Perfection and Brokenness

Rev. Meredith Garmon, Perfection and Brokenness

There seems to be very wide agreement that no one is perfect. There is one group of people, however, who don’t say this. New parents. I do not have actual study data on this, but I’m thinking that when their brand new daughter or son is laid in their arms, it’s a pretty rare thing for new parents to say, “well, no one’s perfect.”

The child grows, and certainly there are challenges. They become teenagers, and there are more challenges. Yet if newborns start out perfect, when exactly do they stop being so? Perhaps they – we – never do.

Of course, they do change, but this does not mean they stop being perfect. We want them to change. Indeed, their capacity for change, growth, and learning is a key part of what makes them perfect just as they are on the day they are born. Perfection is not static; it is dynamic. Oh, sure, we all do things that might reasonably be called mistakes – but are they not perfect mistakes? Are they not exactly the mistake we needed to make to learn what we needed to learn?

Rather than saying “no one’s perfect,” perhaps it would make more sense to say no one simultaneously exhibits contradictory qualities. The wisdom of experience vs. youthful exuberance. Speaking your mind freely vs. diplomatically avoiding giving offense. Being tall enough to dunk a basketball vs. being short enough to ride comfortably in the backseat of a subcompact car. If your gift is one of the qualities in each pair, your shadow is that you aren’t the other. What you aren’t and don’t makes possible what you are and do.

Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, looked at a variety of fields and discovered a kind of magic number: 10,000 hours. Ten thousand hours is what it takes to really become outstanding at something. A dedicated athlete or scientist, musician or dancer, can sustain focused, intense practice or study for maybe 20 hours a week – so it takes 10 years to get to 10,000 hours. Whether there’s really something magic about 10,000 hours, or whatever the number is, what this reminds us is: no one can be good at everything. We get good at it by doing it – and we’re inclined to do it if we think we’re good at it – and the hours you put in sharpening your tremolo technique were hours you weren’t practicing your jump shot. The shadow is not some unfortunate, if forgivable, shortcoming. The shadow is the necessary enabling condition of the gift.

And what is more: we often find that the shadow actually is the gift itself. Our brokenness is itself the very thing that is our strength. That’s the paradoxical truth: the weakness is the strength.

A young man loses his leg in an accident, and, in his new handicap, becomes able to guide and inspire others coping with debilitating injury or sickness. His very one-leggedness becomes the way he shines in this world. The brokenness is the gift.

Ram Dass, born Richard Alpert, had a stroke in 1997, at age 65. The stroke left him with expressive aphasia -- he lost the ability to speak fluently. He also became wheel-chair bound. He called the stroke fierce grace. He wrote:
“For me to see the stroke as grace required a perceptual shift. I used to be afraid of things like strokes, but I’ve discovered that the fear of the stroke was worse than the stroke itself....Since the stroke I can say to you with an assurance I couldn’t have felt before, that faith and love are stronger than any changes, stronger than aging, and, I am very sure, stronger than death.”
Twenty years ago, I lost my job as an assistant professor of philosophy. It was wrong -- so obviously wrong. It should not have happened. I was so upset. Stricken. My skin felt like it would really rather be somewhere besides wrapped around my body. I couldn’t make things be what it was so clear to me they should be. I was a failure, broken, inadequate.

Subsequently, I was in a relationship with a woman, Evelyn. The relationship reached the point where it wasn’t working out – at least, it wasn’t working out for her. She “should” have loved me. (I was younger then – trimmer, fitter – smart, funny. Take my word for it, I was adorable.) But she didn’t love me, not anymore. I couldn’t make her, and I was, again, so distraught.

If I hadn’t been cracked, if I hadn’t failed, if things had gone as I was once so sure they “should,” I might still be teaching philosophy, still living in my head, still assessing everything other people said as either something I agreed with or something I had an argument against, rarely simply present to the beauty and fascination of another person – concerned only with whether they were right, rather than with understanding where they were coming from. I might still be with Evelyn. Boy, would that be awful!

In fact, as I play that “what if” game in my head, I realize that: no way. There's no way that old life could have lasted. If those "shoulds" hadn’t failed me when they did, they would have soon after. They were not sustainable. Life has a way of breaking us – but what it’s really breaking is our delusions. This hurts, yet out of that pain we can begin to feel our way, if we are ready to, back to the ground of what is. The brokenness is the gift.


