May 29, 2016 Our Country Needs a Retreat

By Art McDonald

Riding around the other day in between meetings, I was listening, as I often to WGBH, Jim and Margery from 11-2pm. They were talking the Presidential race and the latest polls and some of the latest bombastic comments from now presumptive nominee on the Republican side, Donald Trump, Hilary’s trouble with credibility and the low popularity of both Trump and Hilary and Bernie’s grandfatherly crankiness. Yikes; what a time, I thought! Then, as they always do, they took calls. A woman called and described herself as middle-class, suburban, educated, and a supporter of Donald Trump. They asked her why Trump. She responded because he will “shake things up” and that’s what we need. Ok, they replied, but don’t some of his comments about gays and Mexicans and Muslims and women bother you? No, she replied, I don’t really care what he says as long as he “shakes things up.” The system is broken and corrupted and we need change; he’ll bring change. But, they persisted, what do you think he will do policy-wise? When he is asked for specifics on foreign policy and military and taxes and health care, etc., he is vague, often repeating that he knows how to get things done, “believe me,” his most oft-repeated refrain. Nope, the caller responded, that doesn’t bother me, in fact, she went on, I don’t really follow politics and policy very much; I don’t really care whether there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq or not; it doesn’t interest me. I don’t read about any of that and have zero interest. I’m not a political activist.

I was a bit stunned; it made me think of Socrates’ famous statement while he was on trial: “The unexamined Life is not Worth Living.” He didn’t say it was a lesser life than the examined life but, rather, it was not worth living. “Why does he make such a strong, unequivocal statement,” asks author Joseph Gerzon? Because, Gerzon suggests:  “Socrates believed that the purpose of human life was personal and spiritual growth. We are unable to grow greater understanding of our true nature unless we take the time to examine and reflect upon our life…Examining our life reveals patterns of behavior. Deeper contemplation yields understanding of the subconscious programming, the powerful mental software that runs our life. Unless we become aware of these patterns, much of our life is unconscious repetition… (And) that’s why Socrates’ method of self-examination included an essential element that became known as “Socratic” dialogue. Dialoguing with a close friend, a spouse, a skilled psychotherapist or spiritual advisor helps reveal those blind spots we cannot see by ourselves.”


I wanted to stop the car, call Jim and Margery and ask for that person’s telephone number and find out if she’s ever read Plato’s telling of the words of Socrates, or, maybe simpler, ask if she might be willing to seriously examine what is being said in this political campaign by all candidates and thus make a truly informed decision in November. I wanted to encourage her to get more informed and consider the danger of merely “shaking things up,” already exhibited by the anger and violence that seems to be occurring more and more at political rallies, especially, it seems, Trump political rallies.


But in a sign of the times, I suppose, I read further on in Gerzon’s comments in which he concluded: “Our society discourages self-awareness with a weekly cycle of working and consuming that keeps us too busy to slow down for self-reflection. Consumer capitalism’s game plan prefers an unaware and vaguely dissatisfied populace that tries to fill the emptiness inside with shiny new products. It’s a radical act to stop and contemplate your life (!!!). And according to Socrates, it’s the only game that really matters.”


Our society and its people need a retreat I concluded!


And that’s just what 20 or 25 of us from Essex UU did last weekend, starting on Friday evening and continuing through late Saturday. Though there was plenty of activity and sharing, there was also quiet time, personal time, reflective time in which we were encouraged to “build our own theology,” or better, reflect upon our highest values and determine how we are doing trying to live them out.


We started Friday evening with a wonderful panel of presenters sharing their personal spiritual, or religious, or philosophical perspective; our own Kent Bowker told us about his scientific humanism; Gloucester’s Rick Blue shared his Buddhist life and practice; and ECCO’s executive director and a friend to many of us, Alexandra Pinieros-Shield, spoke of her progressive Christian spiritual journey and practice. It was rich and led to wonderful dialogue with the presenters and ourselves. On Saturday morning, thanks to our own Kim Thompkins, we began the day with yoga, then we spent the next nearly 10 hours meeting in the large group, smaller groups of 4/5, alone with enough break time to enjoy the brilliant Spring climate.

The major exercise we did together, which we then worked with the rest of the day, was to map out a personal timeline our each of our lives, from our birthdate to the date we expect to die (that proved challenging for many!). Along the way we plotted on the line important people, places, events, experiences, and how all of these influenced and shaped our beliefs, our actions, our lives. As Anngie and others can tell you, it was WORK! Then we came together and shared what we remembered and asked the question, so what do I believe and how am I living those beliefs, those values, out?! And, possibly, what corrections need I make?!


