Time to Get Selfish

September 22, 2013

The First Parish of Watertown

The Rev. Andrea Greenwood


Opening Words — Revelation, Chapters 11 and 12


These are the two olive trees, like two candlesticks standing before the God of the earth.

If any man hurts them, fire will proceed out of their mouths, and devour their enemies.

These have power to shut heaven, so that it never rains, and there is no water, and the earth is plagued with suffering. Three days after these prophets die, they will answer a voice calling them, and be raised up into the clouds.

At that hour, there will be a great earthquake, and part of the city will fall, and a great wonder will appear in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars:

She was great with child, and pained to be delivered.

And there appeared another wonder in heaven; a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads.

His tail drew the down a third of the stars of heaven, and cast them to the earth: and the dragon stood before the woman hoping to devour her child as soon as it was born.

But when she brought forth a son, he was caught up unto God, and she fled into the wilderness.

Then there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon;

And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan: he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.

And when the dragon saw that he was cast unto the earth, he persecuted the woman who had stood on the moon, with stars in her hair.

So the two wings of a great eagle were given to the woman, that she might fly into the wilderness, into her place, where she is nourished.

The serpent cast out water from his mouth, sending a flood after the woman, that would carry her away.

But the earth helped the woman.  It opened, and swallowed up the flood, and the dragon was angry at the woman and went to make war with her children, because she was safe.


READING  from One Thousand and One Nights, Hanan al Shayk

I am going to read a little from the preface of a recent retelling of some of the famous stories of One Thousand and One Nights.  The author, Hanan al Shayk is from Lebanon, and she calls these stories Arab, but I want to note that they are not exclusively Arab.  Many are actually Persian and Indian, and this is important for women in present day Iran – for people who are Muslim, but not Arabs.   The stories, which Asher nicely referenced for us a few minutes ago, start when a king is stunned to learn that his brother’s wife is unfaithful, and then discovers that his own wife is also having an affair. Unable to trust anyone, he becomes jealous and angry and fearful of giving his heart to anyone again.  He solves this problem by having his wife executed, and planning to marry a virgin every single day, spend one night with her, and then kill her at dawn.  One consequence of this plan is that after a while there are very few young virgins left, and Scheherazade, the daughter of the royal minister, offers herself as the king’s bride.  Every night, Scheherazade starts telling a story, then, just as dawn breaks, stops – right at an emotional peak. The king spares her life for one day at a time, so he can hear the rest of the story the next night, when the pattern repeats.

In interviews, al Shayk has said that she resented being compared to Sheherezade – a slave, sitting around telling stories so she wouldn’t be killed.  Although she was drawn in, she was also exasperated, because she really just wanted her to poison the king and be done with it.  As you will hear, she sees it differently now:

I don’t recall exactly whether I was eight or ten years old when I first heard the words Alf layla wa layla, one thousand and one nights, but I do remember listening to a radio dramatization and being utterly smitten: the clamour, hustle and bustle of the bazaars and souks, the horses’ hooves, the creaking of a dungeon door, how the radio seemed to vibrate and shake at the footsteps of a demon, and the famous crow of the lonely rooster at the start of each episode, which would be answered by all the roosters in our neighbourhood.  I heard that a girl in my class had Alf layla wa layla, and I hurried with her to peer at a few volumes in a glass cabinet, next to a carved tusk of an elephant. The volumes were leather-bound, their title engraved in gold. I asked my friend if I might touch one, but she said that her father always locked the cabinet and kept the key in his pocket, because he said he feared that if anyone finished the stories they would drop dead.

(As the years passed, mostly what I wanted was to escape the world evoked in Alf layla wa layla. But Shahrazad found her way to me. I began reading her for myself )

I felt as if I had opened the door of a carriage which took me back into the heart of my Arab heritage, and to the classical Arab language, after a great absence. I was astonished at how our forebears had shaped our societies, showing us how to live our daily lives, through these tales which were filled with insights and moral and social rules and laws, without the influence of religion, but derived from first-hand experience and deepest natural feelings towards every living thing. The effect of Alf layla wa layla was so strong and real that Arab societies shaped themselves around it; the names of its characters were embedded in our language, becoming proverbs, adjectives and even modes of speech. I was in awe of the complex society the stories evoked, which allowed relationships between humans and jinnis and beasts, real and imaginary, and I smiled at the codes of conduct and the carefully laid-out etiquette. But as a female Arab writer my real enchantment was the discovery that women in those forgotten ancient societies were far from passive and fearful; they showed their strong will and intelligence and wit, all the time recognising that their behaviour was the second nature of the weak and the oppressed.

