The Fools Tale of Peter Rabbit

I was so pleased to be invited to deliver a sermon at the worship service of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Sunnyvale, California on August 7, 2016. In light of the results of the 2016 election, I felt motivated to post it here, as well. I hope that you find some comfort and hope, along with some measure of recognition of the necessity of discomfort in any spiritual practice worth its lightness of being.

It’s no secret to my closest friends that the writings of Charles Eisenstein have drastically changed my world view. Of all the great thinkers out there, the integral thinkers intrigue me the most. The ones who are unbound by dogma, whether superstitious or scientific, give me hope for the future. Their vocation of investigation is a work horse not to be envied. There are few streams of thought unworthy of their attention, and they strive to synthesize the best thinking they can find from multiple academic disciplines. The published work can often communicate to non-specialists in ways that isolated information silos cannot.

Eisenstein also finds time to tour, greet the public, and serve on conference panels—all in the gift economy. No one pays an explicit charge for his books or services, and everyone contributes according to their own sense of what is valuable to them. From my perspective, the most valuable commentary on the U.S. Election of 2016 came from Charles.

Photo of Macrina Mota addresses the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Sunnyvale on August 7, 2016.

Macrina Mota addresses the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Sunnyvale on August 7, 2016.

The highlight of the experience, for me, was Macrina Mota—whose heartfelt testimony to what our accompaniment has meant to her family delivered everything that my limited grasp of homiletics—or homiletics itself—could not. I wish I could share her words with you here. She simply appeared and spoke for a humbling and sobering five minutes, straight from the heart. My portion of the sermon became bookends, which really hit a sweet spot for me.

The Fools Tale of Peter Rabbit

First, let me thank you for inviting me back again. Last summer I shared some deeply personal things, and your positive feedback meant a lot to me. Last year I talked about how music, theatre, and supportive companionship gave me the strength to heal from childhood abuse and mental illness. The rest of the message focused on the power of accompaniment as a spiritual practice that can raise consciousness, and sometimes even affect outcomes in bureaucratic situations… in the real world, as it is.

This morning I’d like to develop the theme of spiritual practice and go deeper. As UUs, we engage in many spiritual practices, from yoga, meditation, and reflection, to contemplation and prayer. I do these things myself, and wouldn’t want to live without them. The premise of today’s message comes down to this: if a spiritual practice is for self improvement only, and doesn’t draw us out of our comfort zones or engage us with the world around us, we’re likely to miss out on a great many benefits, both to ourselves and the world around us.

I begin with trust—trust that Unitarian Universalism already contains within it the tools we need to cultivate a satisfying spiritual practice. Most of us falter and stumble on the path, not just because we’re human—but because principles by their very nature exist in tension with one another, and we have to make value judgments in context to figure out how to apply them. If we promote acceptance of one another, for example, to what extent does our tolerance embrace… intolerance? Would we accept someone we view as a fundamentalist? A white supremacist? A gun nut or xenophobe?

Charles Eisenstein said it this way:

“… to attribute Brexit to xenophobia is to disregard the deep economic and social stressors that fuel both anti-EU sentiment and resentment toward immigrants. If you buy into that narrative, you have to believe that Britain is home to 17 million bigots, ignoramuses, and nutjobs who foolishly sabotage their own economic wellbeing for the sake of exercising their bigoted opinions. (The same, of course, applies to the X million Trump supporters, about whom the same narrative is applied.) Please take note of the tone of this narrative: patronizing and contemptuous, embodying the same rage, dehumanization, and hatred that it attributes to its enemies. … When right-wing populists blame our problems on dark-skinned people or immigrants, the response they arouse draws its power from real and justifiable dissatisfaction. Racism is its symptom, not its cause.”

Most of us are probably aware of the conservative story about progressives as condescending, arrogant elitists who think they know everything, and that everyone else is stupid. To be honest, I grow weary with the way our own behavior validates that narrative.

