“Inner Voices” by Mark W. Harris

April 3, 2016 – First Parish of Watertown

Call to Worship – from Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

“Sometimes we have to make the best of things, and the way we conduct ourselves when the chips are down – well, all I can say is when you and Jem are grown, maybe you’ll look back on this with some compassion and some feeling that I didn’t let you down. This case, Tom Robinson’s case, is something that goes to the essence of a man’s conscience – Scout, I couldn’t go to church and worship God if I didn’t try to help that man.” “Atticus, you must be wrong….” “How’s that?” “Well, most folks seem to think that, they’re right and you’re wrong….” “They’re certainly entitled to think that, and they’re entitled to full respect for their opinions,” said Atticus, “but before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.”

Reading – from Hamlet by William Shakespeare

To be, or not to be- that is the question:

Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,

And by opposing end them. To die- to sleep-

No more; and by a sleep to say we end

The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks

That flesh is heir to. ‘Tis a consummation

Devoutly to be wish’d. To die- to sleep.

To sleep- perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub!

For in that sleep of death what dreams may come

When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,

Must give us pause. There’s the respect

That makes calamity of so long life.

For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,

Th’ oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,

The pangs of despis’d love, the law’s delay,

The insolence of office, and the spurns

That patient merit of th’ unworthy takes,

When he himself might his quietus make

With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,

To grunt and sweat under a weary life,

But that the dread of something after death-

The undiscover’d country, from whose bourn

No traveller returns- puzzles the will,

And makes us rather bear those ills we have

Than fly to others that we know not of?

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,

And thus the native hue of resolution

Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,

And enterprises of great pith and moment

With this regard their currents turn awry

And lose the name of action.- Soft you now!

The fair Ophelia!- Nymph, in thy orisons

Be all my sins rememb’red.


Sermon –

A couple of weeks ago Andrea and I were at Watertown High School for performances of the musical “Fiddler on the Roof.” The plot focuses on a Jewish community in Russia where the father Tevye, is concerned with balancing “Tradition” with the modern ways of life he is confronted with. Traditionally the community includes a matchmaker who determines arranged marriages, but it turns out that Tevye’s three older daughter’s have different ideas about love and marital choices. Tevye must cope with their strong-willed actions and then each one’s choice of a husband moves further away from the customs of his faith I was immediately struck by Tevye’s soliloquies about decision making in response to these familial and religious challenges where he weighs the alternatives by repeating “on the one hand, followed soon thereafter by the alternative, “on the other hand.” One conversation with himself begins on the one hand: “He loves her. Love, it’s a new style… On the other hand, our old ways were once new, weren’t they?… On the other hand, they decided without parents, without a matchmaker!… On the other hand, did Adam and Eve have a matchmaker?… Well, yes, they did. And it seems these two have the same Matchmaker!” Out loud decision making with ourselves is a tried and true method. Should I or Shouldn’t I? In Fiddler love wins out for Tevye and his daughters, but the pain of separation becomes great in the sad finale where the Jews are expelled from their village by the hard line constable played in the Watertown performance by my son Asher.

Do you talk to yourself? Do you spontaneously hear voices or music? Do you have a rich dream life? There are a number of experiences that come from inside our heads that we rarely share with others. Do those voices have spiritual significance? Being reluctant to talk about such things, most of us would be slow to admit the validity of these experiences, except for dreams, which we mostly say we don’t remember. This is because we think of those who talk out loud to themselves as being mentally ill. We think they are responding to voices from inside their head that only they can hear, and it is symptomatic of a problem that needs medical care. We may hear them on the bus, or in passing by a homeless person, who may say he/she is responding to the word of God. And this is where it gets frightening because we may think of a religious fanatic like David Koresh or Jim Jones, where the zealot will say that God has spoken to them to act in such a manner, and it is often destructive or violent towards society or other people. These days it may be difficult to discern if the person is talking to himself or herself, as they may have some kind of head device on, and are actually talking to someone.

Let me confess. Believe it or not, I think of myself as mostly sane and functional, and yet my family will tell you that I do indeed talk to myself. Probably the most obvious example of this is not over important life issues or decision-making, but over a game of cards. Most every night after supper we engage in a game of Gin Rummy. My dilemma usually comes in trying to discern which card to play. I hate to discard a face card, but if I have one that does not seem go with anything in my hand, then it makes sense to play it, but for some reason I feel a need to verbalize this agonized decision making. I could do this or I could do that. If the discard pile has something that might go with the card I am playing then my conversation with myself becomes all the more loud and animated, including groans of dismay. Here the decision-making may be less clear than the marital issues for Tevye’s daughters, because he has some idea of where the relationship might be heading, whereas in cards, we never know what the next card may be.

