“Private Pathways” Mark W. Harris
November 14, 2010 – First Parish of Watertown
Call to Worship – from Ralph Waldo Emerson
We gather in community to take a few moments to give thanks for this opportunity to be together; to give thanks for all those who have brought us love and support and to give thanks for the gift of life.
Here we take time to reflect upon what is important in our lives.
We go in to the inner recesses of our minds and hearts to try to understand ourselves, this world and our place in it. In this search for wholeness and integrity of spirit and purpose, may we remember the words of Emerson: “Whatever games are played with us, we must play no games with ourselves, but deal in our privacy with the last honesty and truth”
Reading – from Walden by Henry David Thoreau
We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep. I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor. It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts. Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour. If we refused, or rather used up, such paltry information as we get, the oracles would distinctly inform us how this might be done.
 I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.
. . . Our life is frittered away by detail. An honest man has hardly need to count more than his ten fingers, or in extreme cases he may add his ten toes, and lump the rest. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail. In the midst of this chopping sea of civilized life, such are the clouds and storms and quicksands and thousand-and-one items to be allowed for, that a man has to live, if he would not founder and go to the bottom and not make his port at all, by dead reckoning, and he must be a great calculator indeed who succeeds. Simplify, simplify. . .
Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains. I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars. I cannot count one. I know not the first letter of the alphabet. I have always been regretting that I was not as wise as the day I was born. The intellect is a cleaver; it discerns and rifts its way into the secret of things. I do not wish to be any more busy with my hands than is necessary. My head is hands and feet. I feel all my best faculties concentrated in it. My instinct tells me that my head is an organ for burrowing, as some creatures use their snout and fore paws, and with it I would mine and burrow my way through these hills. I think that the richest vein is somewhere hereabouts; so by the divining-rod and thin rising vapors I judge; and here I will begin to mine.
Sermon – “Private Pathways” Mark W. Harris
I grew up in a farmhouse that was built in 1770. It was pretty cramped space for four children and two parents, and even my grandmother for a time. I shared a bedroom with the brother who is five years older than I. It was a room that had doors leading to three other bedrooms and a hallway. We were the Grand Central Station of Harris bedrooms. Consequently, there was little or no privacy. Happily for me, when I turned twelve my parents expanded into the older portion of the house into what had been an unheated and unfinished attic area. At what seemed like the perfect age I was given a room of my own, as Virginia Woolf so famously described her private sanctuary. Here I could read and play to my heart’s content. I could listen to my newly discovered musical loves of Beatle and Stone, and not disturb my father whose ears only heard garbled garbage, while my ears received inspiring strains of rhythm and blues. Yet there was something peculiar about all this great potential for private space. Whenever I went to my room and closed the door, it seemed to drive my parents crazy. They became the Spanish inquisition seeking the heretic to be questioned for his violations of God’s law. At any and all times closed doors made my parents suspicious. What are you doing in there? Why do you have that door shut? They claimed having the door open helped the heat circulate or in summer, it let the air circulate. Whatever it took to keep that door open, they proclaimed it. This was like a suspicion of toddler activities, except I was twelve or thirteen, and had long ago stopped eating crayons or drawing on walls. I think it all came down to what I might do behind closed doors. It was fear of violating another of God’s laws; the activity that shall not be named. And so my first big chance at privacy or time to be alone with my thoughts and reflections was stifled by my parents. Ever since I have revered that time alone to discover the final truth and honesty of my life that Emerson says must be found in privacy. And I fear the amount of privacy we have all lost, especially in an ever-evolving electronic culture.
This was recently highlighted in a New Yorker article in the context of bullying incidents of young gay and lesbian individuals. I was especially disturbed when I read about the Rutgers student who committed suicide following the You Tube posting of an intimate encounter of him with another man. His roommate was the perpetrator of the filming and posting. Naturally, this public exposure led to humiliation and shame, and then ultimately the suicide. Yet the New Yorker column suggests that this was not so much a new wave of homophobic violence, but rather a terrible violation of privacy. With so much of people’s lives out on the web to be examined by all, we must ask, have we lost all sense of affirming the private life? The article reminds us of what we already know about bullying feeding off of anger, fear, revenge and weakness, but it also points to the systematic undervaluing of privacy in all our lives. All of us need to discover our sense of identity and desires in private places where no one else, and certainly not a prying public, can view or learn what we are reflecting upon or even experimenting with. This becomes especially difficult if your sexual preference or identity differs from the accepted norm of society. In this case a young man was in the private intimate company of another person asking those same questions we all do – who do I want to be with, what helps make me be myself, and in whose company do I feel most alive? Now what if that deepest self-examination were suddenly filmed or tweeted or blogged all over the place? Do we want everything in our lives observed, when the unobserved portions are perhaps the deepest and most meaningful of all?
