Sermon: Radical Self-Acceptance by Ana Levy-Lyons

2019 November 3
by Rev Ana Levy-Lyons

Radical Self-Acceptance

Ana Levy-Lyons

November 3, 2019

First Unitarian, Brooklyn


A few years ago, a friend of mine who directs a large non-profit organization, posted a picture on Facebook of herself and her husband, decked out in their finest, at the White House Christmas Party. I was a little taken aback. This is a peer of mine, went to the same college I did, a professional woman, similar age, maybe a bit older, who’s now hobnobbing with the Obamas. Now, I get that at these parties, you don’t actually get to hang out with the President, it’s just a photo op, but still. And I get that FaceBook is terrible for comparing your success with other people’s success and that you’re comparing your insides with their outsides. I know all that, but still. And realistically I would probably hate the White House Christmas Party. I don’t even like parties. But still. My friend had reached some social echelon where it was possible to receive that invitation. And I hadn’t.


I think many of us can recognize this kind of moment. Maybe it’s not a fancy party for you, but some seemingly innocuous, stupid little thing comes up and it brings up feelings of inadequacy. It reminds us of how we keep being limited by the same patterns, how we keep getting in our own way, how we keep failing to be like someone else who’s doing life somehow better than we are. And despite all the things we’re able to do, we can sometimes feel defined by the things we’re not able to do. The bar always seems to be just a little higher than we can reach. The horizon of okay-ness keeps receding.


This is especially true when we’re younger. But as we age, many of us find more peace. We stop caring so much what other people think and there’s a great freedom in that. We’ve learned that we have many beautiful qualities and some not so great qualities. And while you certainly can teach an old dog new tricks, there are some parts of ourselves that have been pretty much constant for many decades and they are probably not going to change. And if we’re lucky and wise, we are able to admit those things and find radical self-acceptance.


People these days love slapping the adjective “radical” onto anything where we want to bring the volume up to 11. Radical hospitality, radical democracy, I’ve even heard radical math. We usually use the word to mean something extreme. But the word “radical” also has another, more interesting meaning. It means “of the root of something.” It’s this definition that resonates with me when I think of “radical self-acceptance.” It’s about accepting our inherent essence, deeply grounded within us.


It’s not “extreme self-acceptance,” where absolutely anything that I might do is acceptable – that’s not right; it’s “radical self-acceptance,” where who I am is acceptable. Where I’m at right now is acceptable. Each one of us, doing our best, is enough. And in our tradition, we’re not just acceptable; we’re not just enough, we’re beloved. Who we are at our core is beloved. We each carry the divine spark, we are each precious on this earth. Not only on Christmas Eve, but “each night a child is born is a holy night.”


But we live in a society that’s hell bent on convincing us otherwise. In this world, we’re never good enough. We’re not smart enough, good looking enough, thin enough. We don’t have enough money (even when we do), our Facebook friends lead more glamorous lives. Maybe we haven’t hit those milestones of marriage or children when they say we’re supposed to, or if we do have kids, they have problems, and nobody else’s kids have problems. Even the self-help and wellness industries, which are supposed to be all warm and spiritual, have an underlying message that you are not okay the way you are. But if you buy this turmeric drink or time management app or hemp yoga mat you will become the person you were meant to be, which is, by implication, someone else.


Now, there’s nothing wrong with self-improvement. It is also part of the religious life to always be trying to grow the capacity of our hearts and become better instruments of peace. And when we fall short of our ideals, it’s important to admit that to ourselves and sometimes to others. When we’re doing something that’s not healthy or constructive we’re called to work toward change. But the goal should be to grow a healthier plant from our own root – our radical core. Not to try to be a different plant entirely.


I imagine that to be the kind of person who gets invited to the White House Christmas party, you have to be a type A go-getter. You have to love networking. You have to be kind of focused in your life and know where you’re going and be efficient about it. I’m not really like that. I’m spacey and day-dreamy. I get lost a lot and miss subway stops because I’m thinking about something else. My friend, in her free time, likes to go to social events and meet new people. In my free time I like to sit on the couch with my husband, talk about the universe, and eat vegan ice cream. I think a lot of my friend’s success comes from her extroverted, focused playfulness. And a lot of my creativity comes from my daydreaming. Neither one of these ways of being is better or worse than the other. But only one of them results in being invited to the White House Christmas party. So be it. This is a radical matter. It gets at the root of who I am and who I am not.


Once, the Hassidic rabbi Zusya came to his followers with tears in his eyes. They asked him:

“Zusya, what’s the matter? 


And he told them about his vision; “I learned the question that the angels will one day ask me about my life.”


The followers were puzzled. “Zusya, you are pious. You are scholarly and humble. You have helped so many of us. What question about your life could be so terrifying that you would be frightened to answer it?”


Zusya replied; “I have learned that the angels will not ask me, ‘Why weren’t you a Moses, leading your people out of slavery?’ and that the angels will not ask me, ‘Why weren’t you a Joshua, leading your people into the promised land?”‘

Zusya sighed; “They will say to me, ‘Zusya, why weren’t you Zusya?’”


Our spiritual path is to accept ourselves, our authentic, radically true selves, and seek to be the best version of ourselves – not somebody else. When you reach the end of your journey here on earth, and the angels ask you about your life, they are not going to ask you, why were you not more like that person on Facebook or more like that person who made more money or more like that person who went to protests all the time or more like that person who ran the marathon or that person who was hot or that person who had no disabilities whatsoever; they are going to ask you why were you not more like you? Why didn’t you accept yourself more deeply at your root and grow from there? Because that self is beautiful and beloved and, if watered and cared for, will grow a spectacular plant.


Personally I may do good things in my life, I may do important things and meaningful things, but I am never going to get invited to the White House Christmas party and that’s okay. I’m at peace with that. After all, we can make Christmas any time right here. Let’s do it. Please join me in singing Deck the Hall, #235.

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