Stop Trying So Hard (September 2, 2012)

posted Sep 30, 2012, 5:13 PM by Neal Jones

          Today I'm going to do something I don't like to do.  I'm going to use labels.  I don't like labels of any kind because they oversimplify what is complex, and this is especially so when labels are used to describe human beings, the most complex complexity of all.  A label on a can of soup can, at most, only list the ingredients, but it cannot come close to capturing the experience of enjoying a bowl of delicious soup.  How much more inadequate is a label trying to explain a person.  As a psychologist, I even resist using diagnostic labels, but I have to in order to satisfy the insurance companies.  To call someone "borderline" or  "schizophrenic" doesn't tell you much of anything of importance about a human being.  Labels cause us to imagine that we know someone before we do, so we don't even try to know them once we have put them in our little boxes of categories.  Labels objectify people, and objects are easy to ignore, dismiss, and throw away.

          I am especially wary of using the highly charged labels "conservative" and "liberal," especially during this political season.  But I'm going to use them anyway, but not with their political connotations; I'm going to use them for their spiritual implications.  For the terms "conservative" and "liberal" are not just labels for explaining opposing political ideologies; they describe complementary elemental forces. 

          We see the conservative and liberal rhythm at work in nature.  Nature hibernates in winter to restore itself before bursting forth into new life in spring.  Fields lie fallow to regenerate in order to produce the following year.  The ocean withdraws from the shore in order to swell into waves, which release back onto the shore.  Living creatures breathe in to replenish their cells with oxygen so that they may breathe out their energy.  The body shuts down during illness or injury to heal itself for activity.

          The conservative and liberal impulses exist in nature and within each of us.  They are the yin and yang of the spiritual life.  The conservative yin is grounded in reality.  It's practical, sensible, factual, down-to-earth.  It's ordered, stable, predictable, settled.  The conservative tendency within us seeks to preserve the past and maintain tradition.  We need the conservative impulse to conserve our energy, to protect our boundaries, to solidify our gains, to heal our wounds. 

          And there is the liberal yang, soaring up into the clouds, untethered, unrestrained, free, and spontaneous.  It's imaginative, speculative, and creative.  The liberal tendency within us anticipates the future, has dreams and visions of what is possible, and longs to change what is into what can be.  We need the liberal impulse to stretch and grow, to venture over the next horizon, to incorporate the new, to adapt and change in order to survive in changing times.  Politically, "conservative" and "liberal" are usually posed as opposing, conflicting forces, but they are really complementary.  Spiritually, they are not either/or but both/and.  We need both tendencies to be whole persons.  The challenge of the spiritual life is to hold the conservative yin and the liberal yang in tension with each other.

          Religion is the organized, institutional expression of spirituality, and unfortunately, religion usually doesn't hold these tendencies in tension very well.  It usually makes the false choice of one being superior to the other and engages in the misguided mission of trying to destroy the other.  Conservative religion often falsely believes that the truth was delivered in its entirety once upon a time for all time, and its mission becomes preserving the past against any change and maintaining tradition at all costs, even when the tradition has lost its meaning and relevance.  Conservative religion is about inerrant Bibles with literal meanings that are not open to new interpretations, infallible Popes and preachers whose pontifications are never open to question or critique, and rigid rituals that must be repeated over and over without the slightest deviation.  Conservative religion defines faith as obedience, which, at its worst, devolves into unquestioning compliance and stifling conformity. 

          Liberal religion often falsely believes that truth and meaning are found only in the present and future and is quick to dismiss the past as having little to teach us and much to rebel against, and its mission becomes denigrating the past, rewriting the creed, and desecrating the tradition, even when a tradition may still have value.  Liberal religion places it faith in the inevitability of progress, in what Unitarian minister James Freeman Clarke called "the progress of mankind onward and upward forever," in what John Lennon sang, "every day in every way it's getting better and better."  The past holds dead doctrines and dogmas, worn-out institutions and rituals, and authorities who have lost their authority, while the future holds the promise of attaining everything we have ever desired.  In this way, liberals can be just as rigid and dogmatic as conservatives about the time zones they live in -- one lives in the promise of a future utopia, the other in the nostalgia of a idyllic Garden of Eden.  Liberals define faith as openness and adventure, which, at its worst, devolves into rootlessness and groundlessness, vulnerable to chasing the latest fad and fashion until a new one comes in vogue.  

