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A long time ago, there was an aging emperor in a faraway land. The Emperor had always loved children, but he had none of his own. The older he became the more he knew he needed to choose someone, perhaps a child, to be the next Emperor.
This emperor was known as a lover of plants. So, the “test” he offered the children of the land he ruled was no surprise. He called them all to his palace and said, “I will give each one of you a seed. In one year, I want you to come back, so I can see what you have grown. When I see you in a year, I will then choose the next Emperor.”
All the children ran from the palace, smiling. All they had to do was grow a seed!
Before long, most of the children, being children, forgot about their seed.
But one boy named Chen took care of his right away. He too loved plants.
Chen found a clay pot made by his grandfather. He washed and dried it carefully, afterwards filling the pot with soil. Then he planted his seed.
He put the pot in the sun and each day he sprinkled water on the seed.
But nothing grew…
Weeks went by and he heard some of the other children bragging about the wonderful plants they had grown. But Chen’s seed didn’t grow. He tried moving it to a different place in the sun. He tried watering it more. He even tried singing to his plant. But nothing changed.
It never grew.
Then a year went by. He was so ashamed that his seed didn’t grow.
His grandfather said, “You did your best, Chen. You were caring and patient. Be honest with the Emperor and explain that you did YOUR best.”
So, Chen went back to the palace with his empty pot. All the other children lined up with their plants. One had a beautiful, big ginseng plant. Another had a strong and healthy eucalyptus, already the size of a tree. Chen only had his empty pot.
Feeling embarrassed, Chen held up his empty pot for the Emperor to see. He explained how he had lovingly cared for it every day. He talked about the pot made by his grandfather. He told the story of everything he had done and how sad he felt that the seed would not grow.
The Emperor smiled and said to all the children, “There is only one among you who is honest enough to be the next Emperor… all the seeds that I gave you had been boiled so they would never grow. The wonderful plants you have shown me did not come from the seeds I gave you.”
Some of the children looked ashamed, knowing they had been dishonest. The Emperor then said, “Only one child cared for the seed even when it did not grow… would not grow. Only Chen was honest enough to show me an empty pot, so he will be the next Emperor!”
Chen and his grandfather moved to the palace. Before the old Emperor died, he taught Chen many things about gardening, and so much more. When the Emperor did die, he died smiling, because he knew that Chen could be trusted to care for the land and the people with love and honesty.from the March 2023 Touchstones Journal
Trust is our theme for the month of March. And trust has everything to do with love and honesty. With taking good care each and every day of what we have been given. Trust has to do with being honest about one’s feelings and trustworthy in one’s actions. It isn’t about the results. It is about having a moral compass, and being true to that sense of what is right and wrong, what love would have one do. We know that one may be able to discern some of what is right and wrong alone, but the true test is within the beloved community, within a circle of others.
It is risky, and sometimes a long and winding story to get to the truth. Trust is always about taking risks. I think we humans are always wondering: If we tell the truth, will we still be loved, still be trusted? Or might we be expelled from the circle of others?
We fear that expulsion. Sometimes not telling the simple truth creates what some have called a web (or knot) of “vital lies.” We have to learn how to untie the knot.
Daniel Goleman explored this [knot] in his book Vital Lies, Simple Truths: The Psychology of Self-Deception. His thesis revolves around the following:
- The mind can protect itself against anxiety or pain by dimming awareness.
- The mechanism creates a blind spot: a zone of blocked attention and self-deception.
- Such blind spots occur at every major level of behavior, from the psychological to the social [from the individual to the group, up to and including a nation as illustrated in American politics by the 2020 Presidential election “Big Lie”].
We learn the art of self-deception as children. We learn that we are allowed to notice some things and how to speak about those particular things. We are taught not to notice other things and often never to speak about those things. Yes, it is a little crazy-making.
Goleman wrote, “The range of what we think and do is limited by what we fail to notice. And because we fail to notice that we fail to notice, there is little we can do to change; until we notice how failing to notice shapes our thoughts and deeds.”