Today I am going to suggest that while we may be ashamed or embarrassed to mention how much some of us talk to ourselves, and we sometimes associate it with aberrant behavior, I think it has a time honored and worthy history, and underscores the importance of weighing the validity of important decisions in our heads, even out loud to ourselves before blurting out emotional responses or getting others opinions, which as Attius Finch reminds us in the opening words, we must be able to follow our own conscience and live with ourselves first and foremost, and as Attitus’ defense of Tom made clear, others may be dead wrong in their judgments. Is there a correlation between hearing voices and a conversation with ourselves? I think mostly yes, because the voices we hear are usually coming from inside our heads. Take the famous story of Elijah from the book of I Kings. The prototype of God speaking to us in a loud dramatic fashion in wind or earthquake or fire is rejected. Here God speaks to Elijah in a still small voice. It is personal and quiet, and maybe the first recoded instance of God as conscience. The implication is that we drown out the voice of the holy when we shout hurrah at our successes, and weep uncontrollably at our failures. When we ponder things slowly in our hearts, the clear, more truthful voice can be heard after the shouting has ended. Be still and know.

The quiet humility of former President Jimmy Carter is apparent here. Some of us remember the famous Playboy magazine interview that Carter submitted too when he was a Presidential candidate in 1976. He said he “looked on a lot of women with lust” and had “committed adultery in my heart many times,” While he saw this as a form of sin, many people thought it was silly to think of lust in his heart as a sin when he hadn’t actually done anything. Another aspect of this is how many lustful or judgmental conversations go on inside our heads that we are fearful of admitting to ourselves, to say nothing of mentioning to others. Carter shows he has the courage to admit that we each have these conversations with ourselves that expose our deepest desires and motivations and feelings, both our best, and our worst. Carter admitting that he had these thoughts was vouching that he was like most everyone else in the human race. We all have a tendency to see people or things we desire or judge inferior, but Carter had the courage to admit it. My inner voice is my true voice, and not the public façade. Just this past week, Andrea and I saw August Wilson’s play How I Learned What I Learned. Wilson was a Black man who grew up in the Hill District of Pittsburgh. In one of many moving scenes in this one-man show, Wilson describes the experience of going into a bank to cash a $750 check. One feels with him the silent judgments of the bank employees whose internal conversations say this black man is unworthy to have this money, and we are suspicious of him because of his race, his color, and his demeanor. I was suddenly taken inside the heads of all those retail owners and employees, and heard their conversations with themselves. Is he going to rob us? Is he going to steal something? Will he cause a disturbance? What kinds of conversations happen inside our heads about people who don’t meet our standards? Carter was helping us confess we are all like this. We have these private conversations with ourselves, and if we admitted them, then we would go a long way towards understanding our common humanity, and our need to have basic respect for others.

I suspect I think more about what is going on inside my head, as I get older. I worry some about forgetfulness when I can’t recall the word I need to use, and find the synonyms for the word I want do occur to me, but the exact word refuses to materialize on my lips. So there are lots of conversations with myself about whether I am all right or not. So, too, when I don’t feel well. I find I am more likely to have that inner conversation about whether something is really wrong or not. I may have these same conversations with myself about people I care about. If someone seems to keep forgetting something, I wonder to myself if his or her lapses of memory are symptomatic of something more serious. This may mean I am holding conversations about you in my brain if I am concerned, but the good thing is that mostly it seems like a conversation I am keeping in confidence, unless of course you believe I have a split personality.   Even as a I conduct a service it is possible to become distracted by the conversations inside my head which may be about why someone is or isn’t here, or why they had to leave, or whose cell phone is that and the ever present bane of my existence, am I running out of time?

What goes on inside our heads is ultimately important. Think of the most famous soliloquy of all time. Poor Hamlet. He is not one to mess around, as he goes straight to the most difficult challenge of all, should I live or not?   We have to live with a lot of difficult challenges, and sometimes life is unfair. But the alternative seems worse. Death seems a big chance, as we don’t know what comes next. Conscience makes cowards of us all, because we can’t just act; we need to reflect on what’s best. Perhaps it’s better to bear the ills we have. Given that we all have these inner voices that we speak with, we might also wonder about the frequency of other such inner voices.

Now that we have determined that I and perhaps you talk to yourself out loud when nobody else is around, and that we may carry on an internal conversation with ourselves, there are other experiences that fall within this same bailiwick. For instance, do you hear music inside your head at times? Sure the radio or the presence of children may lead you to break out into song to express joy or relieve boredom. But there are also those other tunes that come into your head seemingly spontaneously. Maybe the MUZAK on the elevator was playing “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head, “and hours later it suddenly comes into your brain. Why is it always the annoying songs?   Or perhaps you are feeling angry, and you break into “I Cat Get No Satisfaction.” Or even feeling gratitude for a wondrous joy makes you hear “Tis a Gift to Be Simple, Tis a Gift to be Free” There are also those mental images that surface when we close our eyes. In one of his books Robert Fulghum asks, If you close your eyes, can you bring up an image of the Eiffel Tower? I’ve never seen the Eiffel Tower, but I can see my little church in England called Unberbank Chapel, and my family home where I grew up. Try it. Right now even, Close your eyes, and see that powerful image that recalls memories of joy or beauty, or even sad or scary things, but nevertheless left an indelible mark on your growth as a person.

