When the Truth is Unacceptable

Please visit our YouTube channel to watch Rev. Ann Marie’s video recording of this reflection.

Libba Bray, an author of young adult fiction, says in The Sweet Far Thing (The Gemma Doyle Trilogy Book 3): “People have a habit of inventing fictions they will believe wholeheartedly in order to ignore the truth they cannot accept.”

We have been hearing a lot about “The Big Lie,” the invented fiction that some are peddling as truth, that ignores what so many know to be true. People telling the lie can’t accept change. A change that many of us worked for, and I suspect most of us welcomed. They wholeheartedly believe it didn’t happen.

We can try to stop change by inventing fiction, and we can create change with imagination and innovation—also fiction.

Important, needed change can come about because of fiction. It is certainly the case that what poses as “the truth” can be understood as too limiting. There are those who know that “the truth” need not always be true forever. Creativity and imaginative intelligence believe in something that is not yet true, but will be, can be.

It is one thing to invent a fiction in order to ignore a truth that one is not willing to accept. It is quite another to see that truth for what it is and have the dream and the skill to create a new truth.

One way to discern whether fiction serves or destroys is to ask What gives life? What takes it away?

Truth is always more complicated and complex than we think.

Acceptance is our theme for the month of May. As you may have read in your Touchstones Journal, the word “accept” comes from the Old French and means to “take what is offered.” It also comes from the Latin root acceptare, which means to take or to receive willingly. Accepting is a transactional movement involving at least two parties, two parties who make a bargain. One makes an offer, the other receives. Without two or more parties, without a bargain willingly engaged in, there isn’t acceptance.       

Acceptance is also not necessarily an all-or-nothing transaction. Acceptance can progress on a continuum that moves from hostility-rejection-intolerance-ignoring on to tolerance and respect, and then perhaps on to unconditional love or mutual positive regard. Self-acceptance is an important part of mutual positive regard. Perhaps it is fundamental. But self-acceptance doesn’t happen in a vacuum. To progress along a continuum of self-acceptance, we must be willing to have the internal dialogue to accept what we would otherwise choose to ignore within ourselves. We must be in interconnected relationship with others who will tell us the truth.

That is where being in intentional community comes in. We learn to see ourselves, to accept ourselves, through the eyes of others.

Some years ago, I was a pastor to a young lesbian who was in a brand new relationship with a very loving partner. The young woman came to me seeking pastoral care because she was having a hard time trusting the love that was being directed toward her. She was not opening up emotionally, choosing instead to protect herself in ways that didn’t seem appropriate to her new situation. After some conversation, it became clear that she was having a debilitating internal struggle believing that someone could actually love her. 

We had more conversations and she began to reveal to me the extreme emotional and physical abuse she experienced as a child. I remember saying to her that perhaps what she had learned to do to survive that awful time in her life was not serving her well in this new relationship.  

The skills she needed to survive were clearly not the same as those she needed in the present moment in order to thrive.

Sometimes it is so hard to let in new truth, when the truth you have been living by meant that you lived. The old truth was reliable for your very survival. Letting go of one truth for another can feel as if you are risking death. You knew how to be the person you were.  You need help learning to be the person you need to be now. 

Those of us who haven’t had to survive the most dehumanizing, desperate situations may not understand how incredibly frightening it is to be free, to live free from the threat, the reality of harm.  

UUs have done an incredibly good job of helping survivors of harm come into a space of freedom where they are willingly accepted just “as they are” and encouraged to become who they can be.   

You may be familiar with our Third Principle, which states: “We, the member congregations of the UUA, covenant to affirm and promote… acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth….”

It is interesting to me that we put those two things together in the same principle.

Acceptance affirms people as they are. Encouragement of spiritual growth is primarily about engaging folks to move toward who they might become. 

We need both: open, warm affirmation of who we are and engaged encouragement to become who we might be.

As we do this dance of affirmation and encouragement, what is willingly understood as “true” will certainly change. 

We find ourselves in a strange place in our society now, when pronounced divisions—not only in how some are understanding political “truths,” but in how many are understanding systemic oppressions or even recognizing the more hidden forces of caste—are causing all sorts of old “truth” to fall. Yet “truth” isn’t even a common language anymore. Instead, truth is being marketed as a commodity.