It dawned on me that in a sense my friend’s father was right when he had said that anyone who finished Alf layla wa layla would die: the reader might find herself detached and lifeless when forced to withdraw from the sublime vividness of the numerous worlds of the One Thousand and One Nights, and into the world of today.



Okay, how many of you got nervous when you saw that the opening words were from Revelation this morning?  New Testament readings are one thing, but really, Revelation?  How did we get there?

Let’s blame the internet.  A quick google search of the phrase “selfishness and sin” immediately draws us into a world in which Lucifer is thrown out of heaven because he had the hubris to believe that, as an angel, chosen by God, he had some power to act in the world.  The ancients saw this as prideful, and so war waged between the angels.  Michael won, and stayed in heaven, and Lucifer was tossed through the clouds, fell to earth, and has been tempting humans ever since.  This story is where the idea of deadly sins comes from; and the prime one is Lucifer’s:  selfishness.  All the others flow from there.

If you did not know the story being told was considered Biblical, you might think it was some contemporary, fantastical tale, albeit without the vampires.  The thrashing tails of a dragon sweep the stars out of heaven during a deadly battle with angels, while mystical visions of a woman bathed in light and standing on the moon haunt the sky. She can ride the flood waters to safety, or sprout wings and fly away from the demon, which is furious that she is in heaven while he is on earth.

But this fallen angel is called Lucifer.  It is a funny named for a devil — it means morning star – the one star bright enough that it can be seen even as dawn breaks, and darkness flees.  That morning star is actually the planet Venus, associated with myths of a different stripe – ones about love, and joy.  And images of Venus are strangely resonant with this bright woman in the heavens, standing on the waters, always bathed in light.  The battle in Revelation may be more about women and men and power and jealousy than it is about the angels and God.  But it is told as a story warning us off putting the self first.  Literally, heaven will be shut down and catastrophe will reign.

No one has ever accused us liberal religionists of taking this story seriously.  In fact, most critiques of our faith note that we are excessively focused on individual freedom.  Lucifer’s actions sound like personal responsibility to us – he wanted to make choices, not act as a mindless instrument. And to many, this is the liberal’s very own original sin – the belief that we can fix the world, through education and effort.  Our effort to upgrade the human condition is interpreted as a rejection of God’s will; a refusal to be humble.

So why is it that we so often seem terribly afraid of putting ourselves first? I once had a friend that I could only take in small doses, because his extreme awareness of the harm he was doing by living made it hard to take a walk without feeling like I was crushing the blades of grass.  It was unbearable.  And while this is an excessive example, I do think it captures a truth about many of us.  We are hyperconscious of other people’s misfortunes, of all the trouble in the world, and of our duty to help, or at the very least not contribute to problems; and hopefully to do a lot better than that.  Our religious imperative is to provide assistance. We covenant to help one another.  Politically, those of us on the left have a reputation as prophets of gloom and doom, wed to misery and a belief in our own power, coupled with a failure to believe in other folks’ ability to rise above circumstances.

This is not a very good week for this conversation.  I was already trying to absorb our own private loss, stunned by news of the accident that claimed the life of our former music director.  So on Monday I was unable to process the report from Washington, DC.  A mass shooting?  Again?  It is becoming routine, as are the questions afterwards.  Could this have been prevented?  Well, yes.  But not if you believe that taking action and changing the course we are on is some kind of sin; a selfish refusal to accept the terms dictated by heaven, or by tradition.

