“Leave Me Alone” by Mark W. Harris
March 15, 2015 – First Parish of Watertown, MA
Call to Worship from Albert Camus, Notebooks
Find meaning. Distinguish melancholy from sadness. Go out for a walk. It doesn’t have to be a romantic walk in the park; spring at its most spectacular moment, . . . smoothly transferring you into another world. It doesn’t have to be a walk during which you’ll have multiple life epiphanies and discover meanings no other brain ever managed to encounter. Do not be afraid of spending quality time by yourself. Find meaning or don’t find meaning but “steal” some time and give it freely and exclusively to your own self. Opt for privacy and solitude. That doesn’t make you antisocial or cause you to reject the rest of the world. But you need to breathe. And you need to be.”
Reading – from The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri
“But she has gathered that Americans, in spite of their public declarations of affection, in spite of their miniskirts and bikinis, in spite of their hand-holding on the street and lying on top of each other on the Cambridge Common, prefer their privacy.”
Sermon – “Leave Me Alone”
There is probably no religious passage that is more deeply imprinted in my mind than the Lord’s prayer. I could recite it in my sleep, and probably have. “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name . . .” You know the drill. The Lord’s Prayer became an issue in my ministerial career at the churches I served prior to this one. Both were more Christian than this church, and recited the prayer every Sunday in their worship services. This was difficult for me because my seminary experience taught me that the patriarchal language of a Father God was unacceptable to many members. Both congregations wanted to find solutions to the problem, and did; one by having the choir sing the prayer, and the other by offering a rotation of prayers, so they still used it, just not as often, plus they added a prayer that included the word “Mother.” But the memory of the prayer was not so easily expunged from my memory bank. What is perhaps most intriguing is that the prayer became a popular public expression of faith for Christians, but the passage in the book of Matthew (6:9-15) is preceded by Jesus’ teaching about private prayer. Here he says that hypocrites like to be showy and public about their prayers so people will see how righteous they are, but that communication with the divine is more appropriate in the privacy of one’s own room. Jesus says go into your room, shut the door and pray in secret because in fact God sees in secret. These days it is probably not God who is seeing you in secret, nor is it some peeping Tom who is looking through your window. It is more likely to be an NSA (National Security Agency) agent who is doing the peering. Before Sept. 11, 2001 that might have been unthinkable to you and most other Americans. Who would have said that our lives would be under the gaze of a network of surveillance cameras, peering at us in government buildings, shopping malls, subways and stadiums? It is Orwell’s famous dystopia 1984 come to life in a society that has surrendered privacy and anonymity.
Do you agree? Have we surrendered privacy in our lives at the price of always being connected? I grew up sharing a room with my older brother, but eventually he went to college, and I moved into a new room that was created just for me. In those early years, I rarely went to my room, because it was shared space. It was also an upstairs passageway to the bathroom; the Grand Central Station of the Harris household. Privacy was at a minimum. When I changed my clothes, it felt like my brother was always there, or someone was passing through. When I went to read or play there, it often seemed more like public space than a private room, where I could have quiet time or fantasize my playtime activities. Older brothers can be brutal in their scrutiny of younger siblings who are doing “baby” things. As a result of the lack of privacy, and the humiliating comments, I ended up only going to my room to go to bed. The lack of privacy made me stay away. This changed once I had private space. I could play by myself, read, even pray, if I so desired. There was joy in having a space that was mine, and mine alone.
This was a huge difference for me. I am reminded of a children’s book which was one of our favorites when our kids were young. It is called Five Minutes Peace, and is the story of Mrs. Large, an elephant, who wants five minutes’ peace away from her energetic children, so she heads to the bathtub for some well-deserved quiet time. Unfortunately the kids want Mom to join in their fun, so they follow her wherever she goes, including eventually into the tub! Parents already know that there is no place to be alone with your thoughts, but is that true for all of us?
This is a personal issue. Many of us cannot go into a room and be by ourselves in an alone and private space, because we are always connected. We can’t turn off our internet; we can’t turn off our smartphones; we can’t turn off our computers. If we want to know where or how to go, or if we have a question, we don’t ask another person, we ask our devices, and our devices record what we ask, and there it is the next time we ask. Every email on your server is read; scrutinized and analyzed for preferences and affiliations. They are always there. Always watching. I don’t say this as someone who dislikes technology, but as someone who is easily sucked in. Not one of us can ever be alone. I will return to this personal dilemma, but first I want to address the larger context; the reason I chose this topic in the first place. Privacy is a major issue in our society. We need look no further than the ramifications of the documentary movie, “Citizenfour,” which I saw a few months ago.