          So in a simplistic nutshell, this is the fundamental difference between conservative and liberal religion:  conservatives resist change and liberals push for change. 

          I don't have to tell you on which side of this divide we Unitarian Universalists fall.  Since our inception, we have always pushed for change.  We have pushed for theological change -- ethics instead of belief, reason instead of superstition, the facts of science instead of the wishful thinking of faith, the potential for human good instead of original sin, human responsibility instead of divine intervention, life in the here-and-now instead life in the hereafter, and respect for the wisdom of all spiritual paths instead of the arrogance of a my-way-or-the-highway, one, true religion. 

          We have pushed for political change -- the abolition of slavery, the abolition of the death penalty, the suffrage for women and civil rights for African Americans, LGBT persons, and all people, public education, the autonomy of women over their own bodies, the preservation of our natural environment, the end of war and the waging of peace, a democracy of, by, and for all the people. 

          We have pushed for economic change -- the right to organize, safe working conditions, the eight-hour work day and the five-day work week, livable wages, a universal retirement pension and universal health care, regulation of the greed of the powerful and protection of the well-being of the vulnerable, a social safety net that catches you when you fall, and a helping hand to lift you up again. 

          Many people go to church to feel comfortable and complacent, to be reassured that what has always been will always be, to be "saved," which means that one has arrived at one's spiritual destination.  We come to church to be challenged to stretch and grow, not to save our souls but to grow a soul, to be transformed and to transform our world, to embark on a lifetime adventure of exploration and discovery, a journey which never ends.  We liberals believe in and are dedicated to change. 

          Now change may be small and straightforward:  to read more books, to go to the gym more consistently, to spend more time with your family and friends.  Or change may be more profound:  to confront an addiction and begin the recovery of a more meaningful life, to leave a job you have always dreaded and pursue the work you have always dreamed of doing, or to leave a loveless marriage and pursue the possibility of realizing true intimacy.  Whether the change we seek is small or large, there are basically two ways to approach change. 

          One way is trying harder.  This approach is about change from the outside in.  You change how you behave or you change your external circumstances in order to change who you are internally.  This approach has confidence in human knowledge.  You know what you need to change in your life in order to be happy, and the way to get from where you are to where you want to be is to formulate a step-by-step plan with clear goals and objectives.  Or as someone once said, "The difference between dreams and goals is a deadline."  This is the way of Mike Paget and of strategic plans.  This approach has confidence in will-power.  You can do anything you set your mind to.  Change is about action; it's about doing something.  Don't just sit there, do something.  As the Nike ads put it, "Just do it."  As Thomas Palmer put it, "If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again." 

          This is the way of change you find in the self-help section of bookstores.  This is the American way.  In a national survey that asked people what they would change to make their lives happier, 33% said their financial situation, 14% said their jobs, 9% would change where they live, 5% said their appearance, 5% their family, 5% their romantic partner, and 4% their health.  Notice that just about all of these changes are about external changes.  Change from the outside in, change by trying harder pervades our culture, and many of us assume it is the only way of changing our lives. 

          Let's say you characteristically spend too much.  The "try harder" approach would dictate that you cut up your credit cards and devise a strict budget and stick to it, keeping track of every dime you spend by keeping your receipts and entering the amounts in your budget columns; and if and when you run out of money for your allocated areas, you don't spend anymore. 

          Or let's say you need to earn extra money or have been laid off and need to find another job, but you find it hard to get motivated to put yourself out there.  The "try harder" approach would dictate that you may take an assertiveness class and learn how to push yourself past your shyness.  You may go to someone to help you put together your resume.  You may practice job interviewing with a job coach.  You may meet with a job recruiter and visit job fairs.

          Let's say you want to feel closer to your life partner.  You may schedule regular "date nights" to guarantee that the two of you will spend more time together.  You may see a couple's counselor together and work on your communication skills.