I’ve done this exercise, based on a UU curriculum, BUILD YOUR OWN THEOLOGY, written by retired minister and friend, Dick Gilbert, many times in my some 25 or so years in the UU movement. And I can tell you that each time I do it, I add new elements, people, places, events, experiences, and leave others out. Our journeys evolve and change and take twists and turns. First time I did the exercise in the late 1980s, I expected to die at age 64; that would have been 2011 for anyone who is interested. I’m on borrowed time! So, just like getting lost in the car with your GPS engaged, I’ve had to “recalculate!”


However, one personal experience I plotted on the timeline I’ve never had to alter; it has appeared each time I’ve done it and that is, as I reflect on this Memorial Day weekend, my time in the military in the U.S. Army in 1969/70. Many of you have heard bits and pieces of that experience over the years but what occurred to me while preparing today’s sermon was how that time, at age 22, was a turning point in my beginning to develop a serious examination of my life (but it wasn’t Socrates whom I turned to but rather a part of my religious upbringing I was never really exposed to – Gospel non-violence and its 20th century practitioners); what do I believe, what are my values, what am I doing and where is this all going. Being in the Army, preparing to possibly enter combat in the Vietnam War as a trained killer, I was forced to start examining my life, even though I had never read Plato’s writings on the words of Socrates. And that experience was the beginning or recalculating of my spiritual journey which, 3 years later, led me to a monastery and, eventually, a life in ministry, both Catholic and UU. I revisited that experience, once again, at our retreat at Notre Dame in Ipswich.


And as I ponder our country’s history on this Memorial Day weekend, what do we as a people believe, what are our U.S. values, how are we living them out, I am struck that President Obama is the first U.S. president to visit Hiroshima since the atomic bomb was dropped over 70 years ago. While he didn’t go to apologize for the act, a decision that has been debated and continues to be debated by historians and citizens alike, he did go to suggest this should never happen again. We must remember such events so that we don’t repeat certain ones, as the phrase suggests – “He/she who does not remember the past is condemned to repeat it,” wrote George Santayana, the American philosopher. And beyond Hiroshima up to the modern day there is much devastation for us to remember, many wars, most, if not all, all avoidable in these last 70 years, wars and actions we need to examine and reflect upon and determine how our actions did or did not follow from our highest values. That’s what it means to me to celebrate Memorial Day, the day we remember the fallen; the day we commit ourselves to making sure no more fall for reasons we can never be proud of. I want to say to that caller that whether or not there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq does matter greatly; we need to know that. Hundreds of thousands died because we didn’t care or were deceived, possibly victims of a pre-determined political decision.


I so loved our retreat time together last weekend; I am not alone. It gave those of us who had the opportunity time to examine our lives and the life of our church. And, somewhat akin to Socrates, current philosopher Simon Longstaff suggests that “…those who do not examine their lives fail to live a life that allows them to experience being fully human… (but) of course,” he goes on, “as Socrates demonstrated in his own life and death being fully human can be extremely challenging. In a world of abiding uncertainty and complexity one can recognize a certain attraction in not examining too much, for too long in life. Thus the allure of those who offer to provide clear answers, simple directions, precise instructions so that you may set aside examination and merely comply, or unthinkingly follow custom and practice – perhaps living a conventionally moral life rather than an examined ethical life. One can easily imagine how pleasant an unexamined life might be.  And it is for this reason that I think Socrates made his claim so uncompromising.”

I just think we need to “shake things up,” the caller suggested; doesn’t matter the consequences. We can clean up the mess later. I believe he’ll “make America great again!” Wonder what would Socrates say to that?

The best part of the retreat for me was the personal sharing in small groups, and in the larger whole. Not only did we share our beliefs and experiences, but we dreamed together how the church might make a difference in our community and beyond. Jenn Sauriol will type up the results and circulate them for all to see. Then we’ll ask all of us to keep adding to the dream. But we were only able to dream because we took the time to examine and pray and share together, to reflect on our beliefs and how to best live them out.


Our nation needs a retreat. It’s never appropriate to do partisan politics in the pulpit. It’s never appropriate for the minister to tell you how to vote – all he or she can do, should do, is reflect upon our best religious values, be they Buddhist or Christian or UU or humanist and share his best wisdom with you. We are each called to evaluate the process and vote for the candidate we feel will serve the country best. Nevertheless, we are living in worrisome times and the message that the radio caller is responding to is a message of hate and violence that is producing its intended purpose, thus, I believe, further dividing the American people in an already divisive time in our history. “Shaking things up” for its own sake is the furthest thing I can imagine from Socrates or Buddha or Jesus or Gandhi’s challenge to live an examined life. We still have 5 months to go in this current campaign to elect our next leader, ample time to step back, examine and reflect on our best values, ample time to work to bring out the best in our country. On this Memorial Day weekend, a time to mourn and honor those who have died in war, a time to commit ourselves to working for peace each day of our lives, I encourage us to retreat, to reflect, to meditate and pray that we will have the courage to live the examined life, the principled life, the life of hope, justice and love as faithful Universalist Unitarians wherever it takes us. Blessed be.