Simplicity or Complexity?

Rev. Meredith Garmon

Simplicity? Or Complexity?

Our lives get complex, step by step, because we choose the complexity. We are drawn to it. There’s more there – more going on. We play complex games like chess or go, and study complex subjects like . . . well, every academic field gets more complex as the student advances. Complexity intrigues us. We enjoy figuring it out. It’s stimulating and enriching.

Musically, we prefer complexity. I mean, how long could you listen to the one-finger version of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star"? Much more interesting and enjoyable are Mozart's more complex variations -- in which he gets progressively more complex.

Of course, we don’t like unnecessary complexity. We don’t like being confused by complications. We like elegance – where all the power of a complex thing is presented in a way that seems to make it simple.
  • Instead of a chalkboard filled with symbols of an enormous equation, Einstein gives us the elegance of e=mc2.
  • When Apple released the first iPod in 2001, the engineering and electronics were quite complex, but the controls presented to the user were very simple – and iPod fans delighted in its elegance. Competing products were cheaper, had more features – voice recorders and FM transmitters – but the iPod won.
We are attracted to elegance: it presents something complex as simple.

And thereby, it lets us treat the complex thing as a component, which can then be linked up to interact with other components to build a whole new level of complexity. Einstein famously said, “everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” But the reason for making it simple is so we can more easily work with it as a component to build more complexity – more capacity, more ability to do more different things.

And that’s great, right? What’s the problem?

The problem, as Juliet Schor put it, is this:
“Millions of Americans have lost control over the basic rhythm of their daily lives. They work too much, eat too quickly, socialize too little, drive and sit in traffic for too many hours, don’t get enough sleep, and feel harried too much of the time. The details of time scarcity are different across socioeconomic groups, but as a culture we have a shared experience of temporal impoverishment.”
One line from an article in Risk and Insurance magazine last year says a lot:
“In a trend that shows no sign of reversing, American workers are reporting higher levels of stress.”
Do we want complexity with all its interesting, stimulating, power to do more different things? Sure we do.

Do we want simplicity, in the sense of a life that feels in control, manageable, relaxed and gentle? Sure we do.

Take sleep, for example. Life is better when we get enough sleep – and do so consistently – it doesn’t really work to try to catch up on the weekends. On the other hand, most of us would agree that a good life has episodes that are so exciting it keeps us up all night.

Some 17 years ago, LoraKim and I, on our second or third date (depending on what exactly counts as a date), talked until dawn. I was 40 and felt like a kid again. I was not good for much at work the ensuing day – or for the next several days -- but it was so worth it. She and I look back at that night as the moment we knew we wanted to make a life together, with what we had left of it.

I have had projects that were so exciting I worked on them through the night. If that happens very occasionally, we call it excitement, and it’s great. If that happens a lot, we call it stress, and it’s not so good.

We are naturally drawn toward complexity, but sometimes we find we’ve let ourselves be drawn too far. We find that the level of complexity of our life outstrips the level of elegance which makes that complexity manageable.

When life gets – as many of our lives are – too complex, stressed, frenetic – a simpler life begins to look increasingly attractive.

Try looking at it this way: What's more complex, a pile of rocks, or a houseplant? The houseplant has very complex chemical and cellular processes going on as it photosynthesizes sunlight into energy, and as it draws nutrients through its roots. On the other hand, the rocks are many things and the plant is one thing. A random assortment of rocks might have no internal unifying principle making them one existing thing -- so they feel more complicated. What makes the houseplant, for all its complexity, feel simple - even soothing in its simplicity - is its unification.

If life feels like a pile of rocks - or to use a common metaphor - like a lot of balls we're trying to juggle - one strategy for simplicity would be to get rid of a lot of the rocks. Just stop juggling so many discrete and separate balls. Get down to just one simple rock or ball. But that wouldn't satisfy our urge for complexity.

Reducing the balls we're juggling might help. What also helps is that the elements of our lives integrate into a unified, coherent whole. That's the attraction of simplicity: whatever the underlying complexity of its processes, there's an integrity and unity to it. If that could happen, life would make more sense, feel more manageable and easeful -- more simple and elegant. In that way we would achieve both simplicity and complexity.

What is, in contemporary North American life, unintegrated and unintegratable – inherently inelegant -- is how much exploitation and injustice is required to sustain it, how much cruelty out of sight is committed to produce its necessary conveniences, how much resource depletion and environmental destruction it takes. The balance we seek of simplicity and complexity will need to be just and sustainable.