Whomever has power peddles their version of truth. Whomever competes for power labels the others as peddling The Big Lie, or what is not truth.

There are clearly enough lies to go around.

What is not so clear is how “truth” is more complicated and complex than the popular debate would have us believe.  What is perceived as truth, what is accepted as truth changes and evolves. There is no state of “woke” that is permanent. So much of what we used to think of as “truth,” we now know was clearly—even blatantly—subjective, certainly in service to whomever was holding power at the time any particular “truth” was declared.

The clash of cultures, the study of caste within our supposedly equal society, the breakdown in the concept of race and privilege, has shown us that the truth—the truth we once relied on as consistent—wasn’t at all the whole story. Wasn’t the whole truth.  Wasn’t the truth for those who didn’t possess the power or the privilege to define truth. 

In all the turmoil and incivility and uncertainty of this time in our lives, it is impossible to ignore the powerful forces trying to move us in reverse, to a “simpler” time when who was on top and who defined truth was clear.

Those who can claim a certain “wokeness” know we are in the midst of an evolution. It is certainly not as simple as “survive or thrive.” It is perhaps both, at the very same time, as it probably has always been.

We UUs, we liberal progressives, have long subscribed to the belief that we need to speak our “truth.” We need to be fully who we are and accept each other fully. Yet now we must hear that the “we” who has been allowed to speak need sit down and learn to listen to those who have not had the same privilege. We need to unlearn always speaking our truth so loudly. At the very least, we need to stop speaking long enough to engage in deep dialogue with those whom we have too long ignored, because our fiction was too loud.

Of course, we may find common understandings that ease our discomfort, but real differences will also emerge. 

And that is okay, and as it should be in the wide beloved community.

Years ago, many years ago, I was exposed for the first time to a UU congregation going through the Welcoming Congregation program. I was there to just observe. The first iteration of that program has changed and evolved over time. It was led by two straight “allies.” I had to assume they were leading the session as they had been taught. I had been, up until that time, in a fairly closed white, lesbian-feminist, upper-middle-class “bubble” for nearly 20 years. What they were describing as gay/lesbian values and worldviews was so foreign to my lived experience, it was as if I were a Martian who had landed on the moon, in the middle of people who had never met Martians describing what life was like for them.    

It was so weird. 

Lately, I have thought about that feeling when I sit with other ministers and talk about racism and white privilege and there are African Americans sitting there. I wonder if they feel like I did 20 years ago. “What are you talking about? Who are you talking about? Why don’t you just let me talk?” 

It can be so weird.

That day, no one asked me what it was like to be me. I’m not sure I could or would have responded. It was as if they were squishing all of LGBTQIAA into one singular dimension. I barely recognized that singularity.

None of us are the same as any label or stereotype. None of us fit any singular category.

Remember that when you encounter—no, not encounter—when you engage each other, when you engage those who will soon emerge from their COVID cocoons seeking community; seeking not just affirmation, but seeking engagement, seeking to be known, to be held in the full, complexity of being human. Then engage common understandings and real differences.

Remember every other person is a full human being: complex, complicated.

Remember, most importantly, that you don’t hold the truth, that we in this congregation don’t hold the truth. It has yet to emerge in its fullness.

Our dream of the beloved community shall guide us to affirm and engage, to willingly accept with unconditional love, as we have been accepted. The Rev. Michael Tino, now with the Church of the Larger Fellowship, says this in the lead article in this week’s message:

As Unitarian Universalists, we understand that every person has inherent worth and dignity just the way they are right now. And we also understand that every person is constantly learning, changing, and growing. Our faith asks us to receive pieces of the truth from different perspectives and incorporate those pieces of truth into our own being. We will never run out of new ways to experience the world if we are paying attention. 

Institutions and ideas change and grow, too. As we learn to center the voices of people who have been marginalized for too long, our institutions learn from their perspectives. As we realize the shortcomings of our past, our institutions learn to do better.

Yesterday UUism turned 60 years old. That is young for a faith movement. But 60 also symbolizes a kind of maturity, when we don’t have to always speak our truth so loudly. We can sit down and listen as we all come out of the COVID cocoon.

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