Psychiatrist and author M. Scott Peck was the child of parents, as he described them, who were good American “rugged individualists,” who very clearly wanted him to be one too.
They led a most active social life, they had dozens of friendly acquaintances, and — as they reminded him — got thousands of Christmas cards every December.
Friendly acquaintances by the droves, even, but no truly intimate friends. Nor, he wrote wistfully, would they have wanted any. They never desired or trusted intimacy.
As the child of these very sociable but self-contained parents, he was left with a nameless longing, as he wrote, for an erotic, emotionally connected Valentine’s Day kind of love, a relationship with a girl, a woman, a mate, with whom, as he pictured her, he could be totally honest and open. That, he admitted, was romantic enough.
But what was impossibly romantic, Peck was convinced, was a society, in which honesty and openness and intimacy — close association and familiarity — would prevail, or even a single community where all the other kinds of love could be found. Affection, sometimes called brotherly love, between people who have found themselves together by chance, a fondness without coercion or judgment.
Friendship, the strong bond between people who share a common interest or activity. And agape love, unconditional love for the whole of creation, a sacrificial love that subordinates self interest for the good of all.
He had no reason to believe, as he said in our reading this morning, “that such a society existed or had ever existed or ever could exist,” until he began to “stumble into varieties of real community.” Community not just as a place, but as people interacting in close personal relationship.
Up close and personal community. Community, which Peck identified as “a safe place precisely because no one is attempting to heal or convert you, to fix you, to change you. Instead the members accept you as you are. You are free to be you. And being so free, you are free to discard defenses, masks, disguises. Free to seek your own psychological and spiritual health; free to become your own whole and holy self.”
Up close and personal community where we can trust.
A few years back, for a short while, I signed up to get an inspirational words of the day quote that would pop up every day on my computer. Those pre-fab words of wisdom sometimes intrigued me, mostly annoyed me, and sometimes even spooked me out.
Take one morning when I opened my Internet, only to see the words: Don’t Trust Anybody. And then one of the hot topics of the day on MSN was “World’s Biggest Hoaxes: A History.” Tales of suckers born every minute, of giant fishes and Loch Ness monsters, of Barnum and Bailey stunts, the stuff of paper moons and cardboard skies.
Don’t trust anybody. The hottest television shows all about real/fake lives, of liars and cheaters, of false alliances and betrayal, usually in exchange for large cash prizes. Survivors, apprentices, big losers, all playing smarmy games.
A cultural climate that can seem both extraordinarily pious and narrowly moralistic, and yet so fascinated with dishonesty, double-dealing, and treachery.
All this surrounding me, surrounding us, at a time when trust strikes me, and has seemed to others, to be one of the main, not just moral, but spiritual necessities of these times.
Trust, our firm belief in, confidence in, the integrity and reliability of other people, in our communities and in the world.
Trust, without which the late humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow theorized, human beings cannot move beyond mere emotional survival, cannot reach their full potential.
Trust, without which, says educator Parker Palmer, we cannot live whole lives, undivided lives.
For over a decade, every Saturday morning I could see evidence of this in the faces, body language, and the stories of the homeless women I worked with in a local community ministry. Those women were being housed and given warmth and food and clothing and care, at least temporarily, came to us with other basic needs still unmet. The coffee and grits and eggs I served them for breakfast in that parish house kitchen, the blankets and jackets and loaves of bread.
(Literally) I offered them some comfort, even hospitality. But that was not enough, would never be enough, to move them and their children out of danger.
They came to me with the hidden selves, lives made up of unspoken stories of real betrayal, real deception. Stories of physical and emotional abuse, abandonment, stories of sexual molestation, most of them stories of molestation at a very young age. Stories of understandable suspicion and distrust that they most acutely lived in two worlds, even three worlds.
The world of false confidence and toughness and street smart survival. The world of being black in a dominant white culture, with its bittersweet mix of pride and internalized oppression, and then the most deeply held self, the one that was so alone, so alone in its grief and anger.
It didn’t take weighty discussion or any pretense of therapy (which it wasn’t) to see this at work. It could be as casual as asking who named them and what their name meant to them. It could be as light as describing a childhood best friend, only to discover that for many of them that best friend never existed, because of the secrets of abuse, or the constant moving around, or the self-inflicted, self-protective distance they put between themselves and their peers.
