The Risk of a Clean Slate (Audio Available)

Sermon by Rev. Diane Rollert, 20 September 2015

The Unitarians of the 19th century laid down a strong foundation for us.  Our very first principle, the inherent worth and dignity of every person, comes directly from their interpretation of Christian teachings grounded in Jewish teachings. They believed, beyond a doubt, that every human being had the capacity for goodness.  Ralph Waldo Emerson called it the capacity for “greatness.”  In a lecture delivered in 1868.

He writes:
“There is a prize which we are all aiming at, and the more power and goodness we have, so much more the energy of that aim.  Every human being has a right to it, and in the pursuit we do not stand in each other’s way…”  You might call it “completeness”, he says, but he prefers to call it “greatness”:  “It is the fulfillment of a natural tendency in each [person].”

“Greatness,” he says, “’Tis not the soldier, not Alexander or Bonaparte or Count Moltke surely, who represent the highest force of mankind ; not the strong hand, but wisdom and civility, the creation of laws, institutions, letters, and art…. A great style of hero draws equally all classes, all the extremes of society, til we say the very dogs believe in him [—or her—]….” He goes on to say, “Abraham Lincoln is perhaps the most remarkable of this class that we have seen — a man who was at home and welcome with the humblest, and with a spirit and a practical vein in the times of terror that commanded the admiration of the wisest.  His heart was as great as the world, but there was no room in it to hold the memory of a wrong."

“There was no room in his heart to hold the memory of a wrong.”  This is Emerson’s definition of greatness:  The capacity to forgive, to let go of grudges, to clear away the memories of wrongs in order to rise up and respond with wisdom and courage in demanding times.

My own Jewish roots call me to to think about forgiveness in my life at this time of Yom Kippur.  Abram put it in such powerful terms in his poem that he just read.  What do we do with the dirty laundry that lies at the bottom of our metaphorical closets?

I’ve often been drawn to address the really big questions around forgiveness, to consider the terrible inhumanity that we see in the world and to question how we can undo what feels so unforgivable.  I admire the parents who can forgive the murderer of their child, or the person who finds a way to move from victim to survivor, so that anger and shame doesn’t consume them for life. I am inspired by the courage of those who take the risk to forgive what can surely never be forgotten.

But lately I’ve been thinking about other kinds of forgiveness, the small things we live with on a daily basis, the kinds of things we’re really good at pushing aside so that we don’t have to deal with them.  These are the things, Emerson would have said, that plague us and keep us from realizing our true potential for greatness.  It’s the anger that simmers inside us, the small slights that come back to us, the tapes we replay in our heads.  It’s the anger we have at God or the universe for the things that we must live with but which are not our own creation, or the things we would rather not confront in ourselves. It’s the memories of wrongs that we won’t or can’t let go of, as if they define us, as if letting go might cause us to lose our sense of self.

Maybe I shouldn’t say “we”.  Maybe, if I’m honest, I mean “I”.  Most of the time, I cruise along without feeling much resentment in my life.  I’m able to empathize with the actions of others, even when those actions feel as though they are aimed at me in hurtful ways.  I tell myself, “They’re having a bad day, they’ve lived through pain in their lives, it’s really not about me.” Over the years, I’ve developed thick skin.  Elephant skin — but with an elephant’s heart.  An absolute requirement if you plan to go into the ministry, or probably any kind of leadership, or anything that requires being in relationship with people.

But I have my own tapes to live with: The small things that get under my skin, especially those old memories of shame and guilt related to family.  If I’m really honest, if I really want to clean the slate for the New Year, well, it would take a level of courage I’m not sure I have.  In Jewish tradition, you ask forgiveness from God when your faith has waned or when you’ve harmed yourself.  In those cases you pray and ask God for forgiveness.  But when you have wronged another person, you must ask them directly for their forgiveness.  If they refuse to accept your apology, you are called to ask them two more times.  That means asking three times before you give up and turn it back to God.  Three times?  Ask three times?  There are some things I just set aside and let myself forget, because to ask forgiveness seems impossible.  And to offer forgiveness can feel as insurmountable, because then I have to admit that I feel that I have been wronged.

That, to me, is the really tricky scenario.  Sometimes we are truly victims of terrible harm.  But there are also a lot of times when we believe we have been wronged but it’s really only our own perception.  It’s those little things that get in the way.  The other person is lost in their own thoughts; they look right through you because they honestly don’t see you. But you tell yourself that they’ve ignored you, hurt you, done you wrong, when they have absolutely no clue that you’re harbouring such hurt.  Or your partner swears they’ve told you they wouldn’t be home for dinner, and you are so sure they didn’t tell you — maybe because you didn’t hear, maybe because you weren’t listening, maybe because one of you forgot.  But the omission suddenly becomes linked to past misunderstandings and the whole thing blows up into an argument.  So who asks for forgiveness; who forgives?  Who forgets?  Who has the courage to let these things go, rather than let them harden into accumulated resentments?

