The third principle of Unitarian Universalism is “acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations,’ and while it sounds deceptively simple, it can be extremely difficult and close to impossible.
Homo sapiens is not neurologically wired to be accepting, but just the opposite. The reptilian and most primitive part of our brain, the amygdale at the base of our skull, is very wary of anything different and ready to strike and kill if threatened or attacked. In the course of human evolution, our brains, wonderfully, have grown and developed, and the top front of our skull, the pre-frontal cortex is the part of the brain which consciously assesses and often overrides our more primitive, baser, instincts. As a psychotherapist, I get many referrals for “anger management.” Something happened where a person “flew off the handle”, “lost their temper”, or simply “lost it” as they say, “saw red”, “went psychotic”, and often did great destruction to themselves, to property, and/or to others.
It is normal to see these “temper tantrums” in a two or three year old, but in a 35 year old, it is scary and something needs to be done. It seems, with the 24 hour news cycles of cable TV and the internet, it is increasingly common to learn about incidents where someone went “postal” in a church. It happened in our own Unitarian Universalist denomination in Knoxville, Tennessee in 2008 when two people were killed and seven injured. And so how “accepting” are we supposed to be, certainly, not to the extent to which we put ourselves, and loves ones in jeopardy. “You can’t be too careful these days” seems to be the paranoid attitude fueled by our government’s obsession with “terrorists” around every corner to the extent that we all are subjected to constant electronic surveillance and intrusive searches of even our bodies by the TSA in airports. The message seems to be to trust nobody, accept nothing they tell you, everyone is suspect until they can prove they are no threat.
It is quite a world we are now living in and bringing children into which has developed a fortress mentality that has become endemic. It is in this world that Unitarian Universalists are naïve enough, gullible enough, maybe stupid enough to covenant and affirm the acceptance of one another. Many of the Unitarian Universalist principles are counter-cultural, but this one, if you study it closely, is, viewed from the conventional perspective of our current society, insane, out of touch with reality, only for fools.
And so how are we UUs to proceed in such a world?
First, we need to name our fears, our anger, our grief about “the other” because until we can name them we can’t manage them, and we will continue to be influenced and impacted by emotional and societal forces which we are unaware of or confused by because we are blind to what we are dealing with. Until we can say, “This is what it is about this person, and these kind of people, that scare me” we are doomed to act our emotions out like children instead of talking them out, naming them, and figuring out better ways of managing them. Secret keeping and hidden agendas are toxic cancers in the body of a congregation. Of course, as we discussed in the last article, shame is what contributes to our keeping our fears and animosities secret and so we pretend we are accepting and welcoming when our deeper thoughts and feelings contribute to us behaving otherwise.
Second, we need to stop with the excuses and second guessing. “Well I could be more accepting if only ______________ or ____________________. If only things were _______________, then it would be different. Maybe if ____________________happened or _________________happened, then I could be more accepting.” And so we bargain with God, with Life, with ourselves, with other people that acceptance could be possible if things could be somehow different, but, of course, they’re not. So these possibilities and wishes need to be explored. Are they warranted, legitimate, appropriate, or is this just wishful thinking, denial, a not wanting to accept how things are. “It is what it is,” say the Buddhists. “Yeah, well maybe that’s true, but that’s not how it’s suppose to be or how I want it,” we want to argue, but we are polite, civil, cooperative, and so we pretend to agree and go along while deep in our hearts, the truth be known, we aren’t accepting of this state of affairs at all. These excuses and second guessing is the cancer in so many congregations, and if it is manifested and emerges even in the slightest, people start demanding “conflict resolution” workshops. However, the issue isn’t necessarily about conflict resolution but about fear. What, dear God, is it that we are afraid of? And of course, truth be told, it is about loss, hurt, losing face, the need to be right, there are so many barriers and obstacles to accepting Love’s presence that we can’t even identify them all, count them all, and yet if we just started with one fear and could manage it to diminish its influence, or perhaps even eliminate it, we would be that much closer to real acceptance. You will know you are on the right track when you have more peace.
Third, acceptance is not a simple thing. It is not a magic key or a silver bullet. It is not a light switch that can be turned on and turned off. It is an organic quality which has to be nurtured, cultivated, fertilized, watered, and will blossom when people authentically can manage their fears constructively and diminish their impediment to genuine rapport. This is a process not an event.
More specifically how does this work? What will help? John Gottman, the social psychologist who has spent his career researching couple communication, calls it the 5:1 ratio. There needs to be five compliments, favors, indications of caring and affection for every criticism, negative statement or negative interaction. Acceptance is borne out of recognizing and acknowledging what is right in relationships not just what is scary and fear inducing and/or objectionable. Gottman says that every time someone makes a compliment, does a favor, expresses affection and caring, a deposit is made in what he calls “the reservoir of positive feeling”.
How big a reservoir of positive feeling exists in your congregation? How could it be contributed to so it can grow? How can it be used to offset pain and hurt? These deposits into the reservoir of positive feeling cannot be gimmicky, fake, disingenuous, and artificial, they need to be the real deal, the genuine article, honestly felt and communicated. It can be something as simple as asking, “Hi, how are you today?” and meaning it, standing there with your undivided attention curious about the other person’s answer. What people want more than anything is just someone else’s genuine caring, manifested in that person’s undivided attention. While it seems simple reading this on paper here, it is the most difficult thing in the world to actually do. When it is done well, though, a feeling of acceptance and belonging flourishes.