One of the women, who had become a mother at 15, whom I will call Serena, described the young man who impregnated her as her only best friend. The same young man who fled when she revealed her pregnancy, not showing up in her life again after she had been thrown out of her own house by the abusive mother who raised her, living on the streets, barely holding it together.
This is as close to trust and intimacy as she had gotten, and to her it was real. You could see this as she preened and shined us on, all full of impossible plans, impossible unless and until her authentic self could fight its way out. Through trust and love and belonging.
Another woman who came through this Transitional Housing program was Mary, who kept her own counsel for many weeks before opening up: In a poem I wrote about her:
Last night at group
After the blessings and the
Lukewarm mashed potatoes,
Mary teared up
Because she could not honor her father.
I’ve been dreaming that I dig up his grave
and shake him
For turning me into Martha, staying back in the kitchen
paying Mama’s light bills.
Not right with the Book, she wept,
Those sins in the night…
She found a way in that moment, fork in hand, to trust this small group of women who had come together, who had found each other through common misfortune.
Parker Palmer is quite clear about this basic and overwhelming need for connection. His interest in much of the teaching and speaking and writing he has done, is to welcome the soul — to find our authentic selves — out of which he believes we can weave community in a wounded world.
We all have our individual stories, many of them much less stark and traumatized than the story I told of the women I encountered in my ministry with them. But we all have stories, lives, that somewhere along the line we have chosen to or needed to hide, and in hiding them, Parker tells us, invite suspicion instead of trust, inner darkness instead of living in the light.
Parker talks openly now about his own secret childhood life in his book A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life, when the carefree child in him, the imaginative child in him, became painfully self-conscious. He was in the fifth or sixth grade, in a school where he desperately wanted to fit in. He looked to his classmates to be someone who was outgoing and self-assured, making friends easily, knowing how to get a laugh from his own clumsiness.
But no one knew, he confesses, how anxious his public role made him.
After school, exhausted from all the play-acting, he did not hang out with friends. He hid out in his bedroom. With the door closed tight against the world, he read stories, made model airplanes, lived in what he calls his monastic cell. Living where he was really most comfortable, introspective, and imaginative.
Parker notes that while we all experience this part of childhood differently, at some point between infancy and adolescence we begin to feel pressured to play someone “out there,” and that true self, that authentic self, the self-trusting self, begins to feel threatened. We deal with the threat, he says, by a child’s version of a divided life, commuting daily, as he writes, between the public world of role and the hidden role of soul.
So many children’s books, he points out, like Alice in Wonderland, like Peter Pan, like the Chronicles of Narnia, and I would add the Harry Potter books, tell about fictional children who escape to make believe places of light and darkness, mystery and morals, that help ease the challenge of the outer world.
But when children develop into teens and adults, we may shut down that imagination, disconnect from the magical and real part of us that some call the soul, others the authentic self, because imagining other possibilities for ourselves, Parker believes, would remind us of the painful gap between who we most truly are and the role we play in the so-called real world.
When we do this, the cost, he writes, is considerable to ourselves and others. We sense that something is missing in our lives, we search the world for it not understanding that what’s missing is us… We feel fraudulent, even invisible, because we are not in the world as we really are.
The darkness that is in us cannot be illuminated by the world’s light… we project our inner darkness on others, making “enemies” of them, and making our world — in all its circles — a darker place.
Our inauthenticity, our projections, make real relationships difficult or impossible, leading to loneliness, and our contributions… are deprived of the life-giving energy of the true self.
That’s what Parker Palmer tells us.
This divided life, as I said earlier, seemed to have dangerously high value in this culture where we are reminded not to wear our heart on our sleeve (a favorite in my family of origin), hold your cards close to your vest, be cool. All ways, we are told, of learning that hiding and armoring ourselves is a safe and sane way to live.
Once we recognize or re-recognize this divided self, whether we are 16, 60, or 80, do we continue to live with this contradiction, Parker Palmer asks pointedly. Or do we try to bring our inner and outer worlds into harmony?
For Parker, this is not just a psychological exercise or a spiritual practice. It is, for him and the humanistic psychologists who preceded him, the only way to live an evolving and evolved life.
Solitude is essential, Palmer acknowledges, to personal integration. There are places in the landscapes of our lives, he observes, where no one can accompany us. Chill time. Alone time.
