“Believing the Best” – September 18, 2005
Mark W. Harris
Opening Words – from Harry Scholefield
There is no beginning or end to what we have started, And to what we can do
This morning we awoke — The sun was streaming through the window of our
The time is now. The days are bright, But they will darken. And the earth is
space, spinning. On the coming cold and dreary days we need All the love we
can give to keep our lives bright, And to spread glad warmth, From the
wellsprings of our being, inward to ourselves, And outward to each other.
Each day is that important. No day is more significant than any other; than
the yesterday or the tomorrow day. Now is the time we are. In the coming
year let us do good things for one another.
Chalice – from David A. Johnson
When evil darkens our world, Give us light.
When despair numbs our souls, Give us hope.
When we falter and fear, Surround us with beauty.
When nothing seems sure, Give us trust.
When we lose our way, Be Thou our light and guide.
More than 150 years ago, a young woman named Dorothea Dix decided to
teach a Bible class at the East Cambridge Jail. In this class of 20 women
they sang hymns, and Dix told them the story of Mary Magdalene. While she
was trying to reach out to these women, she heard some strange wailing
voices emanating from other places in the prison. She decided to look
around, but first asked the jail keeper what those sounds were. He laughed
and said, “Oh those are the mad ones, you just can’t keep them quiet.” Mad
people, of course referred to the mentally ill, and Dix wondered, why they
were in jail. ”Only the poor ones,” the keeper said, “nobody else wants
them, so we lock them up here.” Dix toured the prison, and saw incredible
conditions of filth and chains or cages confining these people with few
clothes on their backs and no warmth in the cells. They didn’t need a
stove, Dix was told, they might burn themselves, and besides they didn’t
know the difference between hot and cold. This experience of seeing helpless
and forgotten victims motivated a frail teacher to become the greatest
advocate for the mentally ill the world has ever known. Traveling up and
down the eastern seaboard, Dix helped establish places of nurturance and
care for those whom society had ignored and left to die. A close friend of
the Unitarian leader, William Ellery Channing, Dix was living out her
liberal religious principles that had taught her to believe in the worth of
every person, that all people deserve every chance in the world to be
educated to the best of their abilities and nurtured with shelter, food and
human care. While it may seem naive to us today, Dix said, “All they need
Dix’s story came to mind when I heard the comments of Barbara Bush after
she saw the hurricane victims housed at the Astrodome in Houston. While I
don’t have the exact words, the implication was that these poor people
really had it good now, even better than they had ever known, because they
had shelter and food. She seemingly forget that they were displaced and
homeless, and had lost everything. Dix’ response to the jail was let’s show
these victims the most compassion we can, and help them get on their feet.
The more recent hurricane response by the former first lady seemingly
emanates from a point of view which believes these people had never done
anything or had anything anyway, so this temporary relief is probably as
good as it gets. They should be grateful for the little they receive. By
now we are all familiar with the horrors of the hurricane, the slowness and
ineptness of the response, the seeming callousness of those in power, and
the public relations cover-up that has followed. In my newsletter column,
I implied that government response was slow because most of those who seemed
to be abandoned without food or water were poor people of color. These
people mattered less because no wants them in the first place. While this
may be debatable, I think we can say it is true that all of us do not share
the same views about human nature. Nor do we respond to people who are
undergoing adverse situations or conditions in the same way. Some of us look
at others, those who have not had the same material or educational
advantages we had, and we say they didn’t get the right nurturance or the
right opportunities, and it is not necessarily their fault that things did
not work out. Perhaps they need more help or understanding. Others of us
look at others with a more suspicious eye, we may say that this person got
in trouble because they didn’t follow the rules, not because they didn’t
know any better. We may say if they had taken advantage of what was given
to them, they would have succeeded, but they didn’t work hard, or were lazy
or made bad choices, and therefore their failures are really their own
Some of us believe the best about people. Like Dix, we share that
everybody deserves to be nurtured and loved, and people would be better if
they were just loved and listened to a little more. Some of us believe the
worst about people. We think humans tend to be cruel and selfish, and so
they need to be disciplined and trained and even shackled so that they
follow the rules and maintain order. They can be loved and nurtured as
well, but this comes more often as a reward for following the rules. The
fundamental question is what do we expect of other people?
Our expectations of others was apparent in some of the news accounts in
the aftermath of the hurricane. For example there was widespread reporting
of massive looting by people in New Orleans. But how much looting really
occurred? Was there really mass mayhem and violence? Sociologist says that
after a natural disaster like that, there is usually very little looting.
They also tells us that we tend to make crowds more malevolent than they
really are. And in the midst of such a catastrophic disaster we need to
distinguish between a desperate mother in search of diapers and formula, or
a old man who hasn’t eaten in days and is parched from lack of water, from
someone else who runs amok. Even so, the reports of what one journalist
called Hobbesian violence were apparently simply not true. Was the problem
that the government and the reporters both believed or expected that there
would be a great deal of wanton destruction? Did they expect more problems
because the people were poor or people of color? Expectations have a great
deal to do with how we might respond to situations such as these. So the
reporters expected violence, and then reported it, even though it did not
happen to the degree they expected. Was there some blaming of the victims by
speculating that we couldn’t go in and help because it was reported to be
too dangerous? These expectations also play a role in not only what you
fear going in to a disaster, but also in terms of your plan for responding.
