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Lovers and Other Strangers

River Road Unitarian Church
Sunday, July 30, 2000

Jennifer Brooks


When Scott Alexander asked me to preach this summer, he suggested that I plan sermons around a theme of my choice. For some time now, I've been thinking about the burdens that today's social life imposes on relationships, so I happily agreed to prepare two sermons on relationships. Four weeks ago, my topic was relationships with children. Today, the subject is relationships with adults. The sermon title-"Lovers and Other Strangers"-was inspired by the film released about 20 years ago and called Lovers and Other Strangers. My most vivid recollection of the movie is the moment when a young man, attending a wedding and horrified at the state of the relationships he sees around him, stares in uncomprehending astonishment as an older relative advises him: "You've got to take the good with the bad, Ritchie; you've got to take the good with the bad."

That message becomes the theme of the movie and, in the end, the young man finds more good than bad in his relationships, particularly as he begins to understand that loving, while not always pain-free, is a sure way to experience life in all its fullness. But it is the movie's title that grips me most completely: lovers often are strangers, not the strangers of one-night stands but the stranger who is also the other in a committed relationship. And, to complete the ironic circle, one reason for the estrangement of loved ones is the influence of the society in which we live, especially the influence of electronic media (including movies)-what Walter Mosley would call the Chain Gang.

In Mosley's impassioned, refreshing book, he argues that the lessons from African-American history are relevant to all people in this country today, regardless of race, because all are enslaved-"workin' on the chain gang"- by the style and pace of modern life.

The idea that we are chained to our jobs in a way that makes us less than fully human is a hot topic here at River Road. Just three weeks ago Scott Alexander spoke from this pulpit about the demise of leisure time. He quoted Rabbi Arthur Waskow, who says that "Having time for leisure goes to the heart of what it means to be a human being....Human beings need time for self-reflective spiritual growth, for loving family and communal sharing ... free time [for] family, community and spiritual growth." Responding to these words, Scott said, "Trust me ... no amount of new labor laws or workplace policies is ultimately going to protect most of us in this room this morning from overwork and "hurry sickness." Most of us need to make a change "IN HERE" [Scott pointed to his own chest] if the quality and balance and health in our own lives is to ever come to pass."

Mosley's little book offers us a broader challenge. He links the electronic media-television, movies, Internet chat-to a change in personal values and an eradication of personality that encourages the average consumer to be just that: a consumer. And in pursuit of what advertisers tell us we must have-those things that, if only we have them, will we be happy-we tie ourselves not merely to longer hours and more demanding jobs, but also to a change in values that makes us strangers to each other. Values that make us strangers even to our loved ones.

Does this sound extreme? Is Mosley paranoid? If he is, there's a lot of it going around. Mary Pipher, author of Reviving Ophelia (about adolescent girls) and The Shelter of Each Other (on re-building our families), says that one thing she always recommends for families in disarray is that they reduce their amount of TV and computer time and spend more time doing things together. She notes with television viewing at several hours a day, over a lifetime a person may be exposed to 4 million commercials. The folks who are in the process of watching those commercials aren't paying attention to each other. Instead, they are absorbing a message about their right to be made happy by having things.

And what is the message that the television shows communicate? How do TV people handle their relationships with loved ones?

In a commentary in the UUA's World magazine (the January 1998) issue, which featured articles on "Toxic Media," Fred Small, then one of my classmates, passed along the words of Cindy Gilday, a Dene woman in rural Alberta, Canada, on the subject of TV's impact on rural Indian communities that have had television only a year or two. She describes her neighbors

"sitting in their log houses, alongside frozen lakes with dog teams outside, watching a bunch of white people in Dallas standing around their swimming pools, drinking martinis and plotting to destroy each other or steal from each other, or get their friends' wives into bed. The effect has been to glamorize behaviors and values that are poisonous to life up here. Our traditions have a lot to do with survival. Cooperation, sharing, and nonmaterialism are the only ways that people can live here."

And that was just Dallas. Old hat. It is argued with some force today that television has gotten much worse. Carol Newman, a local writer, pointed out to me recently that the hugely popular show Friends is all about young adults, gay and straight, agonizing about their relationships and jumping into bed at every opportunity. "They're all so appealing," she said, "so attractive, so funny, so engaging...but look at the values they're endorsing. Look at what the show says about how to be an adult, how to have a relationship."

Joshua Meyrowitz, author of No Sense of Place, says that we "are becoming a nation of neither children nor adults. Rather we all exist in some age zone between childhood and adulthood. We're a nation of adolescents-preoccupied with ourselves, sexualized, moody and impulsive, seeking freedom without responsibility." Tom Stiles, who interviewed Mary Pipher for World magazine's issue on "Toxic Media," says that "adulthood is vanishing" because many adults have no different information from what children have. He says, "They too watch MTV, Freddy Kreuger, and the nightly news, and they play the same computer and video games."