But because we are communal creatures, relational creatures, who need each other’s support — and not just tangible material support — community is equally essential to rejoining what he calls soul and role. Left to our own solitudes, he warns us, we have an endless capacity for self absorption and self deception.
Parker believes that the answer to beginning to mend ourselves, and with it the world, is to create and sustain circles of trust. Places not to make decisions or negotiate crises, not team building circles or therapy groups. But places where it is, in Parker’s words, safe for the soul — our authentic self — to show up and offer us its guidance.
Places, as I sometimes told those homeless women on Saturday mornings, or in the small groups we have in place here, to show up and do our own work.
Circles of trust without the usual group purpose of changing one another or changing the world. Circles of trust with no such agenda. Though people’s lives may change and they may change each other, the singular purpose is to make each authentic person, Parker reminds us, feel safe enough to show up and speak his or her truth, to help each person listen to his or her inner teacher.
To practice being alone together, of being present to one another in a community of solitudes.
Palmer, a Quaker, has his own deeply held conviction that these circles of trust, these small groups, are essential to his experience of religious community. There have been prophets in our own Unitarian Universalist movement who saw the critical need for these as well.
People like the Rev. Bob Hill, who began urging us more than a decade ago to begin small group ministry programs in our congregations, saying that while he believed whole heartedly that our faith was uniquely suited to a time of intellectual and spiritual questing.
But that while offering places and spaces for self exploration, right of conscience, and theological diversity, we were not growing (in fact, only growing at the rate of about one new member per UU congregation per year). Perhaps our contentiousness was holding us back, even damaging us, he asserted boldly but, sadly, accurately.
That while we espoused an open expression of beliefs and sharing of life experiences, we did not have safe structures for doing so. That while some conflict was inevitable in any group, our communities, many of them anyway, he observed, had fallen into the habit of pervasive divisiveness and persistent squabbling, scaring away the spiritually needy, the seekers who came in search of what we promised.
Covenant groups or Chalice Circles or however we name them offer us contexts, he tells us, in which to speak our concerns with the expectation that our views will be heard and respected. Members of these groups come to know and respect each other. They recharge their souls. They get the sense from these relationships and the experiences with them that their lives matter on Earth.
Thandeka, a community minister and spiritual teacher, was also one of our prophets of small group ministry, of these circles of trust and belonging, seeing these groups as sacred time where members pay attention to themselves and others, a time, as she has written, to acknowledge and appreciate the full presence of each person. Not to work on problems but to share feelings. A time and place and space, as she puts it, to realize we are more than our thoughts. We are more than our ideas. We are alive.
Only a few years back, few congregations had small group ministry programs. There has been no formal study, but Thandeka has estimated that at least 70 percent of our faith communities now have them or are making plans because they realize that these groups are revitalizing the life of our congregations, affirming and caring for congregants in new ways, and inspiring visitors to return.
This congregation has a history of these small groups, however we have named them, going back much more than a decade. As a lay minister and a person on the brink of professional ministry, I was part of what we called a credo group, formed temporarily to help each other develop our own personal statements of faith, much as our Coming of Age Youth do every year.
Of the four created, three disbanded after their work was done. One continued because we were not yet done with either the process of self discernment or of simply spending this intense and amazing time together. So we kept on meeting, at first around a table at a local bakery café, talking over the espresso machine and coffee grinder and the soccer teams. Later we settled on meeting in a home one morning a month. And with some change in membership, as people have moved on literally and figuratively, we have been together for some 18 years.
At any given time now, we have more than two dozen of these groups, groups gathered by age and stage, gender identity, affinity, and geography. Groups that gather to speak and to listen, to grapple with life passages, to wrestle with sacred language, to celebrate, and to mourn. To meditate and to hike, to sit in silence, and to share and reflect on favorite songs.
Bound together, all of them, by covenants of right relationship, confidentiality, active listening, and suspending judgment. Bound together, in other words, by trust and belonging.
As Thandeka urges us: Hear your commission to love, create community, and to heal. One at a time in personal relationships, ten at a time in covenant groups, hundreds at a time in our congregations, thousands at a time in our religious movement, millions at a time as we go deeper and deeper into humanity’s heart as a justice-seeking people who will transform the world.
Up Close and Personal in Circles of Trust.
Alone/Together, May it be so.