Those who believe the worst about people will be more concerned about
restoring order than they will be about getting food to people. Those who
believe the worst will want a curfew to keep people confined, but those who
believe the best might say let the people be free to move around so they can
help others in their hour of need. We could say that those who expected the
worst from people got what they expected, even if the reality was not true.
Do we get what we expect? And which do you choose worst or best?
I know I grew up expecting the worst. Even though my family, at least on
my father’s side, had risen from the depths of depression era poverty to
economic success, I felt as though the influences on my life were telling me
to believe the worst. Church was a powerful factor for me, and there the
overriding interpretation of Christianity was that humans were sinners who
were naturally inclined to make sinful choices, and mostly in good Calvinist
fashion, there was nothing we could do to change that sinful nature except
throw our evil selves on the mercy of Jesus. So I had God telling me that I
could expect the worst from myself, unless I followed the straight and
narrow path of doing exactly as I was told. Obedience led to love. My
parents reinforced this expectation. Boys would avoid books and learning in
favor of sports, so it was expected that parents would need to force us to
do our homework. Boys only wanted sex, so it was dangerous for boys to be
left in the same room with girls unless chaperoned or shackled. This was
reinforced socially as well. I vividly remember one vacation where we had
rented a cottage sight unseen, and it turned out that many of the families
nearby were African American. My parents in all their misinformed and
paranoid anxiety had the expectation that all these strangers were going to
come attack us during the night. We had a sleepless few hours witnessing
jumpy adults who reacted to every outside noise with horror, before we
packed the car near dawn and headed home. Strangers are out to get you was
the expectation I had. My mother talked about deadbeats who wouldn’t pay
their bills, but I ended up feeling that most people should be seen as
deadbeats who couldn’t be trusted with information about me, or didn’t
deserve nurture and care from me. So I expected wives to cheat, car dealers
to lie, and banks to steal, and oh, people to try to take everything I had.
I have spent the rest of my life trying to undo the ethos of expecting
the worst from others. My own life and mind have always been a battleground
of best vs. worst. Philosophically, those of you who have heard my story of
becoming Unitarian Universalist know that it lifted a great burden from me
to learn about our liberal faith, that like Dorothea Dix, I longed to expect
great things of people, the best in fact, and with that, a belief every
person is capable of responding to others with nurturance and care. So in
graduate school I embraced a faith that believed in human potential and
goodness. I felt affirmed by this faith in human abilities, and declared
that this was my one true religion. I believed in this liberal approach so
much I wanted to live it out as a minister who imparts the faith to others.
Yet being born again Unitarian Universalist in my mind was different from
actually believing the best about others.
Several times during the last year I have had debates with Andrea about
whether believing the best of others is a naive, and ultimately painful and
disappointing way to go through life. Note that Andrea was raised Unitarian
Universalist. We have been involved in a couple of situations where we
expected an honest and open exchange of information which would lead to open
communication, and yet we did not receive what we expected to from others
who we would label professionals. Certain people did not communicate at
all, said they would do something and then did not, or manipulated a process
so that what was offered was summarily not offered without prior warning.
People lied, were incompetent or were duplicitous in their actions. Sounds
like an emergency relief agency. I sometimes refer to myself as a Calvinist
Unitarian, meaning one who has never quite come to trust others. My rearing
has left the scar that giving information to others means that those people
will ultimately use that information against me. Those of you who heard my
struggles with leaving a scooter unprotected at a playground know of this
quandary about human nature. I did not trust enough to leave the scooter
for fear someone would steal it. Time and again in my adult life I have
forced myself to believe the best even though my inclination is to believe
the worst. My faith and my training as a minister tells me to help those
who want a meal or have other kinds of emergency needs, but my “expect the
worst” heritage tells me most of them are lying. So I still struggle with
my expectations. On the other hand, what happens to us when we have been
reared to believe the best, and trust in the best intentions of others?
What happens if in giving our trust and goodwill to others they turn on us,
and hurt us? How many times can we go back to the well, and lower our bucket
of trust, and have it come up empty or full of stones rather than filled
with fresh, refreshing waters of communication, understanding and care.