That’s the “know. Sometimes in anti-racism work, they say, “We can’t see the water we swim in.” It is like that. We fail to see what we have been told not to see.
We chose what Goleman calls “a vital lie” over a simple truth; a lie that we falsely believe protects us from the truth, thus tying a knot.
By learning what to notice and what not to notice, we learn the rules related to family secrets and other deceptions. Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen coined the term “vital lies” for the fictions that families create to conceal more distributing truths that are too threatening, dangerous, or painful to be acknowledged. The lie is vital to maintain superficial harmony, but at very great cost. Some of you are familiar with the play “A Doll’s House,” which is all about this theme of trust, all about the vital lies.
This web of vital lies happens not only in families, but also societies, including congregations. In congregations, especially where those who should be are supposed to be the most trustworthy, such as the clergy, misconduct, which means sleep with congregants, hide addictions, steal funds, lie… the congregants create a “vital lie” to cover up. It can be as simple as “well, we are all human.”
Yes, we are all human, but when clergy misconduct, or trusted leaders misconduct, step outside of trustworthy relationship with their congregants and it is tolerated, and a system is created based on lies, it becomes a deceptive society.
The result is that Love isn’t at the center; someone’s personal needs and getting those needs met are, or were.
How do systems, family, congregational, work, school, and the government step away from the need for vital lies?
With a conscious effort to tell the truth, the truth of our feelings, first.
Learning self-trust, being trustworthy needs to be a conscious process. It is a kind of a mindfulness practice. To be mindful in this respect is to consider the Buddhist moral precept of right speech. While we may reflexively tell a lie, how quickly can we recognize and admit after the fact that it was a lie? Focus on both lies to others and lies to ourselves. And then reflect on the experience of choosing a lie rather than the truth. What were the circumstances that led to the lie? Getting in touch with that helps to untie whatever “knot” is holding the deception in place. The task is to move our awareness backward before we speak or think with the goal of choosing truth over a lie before we even speak. Noticing where the lie came from is the first step in seeking the truth.
Was it tied to anxiety? We can’t eliminate anxiety from our lives, but we can become aware of it by bringing it to our awareness. Ask yourself, “What would I do in this situation if I wasn’t afraid?” Fear is an enemy of self-trust. Often fear is an appropriate response, but it does not need to control us. Recognizing fear and engaging it can lessen its power over us. While self-deception is pernicious, we do have a conscience. We need to listen to the small voice within as often as possible and work to give it a more prominent place.
Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, ‘Trust thyself.’ While that is the goal, it can only happen when we have demonstrated that we are trustworthy through the discipline of truth-telling to others, for sure, but especially to ourselves. Emerson then said, ‘Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.’ We cultivate that integrity through the spiritual practice of choosing simple truths over vital lies.paraphrased from a sermon titled “Vital Lies, Simple Truths,” by Rev. Kirk Loadman-Copeland
You will strengthen your moral compass, by doing so, and shame will let you go.
Let me be clear that I am unaware of a history of clergy misconduct in this congregation.
I am aware of a small number of long-serving leaders who hold a lot of power. I know who they are, but that is not what matters. What matters is that strong lay leaders make small congregations survive, and that truth is a dynamic that can be “trusted.” And it is often the case that strong lay leaders are trustworthy, loyal to survival of the institution, and yet, they hold on tight.
Our living tradition is built on the ever-evolving truth, and the democratic principles that have to with equality, meaning equal power and acknowledgement of every voice, leading to a mutual sharing in the discernment of where the spirit is leading… that does not put all or even most authority in the hands of a few.
We don’t have an emperor, or even a group of emperors; we—together—share all burdens, all responsibilities. We are each called to tell the truth, to catch the lie and forgive one another and begin again, and to undo the knots we sometimes—perhaps often—tie ourselves up with because of fear.
Be bold, have courage, see the truth, speak the truth in love. Trust yourself and the gifts you bring. Allow trust to grow wisely and well. If you are carrying something from say, ten years ago, let it go, learn to say “I forgive you; I forgive myself,” and begin again, letting love flow, unimpeded.