“A Revolution of Tenderness”
A Sermon by Lisa Perry-Wood
Delivered on Sunday, February 11, 2018
At The First Parish in Bedford
Thoughts to Ponder at the Beginning:
“A revolution without dancing
is not a revolution worth having.”
“There is no force in the world
better able to alter anything from its course than love.”
—GREGORY J. BOYLE,
Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion
Poet Naomi Shihab Nye tells this story of writing her poem, Kindness:
Nye and her husband were on a three-month honeymoon, traveling in Latin America. On a bus in Columbia and they were robbed of everything they had – everything. Standing, in a daze, in the town square where they disembarked, a local man, an Indian, came up to them. He asked if he could help and as they told him their story in imperfect Spanish, his eyes softened and he simply listened. Then he said: “I am so sorry that happened to you.” Nye then waited in the square, while her husband left, hitchhiking to the next town to reinstate their travelers’ checks (some of you will remember what those were!) As she sat there, alone and anxious, this poem, she says, was spoken to her in a woman’s voice across the square. Says Nye, she was only the “secretary” for these lines.
This is Kindness by Naomi Shihab Nye…
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you every where
like a shadow or a friend.
Last Spring, in a surprise TED talk, some prominent science and technology leaders heard Pope Francis call for a “revolution of tenderness” to sweep through all countries, changing workplaces and communities, and shifting the balance of power in the world. Hearing that made a powerful impression on me. And I made me wonder…what would this revolution even look like? How different would our relationships, our institutions, look with more tenderness, in all of our encounters? How would it change our own lives?
“Tenderness is not weakness; it is fortitude,” said Francis. “The more powerful you are, the more your actions have an impact on people, the more responsible you are to act humbly. If you don’t, your power will ruin you, and you will ruin the other.”
In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court Citizens United decision extended first amendment rights, that had previously been reserved for “individuals,” to corporations. And if corporations now have those rights, shouldn’t we also expect them to act like the best of individuals, hold them to the highest standards of humanity, operating with generosity and kindness and love? What an unbelievable world that would be, right? And the crazy thing is, there’s just a chance that by doing that they would be even more successful than they have ever been. I have a friend, an investment counselor, who has been working on that thesis for years – that companies who treat their workers the most fairly, with the best compensation and benefits, including generous family leave and vacation time, will actually have the greatest profit margins. I don’t think there’s enough evidence in yet, but it’s certainly a hopeful idea.
Real corporate generosity could mean much more than grants for schools and nonprofits (as good as those are,) or big philanthropic programs in carefully selected areas. What about insisting on wild generosity of spirit – Oprah-style? Operating in the best interest of workers and their families, extending that spirit through them into products and services. I do know individual leaders who are modeling that right now, but if corporations are people, then why not insist they act completely humanely?
But the reality is that most successful movements get mobilized at the grassroots level. If we want to influence corporations to be more humane, more tender toward the most vulnerable, as Pope Francis suggests, we can’t wait – we will have to begin by modeling that in our own lives. We will need to think differently about ourselves and about each other.
One of my personal heroes is Father Greg Boyle – now, don’t worry, not all of my heroes are Catholic clerics, but if you don’t know Father Greg’s book, “Tattoos on the Heart,”1 about his organization, Homeboy Industries, it’s a pretty great read. He’s been working for decades in South Central L.A. – with some of the most violent and entrenched gangs in this country. And this is what Father Greg says about reaching these young men and women, hardened by all that life has thrown at them:
“Homeboy Industries seeks to be what the world is ultimately invited to become: a community of kinship, exquisite mutuality, and tenderness. We stand against forgetting that we belong to each other…[and for] inclusion. Non-violence. Unconditional and compassionate, loving-kindness. And acceptance. At Homeboy, we believe, that only the soul that ventilates the world with tenderness has any chance of changing it.”
“Ventilate the world with tenderness.” Now that’s a corporate tagline I can get behind! Father Greg, known to the homies as “G,” tells this story about giving a blessing to a kid named Louie:
“[I told him:] ‘You know, Louie, uh, I’m proud to know you and my life is richer because you came into it. When you were born, you know, the world became a better place and I’m proud to call you my son, even though,’ — and I don’t know why I decided to add this part — ‘at times you can really be a huge pain in the ass.’ And Louie looks up at me, and he smiles and he says, ‘The feeling’s mutual, G.’ And, you know, [says Father Greg] suddenly there’s kinship so quickly. You know, you’re not sort of this delivery system, but maybe I return him to himself. But there is no doubt that he’s returned me to myself.”
And that’s what I really want to talk about this morning – about returning ourselves to ourselves.
Last weekend I participated in a retreat on working toward eliminating racism, a program developed by Meadville Lombard Theological School called “Beloved Conversations.” 55 of us, Concord and Lexington UUs, all white people, talked honestly and openly about what is it that keeps us from reaching out to people who are very different from us, even though we know that we long to be close. First, we know there’s embarrassment: “Will I do it right?” Even shame or guilt: “What person of color would want to get close to a white person like me?” But when we dug way down, at the heart of it, for each of us, was the fear that we were just unlovable. Because most of us find it very hard to fully love ourselves – we’re so self-critical, we keep thinking that we come up short. And if we can’t love ourselves fully, then we can’t be sure that we have anything to offer to anyone else, most especially a person of color, or from any other culture, or speaking another language.