Some of this may sound like a familiar diatribe from me. I still do not own a cell phone, and have expressed my prejudicial crankiness over those who fail to greet me on the street, or nearly crash into my car, or narrate every minute detail of last night’s date all because they are talking on their cell phones. I did not want to learn from a perfect stranger on the bus that he is not going to let her control him any more. My concern is that we spend all too much time narrating what we are doing on phones, blogs, Facebook and elsewhere, and not enough time on cultivating the private life. Perhaps this obsession with narrating our lives comes from a fear of being alone, or fear of silence, or fear of facing life’s most difficult questions. While we constantly exchange information, there is less real intimacy. Some of this focus devolves from the proliferation of memoirs in our literature. People seem to want to know all the sordid private details of the lives of the rich and famous. These kinds of celebrity exposures play into a culture where we make the individual the center of attention. We may do this with an extreme focus on over scheduling, over managing, and even over protecting our children. When this happens, as it did in my case, our private time to reflect on who we are, or what we believe in most deeply is eroded.
What is true about these endless published narrations of private lives is that they come from a tradition where Protestants were encouraged to make a narrow examination of their lives to see if they were on the right course. Some of the most popular memoirs of colonial times were those fashioned by people who were taken captive by Native Americans, and lived and returned to tell the tale. Their lives often became inspirations for wider audiences, even though they also fulfilled an old tradition where the writer described a private conversation between the self and God about the truthfulness of faith. One problem for Protestants is that these times of private reflection were often associated with painful phases of contrition and conviction, or the dark night of the soul. The convert had to reflect upon the depth of their sin or pain in order to find God on the path to salvation, and so usually phrases like “under great distress of mind,” were told by prospective church members. My parents always said that Catholics had an easy way out with a quick absolution of sin, while we Protestants continued to suffer. I am not sure if that is the case, but it is true that embracing all the misgivings and questions we have is painful and traumatizing to the soul, and we need to feel acceptance, forgiveness and love.
What liberals worried about was that all this emotion connected with religious conversion could be self-delusion. There is nothing worse Hosea Ballou was once told than “walking in the imagination of your heart.” Historically liberals have said we should be cautious of quick, public conversions, but rather that salvation for us truly comes through a slow steady development of character. We usually think of liberals expressing their faith through action in the world by having compassion for others and treating them with dignity and respect. But even with this public faith of action, we need private times to continue to reflect on whether this faith is imaginary or a true reflection of what you and I feel our faith demands from us. Do we express our faith in ways that bring recognition to us, as a means of public show, or is it reflective of private introspection? In Christian tradition Jesus makes an important distinction when he says that much public prayer is for show, and that when you pray you need to go into a private space, into a room where you shut the door, and you can be alone with God. This is the passage in the Gospel of Matthew where the Lord’s Prayer is then introduced. The passage about the hypocritical nature of narrating your personal piety just to be seen seems strangely modern in the context of revealing the private life in a very public way.
The idea that privacy is sacred can be seen from ancient texts. Most of us know the story of Noah’s Ark. Following the flood Noah becomes the first to conceive of a vineyard, but winemakers can fall under the influence of the fruit of their laborers. Noah became drunk and passed out in his tent. Ham sees him naked in the tent. Some would say he violates him, but in any case, he violates his father’s privacy, and ends up being cursed by Noah. This curse was often interpreted as falling on the sons of Ham, or the Canaanites who were condemned to a life of slavery, serving the descendants of the other brothers. So the story tells us how fundamentally important keeping one’s privacy is. That we have a right to personal sovereignty over our own bodies can be deduced from this passage. The two passages together teach us that making private acts public, and invading privacy violate human dignity and worth.
Modern life teaches us that there is much confusion over public and private lives. While cell phones have made us all privy to the details of others lives, the Internet has given us the option of everyone voicing their opinion about everything. Every private thought can now be made public. Even as I wrote this sermon, I was reading in Friday’s Globe about those people who had written negative reviews of one of the all time great children’s classics Good Night Moon. This democratization of expressing every private thought, or memoirs for the masses, does not mean we should follow endless personal revelations. The outpouring of narratives and opinions and blogs means we all want to be heard. What we know is that we have partial truths from many people, but some are self-serving, and there for show. This public life of privacy means that it is all the more necessary for each of us to cultivate a private life.
