I offered this sermon to my congregation on July 17, 2012.
Story “The Party” from Kindness: A Treasury of Buddhist Wisdom for Children and Parents. Collected and adapted by Sarah Conover.
Reading – Our reading is from well-known and respected systems theorist Edwin Friedman, in his book, “Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix: A Failure of Nerve.” His goal was to challenge the conventional wisdom about leadership and change. The excerpt comes from the chapter, “Survival in a Hostile Environment: The Fallacy of Empathy.”
When I was back in Canada visiting my parents a few weeks ago, I spent a whole day playing with my four-year-old nephew! By supper we were exhausted, and I was so relieved when his parents arrived! As we sat down to eat dinner, it became pretty clear that my nephew was winding down, and my nephew does not wind down gracefully! He gets whiney and demanding and nothing is right. It happens every evening because like most four-year olds he’s worn himself out. When his parents tell him that it’s time to go home and go to bed, what do you think happens? He ramps it up even higher. When he lets go, he cries and he screams and he argues. He is absolutely certain in that moment that having to go home and go to bed is the most horrible thing that has ever happened to him in his life and he will never ever recuperate!
As I watched my brother and his wife engage this dynamic, and as I watched my own reactions to my nephew’s escalating behavior, I could see that a person who was shaky in their self-identity might have a lot of difficulty with this. If you need your child to like you, if you need their approval, if you need their good behavior to affirm you as a parent, it could be the worst part of your day too. Their anxiety becomes your anxiety, possibly even your shame, and I can imagine that the urge to find anything to stop the outburst could get pretty strong. Anything to stop the way their behavior makes you feel. “You’re not ready to go to bed? I’m so sorry! Here, have that sugary drink you are begging for!” But then they’ll be up for hours, probably still cranky, and the next day they will be even more tired. And most importantly, they’ll learn that they can bargain with bad behavior, and now a pattern is started that could shape the person they are becoming.
So as a parent, what do you do when your kid escalates like that? You have to resist the impulse for a quick fix. Find a way to stay calm in the face of their behavior. Move forward toward bedtime, regardless of how hard they are crying, regardless of how hard it is to see them upset, regardless of what terrible things they are saying about you, and regardless of how certain they are that going to bed is going to destroy them! Even though they can’t feel it and can’t know it at the time, you are doing this because you love them. You are doing this, because as a parent, you are the leader of your family.
We are all leaders in some way. We are leaders in our work, in our homes, here in this congregation, in our communities and neighborhoods. If you have a life partner, you are leaders to each other. If you are the oldest kid in your family, you are a leader. If you are a senior in high school, you are a leader. Even in your group of friends, there has likely been a time when you are a leader.
In both our children’s story and our reading, the main character is a leader, and in both cases the leader says no to what is asked of them. In the children’s story, the princes asked the Buddha to join them in finding the thief, but really they were doing more than that. They were asking the Buddha to join them in their anxiety, and the Buddha said “No! Your anger is not my anger. This thief is not my problem or yours. Instead of looking for the jewels he stole, look for the jewels in yourself.”
In our reading, Edwin Friedman is being asked by a person in his workshop to take responsibility for his hurt feelings and Edwin said, “No. Your feelings are your responsibility, and I’m not going to apologize for how you feel because of my presentation. That is your responsibility.”
Each of these situations is what you could call a “hot” situation, meaning that the emotional temperature is getting high: a child doesn’t want to go to bed; the princes’ anger keeps on spiraling; someone takes the words of a presenter personally. Each of these situations is a “hot” situation because the people with the anxiety are expecting someone else to take responsibility for it.
What’s interesting is that the Buddha and Edwin Friedman responded in almost exactly the same way as a parent who understands that their child needs to go to bed. Both practiced what systems theorists call self-differentiation. Neither took on responsibility for the emotions of those in front of them, and in doing so, both took the risk of making the situation even hotter. Your child may behave even more badly if you keep moving them on to bed. Those princes in their anger could easily have turned on the Buddha, and Friedman took the risk of alienating not only the man who complained, but also the rest of the room. Each of them took that risk because the alternative was to let down themselves and the other person. Each of them looked at the situation and discerned that giving the person in front of them what they asked for would be like giving a child sugar before bedtime.
So why am I talking about this here with you? It seems to me that there is no way to avoid anxiety, the anxiety in us, and the anxiety in others. When I was much younger, like in my 20s, I thought that a good life meant having a life without anxiety and I would wonder when I’d finally figure out how to be an anxiety free person, but it soon became clear that isn’t very realistic, so I moved from waiting for the anxiety in my life to go away to looking at how we manage anxiety. And then, I moved from a focus on simply managing anxiety to seeing anxiety as something positive if I could use it as some kind of tool.
One of the things I believe as a Unitarian Universalist is that somehow, whether though divine good intention or the evolutionary process, we human beings are born with a huge tool chest for survival. Our bodies and our emotions and our thoughts are unique among species, and our ability to use reason and rationality and intuition is pretty amazing. We are each endowed with the ability to respond to the emotion of anxiety with reason and intuition so that we can transform our anxiety into wisdom. In fact, for some of us this is how we see God or the sacred. It’s that transforming power that takes the raw material of our lives and fashions it into a tool for justice and compassion. When the Buddha and Edwin Friedman said no, this is actually what they were saying yes to – the transforming power that takes the raw material of our lives and fashions it into a tool for justice and compassion.
