“Just Shy” by Mark Caggiano, Student minister, January 21, 2007
Sermon – Just Shy
By Mark Caggiano
January 21, 2007
I am here before you today to share a strange and personal secret. This is of course a shameless attempt to keep you interested in the sermon, but I am not above such techniques. And here is that secret — when I was a boy, I was very shy. Those of you who have gotten to know me a bit, or who have spoken with me for five or more minutes, may find the idea of me as shy to be quite ridiculous. I assure you that it is quite true.
This is not merely an exercise in personal introduction or revelation. To understand how we will live and grow in the future, it is important to learn from the past. When we gather together in church, some of us are looking for lessons to live by, rules to follow, or at least points to ponder. But those lessons are not always out of a book, in the classroom, or from the pulpit. In fact, the best lessons sometimes sneak up on us in songs or stories or in everyday acts of kindness. If we pay close attention, we might learn much about this world of ours.
I am the youngest of four children. My sister was born nine months to the day after my parents were married. I was born two days before their fourth wedding anniversary – yes, that means my mother had one child per year for four years. My siblings and I were essentially in a constant state of warfare, so my mother was essentially in a constant state of disarray. Over the years, we sorted ourselves out into domestic roles. My only sister was the eldest and had many responsibilities helping my mother. Although we all did chores, my sister was saddled with a greater proportion of the domestic ones because she was a girl. My oldest brother was the more dramatic one – not into sports and very interested in music and the theatre. He announced in college that he was gay, and this was tumultuous for the family, but also not a huge surprise in hindsight. The middle brother was the trouble maker. He was an avid hockey player and that sensibility seemed to apply to all aspects of his life. And then there was me. The quiet child — an advisable survival strategy if you consider my three siblings. Besides simply surviving in a loud and boisterous household, being the quiet one is often very educational. When you are quiet, you are more capable of listening. When you are quiet, you are more open to learning. Most importantly, when you are quiet, people are less likely to notice you are there listening and learning.
There are set times in your life when people try to teach you. We send our children to school to learn the basics, such as reading and writing. Some go to college, ostensibly to train ourselves for the real world. Some even go on to obtain professional degrees of higher distinction. But as we sit in the classrooms listening to lectures, the real lessons of life are often not quite so obvious at first glance. I had a professor in law school who was notoriously hard. He was a strict Socratic Method teacher, which means he would ask students questions rather than sit by waiting for one or two prepared students to participate. To this day, I remember many of the specifics of his course. When you are expected to be prepared, you try to be prepared. I had another teacher who was popular because he was funny and did not expect too much of his students. We laughed together and he would jokingly lecture at us about the material. When the final exam came, we were stunned when the material presented had little to do with the material that was taught in class. The professor had covered a mere fraction of it but it was in the course so we were expected to know it. When you are not expected to be prepared, apparently you still need to be prepared.
Like the proverbial grasshopper who did not prepare for the winter, while his ant neighbors busily put away food for times of scarcity, so too are people expected to be prepared regardless of what preparations were made beforehand. We save money for a rainy day, chop firewood for the depths of winter and can jellies and preserves for when the harvests are a mere memory. But when do were learn how to live a life? What is the schoolhouse for the skills needed to deal with our peers, negotiate through hard times or survive the twists and turns of uncertain fate? Fortunately, and unfortunately, we live everyday in the class room of life. We may not be aware of it, but the lessons of life unfold around us regardless of whether we are paying attention to them. My hard law school professor riveted us to his lessons because we knew we could be tested at any time. The path of our lives may be uncertain, but we can be sure that life will test us at every turn.
Our reading for today was from the writings of Angus McLean, a Universalist minister, academic and teacher. The quote was from a piece entitled the Message is the Method. The message we convey is inextricably embedded in the manner in which it is delivered. This may be completely different from the message we intend to convey. I was acutely aware of this difference growing up. The quiet child has a greater opportunity to observe and to listen to those around him or her. We see the teachers giving their lessons with joy or impatience. We notice when certain children are treated differently. We witness the uneven hand that guides our lessons.
