River Road Unitarian Universalist Congregation

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You Just Never Know

River Road Unitarian Church
Sunday, August 13, 2000

Joshua Searle-White, Ph.D.




First of all, I would just like to thank you for having me back here to speak again. This is the sixth summer that I have come back, and though Lisbet and I feel very happy in our adopted home of Meadville, we will never forget how we began our church lives here at River Road.

What I want to talk about today is knowing each other -- or, I guess more specifically, thinking that we know each other. By looking at people, listening to them, talking with them, even living with them for years, we often think we know what is going on with them. But do we?

For me, growing up, one of the main lessons that I have learned -- or, am continuing to learn, actually, because it doesn't seem to stick -- is that nearly everyone ... is human. I mean, I have a tendency, as I think many of us do, to look at people, especially people in authority or who hold high positions, and think that they have everything together, or that they are as confident as they look. It turns out, of course, that this is not the case at all. In college, for example, I used to look at the professors and think that they really knew what they were doing. Now that I am one, though, and spend a lot of time with other professors, I know how far that is from the case. We berate our students for not handing in assignments on time ... as we are madly trying to prepare for our 11:00 class.

I make this mistake with my students, too, in the opposite direction. Every fall, they come to my classes, and I stand up there in the front of the room on the first day, and I look out at them, and I think, these people are exactly like last year's students! There are the talkers, there are the silent ones, and there are the guys who sit in the back with their baseball caps on backwards. When they don't do well on a test or a paper or something, I just figure they are living that college student life, with their zillion campus activities, or their athletics, or their just plain procrastination getting in the way of their studies.

And sometimes I am right, but a lot of times I am wrong. Every semester a few of those students make their way up to my office, and in talking about their paper or assignment or whatever, they open up a bit of their lives to me. And of course, it's never what I thought. I have one student, a football player, who actually chewed tobacco during class. With a baseball hat on, of course. It turn out he is one of the brightest and most interesting students I have ever seen -- but you have to talk to him to find that out. I had another student who sat in the front row of class smiling at me the way she always does, and then I found out that she was barely getting by because she had watched her sister drown in a pool accident the summer before and was struggling with the memories. I had another student who was very bright, but incredibly flaky and unreliable. Turns out he was spending his weekends dressed up in some kind of adventurer costume, playing a real-life "Dungeons and Dragons" kind of game, in which he was chasing monsters through the forests all night. No wonder he was a space cadet in our Monday meetings!

Anyway, the point is, obviously, that you just never know. You never know what is going on with people, even when you think you know. But that doesn't stop us from making those kinds of judgments, all the time. Our culture, of course, tells us not to. There are tons of movies in which a character looks strange or scary or ugly at the beginning, and then at the end we find that he or she is actually very kind -- and that we shouldn't have been judging them. In books you find the same thing, like the guy in "To Kill a Mockingbird" who sits in the town square drinking out of a bottle in a paper bag, and everyone thinks that he is a drunk -- until we find out at the end that he is drinking a soft drink instead. We're told not to judge a book by its cover. But we do so anyway. Why?

Well, since we just had a bit of experience with this, let's reflect on it. I am not sure how you felt during the little exercise that we did before the musical meditation, but if you were like most people you might have found it a bit awkward. Looking with wonder at someone we don't know, and not coming to any conclusions about them, is just not something we are accustomed to doing. If you found yourself shying away from doing it, why? If you found yourself forming judgments about that person, why? What might you be gaining -- and what might you be losing -- by avoiding really looking at that person and wondering?

Now, the person you were looking at is someone you don't know. But what about people we do know -- our friends, our parents, our children, the most significant people in our lives? Do we really know what is going on with them? Think about someone you deal with closely every day. Think of looking into their eyes, wondering what is really going on with them. Could there be things going on that you don't know about?

I think we don't know each other nearly as well as we think we do. And I think there are two reasons why.