As the minister of this church, I’m often the person many of you will come to when there is something you feel anxious about. Maybe it’s your health, or your children, or your marriage. Maybe it’s your job or your relationship with your parents. Maybe it’s something that is happening here at the Chapel. Now this may sound very counterintuitive, but in seminary, our professors spend an inordinate amount of time training us out of the desire to fix problems and fix people. They are on the look out for people with savior complexes, and we are told over and over again that our job as leaders is not to help people. Our job is to help people help themselves, and that means that we have to learn self-differentiation or we will find ourselves blown off course by the anxieties of the people we serve. Most seminarians are expected to read Edwin Friedman’s books back to front and tested on our knowledge of his method, and then our teachers will intentionally subject us to every trigger they can. They watch us to see how we handle the anxiety around us and in ourselves. It is a great way to see if we can take the heat, and if we try to “fix” someone, that’s a big deal, and our teachers will work with us to help us understand that we aren’t doing that person any good. Usually our fixes are about avoiding our own anxiety. Fixing someone is no different from giving a toddler sugar before bedtime. It also denies the person we are “helping” the opportunity to transform their anxiety into wisdom, and that denies the working of the spirit in this world, however you may understand the working of the spirit.
The same is true of congregations. If we go into a church expecting to fix things, we will deny a church the opportunity to transform its anxiety into wisdom. It is far better to channel that anxiety than to try to fix it.
Now I will tell you that I probably wouldn’t have responded to that complainer the way Edwin Friedman did. Friedman said he didn’t care about that person’s feelings. I would express some kind of care because I actually would have cared that he was hurt. I think having love intentionally present in the room is important. I also think you can acknowledge someone’s feelings without taking responsibility for them. But like Friedman, I would have resisted the pressure to take responsibility for those hurt feelings or to offer the person an easy way out, because that’s not love either. I think Friedman was dead on. The way that person managed their feelings kept them from the universal truths in Friedman’s presentation. Friedman’s response invited that man to transform his anxiety into wisdom. Like the Buddha, he invited the man to see the jewel inside himself. How often do we run the organizations we love and the families we love into pits of dysfunction because we’re scared to tell the truth? We often enable the most dysfunctional people in our families out of a desire to be nice and to be liked.
Whenever someone comes to me with his or her anxieties, I try to remember to ask myself, what does this person really need from me? If I’m feeling internal pressure to soothe their anxiety, I have to ask myself, is this really the best response? Am I giving false comfort? I can’t find the jewel inside anyone. But I can listen to and support their search for it. Sometimes I can provide information that they can consider. Other times I simply express care and concern so they know they are not alone in their journey. Often I ask a lot of questions. That’s the best thing any of us can do, whether in our life partnerships, with our children, and with those we care about and serve. We can’t fix anybody. Only they can do that for themselves.
Let me give you another example.
There is some anxiety in this congregation about the fact that attendance on Sundays has fallen. We’ve had four years of non-stop growth in Sunday attendance, but last year, it went down. So there’s nervousness about what that means. Will this decline continue? What are we doing wrong? How can we fix this?
Some people are actually comforted, thinking the shrink means we can stop talking about expanding our facilities. The problem went away! Great, we don’t have to do anything! But I tell you this is not an option. This shrinking is what happens in a congregation that has inadequate facilities. When you are jam-packed for long enough, people stop coming because there isn’t room for them. But this, ironically, makes room for more people, so then you start growing again. But don’t be comforted by that, because if we don’t grow our facilities, we will hit that wall again, people will stop coming again, and we will shrink again. Even if we go to two services the next time we approach that wall, this will only address the crowding in the sanctuary. There’s still overcrowding during coffee hour because we have no fellowship hall, and overcrowding in our Religious Education wing, which is simply substandard.
We will be stuck in this cycle of shrinking and growing as long as we have a building with 4700 sq ft. That is smaller than some of our West County homes! The minimum space recommended by our Building Needs Task Force is 12 000 sq. ft. and that’s even with two services. We are about 7000 square feet short of what we need, and even if we stayed here and built, at about $150 sq ft, that could mean a capital campaign of $1 million. That doesn’t even include expanding our parking lot!
So did I just raise the temperature in the room? Excellent! If I gave nice pat answers to why we are shrinking, we would lose the chance to understand the bigger picture of what is happening to us. If you drop the thermometer just because it’s hot, you lose the chance to channel your anxiety into wisdom. If you can take the heat, you get to keep looking for the jewel in yourself, and we don’t do it by offering false comfort and self-serving quick fixes. We channel our anxiety towards wisdom, which is the closest thing many of us experience as God or the sacred or the spirit of life.
In the coming months, it’s going to get hot around here, because month by month, we are getting closer to learning what we need to learn so that this congregation can make a decision about whether we stay here and build on or move somewhere else. As things get hot, it will become pretty clear who’s pretty good at self-differentiating and who’s not. There will be times that many of us will be tempted to make our anxiety about the process someone else’s responsibility. There will be times that our leaders will be tempted to cool things down to try to ease the anxiety. It will be up to all of us to resist that temptation. We can’t run away from the fact that we are out of room and because we are out of room we have stopped growing, and that means we can’t fully live our mission and vision, which is to make sure that no one who needs our life saving message of hope and acceptance and freedom and responsibility is denied it. Our small building is denying that message to those whose lives could be saved because of it.
Taking the heat is what leaders do. Whether we are parents putting a child to bed, or project managers or ministers or teachers or doctors or life partners or the leader of a small group of well-meaning people, we all have the power and transforming potential to turn our petty and not so petty anxieties into tools of love, justice, and wisdom.
May the spirit be with you and yours. Amen and blessed be.