Yes and No: Hard Choices

Unity of Spirit
Yes and No:  Hard Choices©
preached for the Unitarian Universalist Church of Greater Lansing
by the Rev. Kathryn A. Bert
September 21, 2014

readings included:  - see All Fall Down by Mark Nepo

I Have No Address by Hamza El Din

There is more love somewhere.  Where?  How do we decide to look for love?  and where do we look?  Books abound about the science of how we decide, how we choose one decision or one thing over another. 

My own obsession with this topic began in the pickle aisle of a grocery store in Pullman, WA.  It was an IGA at the bottom of the hill in the town where I just happened to grow up.  I had returned to that town about 15 years later, though it seemed like a lifetime.  I left just I had completed the 5th grade, and I returned for graduate school, after having served for two years in the Peace Corps.  For the two years I was in the Peace Corps, I lived in the poorest country in Central America: Honduras.  I ate well, but the food was the same.  bananas, fish, rice, cassava root, occasionally red beans, and always coffee.  There weren’t a lot – or actually any – green vegetables to speak of. 

I missed pickled cucumbers for some reason.  My parents used to pickle cucumbers when I was growing up – in that town of Pullman, WA – and perhaps that is why pickles were on my mind when I returned to Pullman after my two years in Honduras.  So, I was finally back in the states, and I decided I would buy myself some pickles!  What joy.  I was really looking forward to eating a pickle.   However, when I found the aisle where the pickles were, I was stunned by the sheer volume.  It was disorienting.   I was overwhelmed.  There were so many pickles I didn’t know how to decide.  What kind of pickles did I like?  Claussen, Nally, Vlasic, Heinz – I didn’t know.   

I nearly ran out of the grocery store, and certainly didn’t have any pickles with me!   It was a frightening experience, really, one that I categorized as “culture shock” – or rather “return culture shock” which is what they warned us about as we left the Peace Corps.

To go from virtually no choice about what to eat – “oh, another banana, thank-you!”  I don’t even like bananas. – to extreme choice, sweet pickles, dill pickles, kosher dill, baby dill – not to mention the brand names – it was a stark contrast and difficult to choose. 

In The Paradox of Choice, Why More is Less, Barry Schwartz explains why it is not true that abundance makes us happier and that greater choice equals greater good.   “Through solid behavioral economics, cognitive psychology and neuroscience, Schwartz makes a compelling case that abundance exhausts the human psyche, sprouts unreasonable expectations and ultimately makes us feel unfulfilled.”

and yet, when we know that most of the world lives in poverty, in such countries as Honduras, talking about those unreasonable expectations and feelings of exhaustion and lack of fulfillment can be hard.  We may feel guilty – to have all these choices, to have all this abundance – and we’re still unhappy?  What’s wrong with me?!  Nothing, says Barry Schwartz.  It’s not you.  It’s the myth you’ve accepted – that more choice is always good.

In fact, social science correspondant Shankar Vedantam on National Public radio this week shared research [by Antonio Pedro Ramos of UCLA] that challenges the myth that democracy is always better for the poor.  It is a widely held belief that being able to choose your leaders should improve the quality of life for most people, including the poor, but this research shows that it is not necessarily true.  We don’t always choose what is in our best interest.

In the class we offered this summer about money, spirit, and life, we talked a about rampant materialism and what is called Affluenza. Instead of influenza, affluenza?

There seems to be a threshold of enough below which is painful, and beyond which is painful.  If we don’t have enough, or we have more than enough, life can be difficult to navigate – either we’re always trying to get our next meal, or we can never decide what it is we want to eat for our next meal.  We can make judgments about which kind of pain is better… but that doesn’t change the fact that both places can be hard.

I start here with this graph in order to acknowledge that even if you are feeling comfortable socioeconomically, and have enough food and shelter and things in your life, you may still struggle with choices.  And if you are struggling economically, and don’t have enough food or shelter or things, you know you struggle with choices.  Do I pay this bill or that bill?  Do I buy healthy food or cheap junk food?  Do I spend money on gas to drive my car to get to the farmers market where the healthy food is cheaper, but I have to drive elsewhere to get the other items I need to feed my family?  You get the idea.  Choices.

Rick Warren, quoted on the front of your order of service, says “Without a clear purpose you have no foundation on which you base decisions, allocate your time, and use your resources.”  Yes, I know that Rick Warren is the founding pastor of Saddleback Church, an evangelical Christian megachurch, but because I don’t agree with all of his ideas and theology, doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have some good ideas.  The idea that we need to discover a clear purpose in life is one of those pretty good ideas.  Having a clear purpose helps us make decisions, helps us decide how to spend our time, and helps us decide how to use our money and other resources.

Having a clear purpose doesn’t turn hard choices into easy ones, but it does provide a foundation on which to base your decisions.  We’ve been exploring unity this month – unity from many perspectives, and this morning I want to talk about unity of purpose, a phrase that K. Lovell used in her remarks at the opening of the month.  She talked about the tension that affects our religious tradition between the notion of an individual who is autonomous and self-sufficient and the reality of our relational nature and need for healthy community.  And how that community is more effective and energizing when it has a unity of purpose. 

To name that clear purpose, however, can be difficult.  First of all, there are many different individuals who form the community, with different ideas and priorities and commitments. 
How do we choose which is more important?  For to name something as more important,
something else becomes less important.  Because to say that we are “for” something necessitates a choice of this over that. 