In some ways I spoke of these experiences last week in the context of keeping alive a deceased person whom we loved. Certain smells may bring up mental images, and I used the example of my father’s extraordinary beef stew. I also spoke of the power of dreams in keeping alive a person we care about deeply. I had just that night dreamed about my former in-laws. In ancient times people thought of dreams as a way of speaking to God, or as the way in which the future could be revealed to them. Interpreting dreams was Joseph’s great gift that we remember from Hebrew Scriptures. We all wonder what our dreams are revealing about our unspoken emotions. Do we have the courage to make the choice in our dreams to open the door that stands before us? There are so many times that I have been in a dark forest, and have been frigthened by what was behind that doorway to tomorrow. Can we make the choice to change, or do we hold back? The most powerful dream of my life occurred when I was in seminary, and wondering if I was doing the right thing by entering the ministry. This is when a man, who I clearly recognized as Jesus came to me and together we talked as we walked through a remote, desert landscape, but he spoke these words to me, reassuring me I had taken the right path, “Don’t be afraid, I am with you. I am at your side.” No human conversation could ever have been such powerful, determining factor in my life to continue on my path, than that dream, which some might scoff at as hokey, “only a dream.”

Some people might ask, Did God speak to you through that experience? I don’t think so. I’m still waiting for that. Yet I believe something powerful does speak to us in those moments when we pay attention to our inner voices, no matter what form they take – a dream, visual memory, or conversation with ourselves. Long ago theologians distinguished between natural and revealed religion. Revealed religion was the interventions of God in the world that were described in scriptures. Natural religion was how God was revealed to us in the natural world. We see God in the beauty of the flower and trees, or we see God through the beauty of a child’s eyes, or by shaking the hand of civil rights icon Bernard Lafayette, who visited Watertown just this week. Unitarian Universalists have always seen the divine through the world we experience. Even in a rogue wave that broke my body more than 20 years ago, I felt the power of the ocean, and also accepted my fate as I was pulled out to sea, and for a moment had one of those inner voice conversations which said, Is this the end? And I discovered in this experience that there was peace, not fear, but it was not to be, for in Hamlet’s words, I was “”to be,” and gladly still am.

The importance of inner voices is that it means we take time to listen. We listen to the person who knows what’s best for us – us. We listen to the universe, that beating body of life that we are part of. And we listen to others, but hopefully those who are wise. – not the loudest, not the most visual, or famous in our celebrity, consumer culture. I fear many of our teenagers, but especially the girls are subject to a selfie culture which teaches them that they are objects to be liked or (or not). Self-objectification leads to all kinds of behavioral and emotional issues, and a culture that teaches you that powerful women take off their clothes and writhe a lot means we are not listening to the beautiful voices within which would tell us to make choices which we hope would bring feelings of joy and self-respect. Who is our greatest source of help – ourselves. Demand respect.

Our inner voices and visions are our guides in life. They help us weigh what is the right thing to do. They help us realize that I have much in common with others, and also that I have a unique self that deserves respect by everyone, and is my best guide in protecting myself and my integrity and worth. Inner voices are very common experiences that we don’t talk about, perhaps because they make us seem crazy, or even immoral sometimes. We are not alone in our individual weirdness. We all have some voice beckoning, and that is comforting.   We block them out in many ways. Yet they are an essential part of us in helping us finding our center. Hallucination, for example is a word that has a certain social stigma attached to it. We worry that others will think poorly of us if we say we had one.

Years ago I took LSD, and once in a great while I have wondered if that odd light I saw was a mirage, a person I know, or a mysterious shadow was a flashback. Not likely.
 Researchers, as Robert Fulghum points out, say that most normal people experience some form of hallucinations throughout their lives. 
It is real for you, but not real for anybody else. 
It just happens.   So what goes on in your head? As we sit here some of us have a turbulent, frightening inner world, and others a more peaceful and serene one. In either case, we should listen to this sophisticated world, for the opportunity to change our inner world often means we can change our outer world, too. When we respect and listen to the self, we can face our fears and self-criticism. Listen to your voices, and pay attention to your visions, they point the way to a deeper richer life, and in this culture of ours the loud voices, and the incessant electronic likes are not going to lead you to the home of your soul. Some time early in the morning, after I wake up from a dream I think I hear voices. I often wonder who it is. Sometimes I hear the door open. I don’t get up. Maybe it is just my brain making this up, and inviting me to go through the door, and make the decision I need to make. I listen to my inner voice, wondering what truth it will reveal. As Atticus said, “I’ve got to live with myself.”

Closing Words – from George Bernard Shaw

“A Native American elder once described his own inner struggles in this manner: Inside of me there are two dogs. One of the dogs is mean and evil. The other dog is good. The mean dog fights the good dog all the time. When asked which dog wins, he reflected for a moment and replied, The one I feed the most.”