After the 2017 mass shooting at the Mandalay Bay Hotel in Las Vegas, the deadliest in US history (so far), the US Senator John Thune of South Dakota, a Republican who would not speak about gun control, instead remarked, “I think people are going to have to take steps in their own lives to take precautions… to protect themselves. And in situations like that, you know, [to] try to stay safe. As somebody said — get small.”
I might say to you, beloved, to my family members and those I care about, Stay safe. But I would never say get small. I think we all know getting small isn’t the answer. It certainly would never be a message you would hear from Unitarian Universalism, or any other form of the liberal religious tradition that we are a part of.
Our UU faith teaches just the opposite. We may be tiny in numbers compared to other faith groups, but we have had the power to make a difference in this world. We let our little light shine and shine brightly.
We don’t and would never say shrink down, hide, be-little yourself.
We say, “Go big. Tell the truth.”
The theme of courage, of being determined to do what it takes, even in a dangerous situation, is a familiar one for us. I believe it is one of our core values…
Today, I want to talk about what it takes to be courageous in your intimate relationships. It starts with telling the truth. But first one must know what the truth—your truth—is.
It is in intimate relationships—whether that is with a close friend, a lover, your life partner, your parent, or your child—where we can feel super safe, but we can also perceive ourselves to be incredibly exposed. So, sometimes it is in our intimate relationship where we can feel the most endangered. So we don’t always act with courage.
Remember the story of Jonah (the guy who was swallowed by the whale) from the Bible? He became a powerful prophet, a person who went around saying if you keep doing that thing you’re doing, there will be consequences. Or you could do this, this other much better thing will come to be.
Before he took up his new role as a prophet, eight centuries before the time of Jesus, God spoke to him and said, “Jonah, stop living that small, inconsequential life you are living, go to this town that you have never been to before and have no authority in, and tell everyone there to shape up and stop behaving so badly.” I know you can. Some of us may have intimate partners with that kind of voice in our ears…
Anyway, Jonah’s reaction was just as you might imagine: “I am uncomfortable with that message! Why would those people listen to me, anyway?” Before God could even answer with why he was asking such a thing of Jonah, Jonah went and jumped on a boat sailing in the opposite direction from this town were God wanted him to go.
Jonah is on the boat and before it has traveled very far, a big storm comes up and the guys on the boat who make their living sailing start thinking, What’s changed? They conclude that the horrible storm is Jonah’s fault, as it is clear to them that he is bringing whatever his troubles are with him. They don’t want any part of that, so they throw him overboard.
Before he can drown, Jonah is swallowed up by a giant fish. He is carried around in the fish’s slimy, smelly insides for three days and three nights until finally the fish burps him up on the shore. Of course, he gets burped out on the shore that is right next to the town where God was trying to send him in the first place, which is still the last place that he wants to be.
He remains reluctant to do what needs to be done, and he is still feeling uncomfortably squirmy about it. His intimate partner (that would be God) knows what Jonah is capable of, but Jonah doesn’t feel it. He is just anxious and scared. But he does start talking with the people there about what they are doing wrong and what they need to do differently, and to his utter amazement, the people—just like that—change their ways.
You’d think he would be convinced that he can be more responsible than he used to be, that he can rise to the task. But no.
Even though his initial mission has turned out well, Jonah is still not feeling it. He keeps telling himself over and over that this isn’t the safe/small life he had in mind.
So, he finds a gourd vine that offers some shade and he sits down under the vine to sulk about his fate. But God is looking down at his reluctant prophet and he withers the vine, and that leaves Jonah exposed to the blazing heat of the sun. Jonah finally realizes he has nowhere to hide.
We all are tempted to run away from the hard things that maybe God, maybe whomever our most intimate partner is, sees we can surely do. We let our worries get in the way of doing the thing we are called to do. We want to stay small. Yet when we stop running and make time to listen, to tell the truth about how we are feeling, we may just find we have the resources to do what it takes to do what needs to be done.