Last year, two social scientists at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School articulated an important distinction in this whole field of selfishness and freedom.  It turns out what we really all want is to have things go our way; to have money rain down on us; to be lucky; to live in a benevolent universe. What we don’t want is the responsibility for choosing what to do with our resources.  This is one of the reasons that a conservative world view can provide comfort to people: It implies a set order to the world that absolves us from painful decision making. Jonathan Berman and Deborah Small showed that when you give people a financial windfall, they’re happier if you insist that they spend it on themselves. If you give them the option of donating it to charity instead, you destroy their joy – even if they keep the money, they no longer feel so good about it.  The awareness that they could have chosen to help, but didn’t, functions like an undertow, pulling us back to that sense of selfishness and sin.  Not having to choose frees us to enjoy self-interest without feeling like we are selfish.  Unfortunately for us here this morning, free will is a cornerstone of liberal religion.  We are not going escape awareness – as Aladdin reminds us, it is very tricky to get genies back in their bottles.

So we have to ask what this research says about liberals and our ability to be happy.  Training people to choose selflessness sounds good.  But it is dangerous, too.  For years now I have been haunted by a story Jean Merkl told me about a young relative of hers.  I no longer remember any of the actual story, but I know how it made me feel – which was curious, scared, guilty, protective, stymied.  The basic outline had to do with a young person going off to college and being vulnerable to exploitation – to helping people he should not help; to giving away all that he had —  a phrase that ironically evokes a religious ideal. We never tell kids not to help, or that there are people who they cannot help.  We don’t say, make sure you are treated right.  Instead we say, don’t be bossy, wait your turn, respect other people’s feelings, be compassionate.  Be nice.

But Jean’s story created an image of a young man who, because he was kind and honest and good, would soon be crushed and empty and used.  I have thought of it many times, and in many different contexts — teaching my own children how to navigate requests for money in the subway, for example.  It is complicated, because it involves acknowledging that the world is not all good, that things are not always fair, and that we are not actually responsible for fixing it all.  There are some things we cannot do anything about.  How do you say that collectively we are all responsible, but individually, sometimes, we are not?  We can’t be, and so we have to make judgments about who we can help, and how.  And there are contexts in which we have to put ourselves first.

This is something I cannot remember ever hearing as a positive – to put myself first.  Despite the fact that success in our culture is based on economic selfishness, there are very real religious and cultural taboos against the practice.  And they are worse for women than for men, as our stories this morning make fairly clear.

What really motivated me to speak on this topic is the story of Lauren Astley.  Lauren was the dream child of many parents: kind, thoughtful, diligent, and good.  She worked hard in school, was very involved in her church, which was the Unitarian Universalist Church in Wayland.  She sang in the choir, and went on mission trips to help in the Katrina-ravaged Ninth Ward of New Orleans.  And even though she did not date her boyfriend any more, she continued to help him when he asked.  Then he killed her.  Sad and shocking as this story is, it is not truly surprising any more.  I have known young women in every congregation I’ve been part of who made decisions to put themselves at risk because the person they were involved with asked it of them.  They lacked the ability to put themselves first, or believed that saying no implied they were judging the other, when it was their duty to help. Often, as in the case of Lauren, the other person had mental health problems – but making that fact part of the explanation sidesteps the issue, which is that too often we feel obligated to accept unacceptable behavior.  It is the only way we know how to be good.  Lauren and girls like her believe that their relative privilege – not living in poverty, not subject to discrimination, not overtly troubled – demands that they help others, and so walking away would be selfish. Once, painfully, the young woman KNEW that the situation she was in was bad.  She was scared.  But she could not give herself permission to leave.  That would be abandoning someone who was not as lucky as she was.  Also, he seemed powerful, with a magnetic pull, and she liked being in his orbit.  When she wasn’t, she felt insignificant.  The only way she could get out was if some other force intervened and pulled her in a new direction.  Happiness is result of not having to choose, because if we have a choice, it can’t be the selfish one.

