Sermon by Rev. Diane Rollert, 31 May 2015
When I look at my bookshelves, I see a collection of characters that I have carried with me for years. Their images have become hazy, yet they are so present in my life. What is it about Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, the tragic figure of Nana in Zola’s book of the same name, Jean-Marc in Michel Tremblay’s Le Coeur Découvert, or the many characters in Mark Halperin’s Winter’s Tale, that has stayed with me? I can’t say for sure without going back and rereading each book. Yet I know that all of those characters have somehow helped to shape my perspective on life.
When I asked about the characters in novels or film that have touched your lives, I received a variety of answers: The character Toad from the Frog and Toad series for children by Arnold Lobel, Franny and Zooey from J.D. Salinger’s classic novel of the same name, Winston Smith in George Orwell’s book 1984, Louisa in Me Before You Go by Jo Jo Meyers, the older man in the film Hugo, Mma Ramotswe of the First Woman’s Detective Agency series, to name a few.
Others who wrote to me shared their admiration of real figures like Pope John XXIII, Nelson Mandela, Michail Gorbachev, Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning and Che Guevara. (Yes, that list comes from three different people who, if they don’t know each other already, should definitely meet.) Someone else held up the brilliant mathematician, John Nash, the subject of the film, A Beautiful Mind, who had struggled with and came to accept his schizophrenia, and who died this past month at the age of 86. And, someone wrote in praise of Marina Tidbury, local hero and friend of this congregation, whose work collecting cans has helped to build a cooperative that gives a voice to informal recyclers of Montreal.
I especially like this list of film characters I received:
• The imprisoned guy in the film The Prophet: he had the ability to do what had to be done to survive; he set aside his ego and pride completely and submitted to a humiliating situation, always quiet, determined, steadfast, and ultimately triumphant as a leader.
• The guy who digs his way out in the Shawshank Redemption: perseverance
• The main character in Despicable Me: he is funny! hilarious accent! and a bit rough around the edges but has a heart of gold as we discover.
• The mother in Incendies: appearances can be deceiving and we see that appearances mean nothing anyway… also she showed great compassion to ‘’the father’’ and ‘’the son’’.
• The character played by a young Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: this character had great joie de vivre and humour and innate understanding of human needs. Nicholson’s best role.
The sender of this list adds, “You really have to see these movies to fully appreciate the full force of these amazing people.” (I’m just impressed that anyone could remember so many characters in such detail from so many movies.)
It would be almost impossible to summarize the qualities of character that stood out for each person who responded to me. There are the great individuals who have used their positions of power to advance humanity, then there are the charming curmudgeons, and the courageous ones who have the ability to confront and overcome delusions. There are others who have strength and intention, and whose characters grow through the power of love and determination.
Maybe I’m weird, but most of the fictional characters that have stayed with me are not heroes. They tend to be flawed. Often very flawed, or just very complex. What is it that draws me to the dark side of character when I read? I know I get impatient when characters in novels are too good. They should have real dilemmas to struggle with. They should make mistakes, and maybe not find redemption until it’s too late. Maybe I like my books to be the way I like my food; with a lot of spice, especially hot peppers that make you cry.
When I was a child, there was a story that I asked my mother to read to me over and over again. I remember the title as “Poor Prin,” but I can’t find it anywhere now. The main character in the story is a young girl who is six or seven years old. She has adopted a stray dog she names Prin. She loves the dog, but her family is poor and really can’t afford to feed it. One day her father trips over the dog on his way out of the house. “Get rid of this dog before I get home tonight or I’ll kill it myself!” he shouts at her. She desperately looks for a new home for Prin, but can’t find anyone who will take him in. She struggles with the dilemma of loving her dog and of loving and obeying her father. Finally, she ties a rock around the dog’s neck and releases him to the forces of the river. When she returns home, her father is waiting for her at the door to apologize for his anger. He tells her she can keep the dog, but it’s too late.
I know, this is a terrible story. Why would any parent read such a story to a child? In her defense, the first time my mother read it to me, she didn’t know what was coming. We cried together and then I asked to hear it again, and again.
The very controversial psychologist Bruno Bettelheim wrote in the 1970s that the original gruesome fairy tales of Hans Christian Anderson and others (not the sanitized Disney versions we know today) spoke to the moral dilemmas of children. He said children were drawn to the complex, jarring stories of cruel stepmothers, unjust fathers, evil dragons and the like because they had things to work out about about themselves and the world. I suppose as a child, I was trying to work out my understanding of moral dilemma when I asked my mother to read Poor Prin to me repeatedly.
