to grow and become permanent parts of our character are secrecy, silence, and judgment. Judgment from a critic who is lacking in compassion or context or mercy…and that critic is us, telling ourselves we are not good enough, asking us ‘who do you think you are’. Kushner says that shame “ grows out of our perception of what other people think about us.” (P.51)

Brene Brown learned through her research that there is a flip side to shame – and it is that people who are the most resilient to shame, the people she calls ‘wholehearted,’ have in common a way of looking at their lives as worthy: “cultivating the courage, compassion, and connection to wake up in the morning and think, “No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough…I am…brave and worthy of love and belonging.” (Brown, Daring Greatly, 2014)

Brown says that this is the message of Theodore Roosevelt’s famous quote about the man in the arena, part of a speech he delivered ("Citizenship In A Republic" delivered at the Sorbonne, in Paris, France) over a century ago in 1910, and which is the inspiration for the title of her book ‘Daring Greatly’:
"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
When we make ourselves vulnerable, and say that we are just enough, not perfect, then we take that first step to wholeness. What is more, vulnerability is the path that will lead us back to one another."

We Unitarian Universalists may have a hard time reciting all 7 of our principles, but most of us know by heart the first principle, which affirms the worth and dignity of every human being. We can find that principle hard to put into action, no more so that when it comes to ourselves, we need to affirm our own worth and dignity. And we can do that by being realistic about our chances of being perfect; of knowing that when we keep our imperfections secret, we are distancing ourselves from other people who also are feeling alone and isolated in their imperfection. We can affirm our worth and dignity by reaching out instead, by taking a chance, by being vulnerable – as the subtitle of another of Brene Brown’s books says, “Making the journey from ‘What will people think?’ to ‘I am enough.’ 

Naomi Shihab Nye puts it like this:
Walk around feeling like a leaf.

Know you could tumble any second.

Then decide what to do with your time.
(- excerpt from “The Art of Disappearing,” Naomi Shihab Nye, Source: Words Under the Words: Selected Poems)

‘Don’t be afraid of letting go’ were the words that Nina so beautifully danced to this morning. “If we are going to find our way out of shame and back to each other, vulnerability is the path, and courage is the light. To love ourselves and support each other in the process of becoming real is perhaps the greatest single act of daring greatly.”
 BrenĂ© Brown (DG)
The UU minister Katie Norris gives us a way of understanding why our faith is so vital to her identity through these words: “My faith is so important to me because it speaks of salvation in this life, through knowing you are loved just as you are, and discovering who you are and your place in the universe so you can live out your purpose in life.” (
So forget about being good for goodness’ sake. Let the gift to yourself this holiday season be the gift of being enough. May we be the ones who make it so, Blessed be, Amen.