“Citizenfour” is the story of Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor who revealed the extent of surveillance that is conducted by the U.S. government against its own citizens. Since these revelations Snowden, whom some consider a traitor, has ended up in political asylum in Russia. The film maker Laura Poitras moved to Berlin to escape the constant harassment she has undergone in airports culminating in extreme measures of phone and computer security, governed by the fear that she will be arrested. “Citizenfour” is the third film in a trilogy of how America has changed since 9/11. In this film, much of which is shot in a hotel room in Hong Kong, Poitras shows us how Snowden decided to reveal that the U.S. government collects huge amounts of data on its citizens. We hear Poitras describe the initial anonymous emails she received from Snowden, using the handle “citizenfour.” He describes how he is a senior government employee in the intelligence community, and that contacting her is an extremely high risk. Then he continues: ”For now, know that every border you cross; Every purchase you make; Every call you dial; Every cell phone tower you pass; Friend you keep; site you visit; and subject line you type, is in the hands of a system whose reach is unlimited, but whose safeguards are not.”
He ended the communication by saying that if she published the source, he would be immediately implicated. I don’t share this today to provoke fear about the reach of our government, but rather to reflect on the need for privacy in our lives, and what it means to each of us as a deeply personal and spiritual part of our pathway toward individual development and personal intimacy. As Edward Snowden said, “I don’t see myself as a hero because what I’m doing is self-interested: I don’t want to live in a world where there’s no privacy and therefore no room for intellectual exploration and creativity.”
Snowden’s concern that we might lose our sense of individual development may not immediately concern us, because there is so much media attention on security breaches, so we notice economic threats to our private financial well being sooner than seemingly small personal affronts. Just a month or so ago, a large health insurance provider announced a sophisticated “cyberattack” on its systems. There were 80 million people who the hackers retrieved information about. This can lead to people opening accounts in our names, and ultimately identity theft. Security breaches into our personal information should concern us, and safeguards must be taken, but they are also symptomatic of how individuals and organizations can tap into learning all sorts of private information about us. The reach is scary. Our grocery stores know what we buy, and our book stores know what we like. They know our preferences better than we do, and then tell us what we need. Knowing us means they can find out much more than consumer preferences. In the movie “Selma,” we are reminded of the reach of government when they tried to use King’s perceived sexual indiscretions and communist party affiliations to help discredit him. And this was decades before the long reach and secret capabilities of the internet.
In the novel The Namesake, Ashima and Ashoke are a young couple living in Cambridge. Ashima goes into labor, and ends up in the hospital, but Ashoke heads off to work after she has checked in. In India, she reports that she would be surrounded by a company of woman, but here women in labor mostly want privacy. In the reading Ashima describes these cultural differences between America and her native India. She sees Americans as public in shows of affection and bodily exposure, and yet they don’t want to be in labor with a group. She says they “prefer their privacy.” This becomes a novel where the namesake Gogol, dubbed for the Russian writer, struggles with his cultural identity, and seems caught between the two worlds, and eventually adopts a new name. What cultural identity do we adopt, and how do familial and traditional expectations govern our perception of ourselves, and how do we react to them? Ashima notes that in India a woman would go home to be surrounded by all her family as she is about to give birth. Here we seek the privacy of a hospital room, and while we say we want births more home like these days, few would want to be surrounded with what seems like groups of women who can offer advice as to how to cope with the event and support one another.
This fictional representation of privacy for American women seems that if they are in a private room, they can have a measure of control over their own lives. This measure of control means there are limits to what we have to do and be in reaction to others behaviors and judgments. A very critical issue of privacy for me came up at our Safe Congregation workshop in February. At one point we broke into triads and each shared a church story where we felt vulnerable or intimidated. My story was about a time when the Congregational minister in Milton and I were leading a youth group event. We had two cars, and six kids. We were in Boston, and I lived in Watertown at the time. After the event the Congregational minister and I agreed that it would easier for me to go home to Watertown, and he would take the teens back to Milton. However, there were six kids and only five available seats with seatbelts. We made the bad decision to go ahead and do this. Unfortunately he had a car accident. No one was hurt, but the one teen without a seat belt was from my church. It was an irresponsible decision, and I spoke to all the parents involved, and explained that it was wrong, and I would never do it again. This event became a lightning rod for people’s feelings about me, and I never had a chance to redeem myself or find forgiveness. In fact, it continued to follow me.