And that's just television. What passes for conversation about relationships on the Internet is, frankly, terrifying. Since my 16-year-old daughter started using e-mail regularly about a year ago, she has sent me a harrowing array of forwarded e-mail messages relating men's views about women and women's views about men. Maybe I should say, with more accuracy, adolescents' views about the behavior and attitudes of adult men and women. The tone of these messages, the language, the imagery is so crude, so raw, so profane, that I simply cannot bring myself to repeat here the words my teen-aged daughter and her friends have read and passed along.

To be fair to those of you who are wondering what could possibly be in these messages, I will tell you a few of comments that, while less offensive in that they are more printable, nonetheless capture the themes of this Internet dialogue. I'm only going to repeat the girls' view of boys, because the boys' view of girls was unrelievedly coarse:

*They destroy things lesser than them.

*They take pride in their rude bodily functions.

*"I love you" means "I want sex."

*They lie.

*They just can't be satisfied with one female.

*They don't take no for an answer.

I suspect that young teenagers are not the originators of these words and images. I suspect that too many so-called adults think about and talk about each other in this nihilistic way. And these are only e-mails; I shudder to think what is said in Internet chat rooms. Moreover-I can't help wondering what a gay or lesbian young adult must feel when the aggressive tone and the content of these messages leaves no room for the discussion of relationship apart from the opportunity for heterosexual sex.

Now, my review of Internet messages on the subject of relationships is hardly an academic study. No, it's been more of a scattered sampling that provides, as they say, a teachable moment. But I suspect these coarse expressions are simply the reflection of attitudes imbedded in our media culture-which is, increasingly, becoming our primary culture.

The issue that remains is, how should adults be together in a relationship? What attitudes, what values, what behavior should we bring to our relationships? As thinking, caring, Unitarian Universalist adults, how can we have more satisfying relationships with the people we love?

Obviously we expect adults to be loving, compassionate, supportive, and emotionally open. But perhaps the foundational trait of adult behavior in a healthy relationship is attentiveness. It is necessary to pay attention. Think about falling in love. Ah, those glorious days! Thinking about the special other. Planning special occasions, outings, dinners. Spending time together, talking. Spending time together, gazing into each other's eyes. Spending time together, listening. Paying attention.

To pay attention to another person, it is necessary to focus on the other person. It's necessary to be present in the same moment as the loved one is present, to be present for the other. It is necessary to turn off the TV. To get off the computer. To set down the Nintendo controller, turn the power off, and turn the attention on.

What does Mosley say? "When the world is outside the door and your family is inside, certain forms might take shape. The center of your life might drift back to a form that includes you as someone who is important." Mary Pipher expressed a similar thought when she suggested that we and our families, our loved ones, could be "shelter" for each other; that paying close attention to those we love-and receiving their attention back-can form a protective barrier between us and the toxic media culture that surrounds us.

And we do need protection. We need to feel safe, loved, secure. From the first moment we draw breath, we need the protection, love, and attention of others. As Kimberley Patton asserts in her poem Nightwaking, which I read to you four weeks ago, we probably never lose the infant's longing to be held, surrounded by love, protected, safe. As we grow older, if we are fortunate, we are capable of offering the security of love and protection to others who are equally able to love and protect us. But we can't find what we need-we can't have a healthy relationship that brings us joy and solace-unless we switch off the media and turn our attention to the important people in our lives.

Scott Alexander, cautioning us about need for leisure, said that "life is precious and short....You were put on this earth to be a full and fine human being. ... Please, protect the gift of life that has been so miraculously given to you. Insist that your life has the balance that is necessary for robust and joyful humanness."

Switch off the media, switch on the power of human attention. Walter Mosley warns that it may not be easy. We may feel the pain of what we don't have; we may recognize how our relationships have deteriorated. We may face, for a time, that "psychic wilderness" that TV and video-games allow us to escape. We may have to learn again the conversational skills that came so readily when we were first in love; we may have to learn again to look into each other's eyes, reach for each other's hand, surround each other with the protective bubble of attention.

But we can learn. We can trade our movie night for a simple meal together; we can go sit in the park together; we can turn off the computer and the television, light a candle or two, put on some music, and simply be together.

Lovers don't have to be strangers. Lovers can be friends; shield, safe haven, warm center of the universe. Lovers can be the people we love, the people to whom we give the only gift we really ever have to give: our time, our attention.

Let it be.