I was chatting on Facebook with a friend the other day. We are both looking for work and having that feeling that what we are looking for is just around the corner - just out of reach. We have concerns for supporting our families, wondering if it is possible to both do work that we are called to do and make an adequate income doing it. Our conversation went many places and my realization was that we don't do it alone and yet we are told over and over again that we are supposed to do it alone.
There is a national mythology of the self-made person, the notion that we are each individually responsible for our success or our failure. It is particularly prevalent when it comes to our politics and economics. The message over and over again is that those who are wealthy got their wealth through hard work, playing by the rules and their own effort and if each of us just did what they did then we would be wealthy too. The same goes for those struggling - if you are unemployed or poor or struggling, it is because you did not play by the rules, you did not work hard and you are solely responsible for your failure, we may on occasion offer a respite to those who suffer a severe medical disability but it better not be because of anything the person could have done differently - eat better, not smoke, not be an addict etc. We preach a heavy sermon of personal responsibility and with that goes this notion that we are solely responsible for lives.
We can see it in our faith lives as well. Many conservative evangelical communities emphasize salvation as something one earns by living a good life and following the rules (particularly the ones around sex) and that God will reward your efforts with heaven. It might be that your prosperity in this life is a sign of God's favor as well - this notion dates back to the Puritans who wanted to know if you could tell who had been pre-determined to eternal salvation. The focus here is on the individual's behavior and relationship with God, specifically with Jesus - going to church is one of the rules - but in the end it is up to each person on their own to be saved. Here the appeal is that if I play by the rules, even if life is hard, I will get rewarded and those who did not will be punished.
This notion is present in liberal communities as well - although it looks a little different. Within Unitarian Universalism it shows up as the responsible search for truth and meaning and the notion that we are solely responsible for our spiritual search and journey. Now on the one hand there is something very appealing about this - freed from the bonds of the rules that conservative faith communities may impose - we can each find the ways that work for us. If it doesn't work for us, that's ok. Yet this hyper individualism around faith means that if our own path isn't working for us, then we are the only ones responsible for that and if it is really working for us, then good job us! Yet where in that is there room for humility, for submission, for other people, for the holy? What is the point of community if we can all just do it on our own? Are our faith communities any more than places that are supposed to meet our own personal spiritual needs - so if I don't like the word God, or meditation, or earth-based spirituality or want no mention of the holy - my faith community needs to not talk about those things because otherwise I will leave because the journey is all about me. It doesn't matter if God, earth-based spirituality or humanism works for someone else. Hence often in liberal faith communities we settle for as much non-offensive language as possible - which often lacks depth.
Yet Unitarian Universalism at its best knows that while we may all be on an individual journey we need each other along the way. We need the wisdom of well-worn paths that can show us the way - particularly if we wish to forge new ones or see new things along the old. We need correction when our journey may become too self-centered, a little too much about me. Community can push one past one's own comfort zone and into places where real transformation happens. One of the foundations of Unitarian Universalism is that there is wisdom to be found in all the world's religions, if so then we are called, we are responsible for not just rejecting something out of hand - rather we called to learn, to listen, to see how it fits or not with our own understanding. At our best we use a variety of religious and spiritual language to speak to the vast array of experience and wisdom available. That is communal, it is an act of learning and leaning on one another.
The reality is that we need each other, we are accountable to each other. We are social beings. We survive because we have formed groups, communities that meant we could work together for food, shelter, companionship, protection. We need each other to make meaning and sense of the world. This has not changed even though our societies are complex and our reliance on each other may not be obvious.
Yet somehow this need for each other is seen as a bad thing - we don't want to be needy or dependent. We are proud when our toddlers insist on doing it themselves (except those things that will make a big mess). Asking for help is seen as shameful or less than. Our systems are set up to reward individual achievement. So when we need help, or we can't do it on our own, we are filled with angst, feelings of failure. Sometimes it shows up as feeling like we are imposing, we don't want to bother people.
One of the hardest thing I battle in my job search is reaching out to people I know. I don't want to bother them. Yet every single job search book will tell you that is by reaching out to those you know, by telling people what you are looking for, by asking for their assistance with an introduction or keeping their eye out for possible positions is the best way to find a job. It is not scouring job sites, newspaper ads or filling out endless on-line job applications. So despite all the messages about being self-made people, about doing it all on our own, the single most effective way to find a job is to do what we are told not to do by the culture all the time - we need to reach out, connect with others and be willing to ask for their assistance.
So everyday I have to battle with my fear of reaching out to others and being a bother, a nuisance. I have to recognize every day that I need other people, that I don't have all the resources on my own. The gift is that when I do reach out, I have found people willing and even eager to help. I have been met with such positive feedback. It is always a surprise, a wonderful gift.
We are connected beings. We need each other because we actually like helping each other out - there is a gift in giving. Yet when we focus so much on having to do it on your own, that it is somehow cheating if we get help, it can be a struggle to let people help, to ask for help. We have a hard time receiving gratefully and gracefully.
One of my favorite UU Benedictions comes from the Rev. Wayne Arnason and I close with his words:
Take courage friends.
The way is often hard, the path
is never clear,
and the stakes are very high.
For deep down, there is another
you are not alone.
May it be so!
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