Last week, I saw this wonderful film, Inside Out.  I admit that going to see a 3-D animated Disney film would not have been my first choice for a rare trip to the movies.  (Oh, the things we do for love!)  What a surprise to then find myself weeping by the end of the film for a cartoon character named Riley, on the brink of puberty, whose family has moved her from Minneapolis, snow and hockey to San Francisco and a life of broccoli pizza.  Here’s the thing.  Most of the film literally takes place inside her head where five animated characters named Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust and Fear take turns running the command centre in her brain.  Joy, a pixie-like girl, is the leader of the team, striving to make sure that all of Riley’s core memories are filled with happiness.  Of course, this is impossible, and in the end we learn the necessary role that Sadness--a short, round, blue, and mournful but well-meaning girl--must play.

This film is absolutely brilliant, and many psychologists and neuroscientists say that the science of the brain portrayed by these funny and often adorable characters in Riley’s brain are a pretty good (though far from perfect) approximation of what goes on inside our own brains.

What I found fascinating was the portrayal of the development of memory.  At the end of each day, Riley’s memories arrive as round marbles that glow like glass globes of light.  Joyful memories shine like gold.  Angry memories glow red. Sadness glows blue and so on.  All the memories of the day are sorted into different regions of the brain, some stay in short-term storage, others are sent to long-term storage, and a few prize memories become core memories that define Riley’s personality and character. I can’t possibly do justice to the creative way these images are depicted— you just have to see the film.  

The plot thickens when all the joyful memories that have defined Riley’s childhood come to be literally touched by sadness.  The lightness, goofiness, and happiness that once defined Riley gives way to a pouty, angry pre-adolescent.  Something about that transition, of letting go of childhood innocence and joy, of waking up to the realities of moving toward adulthood, well, that’s what made me cry.

Watching the film, I kept thinking about the role of memory and forgiveness in our lives.  I’m not a neuroscientist, but I’ve been told that all of our negative memories are stored in one place in the brain.  We step into that room to behold one bad memory and suddenly we are buried in an avalanche of other bad memories.  As a friend of mine used to say, “You gotta get out of your head.  It’s a bad neighbourhood!”

Most of the time, I can live without letting old resentments get in my way.  You hope that as you grow older, you get better at this.  I know I’ve gotten better at laughing at myself over the years— but not always.  I imagine that we all have days when we find ourselves tumbling into that place where all our painful memories are stored.  Sometimes something gets triggered and you can find yourself trapped.  You can live in that bad neighbourhood in your mind, sometimes by choice, sometimes not.  You really want to leave, find a way to get reconnected to joy, but sometimes you need help when sadness, anger or fear weighs you down like a stone.  (Please, please, if you are finding that you really can’t function because of what is weighing you down, talk to me, or find someone to talk to that you can trust.)  

They say that when we cannot forgive or seek forgiveness, then anger, shame, guilt and disappointment can eat us alive.    We can find ourselves living a life of pain.  We can find ourselves so far away from that place of greatness, far from that fulfillment of the natural tendency that Emerson said exists in each of us.

Forgiveness, repentance, atonement, these are the words for the final and most solemn day of the Jewish High Holy Days.  On Tuesday night, as Yom Kippur begins, practicing Jews all over the world will fast and attend the last services of the Days of Awe.  Together they will chant communal responsibility for all the wrongs in their homes, their communities and the wider world, whether they have personally committed them or not.  They will reflect on the wrongs that need to be erased from the past year, as the gates of forgiveness symbolically close on this final Day of Atonement.
It’s interesting that so many religious traditions have rituals and practices for forgiveness.    As Unitarian Universalists, we’ve chosen to move away from traditions that instill too much guilt in the individual.  That can be very liberating.  Yet each of us has to consider how we will live with ourselves and how we will live in relation to others.  Without a strong communal practice that calls us back to a place of forgiveness, how do we return to our potential for greatness year after year?  Is it too easy for us to believe that we have done no wrong?  How do we find our way back into relationship with that which is greater than ourselves, whether we call that God or something else?  How do we find our way back into relationship with each other if we don’t call each other back into a place of light?

I’m not saying that we should let go of the anger, the sadness, disgust or fear in our lives.  I’m not saying that each of us should aspire to be as incapable of holding memories of wrong in our hearts as Abraham Lincoln.  We can’t all be saints.  But we can call each other to be honest with ourselves, to care as deeply about the one who sits beside us as the one suffering far away.  We can take a risk to seek forgiveness and to offer forgiveness in order to wipe the slate clean, to begin again for another year.  Maybe that’s a spiritual practice for every day, a way to realize greatness, as Emerson would say.

Download The Risk of a Clean Slate