No one want to be naive about human nature. No one wants to be fooled or
deceived by others. Even though I have seen others deceive me and those I
love, I find my heart longing to fully embrace the faith that calls me to
believe the best about others. In his book Moral Politics, George Lakoff
tells us that there are two models of ideal family life which set the
priorities for distinct moral systems. One of these is the Strict Father
Family. While there is love and nurturance in this model, it never outweighs
authority. Children learn self-discipline, self-reliance and respect for
authority. If people are left to their own devices, they will only satisfy
their own desires. You obey the rules and act in an upright manner. The
other model for morality is the Nurturant Parent model. Here morality is
not following rules with a consequence of punishment for misbehavior, but
feeling empathy for others. With this model we gain a sense of what it is
like to be in the other persons shoes. What children need to learn first in
this model is to feel empathy for others rather than successfully following
the rules. There is open, two way communication between parent and child.
Above all nurturance of others takes priority over self-interest. Lakoff
believes these two ways of understanding morality and family life dominate
our political life as well. These modalities also are reflected in two
approaches to Christianity or
faith. In one, humans are morally weak, and need saving by the strong
father. In the other Jesus is an ethical model who can teach us how to be
empathetic to others. In one there are rewards and punishments for self. In
the other there is a the greater reward of helping others becoming more
nurturing and creating a more interdependent world. Lakoff concludes that
we must unite liberals, who mostly represent this nurturing model, and
remake the world. It is that important! This is so our children grow up to
nurture others, believing the best, rather than fearing others as one, like
me, who has struggled with believing the worst knows all too well.
This summer the sixth volume in the Harry Potter series was issued with
all the usual hoopla that accompanies such events. We were in Maine at the
time, and devotedly visited the local bookstore to consume chocolate spiders
and other such magical treats as Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
appeared. Early on, Dumbledore, the head of Hogwarts School of witchcraft
and wizardry tells Harry’s guardians that Harry is about to come of age.
Harry does come of age with more blood letting and bone breaking with each
succeeding volume. We had read a review of the increasing violence in this
installment of the series, and were concerned about Levi’s reading the new
book. But after he read the entire book in two days, it turned out, he loved
it. Evangelicals have often voiced concerns about the Harry Potter series
because they fear it promotes evil. These censors have the wayward view that
the series promotes sorcery and satanism, when all it ever seemed to promote
to me was a good adventure and plenty of fantasy. Not bad things for any
child who will hope will be a good reader. Harry Potter and his headmaster
Dumbledore do confront a very sinister world. And perhaps if our liberal
faith has had a flaw over the years, it is that we have not appreciated how
sinister others can be. This is especially true if we are holding out for
our belief in the best about others.
With a realization that it can be a sinister world out there where things
often go awry, We need to ask how can we best respond spiritually to the
challenges that confront us. Throughout the Harry Potter series there has
been some question as to whether Professor Severus Snape, head of Slytherin
House is aligned with good or evil forces. Harry tends to think he is loyal
to Voldemort, but Dumbledore believes he is innocent, and rewards him in
this latest book with the position he has always desired, teacher of Defense
against the Dark Arts. Early on in the book, we hear Snape wonder if
Dumbledore’s belief about the goodness of people will be his downfall. He
says his greatest weakness is that “ he has to believe the best of people.”
His belief brings out love and trust in others. Is that a mistake? Which
will turn the world in the long run toward just and peaceful communities –
believing the best or the worst? Did it help the people of New Orleans to
lock them up to restore order, or would it have been better to allow them to
help one another by offering food and water? If this world is to go on in
all its beauty and its glory, we can choose to exploit or control one
another or help, care, and listen to one another. Which is more likely to
give us a better life for all? If we believe the worst, we become the worst:
negative, lonely and afraid. We can never love another with a full heart of
trust and understanding. I struggle with believing the best, but my faith
demands I keep on trying. For believing the best means I help fulfill those
expectations. I become more positive, loving and open to others. I am not
alone anymore. I know in my heart it is the way of the world that will
build that love, create community, and nurture children who in turn can care
about others and their world.
The man at the car dealers said everything’s gone wrong today,
if anything could fail, it did,
Every day is like this – running rough shod over me, running red lights,
But it’s not true . . .
Even if you believe it so.
The sun came up and the world turned.
And the grocer gave me my money back.
Not out to cheat, they made a mistake.
Today the world brings joy.
There was a smile, a welcome.
Nobody wanted anything.
They were just present for another’s presence.
And so it is that leaves are green, then golden, then green again.
It’s not so bad. Green will come.
Together we make it happen.
I hear you planning in the night . .
With the tears you shed for others, wounds heal.
With the smiles you give for no reason whatsoever, hearts turn to gladness.
With the handshakes you offer even out of being polite, we join as one . .
To make this world of ours a more beautiful, more welcoming home for all..
The best world possible.
Closing Words by Sheenagh Pugh, ”Sometimes”
Sometimes things don’t go, after all,
from bad to worse. Some years muscadel
faces down frost, green thrives; the crops don’t fail,
Sometimes one aims high, and all goes well.
A people sometimes will step back from war;
elect an honest one; decide they care
enough, that they can’t leave some stranger poor.
Some become what they were born for.
Sometimes our best efforts do not go
amiss; sometimes we do as we meant to.
The sun will sometimes melt a field of sorrow
that seemed hard frozen: may it happen for you.