First, I think that at times, we don't actually want to know, even if we say that we do. Sometimes it might be just that we are so wrapped up in our own heads that we are distracted and don't want to pay attention. Think about being at coffee hour after church. If you are thinking about what you are going to do this afternoon, worrying about whether or not to have one more cookie, wondering about what interesting conversations you might be having if you weren't standing here talking to this person -- if you've got all that chaos going on in your head, how can you really pay attention to the person you're with? It certainly takes less energy to say "How are you?" and not really listen to the answer than it does to probe past the inevitable "oh, fine."

But I think there's more than just distraction. It seems to me that at least at times, we avoid learning about a person because we are afraid of what we might find inside them. Maybe we don't think we can handle what's there. Maybe we are afraid that we will be overwhelmed by their pain, or their anger, or their longing -- we feel uncomfortable dealing directly with them And why might we be afraid of someone else's feelings? I think we fear those feelings because we sense, unconsciously, that their pain or suffering might evoke similar feelings in us. We avoid really hearing others because we're afraid of what we will feel. It's not them we are afraid of knowing, it's us.

In fact, I think we avoid looking into each other's inner lives even when what we find might not be pain or suffering or some other difficult feeling. I think we tend to shy away from real connection even when someone is experiencing joy. Think about the last time you were with someone who was gushing about their hobby, or their grandchildren, or their latest trip, and you found yourself wanting to be somewhere else. Why would we do that? Why would we want to get away from someone who is showing us such joy? Well, maybe we feel that if we open up to their joy, then we would become vulnerable. And it's true -- connection with people, even in joy, of necessity involves letting our defenses down a bit. Letting ourselves feel the flow of another's joy involves letting go of control. And if we let our guard down, then who knows what people might see?

And of course, that is the second main reason that we don't really know about each other's inner lives. We don't know because we actively hide ourselves from one another.

Of course, this is not a new idea. I think that because we as human beings want to be liked and to be accepted, we have a tendency to secret away those parts of us that we think other people won't want to see. From our physical bodies, which we're so often ashamed of, to feelings and desires that we're told are weak or infantile or shameful, we keep under wraps those aspects of ourselves that we think are unacceptable. And we do this not just with strangers, or people at work whom we want to impress, but with our families, our friends, the people we are most close to. I think we are afraid to show ourselves -- afraid that if others see our neediness, or our dependency, or what we think are our weaknesses, that others -- even our loved ones -- will be shocked, or scared, or will run away. And, if what I have said so far is true, that may be a good assumption, since if others did the same to us, opened up and tried to show us who they really are, we would likely run away from them!

So to make other people like us, or to make them feel good we keep ourselves hidden away. And I think we do this so habitually that we don't even notice we're doing it. In the end, what we have is a situation in which we collude to pretend that we know what is happening with each other. I put up a facade that I pretend is really "me." Then you pretend to believe it. It's a dance. We all know the steps. "How are you?" "Fine, and you?" "Couldn't be better!" "Great!"

Now, I don't think all of our interactions are like this. But I think a lot are. And it's really a shame. Oh, I know you can't walk around and have an in-depth, genuine, human interchange with every person you meet -- I mean, if you did that, you'd never get out the door in the morning. You certainly wouldn't get much done. But there is so much to be gained by mustering the courage to beyond our facades. Because what we might find beyond the surface could be unexpected and amazing.

Let me give you an analogy to explain better what I mean. There's a book called The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, by C. S. Lewis, which I'm sure many of you have read. And in that book there is a wardrobe. From the outside, you look at it, and you figure -- it's a wardrobe. Having seen the outside, you pretty much know what is inside. Clothes, maybe some coats and some mothballs, not much else.

But it turns out that the wardrobe isn't ordinary at all. Inside it is actually another entire world. In that world there are snow, and trees, and lampposts, and fauns, and Turkish Delight, all kinds of things both ancient and new, and untold numbers of adventures that the kids in the story can have.