Much privacy has been given up in the last decade, not merely because of electronic advances. The attacks of September 11 brought all kinds of calls for greater surveillance, facial recognition devices, national IDs, removing shoes at airports and much more. More people are employed at keeping track of more people than ever before. We have given up privacy in many of these instances for safety, or at least the façade of safety rather than the actual fact. The Internet that we all prize so much has become an easy tool to put us all under federal surveillance. So when you borrow a book from the local library, you may well be placing yourself under scrutiny. I am in favor of having criminal records checks for people who work with children at First Parish, but I am also wary of the results of these kinds of invasion into our privacy. Out of the blue one day I received a letter from the Federal government listing every single person nationwide named Mark Harris who was some kind of sex offender. They had not stolen my social security number, or other ID, but we shared the same name, and so I was linked to them. I was unclear what the letter meant. I guess it was to warn me in case I was one day mistaken for one of the other Mark Harris’s. If we in this age of terror have a difficult time challenging law enforcement actions, then we must be wary for democracy. As Wendy Kaminer writes, the actions of the government are suppose to be public so we can hold them accountable, and in fact, so that the actions of private citizens can be kept private.
Nearly three quarters of a century ago, there was a famous privacy case involving William Sidis. He was a boy genius who could read and write French and English before the age of five, wrote a treatise on anatomy, and went to college at age nine. He received national press coverage, but then after finishing college, refused to follow the plan for his life that his father had mapped out. He left graduate school, abandoned academia, rejected his family, and took up one menial job after another. This boy prodigy was later exposed in an article in the New Yorker. His story became a kind of warning about the downfall of the famous, and a lesson in not pushing your kids too hard. Wanting to live in obscurity, he felt exposed and ridiculed, and consequently sued for the invasion of privacy. He lost, based partly on the ruling that a famous person has fewer claims to privacy than others. I have a profession where the dividing line between private and public is sometimes blurred. Parts of clergy’s private lives often undergo scrutiny before the congregation. It goes with the territory of taking on a position where we must lead by the example of our life. The modern term is modeling, but it still reflects that people want to see how that inner sanctum of religious fidelity is embodied in life.
Preaching in fact reflects the desire and need to bring truth to life. I must use the example of my life – my loves, my passions, my identity as a person who longs for a more compassionate and just world, and use those lived experiences I have, and translate them into truth for all of us to learn from. Like Jesus ideas about prayer, public and private walk a tight rope between the public show of look at me, and the private reflections of wrestling with anguish and pain that may be mine, but also reflect the truth that all of you have painful issues to wrestle with every day of your lives. Am I sick? Am I loved? Am I worthy? Privacy is complicated. As religious liberals, we must fight for it in the public sphere, and have generally done so, especially in the case of affirming abortion rights. And yet sometimes with mental illness, or other afflictions, privacy may prevent us from helping our own children once they become adult. Judge Louis Brandeis once said, “Privacy is the right to be alone–the most comprehensive of rights, and the right most valued by civilized man.” I believe we must value both the beauty and the right of privacy once again before it erodes more deeply in our society and in our lives. Too often the public controls the private, or as Thoreau put it, “We do not ride upon the railroad; it rides upon us.” On Thursday night I went to see a movie called “Thy Will Be Done.” It is the story of Transgender Sara Herwig’s painful journey to become an ordained minister. Herwig was present for the showing. The pain of her private life as a child, and as a married man was terrible. So much was secret. Part of her journey was understanding and affirming the truth of who she was. That was private because it was an identity that often cannot be public either in our society or in our churches, even though we preach a God who loves all. But her journey was also private because she needed time and space to be alone. She needed her private life to discern the truth about herself. We all do. Thoreau writes: “Every man (and woman) is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour.” Every one of us must embrace the private life – not to do this or that–to spend or be spent, but to be alone, in that private confessional, contemplative, or revelatory space, to know once again poetry and legend, love and laughter, to “keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn.”
Closing Words from Geoffrey Fisher, former Archbishop of Canterbury
“There is a sacred realm of privacy for every man and woman where he makes his choices and decisions-a realm of his own essential rights and liberties into which the law (the state, the church), generally speaking, must not intrude.”