“Confessions of a Former Misanthrope” by Jolie Olivetti
October 4, 2015 – First Parish of Watertown, MA
Are there any born again Unitarian Universalists?
Our religion doesn’t generally lend itself
to dramatic transformations like that
We’re all welcomed into the free and responsible
search for truth and meaning
from the time we walk through these doors
We’re all engaged in this process of discerning what we believe
For my part,
I won’t stand here and claim that I’m “born again” UU
But I did lay some burdens down
Thanks to two UU “conversion” moments
one in a research station near the Tiputini River in Ecuador
one in a UU sanctuary in Roxbury, Massachusetts
And I mean conversion – not in the sense of joining a new faith
but rather in the sense of returning
to what was inscribed in me during my UU upbringing
I have read and re-read the teachings of our faith tradition
as they are written on my heart
I have been refreshed and restored to love
I had basically written off humankind as a kid.
At age 15, I half-jokingly described myself as a “misanthrope,”
thinking it was kind of cute of me to be so curmudgeonly
as a young person, but also kind of despairingly believing it too.
During my childhood
my most profound religious experiences were in the out of doors.
Walking in the woods in the park behind my house in Northern Virginia,
dunking in the frigid ocean in Martinsville, Maine
I was transported and in touch with glorious mystery.
If I prayed, I prayed to big oak trees and rocks along the coast
I felt a patient benevolence flowing towards me from nature
Even sitting in the pews in our sanctuary at the
Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington Virginia,
I would listen to the meditations or sermons
or whatever they were talking about up there
gazing up at the trees visible through the highest windows,
feeling very connected to awe and wonder that way,
the light glinting through green leaves that waved this way and that
but not so much by connecting
with the people sitting to my left and right.
I did not extend my love of the people around me –
family, friends, teachers –
to a general love for humanity.
People, as a whole, seemed unreliable and greedy.
Politics was a mess,
people were suffering everywhere and nobody knew what to do about it,
and we had trashed the planet.
I put my faith in that thing I knew to be true, and wondrous and mysterious, and greater than us people with our petty ways.
I put my faith in nature, and only nature.
So here comes the first conversion moment.
I’m in college.
I had followed my devotion to nature
into an environmental studies program at Boston University.
I’m studying abroad in Ecuador, a program in tropical ecology.
I’m in the Tiputini region of the Amazon rainforest,
at an outpost for scientific study.
Our professor is presenting some central questions that conservation biologists ask about developing habitat preserves.
What’s the best configuration of these parks:
single, large protected areas?
or corridors of several smaller ones?
What’s the goal of creating these preserves:
To try to conserve the greatest total number of species?
Or do we create parks to save the “charismatic megafauna?”
[can anyone guess what that means?]
I’m listening to these questions, dutifully taking notes, and suddenly they seem like the wrong questions.
My mind gets stuck on different questions:
How did conservation biology fit in with the rest of society,
given that its primary method is to fence “nature” off from “people”?
Aren’t we part of nature too?
I raise my hand and ask, “What about humans? Is anyone developing habitat preserves that take into account people within ecosystems?”
The professor responds that he doesn’t focus on those approaches, as they don’t ensure maximum species conservation. Since the vast majority of people no longer live in a way that is remotely reconcilable with natural processes, the only hope for preserving biological diversity is to set aside these parks.
His answer was realistic within his field, but it also made me a little sad.
It made me almost homesick for a way of life
that I had never known, a way of life that somehow
didn’t pit humans and nature against each other.
Something flickered deep within me when I heard his answer.
Something reminded me that my faith tradition
Taught me to believe
that I am part of an interdependent web of existence.
I realized that I wanted to orient my life differently,
I wasn’t ready to give up on the possibility
that human life and other forms of life can flourish together.
This beckoned me to seek a balance, to acknowledge that the ceaseless exploitation of natural resources hasn’t always been the way, and actually isn’t the way still for many peoples around the world.
I got interested in reconciling people and the environment.
I studied and worked in sustainable development, then environmental public health, then urban ecology – the interactions of people, nature, and the infrastructures of cities.
After that, I learned how to grow food organically,
and then fell head-over-heels for in urban farming.
Before, I had sought refuge in nature
from the apparent hopelessness of humanity,
I had followed my rejection of people, all the way to the Amazon, to a context so far from what I knew of society (revealing my ignorance at the time – this being remote to me, but obviously not remote to the people who live there!)
But I brought this truth about nature with me
on this journey to the rainforest,
a seed planted by my church that had been lying dormant:
That we are part of nature, and nature is part of us.
Nature takes care of us and we should take care of nature.
We are interdependent.
Ok It’s time for the second UU conversion moment.