Most amazing about that world is that it is essentially infinite. Even though from the outside it's just the size of a wardrobe, the world in there somehow goes on and on and on, practically forever. Even if you have gone into the wardrobe, and explored it and traveled for days and years, there is always more to see, to hear, to feel, and to learn. Some of what you find is particular to that world, like Tumnus the Faun. But other things you can find are common to all worlds, like courage, and cowardice, and faith and betrayal, and love and caring.

Now, of course, not everyone believes that the wardrobe has that other world inside it. But that doesn't stop that world from actually being there.

Now, what's the point of all this? The point is that people -- and the truth of this is something that has only recently become clear to me -- are like magical wardrobes. You look on the outside of them, and given certain clues -- how they dress, how they talk, or maybe the gestures and phrases you know through long experience with them, like Tessa and Murray in the story -- you think you know what's inside.

But you don't. Because inside, just like in the magical wardrobe, people are infinite.

Now, could that be? It certainly sounds strange. After all, people don't look infinite. We often don't sound infinite, either -- my kids remind me often that tend to say the same things over and over again. But in psychological and spiritual terms, maybe we aren't nearly so limited as we think. That's what Tessa and Murray found out in the story, after they had lived together for all of those many years. They had flexibility and potentials that neither of them ever thought was possible.

I know this may sound a bit strange, but it has really begun to touch me lately, because I have personal experience. My wife Lisbet and I have been married for 12 years, and we knew each other for five years before that. Now, 17 years is not that long by the standards of some of you here in the congregation, but it seems like a long time to me. It's certainly time enough, one would think, to get to know someone pretty thoroughly.

But it turns out that I don't know Lisbet that thoroughly at all. Ok, I can predict some of the simple stuff -- she will probably always think that my car is a disaster area. (Especially if I never actually get around to vacuuming it out, which I haven't in ... well, how long have we been married?) But I have found out recently that in ways I never expected -- in her flexibility, in her capacity for real love, in her drive for learning -- she has depths in her that I simply was not aware of. It turns out that she has so much richness and complexity in her that I will probably never know her completely. It makes it quite amazing to be married to her -- and very interesting!

But what is most amazing of all is that Lisbet is no different than any of us. Each of us is essentially infinite. Within each one of us there is endless complexity, limitless possibilities for feelings and thoughts, intricacies of past experiences and myriad possible futures, uncounted potentials for loving, for caring, for wondering, for suffering. Sure, some of it might be scary or painful, but much of it is filled with wonder and beauty.

And that's just at the level of our individual personality. If we look further, we might even find more -- aspects of us that are common to all of humanity, memories, perhaps, of ancient wisdom and holiness, an infinitude of windows through which the light of the sacred can shine. And that's not strange. Because at our deepest, most mysterious, and most profound levels, we are all, essentially, one. Every move we make affects all else; everything that happens affects us. Within each one of us is that which is common to all of us. And that is a beauty that is wonderful to behold.

But how do we behold it? After all, in real life, it's not that easy. We judge, we hide, we try to make it through life any way we can. How do we meet that infinity of beauty that is within each of us? I would say, we cultivate wonder towards each other, and towards ourselves. I think this is part of what Davies was getting at in the sermon I read from earlier. The woman who wrote to him about her fiance could see the loveliness in him because she hadn't closed herself off to its possibility. But even more, Davies says, we can only find in others that which has come alive in ourselves. For us to see that beauty in others, we have to believe that it flows in us, too. So if we don't see the complexity of others, maybe it is because we don't believe it exists in ourselves.

So how do we come in contact with this endless but hidden world? Perhaps we just need to wonder -- to open our eyes, to think of possibilities, to resist the urge to grasp and cling to seeming certainties. To wonder when we look in the mirror; to wonder when we look at our loved ones; to wonder when we meet a stranger. And always, always, as we wonder, to hold out our hand, to join together, always to seek to be one. With courage and love, the infinite mystery can be ours to behold.