“For every parcel I stoop down to seize
I lose some other off my arms and knees,
And the whole pile is slipping, bottles, buns --
Extremes too hard to comprehend at once,
Yet nothing I should care to leave behind,” wrote Robert Frost.

But as Mark Nepo points out, if we don’t put something down, we can’t even manage to open the door.  As hard as it may be for an individual to set a clear purpose and decide what to carry and what to set down, it is magnificently more complex for a community to do so.

I like the contrast between the finite load, the bottles and buns we carry in our arms and the red paint we must set down in order to open the door and cross the threshold, the contrast between that finite bundle and the infinity in the other poem by Hamza El Din – I have no address.  It harkens back to the same tension we’ve mentioned each week in September, between how we are one, and how we are many.  Both are true, and false.

OK - so the other reason I chose to read I have no address is that it well describes the situation of uncertainty in which we find ourselves this morning.  Though we do currently have an address:  855 Grove Street, it is not our address which makes this place home.  

“My address is lines ornamented by dreams,
Beating hearts united by smiling hope
For people who wish good for other people all the time.”

“I fly around the globe
Singing for peace, love, and humanity
In every place.
I have no address”

We are what we do, not where we live.  Right living is our challenge in the liberal religious tradition, not right thinking.  We unite rather than we believe. 

One of our clear priorities – this was a priority that existed for you long before you called me to be your minister – is that you wish our religious home to welcome all kinds of people, including people with disabilities.  It is a story I remember hearing during my candidating week, 12 years ago, that in recent history the board had presented an operating budget to the congregation that did not include money for American Sign Language interpretation.  The way I heard the story go, someone in the annual meeting objected, even though you didn’t actually have any members who needed the interpretation, the congregation figured out where to adjust the budget and added back in money for the ASL interpreters. 
This clear purpose helped you decide how to allocate your resources.

This clear purpose has also been a driving force in the search for a more adequate facility.  We’ve drawn up plans that added an elevator to this building, to move those who can’t navigate stairs up and down floors.  We’ve checked out at least 20 buildings for sale that were either already accessible or more easily be made accessible.   Multiple levels and stories is not our only accessibility issue with the building, however.  I remember in my first years, talking to older members on the phone who weren’t coming to church any more because they felt shaky on their feet, and worried that they would fall in the small, crowded hallways.  And just last week, a member was telling me about her new job, and how the subject of church came up with her new boss who told her that she had visited here, liked it and everything, but was considering a different church because it just seemed too crowded here.

Now here’s where I am going to sound a little bit like Pastor Rick Warren.  I believe that one of our purposes is to save lives.  We save lives, however, by affirming your humanity, just as you are.  Here you are reminded that you are loved.  You can bring all of who you are.  You don’t have to pretend that you’re not gay, or a little geeky or different by cultural norms.  We welcome you even if you question god or country, or affirm god and country.  We don’t require right belief, but we encourage right action. And our desire to get our physical building to reflect our radical welcome is one unity of purpose that makes a lot of sense.  But it’s not about the building, it’s about the radical welcome – the fragile art of hospitality, in Bill Schulz’ words.  “This is the mission of our faith:  to teach the fragile art of hospitality;  to revere both the critical mind and the generous heart;  to prove that diversity need not mean divisiveness; and to witness to all  that we must hold the whole world in our hands.”

But there’s a tension in those words, because we can’t be all things to all people. “Beating hearts united by smiling hopeFor people who wish good for other people all the time.”

We may wish for an infinite, boundarilessness, but in our arms, we can only carry so much.  So many pickles, buns and bottles, paint and paintbrushes – to be most effective, we have to put something down.  We have to say “yes” to some things, and “no” to others.  We have to make hard choices. 

Hard choices are the kinds of choices in which there is no “right” answer.  Considering our diverse theologies, you’d think we’d be okay with that.  But it is so much easier to say than to do.

Philosopher, Ruth Chang, gave a Ted Talk in May of this year about hard choices.  In that talk, she said that “What makes a choice hard is the way the alternatives relate. In any easy choice, one alternative is better than the other. In a hard choice, one alternative is better in some ways, the other alternative is better in other ways, and neither is better than the other overall.”  She warns about making the assumption that there is a better choice overall, and thinking that we’re just too dim to know which is the right one. 

What she does in this Ted Talk is take the position that because these hard choices have no obvious answer, we should quit trying to figure out which one is right, but rather, choose based on who we want to become.  “So when we face hard choices,” says Ruth Chang, “we shouldn't beat our head against a wall trying to figure out which alternative is better. There is no best alternative. Instead of looking for reasons out there, we should be looking for reasons in here: Who am I to be?”

Who am I to be?  Who are we to be?  What a great question as we discover and explore and create our own unity of purpose – in our individual lives, and in our common life together.

Who am I to be?  It is a question, I think, we ask when we are young, and trying on different ways of being in the world – trying out this group of friends, or that one, and this hobby or that sport – but often as we get older, we forget that there is a choice about who we are to be – we have settled on an identity and we think that’s just who we are, forgetting that there are choices we make every single day, which say who it is we are and who we are to be.  What is your purpose today?  What choices are you making?  and is that who you want to be?  Perhaps its time to set down that armload of paint and brushes and tarp, buns and bottles, set down the things which prevent you from crossing over that threshold.  Put the things you are carrying down.  Breathe freely and enter

May love guide you in your journey, may that purpose become clear, and may you choose well this day and in the uncertain days to follow.