As a child, I helped my father with his volunteer work at our church. He was very busy, and rarely around, so this was the best way to have a greater part in his life. I was also the quiet, dutiful child and would always help my father. When my father helped out in church as an usher, I would go with him to count the collection plate. There was an ancient, cast iron machine that counted the coins and seemed to run by steam engine and the power of prayer. The coins fell into paper rolls and I would pull out and roll up the full ones. Each coin seemed to me a good wish from the parishioners, each one representing a hope that the church would do some act of charity with it. My father did all sorts of things and I would help him whenever I was allowed. I loved him and my church and I thought that neither one could do anything wrong.
Once, during my first year of parochial school, I was called out of the classroom to speak with one of the teachers. The teacher was a nun who was infamous for being harsh to her students. I met her in the empty school cafeteria and she immediately accused me a calling her names behind her back. This was preposterous because I had never even met the woman. More importantly, the expletive laden insults were far beyond my first grade vocabulary. I denied that I had said anything. This nun, this bride of Christ dedicated to the service of others, picked me up by the shirt and slammed me against a concrete support column. At the time, I noticed the column was checkered in dark and light little tiles. Perhaps there was a theological message about the church in that checkering of my experience.
This nun would supposedly teach children about the meaning of the life of Jesus of Nazareth and would personally guide students to church and weekly confession of sins. This seemingly well trained religious educator would then turn around and blindly lash out at a six year old boy, when every lesson she had studied as a nun and as a lifelong Catholic should have told her that this was wrong. Even with an endless stream of cherished religious words pelting us in the pews, and in the convents, it is clear that we might not be learning if we do not listen.
I never told my parents about the incident with the nun. I did not want them to think I had gotten into trouble. I was the good child, the quiet one who listened and was never punished. And this was not the first time. The prior year, in kindergarten, I had been crossing the street outside my uncle’s house and was hit by a car. I had been trying to get some candy I had left in my mother’s station wagon. I did not have permission to cross the street. The man who hit me was lost, and was fortunately driving slowly for that reason. He had been going the wrong way down a one way street. The driver stopped and checked to see if I was okay. I said I was fine and ran back into the house. I was more scared than hurt. But, I did not cry and I did not tell my parents. I did not want to get into trouble for crossing the street.
The years went by. I went to high school and to college. The time was fast approaching when I would actually need to do something with my life. My sister was out of school and worked various jobs, none of which seemed to please my parents. My brother, the dramatic one freshly out of the closet, was still finding himself. He worked in a retail store with a college degree, much to the worry of my mother and father. My troublemaker brother decided to go into the family business. My parents were very pleased.
We oftentimes make decisions in our lives based upon the expectations and needs of others. My parents of course said aloud that I should do what I wanted, what would make me happy. By I knew they did not mean it. They had said the same things to my siblings, but only one brother had met with approval. I was deciding what to do and was choosing between law school and graduate school in psychology, my major. Being a psychologist is not the same as being a doctor, which means it is not as good for a parent to tell at cocktail parties. Besides, the idea of spending the rest of my life sending rats through mazes and fighting for tenure did not appeal to me. I ultimately chose to go to law school. My parents were very proud.
Law school is a fascinating place. The primary goal is not to memorize laws or obscure Latin phrases. Law students are trained to think in a certain way. We mentally dissect whatever is around us. Some look at a box of breakfast cereal and see something to eat. I notice the trademark on the label, the routing information used to track inventory and the warning label suggesting that cereal should not be inserted into one’s ear or dire consequences will certainly follow. But the law is a good and noble profession. Parents are proud as peacocks to tell their friends and relatives about their son or daughter, the lawyer.
Parents notwithstanding, people have mixed feelings about lawyers. There are of course many, many jokes about lawyers. Here is one of my favorites:
A lawyer dies and enters the pearly gates of heaven. He meets Saint Peter who shows him around the hereafter. St. Peter guides the lawyer to his final residence. They pass by house after house and St. Peter mentions the occupants.
“Mother Teresa lives in that little cottage over there, and Gandhi is there in that duplex with Martin Luther King. The apostles are all together over there in that ring of twelve bungalows. Oh, and here is your house.”
The lawyer looked and saw that his house was truly a mansion, with Greek columns, marbles stairs and a solid gold doorway.
The lawyer said to St. Peter, “There must be some mistake. How can I possibly live here while the apostles spend eternity in little bungalows?”