The Privilege of Being Cisgender

Emily DeTar, Traces of Privilege, 7

Image result for transgender symbolAcross the country we are talking about transgendered people. But not for all the advances they have helped in our history, or for their accomplishments, but in an argument over whether or not they can use the restroom. Amidst such news, it’s very easy to see that I have cis-gendered privileges.

Cis-gender is term for those whose gender identity matches the gender and sex they were assigned at birth.Cis-gender is different from those who are transgender, people whose identity matches a specific gender different from the sex assigned at birth, or those who are genderqueer, those who fall on a spectrum, or between different gender identities. There are many other kinds of gender identifications and names, but these are the three most widely used and known terms for those whose gender identity differs from those assigned at birth.

There are constantly privileges for those who are cis-gender, but particularly for those whose gender falls neatly into the divide of masculine and feminine. Simply think about the routine of your day. I have never questioned whether I look enough like a woman. I have never had to feel it was wrong to be a woman. There are clothes designed to fit my body type and to showcase my gender identity that are easily available. There are bathrooms designated for my gender. I have never been questioned about using a bathroom.  I have never had a doctor look at me and then decide to refuse service, because they couldn’t take care of concerns related to my gender. When I talk about my gender, I have never had someone immediately ask about the size and type of genitals i have. While I may have been called names because I am female, I have never been perceived as threatening, other-ized, or assaulted because my appearance didn’t align with my perceived gender.
Image result for gender binary

But over and above all of this, is the recognition that I “fit”. I am more than just a cis-gendered woman, but one who likes to present as feminine. That means that all the messages, the pink dolls, the wedding dresses, the constant advertising for yogurt or sleep medicine, and the all magazine ads have told me that I “fit” what it means to be a woman. I have never had to grow up constantly feeling that when it comes to my gender identity, I didn’t "fit".
Transgender and genderqueer persons are consistently told that they don’t “fit” by the subliminal messages and now by the outright laws of our country. These bathroom laws are more than just the peace and privacy of a very intimate bodily need, they are about how transgender and genderqueer persons are dehumanized.

Take the testimony Maddy Goss, a transgender woman from Raliegh who was interviewed by CBC news:

“I think the one thing that's really important to understand about all of this is in the United States, people are trying to pass these bathroom bills by using the trans person as bogeymen, perverts, child molesters, people lurking in bathrooms. No, trans men are just men; trans women are just women. We just want to use the bathroom in peace and live our lives.”

Or take the words of Candis Cox from Raliegh, who quit her job over the humiliation of constantly being forced to use a handicap restroom where she worked since she couldn’t use the restroom of her preference:

"I want people to see I am no different than anyone else. I'm a Christian, I have strong faith. I volunteer as a Wake County Guardian Ad Litem, which is a court advocate for abused and neglected children, but people don't ask me about that. I pay taxes, I go to the grocery store, I have my family who I love, I worry about things. I don't have weird sexual fetishes, I don't have some criminal background, I wasn't abused. I'm an everyday, day-to-day normal person."

The constant dehumanization, and ugly portrayal of fear-based stereotypes has more dangerous consequences then possibly using the restroom. These statistics are taken from the HRC website.

  • Image result for hrc21 transgendered persons were known to be killed in 2015. Of those 21, 15 of them were specifically transwomen of color.  
  • 90% of transgendered persons reported harassment at work.
  • 70% of transgender and genderqueer persons reported being discriminated by health care providers.
  • 20% said they were not served equally by law enforcement.
  • 40% of black gender nonconforming persons and 45% of Latina/o gender nonconforming persons were denied access to homeless shelters when they needed them.

As Unitarian Universalists, we are call to dismantle and destroy the narratives that make any one person seem less than fully human and worthy. Our believe in every person’s inherent worth and dignity goes beyond simply believing in people. We demand that everyone feels fully human. The kind of fear-mongering and hate-filled language that demonizes others is not acceptable.  Which is why laws like House Bill 2 in North Carolina are more than humiliating for gender nonconforming persons, they are hate laws. May we all work to erase laws like this and the open discrimination and criminalization of gender non-conforming persons.

This is part 6 of an ongoing series, "Traces of Privilege," which explores privileges I possess, and what my faith as a Unitarian Universalist calls me to do about them.
See also