Sermon: Self & Selflessness: Thoughts on Connection While Quarantined by Ethan Loewi

2020 March 23
by DoMC


This audio file includes much of the service including the prayer and anthem. It begins at 11:45.


Self and Selflessness:

Thoughts on Connection While Quarantined

March 22, 2020


Friends, it is a joy to be with you, and our whole First Unitarian Community, on this very normal Sunday. In this very normal setting, under very normal circumstances. Man, I sure love normalcy. Also, if its not obvious, please prepare for a great deal of me laughing at my own jokes. Somebody has to. Whenever I say anything even remotely funny, I’m just going to assume that all of you are cracking up.

It’s incredibly obvious, yet somehow worth voicing, that we are in a bizarre moment. And the head-spinning weirdness of all of this is amplified manyfold by the fact that our lives were already quite weird! Two months ago, before we were all talking about COVID-19, many of us already we were living in a stormy psychic atmosphere. The world already offered much to inspire dismal and chaotic ideation. We are all of us bombarded by news, much of it worrisome—flooded with vast oceans of data, pouring in from more sources than our humble human brains can process. Life in 2020 can feel like listening to a radio playing ten stations at once. Now that we’re dealing with COVID-19, it feels more like listening to twenty stations at once, and they’re all in foreign languages.

Yet amid the stresses of the past week I’ve been moved to see the quick response of this community to support one another, from delivering food to offering online counseling. Ironically, we can find new heights of connection in the midst of our physical separation. And our efforts to support each other have only just begun. other. And our efforts to support each other have only just begun. Please keep checking your email—our staff, our caring ministry team, and our congregation are doing a lot to keep us connected. Whatever your needs, if you are feeling overburdened, you are warmly invited to reach out. To help each other in this time is a privilege, and there is no faster way to replenish the joy and feeling of safety that the past few weeks have drained.

While I’m optimistic about the resilience of First Unitarian, quarantine is still a major struggle. If you had told me when I was twelve that I was going to be forced to stay home, in a room filled with snacks and video games, my tiny brain would have gone haywire with excitement. But this is not that. Instead, I’ve been struggling to tune out the keening, anxious thoughts that so many of us are dealing with right now. The best remedy I’ve found for this anxiety is focus—if we can focus on anything, from calling a friend to baking scones to writing a sermon, the miasma of our fear is swept away.

The sermon I was preparing, before this minor interruption to our scheduled programming, was about selflessness. And by selflessness, I don’t mean generosity—I mean the quality of not having a self. In many great religions, such as Christianity, seekers are taught that of course we have a self, and we must shoulder its responsibilities. We are embodied spirits, who can find transcendence through spiritual labor and devotion. Yet many other traditions, such as Buddhism, hold that the self is an illusion–to find transcendence, we must overcome the self and its deceptions.

There’s a serendipity here, because selflessness has everything do to with pandemic. Wherever we believe about the self, let us recognize two intersecting truths: our individual actions matter, but we cannot face a challenge this massive alone. To focus too much on the self is to forget our radical connectedness. In this time of adversity, let us be guided and uplifted by the fact that we are bound together.

So first, let’s talk about the self. What’s so great about the self? What’s goin’ on there? Well, you have to admit that self makes a good pitch. I’m me, you’re you—this all feel fairly cut and dry. There’s a strong intuitive appeal.

Unitarian Universalism historically places great stock in the self: our humanist ideals emphasize our capacity to think freely, and make our own way. One of the premiere poets of the self is our own Ralph Waldo Emerson. Perhaps his most famous essay is Self-Reliance, in which he advocates just that: for each individual to believe in their power and their worthiness, and no longer bow to what the world expects of them. He tells us that “Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of their bread, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater.” In defiance of this soul-numbing conformity, he tells us “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place that divine providence has found for you.” These are stirring words—it’s thrilling to be told that we are powerful, and in control. But there is, in all this self-ignited brilliance, an aftertaste of solipsism. There is little mention of community in Emerson’s essay—whereas he spends many lines spent glorifying the lone male genius. Through this essay we see in stark contrast between the pulse-quickening appeal of the self, and the troubling side-effects of putting ourselves first.