          Let's say you want to grow a garden.  So you plant some seeds, but they don't seem to grow.  So you get to work.  You talk to your seeds, then you yell at them, but still they don't seem to be growing.  So you try harder.  You read stories and poems to your seeds, you sing to them, you play music for them.  If at first you don't succeed, try, try again.  (Reference to Frog and Toad in Arnold Lobel's The Garden.)

          These are the ways of change that take action and try harder.  But there is another way, and it's the way of W.C. Fields:  "If at first you don’t succeed, try again.  Then quit.  No use being a damn fool about it."  Not trying so hard is about change from the inside out, changing how you think, feel, and perceive in order to change how you behave or to change the circumstances of your life.  This approach doesn't have a lot of confidence in our knowledge.  We don't know ourselves nearly as well as we think we do.  The best laid plans of mice and men are frequently overridden by unconscious needs and desires.  Our egos are terrific tricksters.  The ego can make you think that your self-interest coincides with the interests of everyone else.  A nation's ego can fool it into thinking that it's national interest is what's best for all humankind. 

          This approach doesn't have much confidence in the power of will-power.  Even when we know what we need to change and what to do bring about change, we won't or can't do.  The average person makes the same New Year's resolution ten years in a row, each year rationalizing their past failures to convince themselves to try, try again.  Of the people who make New Year's resolutions, only half are able to sustain the resolution for two weeks, and the number is down to 19% after two years.  St. Paul was speaking for a lot of us when he said in his letter to the Romans, "I don't understand myself.  I want to do what is right but I do not do it.  Instead, I do the very thing I hate."  

          Sometimes trying harder leads to change.  But sometimes our plans and actions can interfere with change.  Sometimes our plans and actions can intrude upon the natural process of change.  Sometimes you need to stop trying so hard to change in order for change to happen.  Sometimes you don't have to talk and sing and read stories to your seeds for them to grow.  This approach to change is not so much about doing as being.  It's about acceptance.  When you accept yourself the way you are, you may be surprised at how much you change.  Don't just do something, sit there.  This is the way of change you are more likely to find in the spirituality section of bookstores.  This is the way of Buddhism and other Eastern religions.  This is the way of meditation, yoga, Tai Chi, and other spiritual practices.  This is the way of psychotherapy when psychotherapy focuses on gaining insight and supporting self-acceptance.

          Let's say you characteristically spend too much.  You could spend some time in quiet solitude, without the distraction of noise and things to do, getting to know yourself better.  You may discover a loneliness and an emptiness inside that have been there a long time but that you've never paid attention to before.  You may discover that your overspending has been your way of trying to satisfy your loneliness and emptiness.

          Or let's say you need to earn extra money or have been laid off and need to find another job, but you find it hard to get motivated to put yourself out there.  You may start your job search by searching inside to try discover the internal obstacles that are holding you back.  Maybe you're afraid of failure, or maybe you're afraid of success.

          Let's say you want to feel closer to your life partner because the two of you have been losing your connection with each other.  Instead of focusing on his or her shortcomings, you may focus on yourself and look at your own resistance and fears about intimacy.  As much as you want more closeness in your relationship, getting close may feel dangerous to you or stifling or overwhelming.  As Jesus said, "Take the beam out of your own eye before trying to remove the speck from your friend's eye." 

          The way of trying hard is the American way.  It's also the Unitarian way.  From the beginning, we have always put our faith in reason and in the ability of people to do the reasonable thing.  I think any honest self-examination and any honest reading of history, especially in light of last week's convention, should convince us that this is a misplaced faith.  Like many of you, I left behind the evangelical faith of my childhood and came to embrace the reasonable faith of Unitarian Universalism.  There are clearly many aspects of my childhood faith that I am relieved to leave behind and that should be left behind.  But the older I get, the more I appreciate at least one aspect of that faith, and that is it's focus on change as an inside job.  If you want to change your behavior, you have to change your heart.  If you want to change society, you have to begin with yourself.  You need to undergo a internal conversion.  You have to adopt new priorities and commit yourself to new values.  You must be born again. 

          In my next couple of sermons, I will lay out how to become a born-again Unitarian.

                                                                                                                                            Rev. Dr. Neal Jones