Don’t get me wrong, I think that UUs do have a universal, world-transforming message—but sometimes we struggle with the cultural competence necessary to express it outside our own social class. For example, it took a long time for us privileged fools to realize how many of the people we meet at Fools Mission don’t even maintain a calendar. And trust me, it can be as hard for our Latino friends to understand our culture of anxiety, “busy-ness,” stress and overwhelm as it is for us to figure out why they don’t just step up the pace and do things our way.

As the President of Starr King School for the Ministry, Rosemary Bray McNatt, says,

“… if we cannot bring justice into the small circle of our own individual lives, we cannot hope to bring justice to the world. And if we do not bring justice to the world, none of us is safe and none of us will survive. … Hard as diversity is, it is our most important task.”

All of this talk about diversity goes hand in hand with the power of story and myth—because the stories that our culture tells us about ourselves and our place in the world—however powerful—dwell in the arena of stories rather than facts. And the fool is a lot more comfortable in this arena than most. Charles Eisenstein’s books and essays deconstruct the foundational myths of our culture: separation; free markets; competition as the primary motivator of progress; objectivity. We spend so much time swimming in the water of these mythologies that few of us ever call them into question. Yet, calling our assumptions about the world into question is a highly beneficial spiritual practice.

I came today to talk about spiritual practices that can change the story. The example I chose is The Tale of Peter Rabbit. Beatrix Potter was born 150 years ago on July 28, and her trickster story is a classic. She could have begun the tale with a family gathering in Farmer McGregor’s kitchen, as he prepared to go out and work in the garden. The good farmer might have expressed some anxiety about the pests who are eating the family’s food supply, or enticed Mrs. McGregor with the prospect of another rabbit pie for dinner, just like last year. The scene would have been warm and familiar to readers, because in a gardener’s world, rabbits are pests who eat your food.

But Potter the artist has something else in mind for her tale set in a garden—she turns our default assumption on its head and introduces a family of five anthropomorphized rabbits instead. The rabbits have names, and they wear clothes. There is no adult male rabbit in the picture because of last year’s pie incident. Old Mrs. Rabbit has three daughters and a naughty little boy named Peter, who has a rebellious relationship with doing what he’s told. Already, I can identify with what it’s like to be the only Boy Rabbit in that family. While Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail gather blackberries like good little bunnies, Peter squeezes under Farmer McGregor’s gate and helps himself to someone else’s dinner. As Joseph Campbell said, “Everything we do is bad for somebody.”

Suddenly we find ourselves identifying with Peter and his struggle to escape McGregor’s hoe. In the end, he finds the gate and escapes—and we’re relieved when he does! Our empathy for Peter Rabbit emerges from the artful way Potter makes a family of rabbits look and sound like ourselves—a foray into the world of imagination in which even a child can learn to see the Story of Separation through different eyes. Cultural critic Lewis Hyde famously said that, “Our ideas about property and theft depend on a set of assumptions about how the world is divided up.” What I’m proposing here is that when spiritual practice shifts the story from separation and isolation to interconnectedness and interbeing, we are changing the world along with ourselves. We are tapping into the deepest wisdom that our world faith traditions have to offer.

Before I say more, I want you to meet a beloved member of our Fools Mission community, Macrina Mota. Last year, I shared part of the story of her struggles to keep her family together under threat of deportation. I asked her to say a few words about what our accompaniment has meant to her family over the years, because her testimony speaks directly to the value of accompaniment as a spiritual practice. Please welcome my dear sister fool, Macrina Mota-Pineda!

[Macrina testimony]

Thank you, hermana. Your words come straight from your heart, and your testimony is a great gift to Fools Mission. Our Latino friends have changed my life for the better in so many ways. Latino culture has taught me to slow down, to be more present in the moment, and devote more time to relationships. I’ve learned how to move my shoulders when I’m Salsa Dancing. And it’s given me a keener sense of perspective about the differences between my first world problems and genuine tribulation.