I identified with the little girl. Not because her family reminded me of my own. We certainly had enough to feed our dog, and my father loved all our animals. Perhaps I was grateful that I never had to confront such a horrible decision. Perhaps the girl’s dilemma made me realize that whatever trials I was facing were nothing compared to hers. Perhaps the idea that a child could make such a terrible sacrifice somehow suggested strength. Perhaps the idea that a parent could make a horrible mistake and ask forgiveness felt redemptive. Or maybe I just needed the excuse to cry. But something in that girl’s character stayed with me and helped me to better understand who I was in the world. She helped to shape my character.
Our UU forefathers and foremothers, especially in the 19th Century, had this very strong idea about the importance of developing character. Elizabeth Cushing, who we often hold up as one of our founders, was the daughter of Hannah Webster Foster, a novelist. Her novels were typical of Unitarian literature, which was in fact its own genre. There was a desire to prove that individuals could rise to the occasion, that they could learn from the wrong they had done in their lives, that they could be saved by the love that others gave them. It was very moralistic fare, but it gave agency to the individual, in bold rejection of the prevailing theology of the day that saw humanity as inherently sinful, immoral and accountable to a judging God who controlled all that happened.
There are those who say that we are living in an age of self-absorption, that we have lost connection to our values, that we need to return to a theology of sin. You know that there is no place in my theology for sin, at least not in the Christian sense of the word. I definitely come from the nurture versus nature school of thought when it comes to character development — that we are all born inherently good and it’s what happens as we grow that changes us.
We human beings are complex. If we are honest with ourselves, then we must admit that we don’t have as much knowledge as we think we do. These days there are plenty of behavioural studies that demonstrate just how poor our judgement can be. Consider the Dunning-Kruger effect that says that a majority of people consistently overestimate their skills from things as basic as driving to how well we make decisions. How often do we self-aggrandize, blame others for our own failings, or complain when things don’t go our way, rather than take responsibility for our own outcomes?
But what if we could embrace rather than reject the complexity of who we are? Or as one of you recently asked me: What if we could let go of this dichotomy between good and evil and speak more about the blossoming of character as the result of the richness of the positive and negative experiences of our lives?
This is where I feel torn. I want to agree that we can choose to the let the highs and the lows of our lives shape us into people of character. But I also want to understand why there is violence, mistrust and inequality in the world. I want to be honest about the moral dilemmas we face that we too often fail to recognize. But I also want to say that we don’t do guilt and we don’t expect perfection here. Maybe this is why I love those dark characters in literature who are so clearly flawed. They remind me that none of this is easy, that we all struggle, that we are always works in progress.
Recently, I was interviewed by a young student working on a school project. She asked me, “If there were one word to describe your religion, what would it be?” I thought for a moment. Freedom, tolerance, reason? These are the pillars of our faith that we often point to. Each is very dear to me, but not one of these words is the word that I would want standing alone at the centre of Unitarian Universalism. “Love,” I answered. “It sounds so cliché, but love is at the centre of my faith.”
In practice, love is a centre that can be very hard to find. How do I love the people who frustrate me? How do I love the complexity of who we are? Yet, when I think of the challenges we face, love is the one thing that has the power to undo what keeps us from fully realizing how to serve the world. Maybe our greatest challenge is that we have to figure out that love doesn’t mean false praise or lazy acceptance. Maybe love means pushing ourselves to work harder or to think more clearly, all the while finding the balance that keeps us from burning out. Maybe love means caring enough to examine our values before we discover it’s too late to change.
So many of those characters who live in the novels that have touched my life are yearning for love. They struggle for answers and the answers don’t always come, or they come too late. I think of that childhood character of a young girl coming home to find love and forgiveness, and I have no idea what will happen next. But maybe her yearning is what speaks to me because it is so elemental to our human condition.
Do we have to be perfect? Do you need to aspire to be as great as a Mandela or a King? No, I don’t think so. Do we owe it to ourselves to celebrate who we are honestly and openly? Yes. Maybe this is the hymn that we should have sung today:
If you cannot sing like angels
if you cannot speak before thousands
you can give from deep within you
You can change the world with your love
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