A few years back I was searching for a new church settlement. This was no reflection on this congregation, but rather a desire on my part at that time to serve a large congregation. What I discovered was that each time I interviewed somewhere, this old one time event continued to follow me around, because it was listed in the UUA’ summary record sheet of my ministries, even though nothing was listed about Watertown, and I had been here ten years at the time. Congregations continued to question me as to how responsible I was. Even though my colleague took no responsibility for sharing this decision with me, and I apologized and swore I would never do anything like this again, it haunted me and was an intrusion on my private life never giving me the opportunity to be forgiven or have a second chance. Power is a primary reason we need some measure of privacy and confidentiality. The one who holds secrets or information over us can always threaten to reveal that information, and thus we become dupes of them, or victims of outdated information that may have stemmed from a youthful indiscretion, or in my case, one stupid mistake. Privacy gives us a sense of autonomy, and the opportunity to reflect on the mistake we have made, and shows coming out of that time, the ability to change.
Earlier we said how privacy gives us a chance to explore and develop our deepest sense of self, which I first discovered once I had my own bedroom. Privacy is that part of our life where we use our own freedom to explore those things about which we are most curious. I know I could play with freedom and abandon, explore new ideas, create art projects without fear of criticism or humiliation, and read to my hearts content in my own room. A constantly watchful eye either from a sibling or a government stifles our curiosity and our development and limits us from exploring something that the other person finds stupid or irrelevant or even subversive, but to us it may be the most interesting and exciting subject in the world, or the most noble cause. Obviously there are trade-offs between liberty and security. The former head of the Boston police is calling for more domestic intelligence gathering to protect us in the name of stopping home grown terrorists. Yet I am convinced that collecting more personal information will continue to erode personal privacy, and this must be balanced. Someone once said that personal privacy is shorthand for breathing room to engage in the process of self-development.
Self-development also means how young people explore who they are, and who they are longing to become – what values they uphold, and what kinds of friendships they cultivate. There are many concerns that people of all ages share too much information publicly now. Their electronic postings in one form or another may follow them for years to come, and may mean they overstep the boundaries of what is appropriate in terms of sharing information about themselves or their friends. Each of us needs to establish good boundaries with others, and need privacy so that we can retreat to places where others are not gazing at what we do, or judging how we do something. Ministers must be especially careful about information we learn about or from others, but all of us must be cautious about publicly sharing only that information that is ours to share, or if it concerns others, then only with their permission. Early in my ministry I once told someone about a pending divorce of a parishioner, presuming it was public information, but it wasn’t. People want to be able to tell their own story, and manage their own reputations, rather than have us be story tellers for them.
We all need to be careful about the private lives of others. At the same time we each need a space in our lives where we can use coarse language, act silly, and share absolutely insane ideas. In an intimate setting with a loved one, we may need the freedom to say something negative about another, that will never see the light of day, but nevertheless gives us the freedom to blow off steam. We each must have the two worlds of public and private because otherwise life would either be totally outrageous or totally boring. Kurt Vonnegut says we each must have ways of making life more bearable. The private life gives us this. Vonnegut says, “Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.”
The private life we all need is where find and develop our souls to their fullest.
One of the reasons Facebook has been successful is that it creates an opportunity for personal sharing. We can each tell our story. For some, the degree of anonymity is helpful because it provides this private window on life, but for others there can be a mistaking of substituting sharing for intimacy. But this points to where the private life is most valuable. It prepares us for intimacy, because that is what we must desire – to love and be loved by someone to whom we can reveal our deepest, most loving self. In the private life we can explore and develop all those aspects of our being that otherwise would fall under the scrutiny of others, and could hurt or even destroy us. In the private life, we become who we are, and then are free to explore that fullest self with others. Judge William O. Douglas once said, “The right to be let alone is indeed the beginning of all freedom.” We need to maintain privacy in our lives at all costs for the development of personhood. In our private world we can set our lives in order, we find personal respect, and self-control. Here we hold the power over our universe, and then we are free to dream about who we can be, becoming that self that we would never otherwise have known. In our room or private space, as Jesus knew in preparation for prayer, we come to see and know that which is most truly our inmost self, that self which can touch the divine.
Closing Words – from The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne
“When he is cheerful–when the sun shines into his mind–then I venture to peep in, just as far as the light reaches, but no further. It is holy ground where the shadow falls!”