St. Peter responded, “There is a good reason for that. You see, we have twelve apostles, but you are our first lawyer.”
Lawyers often see us at our worst or when we are most vulnerable. We deal with lawyers when we are in trouble or when we are in the midst of a dispute. We are in a car accident, divorcing a spouse, firing an employee, or trying to stay out of jail. Sometimes we go to lawyers to avoid problems, such as when buying a house or renting an apartment, but then we are faced with some uncomfortable truths about those around us. Sellers lie to us. Landlords seem greedy. Lawyers are a means to an end and sometimes those means are not pleasant.
Now, a quiet and shy lawyer is not usually a successful one. During high school, college and even law school, I continued being a quiet observer of the world around me. I learned much about how people interact. Very few people listen to others, they are so busy trying to get a word in edgewise. The conversation becomes more about winning than participation. And the quiet and shy people rarely get anywhere in the conversation, let alone enter it.
I decided, specifically and consciously, that I had been on the sidelines of life for too long. I had sat back observing and thinking, listening and analyzing. I knew much and had done little. As Angus MacLean once said, “Knowledge in and of itself never changed character.” I would make the change through sheer effort. I began to speak up in law school. I would argue points of law. I realized that all that listening and analyzing came in handy when the time came to speak up. The idea that I would end up speaking in public for a living is somewhat like expecting someone with a fear of spiders to take up tarantula juggling. But here I am.
The message of one’s life is the method by which we live it. Good intentions alone are stillborn action. I had spent most of my life as a theoretical person, living in the shadows like an anthropologist studying the culture around me but not participating. A perceptive teacher once chided me for having low expectations about the commitments of other people to making a difference in the world. She told me for example that I was strident about social action and social service, but I seemed to expect that others would not live up to my expectations. As I was writing this sermon, I came to understand that my eagerness to serve and my sometimes pushiness to get things done comes from having spent so much time on the sidelines. I do not have low expectations as much as I know what it means to stand by and watch the world pass by. It is easy to do and it is impossible to go back.
I also have come to understand why I have sought to move away from practicing law. Lawyers are instruments of action, but in the hands of others. We prepare the plan of battle and go off to war for our clients, but the cause is not our own. We are helping others achieve their ends and these goals are often directly opposed to the wishes of others. My day-to-day job as a lawyer is legitimate and lawful but it is not always pleasant or even good. As I have mentioned, the message is the method, but what happens when the method makes you uncomfortable? What happens when a client asks you to evict a single mother the week of Thanksgiving? What happens when a client explains to you that the result of your work will be the firing of dozens of unskilled workers unlikely to find new jobs? What happens when you know you can win, even when you shouldn’t? If the message is the method, even someone else’s message, you can feel like a jerk.
So I decided to go to Divinity School to become a minister. My poor Catholic father may not understand, but his example made me want to do it. The Catholic Church has a few centuries of problems to sort through, but rank and file Catholics are generally good people and many volunteer to help their fellow human beings. That is a good message and a great method. As those coins filled up the rolls on the counting machine in the church office, I was filled with a sense of progress. Each coin was an act of kindness and charity to bring to the world. A handful of coins cannot change the world, but the desire to give those coins certainly can.
When you assess a person, you should examine what he or she does and then perhaps consider what he or she says. I am at a loss to explain how you assess a person that says and does nothing. I decided to become more outgoing in the world to be a part of it. I decided to go to Divinity School because it was time for my internal hopes and desires, or my silent message, to be lived out in the world through the method of my life. My years as a shy and quiet boy gave me the skill to watch the world and the sensitivity to understand the changes around me. But I came to understand that I was a mere spectator in my life. People were around me acting on their impulses and desires, for good and for ill. The shy and the quiet can tell us much about the world, if only they would speak. Once again, I did not want to get into trouble. Rather than tell my parents about other people’s wrongdoing, I kept silent. Rather than cause friction with clients, I quietly did my work evicting and firing and being a jerk.