We can step forward, live large… as uncomfortable as that might initially be. We can put ourselves in the service of what makes things right. It might just be that we have exactly what other people need to be courageous, too.
Or we can try to keep hiding and be stuck in an uncomfortable place. Maybe not literally in a smelly, slimy fish gut or in the blazing sun, but with the uncomfortable feeling of hiding from our truth and our power, squished into some place too small and smelly or hot for us to flourish.
We’re never going to be totally safe. Neither hiding nor stepping out makes us safe. Living life just doesn’t offer that. So if we can’t be safe, we might as well learn to walk through the uncomfortable, vulnerable places in the direction of what most deeply calls us.
Brené Brown says, “We need the courage to show up fully as ourselves in our lives and to let ourselves be seen.”
Letting yourself be seen takes an inner resolution to recognize what your fears are, yet to go forward in spite of them. The courage to take action is not about being certain about what’s next, but a determination not to surrender to the small life, but to go forward to be our big, beautiful selves despite the risks.
In the book Conscious Loving by Gay and Katy Hendricks, there is a practice they call telling “the microscopic truth.”
They say to start by taking a deep breath, then to feel and then express your bodily sensations. “I am cold. My heart is barely beating. I feel like I am going to faint.”
Whatever your body feels… then name what you are worried about, what memories are being stirred up inside your head.
When you find the courage to express to yourself whatever is going on there, in your body, in your heart, in your mind, then you will be ready to risk saying your full truth out loud to your intimate partner.
If you can, learn to do this, and you can practice doing it over and over. If you do, I promise it will take you down a much different path than not learning how. A much better path!
Many of us need to supplement this kind of intimate truth telling with a spiritual practice that allows us to hear what UUs like to call the “still, small voice within.” Not making time for a quiet, reflective spiritual practice where we learn to hear ourselves means we don’t really have a truth—our truth—to tell when we need to. Some of us need time to hear our own truth, to know what we feel. Telling the truth of who we are and what we feel in any given moment becomes possible with practice and with self-differentiation (knowing that we are who we are and we are not the projection of the person we are in relationship with), we can become more and more of who we really are.
The most important thing is to have the courage to be who you are.
It is, of course, as important to seek out the partners, a “chosen” family (if need be) who can see you for who you are brave enough to be, who can and will call you into being who you are meant to be.
Yet some of us have trouble seeing what is right in front of us… right there all the time.
Many years ago, there was a well-known smuggler famous for his many heists. He was near the end of his career. He was looking for one more grand adventure that would bring him the funds that he needed to see him through his last years, so he could take care of himself and those he cared about. He began to go to the border every day with a donkey. Always the donkey’s back would be heavily laden with straw. The border patrol was suspicious every time they saw him coming. Daily, they would pull apart his bundles searching for gold or jewels or something that must be of great value. Every day they tore apart the bundles he sat on, until straw lay everywhere, but they never found anything. Every day for ten years the man came to the border on a donkey. Every day for ten years, the border patrol looked through the straw and never found anything of value.
After ten years of this, the man retired.
One day a few years later at the market, the man—who was then living the good life—was approached by another man who had been a border patrol officer. He asked the great smuggler what was the thing of value that he had so successfully hidden for ten years. What had he smuggled across, again and again? Everybody knew it was something, but no one had ever guessed what.
The retired smuggler smiled and simply said, “Donkeys!”
In intimate relationships, we are so often distracted trying to take care of the little details, or the really big things, that we forget to see the significance of ordinary everyday things. One of those ordinary everyday things is the everyday truths that you can’t see… until the truth is told, and heard.
How are you?
Fine is not the right answer. I’m feeling a tightness in my throat and remembering when I was a child and wanted to break things.
Tell me more.
Let us learn not to trap each other in the cage of everything is fine, everything is perfect.
Start with the small truths. Practice, practice, and practice. We can welcome each other. We can hear each other. We can all say, If you keep going down that road, these will be the consequences.
Let’s try this way together, instead.