So, as I just mentioned,
my passion for the places where people and planet
are working out our interconnectedness led me to urban farming.
I was working at a homeless shelter in Dorchester
where there is also a small farm
I worked with shelter residents, mothers and their children,
running a summer program for neighborhood youth,
and selling vegetables at a farmstand down the street.
I was enchanted to learn a little bit about how we can
work the land in the city to grow some sustenance,
and was still a little confused about people. I knew it was futile to disregard people in our efforts to live better on this earth,
but maybe something was still missing.
The nonprofit where I worked stressed
that there is a bright line between the staff and the client
the helper and the helped.
There was something stilted about trying to reach across that bright line
How should I relate to the residents of the homeless shelter? the young people in our summer program? The neighbors I sold tomatoes to?
While I was working at the farm in Dorchester,
I attended my friend Jason’s ordination to Unitarian Universalist ministry.
A revered elder in the world of Boston social work
named Kip Tiernan spoke at Jason’s service.
Kip participated in founding an astonishing number
of important community organizations in Boston,
including Rosie’s Place, the first women’s shelter in the US, and a program that continues to offer a wide range of support to poor and homeless women in Boston.
She has since passed away and her legacy lives on.
That day at the First Church in Roxbury,
Kip talked to the assembled crowd of Jason’s family and friends
about the way we think about social work.
She lamented that in the world of professional service provision,
people are too often forced into a mindset
where helping comes with an intense agenda attached.
As in, “I’m gonna help you because it’s my job,
because I’m an expert in helping,
because expect some ‘improvement’ in you to result from,
or even in exchange for my help.”
Sitting in my pew in Roxbury that day,
Kip dared me to imagine helping others out of friendship instead,
because we need each other’s help,
with no strings attached.
With no agenda, hidden or otherwise,
with no idea that we are obliged to effect some change in the other.
Rather, we can honor our shared humanity,
We can recognize that the line between “client” and “staff” is ultimately
drawn rather than real.
We all have the power to help one another and to ask for help,
to give and receive love.
Kip’s words echoed in my mind over
the course of the next several years working on the farm.
It was a reminder to question
the way I saw myself in that setting.
Was I there to act like I had some special power
to change the shelter residents and neighbors –
who am I to say they need to change?
Or was I there because I loved
to grow food and work with people,
and we all need fresh vegetables to eat?
When Kip coaxed me to be there for people
out of friendship and love and mutual concern
It reverberated with something my mother
had told me when I was seven or eight.
In response to my question,
“Mom, what is the Universalist part of Unitarian Universalist?”
she had answered that we Universalists believe that all people are saved.
What was “saved?”
I had buried mom’s answer away somewhere,
and it hadn’t had chance to bear fruit of meaning until Kip’s message was knocking around
in my head on the farm in Dorchester,
and something was revealed to me
Of course! “saved”
can mean that all people are worthy and have great dignity
All people are experts in their own lives.
I don’t need to act like I’ve got something magical to offer the people I’m supposed to be helping; in fact, it would be much better if I didn’t.
It’s much better when I help people because I love people.
It’s hard to believe in our universal capacity for goodness
because we’re always proving ourselves wrong
But still, it’s more life-giving
to help people, and receive others’ help,
out of good old love.
The Reverend Dr. Thandeka’s responsive reading says
“this common world I love anew
As the life blood of generations
who refused to surrender their humanity
in an inhumane world
courses through my veins
From within this world
My despair is transformed to hope
And I begin anew
The legacy of caring”
I have felt that change in me; despair transformed into hope
as I learned
We are all wounded, we been the cause of others’ wounds
our wounds can heal, we can all offer healing
We all need love, we all have love to give
Myles Horton had something to say about “long-range goals”
in the passage I read earlier
He describes the power of committing
to big visions that direct our lives, and that connect us with each other.
In Myles’ words, “the reason for saving whales is that they are a part of life, and you want to save life. You must make your goal a part of something larger. If it’s an end-all, then it has severe limitations. A long-range goal has to be something for everybody. It can’t be a goal that helps some people but hurts others.”
The message that I heard in the Ecuadorian rainforest,
That we can try to work better with nature by recognizing our interdependence
And having Kip’s speech as the soundtrack to my job in Dorchester,
showing me that I can help people out of love and friendship
Both were conversions that invited me
to believe in something big, and difficult
these leaps of faith have transformed me from a half-joking misanthrope into someone who is called to love people, and to act out of that unwavering love.
The full flourishing of all life
is a far-off dream, calling us from a great distance
Like Horton says, we may not get there in our lifetimes
But it’s gonna be a beautiful journey
with a lotta love along the way.