My personal example is an unusual case of a quiet and shy person overcoming discomfort to engage more fully with the world. When we let life pass us by out of fear of trouble or a desire not to get involved, we will reap the obvious reward – nothing begets nothing. We also live in a world were there are many things going wrong. I could rattle off a depressing litany of tragedies and troubles. Some of these problems arise in places far away and involve forces beyond the resources of most women and men. Some are closer to home and can be addressed by regular people living regular lives. Even the big picture could use a little fine tuning by dedicated persons willing to raise a ruckus. However, many sit by shyly and quietly as the globe warms, the Middle East burns and our nation’s economy buckles under the weight of foolish decisions past and present. We may not think about it as being shy and quiet, but it looks the same.
As a denomination, Unitarian Universalists are generally people of action. We do more things than we dwell on things. We reach more than we recoil. But even we are a bit too shy about it all. In my home community, I know that when a town or regional problem comes up, my fellows UUs will be there organizing. And I know they are UUs, but many do not. I know they are committed to the principles of Unitarian Universalism, but most do not. I know that there is a community of active people working to give life the shape of justice, but others do not.
One church member brought up the idea of advertising our good works within the wider community – we all got stuck on the word “advertising” before we got to the end of his sentence. Long-time UUs were horrified at the idea of advertising. It smacked of bragging, of showing off, or God forbid, of proselytizing. I must admit that such words stick in my throat. However, being a shy person by nature, I understand that just because words are not naturally forthcoming does not make them wrong. The good thing about such reluctance is that UUs are sensitive to the issue. Like a shy person, we are good listeners. We analyze and reflect, but then we roll up our sleeves. Our message of social justice is embedded in our method of outreach into the world. We are just shy about sharing the message of these good works. Like the shy person, we need to understand that a muted message limits our ability to have an effect on the wider world. I would never suggest that we show off, but I think it may be time for us to invest in a larger soap box.
Some UUs will be reluctant to pursue a more public path. This will make waves. This will mark us as trouble makers. This will place a strain on peaceful community relations. We might be shy about raising our voices a bit too loudly. But if we do not act, who will? How will we teach our children, our members or our neighbors if we are too shy to make ourselves and our ways know? If our message is to bring about change, what other method makes sense? Angus McLean once said that the Kingdom of love arrives in the act of love, the reign of justice in the act of justice, the joy of freedom in the exercise of freedom. These actions cause the gifts of love, justice and freedom to exist in the world. The words alone are mere faint echoes. Love is not solitary, justice is not automatic and freedom is not cheap. Each requires us to be out among our fellow life travelers. Each may make us uncomfortable or even get us into trouble.
Not everyone will appreciate who we love, but we must love them notwithstanding the disapproval and prejudices of those that might stop us. Love has a way of making itself know, and love denied has a way of making us miserable. Not everyone desires justice in the world, for why would the haves readily give to the have-nots? They worked hard for what they have, not that inheritance, racial disparities, class stratification or centuries of accumulated wealth have any painfully obvious bearing upon the matter. And not everyone wants us to be free, for if we are free, we will ask annoying questions about their bad policies, bad decisions and bad actions. Better to distract us with color coded emergencies and nightmares from far away lands.
I spent the large part of a life watching this all transpire without uttering a word in protest or lifting a hand to make a difference. I spent some of those years unconsciously but actively making things worse. When I call upon others to rise up and act, please know that it is not a sign of moral superiority but an act of contrition. I have lost too much time in this life to observation and reflection. Both are good, but neither is enough. I think back to the coins clinking in the machine, building up and up even in their small amounts. Each act of kindness, each good word spoken, each open hand raised in friendship builds and builds in our communities, in our families and in our hearts. At some point we will be filled with this positive energy and will go forth to make use of it in the world. We need only overcome our shyness and break the deafening silence. This is not showing off, it is showing up. Please come join me in making some noise.
By Mark Caggiano
Sitting alone at the margins
Watching other people talk and laugh
Live and love
Following their stories
Dreaming their lives
A white river rages past
Alone on the bank, dry and untried
Living a life by the eyedropper
An almost life
When to get up and run?
When to tell a joke or break a sweat?
When to risk, when to rise, when to roam
Later, later, later
Later bleeds us like leeches
Later leaves us lonely
Later for later
Now for now.
Time to eat a peach
Time to climb the tree
Time to swing from the branches
Time to howl at the moon
Time to be