But the benefit that pleases me the most is that I’ve expanded my emotional range in every direction. I laugh when it’s funny and cry when it’s sad, and it makes me feel alive. Brené Brown has done a lot of research into shame, fear, and our struggle for worthiness. Vulnerability drives all of that, but it appears that vulnerability is also the birthplace of joy, creativity, and love. Our culture puts a premium on emotional restraint, and we learn from an early age to live out of a carefully cultivated reserve. We numb ourselves to our vulnerability, but we live in a vulnerable world. Trouble is, you can’t selectively numb emotion. We look at our shame, disappointment, fear and grief, and we don’t want to feel those things. We choose to pour ourselves a drink or have a hot fudge sundae instead. But when we numb these hard feelings, we also numb gratitude, happiness, and joy.

Where did we get the idea that spiritual practice will protect us from discomfort? For most of us, it isn’t easy at first to reflect on our habitual ways of thinking. A mirror can be a very harsh judge. And it can be harder still to create new stories to replace the old ones. But the good news of Unitarian Universalism is that we don’t have to do it alone.

If you accept the idea that we are isolated bags of skin in competition with the rest of life in a world of Other, then harsh attitudes toward immigrants—or homeless people, or racists, or xenophobes—make sense within the Story of Separation. Nevertheless, if Eisenstein is right that our civilization is in a space between stories right now, our job is to start writing new ones—and that’s likely to take us out of our comfort zones.

Surprisingly, the capacity to embark on this journey of discovery can be found in what Joseph Campbell called following your bliss. In a culture as focused on work as ours, even following your heart’s delight can be uncomfortable at first. After all, no one makes a living following their bliss, right? Well, some people do exactly that, as we know. But forcing ourselves to do what we know is right doesn’t work when, in our hearts, we just don’t want to do it. What’s needed in a situation like this is a change of heart—the original meaning of repentance in the Greek of the Christian scriptures.

Three years ago, I weighed 250 pounds. My blood sugars were pre-diabetic, and peripheral neuropathy was setting in as I confronted the onset of chronic illness. The Standard American Diet was about to saddle me with diabetes, and I knew I had to make a change now. Forcing myself to change my eating habits had never worked, so instead I focused on learning to love the taste of healthy food and the way it feels to weigh less. I also learned to love the feeling of movement when I go to the pool and swim my laps. Reflection and self-talk are essential elements of this process. I virtually eliminated carbohydrates, processed sugars, and dairy products from my diet, and three years later, I now weigh 195 and my blood sugars are stable.

So, don’t be afraid to pull the curtain away and reveal the humbug wizard of culture pulling the levers and writing your story for you. If following your bliss leads you to reflection and meditation, give it a try. Small is beautiful. You can get started by finding five or ten minutes to focus on your breath and clear your mind of all that chatter. If following your bliss leads you to embrace a life of service or offer supportive companionship to others, go for it! You don’t have to start with accompaniment at court hearings—you can start small by tutoring a grade school student for an hour, helping someone with their grocery shopping, or delivering meals to a community member who’s recovering from surgery.

If following your bliss leads you to a life of contemplation and prayer, that’s a healthy calling, too. Prayer takes many forms, including direct action. Sometimes the best pair of hands available to repair the world is at the end of your arms. There is no better medicine I can think of than following your bliss for the spiritual malaise of poverty, debt, obesity, addiction, depression, and over-medication in which we find ourselves today.

What happens when we start to challenge our assumptions about ourselves and the world? One good answer comes from cognitive therapy. We start to replace the neural networks we’ve built up over the years with new ones that cast us as people whose destinies are intertwined—as though the “interdependent web of existence” really mattered. At their best, spiritual practices cultivate a healthy detachment from our egos: our irritability; our impatience; our likes and dislikes; our strongly-held opinions. Spiritual practices help us get through it when we’re feeling stuck. You don’t have to study or meditate for years to discover the benefits. Before long, a faithful practitioner begins to inhabit a “lightness of being” in which the daily onslaught of invalidating judgments from our culture becomes a lot easier to bear—and service becomes its own reward. A mirror can also be a place where you learn to recognize your Essential Self and love what you see.