Another brilliant writer to preach the transcendence of the self is everyone’s favorite mustachioed malcontent, Friedrich Nietzsche. He too had nothing but gleeful scorn for what society thought was good and bad. He describes the self as “a mighty lord, an unknown sage.” He says we should listen to the ego—the “creating, willing, ego, which is the measure and value of all things.” Even more dramatically, he exhorts humanity to become a greater version of

itself—the godlike figure of the Superman. Nietzsche tells us “Let your spirit and your virtue be devoted to the earth, my brethren: let the value of everything be determined anew by you! Therefore shall ye be fighters! Therefore shall ye be creators!” As with Emerson, there is something electrifying here. There is great spiritual fuel in the idea that we can reshape the world through our own willpower and courage. But complete devotion to the self always bears a woeful consequence. Friendship, compassion, humility—when the self reigns, these things are a distant priority. And as with Emerson, there is something inescapably gendered here—the elevation of the self to godlike proportions is quite often a male power fantasy. All this talk of conquering and overcoming makes me think of a six-year-old pretending to be a T-rex, stomping around the house and roaring at the family dog.

I don’t mean to demonize the self, mind you—the self has much to recommend it. Ask your doctor if the self is right for you. For the most part, I really like Emerson and Nietzsche—I like them to a frankly embarrassing degree. They show us that the self is a powerful, enchanting force—but it can go too far, narrowing our focus to our own desires. In the midst of a viral pandemic, that’s the opposite of what we need. What’s more, our society already fixates too much on the self. We blame ourselves too much when things don’t go our way, and take too much credit when they do. Our money-and-career-focused world tells us to put the self at the center of our spiritual universe. But when our starting point is “I, I, I” we can lose out on the joys that come from realizing our smallness, our transience, our connection to all of creation. Against a challenge like Coronavirus, we are all individually small. As a connected group, there are few problems we cannot face.

Now that we’ve spent some time with the prophets of the self, let’s look at some teachings of selflessness. Some of the greatest poets of selflessness are Sufi Muslims, who write beautifully about Fanaa—annihilation of the self in God. Self is an illusion, the great veil that keeps us from seeing the divine. To quote the poet Attar: “Since love has spoken in your soul, reject / The Self, that whirlpool where our lives are wrecked.” For Sufis, and Buddhists for that matter, the self is very much the wrong thing to worship—there are so many greater things that deserve our dedication. For a Sufi Muslim, that greater thing would of course be God. God is the highest of all things; as the Qu’ran puts it, “There is nothing like His like.” The great poet Rumi believes that God alone is truly and ultimately real, writing “We and our existences are all nonexistences, / but You are absolute Existence, appearing as annihilation”.   

The spiritual quality of selflessness can take many forms, in many traditions. For a humanist, the highest thing might be love, or service to others. The common thread is that the individual is minimized in favor of a greater external being. And keep in mind that selflessness is not just doing a few good deeds; it’s much deeper than that. Lamentably, selflessness can become something we humblebrag about: just another merit badge, pinned on our shining sash of virtues. But true selflessness contains a great rejection of pride and personal achievement. It’s about leaving our little one-person islands, and joining to something bigger and more meaningful. There’s beauty in this—and also, I might argue, a kind of necessity. Nietzsche and Emerson, for all their talent, did not acquire that talent out of thin air—they were supported and taught by countless people. No matter how free-standing we feel ourselves to be, we are always bound by that invisible string—the connection we share with others across all barriers of time and space.

To be sure, there remains a place for the primacy of the self: boldness and self-trust are as needed as ever. Self and selflessness will always both have much to offer. But at this point in time, in this country, I think we could use rather more of the latter and less of the former. American culture has long been excellent at glorifying the self: the hero, the genius, the conquering lone ranger. Let’s dial that romanticizing back a bit.

It is once we reject the self as a totally entity that we realize the full extent of our connectedness. And that’s exactly what we need now. It might be tempting while in quarantine to turn inwards, and obsess over ourselves while we shut others out; let’s strive to do the opposite of that. For better or worse, driven by love or cruelty or ambivalence, our actions have shockwaves that reach others. COVID-19 has shoved our radical connectedness into our faces. That is a frightening thing, in many ways. Yet it has the potential to be a vital revelation. Ideally, we would care for each other all the time—not just when we’re being threatened by pandemics. The selflessness we need to fight coronavirus, can lead us to a better way in all our times of struggle. From calling your friends, to delivering food to the vulnerable, to just staying home, there are so many selfless actions we can take. The spiritual care of our loved ones is on all of us: in this moment, we must all of us be ministers. Not literally. Don’t go out and start marrying people. And you can’t start doing exorcisms, either—that’s my thing, and I don’t need the competition.

I’d like to close by quoting obscure work of fiction called The Lord of the Rings. Frodo is feeling overwhelmed by the weight of his destiny, and says “I wish it need not have happened in my time.” To which Gandalf replies “So do I, and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

First Unitarian, there is so much we can do with the time we have together. Let us strive to act selflessly, and know with concrete certainty that our care for one other will always prove stronger than our fears. No matter how alone you might feel in the days to come, know that you are not. And may that knowledge thunder in your chest like a second heartbeat. May it be so.

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