Lauren Astley’s father handled her murder with more grace and compassion than I would have ever believed possible.  He is truly an inspiration, and a person who makes me proud to be a Unitarian Universalist.  Since his daughter’s death at the hands of someone their whole family cared about, all he wants to do is help teach girls how to not become victims. So I want to think about how a religion based on love and freedom might have some of the same effects as rigidly patriarchal conservative faiths.   In a way, our problem is more insidious, because we are free.  We make our own choices.  In The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood  wrote “God is love, they once said, but we reversed that.”  Love is God.  And so “the more difficult it was to love the particular man beside us, the more we believed in Love, abstract and total. We were waiting, always, for the incarnation. That word, made flesh.”  The image Atwood draws is of women falling in love as literally falling, like Lucifer, flying down through the clouds, making a choice that will lead away from heaven.

I do not believe this is really a gender issue.  I think it is part of struggle to understand what it means to be nice; what the word “love” means; what our fear of selfishness is rooted in.  That idea of making love itself into God is something to give us pause.  When we make a god out of anything, we are idealizing.  When we believe that love is God, we focus only on the good qualities in people, and discount the rest.  Problems are minimized, or dismissed, and so instead of acknowledging how someone controls us, or withholds, or judges, we promote that person until we are controlled by him or her.  We exalt them as proof of our own ability to love; our own sense of walking in the light.  We may not be happy, but we are proud of ourselves, because we give endlessly, with no reward.

My take-away from that study about selfishness and happiness is that we need to take some choices away, even if the only way we do that is by being more realistic about human nature. Love can be a form of idolatry, which means there is no real relationship there.  It is just a forum in which an individual is a good person, or not, based on how much love they can give, no matter to whom, or for what.  When we refuse to recognize how complicated human beings are, how messy life with real people is, when we teach people to always and only be helpers who think of others first, we are not necessarily doing them a service.  We need to have ways to address pain.  If the love you are giving is wearing you down unto the point of death, the message we give should not be, try harder, do more.  It should be, move on.  Someone else can help that person.  You can do no more.  And this is true for institutions as well as individuals.  We cannot save everyone, and if we destroy ourselves trying we all lose.  I do not mean that we should be indulgent and absorbed in pampering activities.  I mean we should not feel that our worth is dependent upon giving endlessly.  I think Hanan al Shayk’s reaction to One Thousand and One Nights as a child was healthy – why didn’t she just poison the guy and get it over with?  She should not have to tell a story every night in order to live.

And yet stories are the key to living, and they are what religion is based on.    Anything that is idealized is the opposite of a story.  Years and years ago, I was teaching a Sunday school class of middle schoolers.  We were reenacting stories from the Hebrew Bible, and I am still moved by how enraged these teenagers were, because they did not expect religion to be STORIES.  They wanted sense.  Rules. Something worth believing in, or something they could argue against.  When we painstakingly built a giant city out of Legos, and then dumped massive buckets of water on it, washing everything away, one of the girls was incredulous to the point of sarcasm.  “Nice God,” she said, revealing what she was looking for.  Somehow, they had the idea that religion was about love, but no one had talked about it as a place to grapple with complexity, or devastation, or limits within our own hearts.

I don’t have answers for how to make the world a better place, but I think that raising the question is part of any solution.  We create our worlds as we talk, spinning out stories — our own, and the old ones, which don’t necessarily mean what people have said they mean.  Lucifer was an angel, and the devil, the brightest star and the one that dared to act.  Maybe he was selfish, or perhaps he was brave.  He chose to live on earth and confront things rather than lie around on the clouds, watching. You can’t tell a story without looking at things from a few different angles, or vantage points.  Sheherezade was a prisoner; a slave.  She was also her own kind of warrior, and an artist.  She saved herself not by submitting to the king’s will, and not by love.  She did not give endlessly; she withheld and controlled, until she saved herself with imagination; with belief in her own power to create a better world.

Closing Words     from Pyrotechnics, Amy Lowell

A King and Queen, and a couple of Generals,

Flame in colored lights;

Putting out the stars,

And making a great glare over the people wandering among the booths.

They are very beautiful and impressive,

And all the people say “Ah!”

By and by they begin to go out,

Little by little. The King’s crown goes first,

Then his eyes,

Then his nose and chin.

The Queen goes out from the bottom up,

Until only the topmost jewel of her tiara is left.

Then that, too, goes;

And there is nothing but a frame of twisted wires,

With the stars twinkling through it