Of course, as you might suspect, these feelings stem from our earliest childhood experiences; for many of us it starts in our families or on the school playground. For me it had to do with being born with a skin disease that caused painful blisters on my hands, feet and face. At school and on the playground, this was the era of being labeled with “cooties;” it was difficult, and of course I internalized those messages I heard. And my family, wrapped up in denial and that “stiff upper lip” that comes with a WASP upbringing, were not helpful. It took me a long time, years of therapy, as well as the love of some very dear people to recover from those experiences.
And let’s be clear, I’m not 100% recovered; none of us recover 100% from our early hurts. But what we can do is recognize them, understand what happened, and extend tenderness and compassion to ourselves, to the child who didn’t have anyone to tell her she was just fine. We just have to keep doing that over and over again. Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh suggests that we say to ourselves “It’s okay, sweetheart,” as we picture holding our young selves tenderly and reassuringly.
Let’s try something right now. Just close your eyes if you like or gaze softly downward and bring to mind someone in your life that you find easy to love. It could be a child, a family member, a friend or lover, even a beloved pet. Now imagine surrounding them with a golden halo of loving light, and hold them in that light of your love for a minute…. Now let that image go and picture yourself as young child, young enough that you can really see your own innocence. Bring that golden light of love to surround your own image and hold that there for a moment… Finally, let that image go and imagine that golden halo of light bathing you as you sit here, just pure love washing over you… And now take a couple of deep breaths and breathe in that light – the pure light of who you really are, your essential goodness… Now you can open your eyes when you’re ready.
When we do this brief exercise, we start where it’s easy to feel love and turn that toward ourselves, but we can work on bringing even those we have real difficulty in loving into that light. It’s a simple practice, but one that can have powerful results. Buddhist master Chogyam Trungpa says we should never give up on anyone, never push anyone away because it creates a wall around our hearts. When we extend the light of love to ourselves it begins to melt away that wall, bit by bit.
It reminds me of a sign I put on my office door in the years I spent as principal of a K-8 charter school. Throughout the day, students, teachers, parents or community members, would sit waiting outside my door to meet with me. My little sign often sparked a reaction; this is what it said:
“You are good. You have always been good.
You were born that way.
Nothing you could say or do can ever change that.
It is your essential nature, the truth of who you really are.
You are good.”
As I said, the sign was often a conversation starter, even controversial. People – the adults and older kids – would come in and debate with me – arguing, let’s be clear, against their own essential goodness. A few of them even left with an inkling that it might be true. And why was this simple statement so powerful? Because somewhere deep down, against evidence that we ourselves provide, we deeply want to believe that this might actually be true about ourselves; that our essential nature is goodness. I believe it to be true. Perhaps against evidence that we see every day in our world, I still believe that every one of us is born good.
I was always especially amazed by the people who claimed it was a dangerous policy, that believing in our own inherent goodness and the inherent goodness of all other human beings is a dangerous idea. When I worked in the mental health system in Lynn in the 90s we were assisting people who had been incarcerated in the mental hospitals for decades to transition into community life after a state hospital shut down. The day program staff found some of our clients’ behaviors disturbing, even frightening. So I asked them to picture each one of our folks as an infant in arms, since clearly they had each been at one time. To picture how they might have been someone’s cherished babe. And to hold that image in their hearts and minds as they worked with our people to recover from some very tough life experiences. To do that, I suggested, you have to start by picturing yourself that way. See yourself as that infant in arms, feel someone loving you. That love, that goodness is still there inside of each of us. And it is not dangerous to believe that, it is actually the most secure way to live in this world.
Buddhist meditation teacher, Tara Brach, tells the story of a woman who ended up in a small town diner, on a road trip with her husband and one-year-old son. As soon as they sat down she noticed an old man, with grizzled beard, wild hair and shabby clothing, sitting at a table on the other side of the room. Immediately, her young son locked eyes with the man and was riveted to his face and the two of them began grinning and talking to each other, to her increasing horror. The old “geezer” kept up a patter of talk about what a great boy he was, as her son babbled nonsense with increasing animation and delight. The woman and her husband finished their meal hastily and he told her he’d pay the bill and bring the car around; she should just take the baby and get out of there.
Picking up her little boy, she worked her way across the crowded room and suddenly found herself face to face with the old man who looked at her questioningly, as the baby reached out to him. The woman froze, then met the man’s eyes, which were a bit wild, but also full of deep sadness. “Can I hold your baby?” he asked. She hesitantly handed over her son who was by then straining to get to his new friend. Again, they babbled and cooed at each other, while the restaurant grew quiet in mixed horror and anticipation. Finally the old man handed the baby, who was reluctantly pried out of his arms, back to his mother. “Thank you,” he said, “for giving an old man the best gift anyone ever gave me.” Sometimes extending ourselves and our love to the other is worth the risk.
This week I heard that the United Kingdom has appointed a Minister of Loneliness, because they’ve learned what a huge problem it is and how it’s affecting the mental and physical health of their citizens. Maybe corporations should be required to appoint a Kindness Officer or Vice President of Tenderness? But let’s not wait for that to happen. Let’s just start now. In the same way that the children distributed those “tender hearts” this morning, maybe we could drop a Valentine card to someone who could use some cheering up or make a call or send an e-card. Just sprinkle a little more tenderness, a little more kindness around as we go through our lives. The wonderful thing is that by doing that we will feel happier and warmer and more tender toward ourselves and that’s what we’re going for. I love that the Dalai Lama says his “religion is kindness,” I think Unitarian Universalism is a religion of kindness too. So let’s go full out, for a whole-hearted, full-on revolution; let’s ventilate the world with tenderness. All we really need is a child’s heart, or the heart of a lion moved by the action of a mouse, to be fully tenderhearted.
1 Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion; Simon & Schuster 2010.