Sometimes in our lives, nothing in particular is being asked of us. We can just be present and enjoy what is around us. These are the best times. Sometimes what is asked of us is clear and we can do it easily. These are also good times.
Often, though, we encounter the harder stuff. Something is being asked of us, and we know what it is, but it is hard.
- Getting up in the middle of the night to feed or soothe children
- Finding that extra ounce of patience for spouses, friends, or coworkers.
- Initiating a hard conversation
- Finding a way into forgiveness when forgiveness is healing
- Making the decision to step into greater engagement for environmental protection or social justice
In these situations, somehow, we have to look within and find the resources to respond.
Sometimes someone is asking something of us that we actually cannot give them, either because it is literally impossible or because saying yes does too much harm to our own or others’ lives and wellbeing.
- Requests for more time or money or energy than we have to give
- Someone asking for more depth of relationship than we are comfortable with
- Being asked for forgiveness when it is not time yet
- Someone who wants us to help them in a way that violates our own ethics or integrity
In these situations, we have to look within and find the strength to say no, which is in itself a challenge for many of us. Hopefully we will find a way to say no with compassion, which is an even taller order.
And sometimes we are in situations where the right thing to do, the right way to respond is not at all clear. We feel that something is asked of us, but we can’t figure out what that might be. There seems to be a problem, but we can’t understand the nature of it. The way forward is impossible to see.
It is for these harder situations – when we know what is asked of us but it is hard; when we are being asked for something we can’t give; and when we don’t understand what is being asked of us – it is for these harder situations that we need stories and practices to help us be the people we want to be.
We all tell ourselves stories all the time. Some of these are simple. Some of them are very complex. Some are individual stories we tell ourselves in our own hearts. Others stories are shared with family, or communities, or other groups to which we belong. When I was a kid we had a family story about why we didn’t watch television. Congregations and other communities have stories about who they are the world.
Then there are stories from mythology or fiction that help us organize our lives. For example, for me, the story of Don Quixote, as expressed in the musical Man of La Mancha is a story of courage and integrity in the face of impossible situations which is often a source of inspiration. This is one function of all the many, many hero’s journey stories from mythologies around the world, which contain the inspiration to rise to the occasion when hard things are asked of us, and sometimes even a kind of veiled instruction about how to do that.
So we all tell ourselves stories all the time. Sometimes it matters very deeply if the stories we tell ourselves are true or not. It matters very deeply if we are telling ourselves the true story about the science of climate change, for example. It matters very deeply if we are accurately assessing which kind of situation we are in. Are we in a situation which calls for action? Or a situation that calls for calm attentive presence? If action is required, can we figure out what that might be? These are questions it is important to get as right as it is possible to get them.
In other cases, it really doesn’t matter if the stories and practices are true as long as they work. When it comes to the stories and practices we use to help us be the people we want to be, their effectiveness rather than their accuracy is the appropriate measure. Do the stories you tell yourself make you more loving and patient? If so, they are good stories. Do the stories you tell yourself give you courage in tough situations? If so, they are good stories. Do the stories you tell yourself make you more impatient and judgmental of yourself and others? If so, you might need new stories. Do the stories you tell yourself lead you to despair and disengagement? If so, you might need new stories. Do your stories help you to recover and recommit when you falter? If so, they are good stories. Do your stories leave you no way out of failure or falling short? If so, you might need new stories.
The fourth Unitarian Universalist Principle is to affirm and promote a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. To me, the questions where accuracy is vitally important are the truth part of this Principle. Is the climate warming? If so, is that the result of human action? If so, what can we do about it? What are the likely effects of a given economic or social policy? Who will it actually help and how? Who will it hurt and how? What are the causes of disease? How can we overcome it? A free search for truth means being free to follow the evidence wherever it leads in questions such as these, without being bound by received wisdom or ideological purity. A responsible search for truth means asking important questions, accepting the accurate answers when we find them, and making decisions based on those answers to the questions where truth really matters.
The search for meaning, to me, is about the other kind of question. What will help me to be the person I want to be in this situation? What story do I need to tell myself? What practices do I need to engage? How do I cultivate patience? Courage? Compassion? Integrity? Forgiveness of myself and others? If the stories I am using help me do these things, they are good stories. If the stories I am using make me less patient, courageous, or compassionate, then I need to search for new stories.
Where are your stories helping you? Where are they getting in your way? Is there a story that might help you to find peace, calm, acceptance, forgiveness, or love? A free search for meaning means that we are free to find and to use the stories that help us, whatever those might be for us. A responsible search for meaning means that we are constantly looking for the stories that will help us to be the people we want to be, the stories that will help us to live our promises and our Principles ever more fully.