Shifting the Narrative

Back in the mid 1980s, I moved to North Carolina. Now if you’ve ever lived in North Carolina, you know that the most important question is not “what’s your name” or “what do you do for a living” – it’s “What college basketball team do you support?” Because my friends were graduates of NC State University, I became an NC State fan too. I learned the game, and all the nuances of college hoops in the Atlantic Coast Conference. By the spring of 1987, I had been fully indoctrinated and was as excited about the upcoming conference tournament as my friends.

The tourney, held over three days in early March, was reason to gather at Lisa’s townhouse for watching, cheering, and of course eating and drinking. The weather was gorgeous – the first days warm enough to have the doors and windows open – and so we sat in Lisa’s living room, the front door wide open, along with every other townhouse in the complex, most of whom were also watching the ACC tournament Lisa’s big black cat, Bear, delighted in the easy access in and out, and in, and out – and Lisa was thrilled she didn’t have to get up every five minutes for her fickle feline.

And then it happened. Bear ran in, through the living room, past the tv, with something big… and pink…in his mouth.

We all blinked…’what was that?” “It was Bear…” “He went to the kitchen…” “But what was that?” “I think…” “was it a ham?” Lisa got up and looked, and sure enough, Bear had …let’s say, procured… a small boneless ham and had deposited it in his food dish…and had begun eating off it.

The game forgotten, we wondered – where did he get a ham? Whose was it? Someone went outside and shouted “did someone lose a ham?” but no one responded. Was it thrown away and Bear got it out of the trash? Did it fall on the floor or on the ground? Was he so bold as to go into someone else’s house, get on the counter, and outright steal the ham from under someone’s nose?

We laughed – and remarked that this is one story we’d never forget – thirty years later, I am still telling this story.

And I think about the person whose ham it was. Did they throw it away? Did they see Bear and give up hope? Did they not notice but then realize the ham was gone and have lived 30 years with the mystery of the ham? What is the story they tell? Mine is only half the story. But how did it actually start? I will never know what happened to allow Bear to bring a ham into Lisa’s house – on the other side of the story, I am not even a character, no less one of the key players.

Now of course, this is a funny, lighthearted tale. But it points to something important: our narratives aren’t the only way to see something. Sometimes, like in Mohja Khaf’s poem, someone’s actions may seem strange to us, because we don’t know what motivates them. Sometimes, we hold onto our perspectives and ignore the facts. And sometimes, we further a narrative that can be damaging, whether we realize this is our narrative or not.

Let’s take, for example, misogyny – a dislike of, contempt for, or ingrained prejudice against women. I am sure we can all think of blatant examples of misogyny, from the ongoing struggle for reproductive rights as states try to take away access in order to ‘protect’ women, to the vitriol thrown at the very idea that there might be female leads in action movies, to the justice system’s constant blame-the-victim attitude in rape cases, to catcalling and everyday harassment women face.

But those are indeed big stories, and most of us – no matter how we identify our gender – know we aren’t those people.

And yet, the narrative of this culture still creates glass ceilings for women in the workplace – whether that be corporate, political, or even religious – look at how few women there are as the heads of corporations, in high political offices, or acting as senior ministers of large churches (and yes, it’s an issue even for Unitarian Universalists; despite our having more women than men in ministry, nearly every large church is led by a white man. And while every UUA presidential race has featured a strong, competent woman on the ballot since 1985, this is the first year we will have a woman present in the UUA, because the search committee made a point of nominating all women; and how sad is that that they felt they had to in order for a woman to have a chance. In 2016.).

The narrative of this culture says men know more than women and thus it’s permissible to interrupt a woman, to “mansplain”, to take credit or “lend weight” to a woman’s idea. Just this past week, we learned that this was happening in the White House too, and so the women in the White House devised a technique to make such interruptions less frequent, so that they get the time and space to voice their concerns. According to a former White House staffer speaking to the Washington Post, women used a simple rhetorical technique called “amplification”. Each time a woman made a valid point, another woman would second her opinion and repeat it, giving credit to the originator, thus making it difficult to sideline or shift the credit.

The narrative of this culture says men are more trustworthy than women, that powerful women are scary and hard and cold, that ambition looks bad on a woman. Last week, a powerful woman spoke up about this on the popular blog Humans of New York. The blog typically showcases average people met on the streets of the city – a great photo plus a paragraph or two, in their own words, about their own stories. These have been wonderful and uplifting – but two posts last week from this powerful woman were striking.

These two were a pair of photos taken of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In one, she talked a bit about sitting for the law school admissions test at Harvard in 1969. She said “a group of men began to yell things like: ‘You don’t need to be here.’ And ‘There’s plenty else you can do.’ It turned into a real ‘pile on.’” She said that she had to not react and put her head down in order to focus. She noted that “I know that I can be perceived as aloof or cold or unemotional. But I had to learn as a young woman to control my emotions.”

Later, she talked about how natural her husband and her former boss appear to be, saying

It’s not something they just dial in. They work and the practice… And that can be more difficult for a woman. Because who are your models? If you want to run for the Senate, or run for the Presidency, most of your role models are going to be men. And what works for them won’t work for you. Women are seen through a different lens. … I’ll go to these events and there will be men speaking before me, and they’ll be pounding the message, and screaming … And people will love it. And I want to do the same thing. … But I’ve learned that I can’t be quite so passionate in my presentation. I love to wave my arms, but apparently that’s a little bit scary to people. And I can’t yell too much. It comes across as ‘too loud’ or ‘too shrill’ or ‘too this’ or ‘too that.’ Which is funny, because I’m always convinced that the people in the front row are loving it.”

And that’s someone who has education, access, and fame. Struggling to be seen as natural and authentic, struggling to be taken seriously, struggling to claim space to excel that should be open to all, without doubt or accusation.

Because it’s not just about her. The narrative of this culture is hard on all women. Singer-songwriter Reggie Harris wrote this on his personal Facebook page recently:

Reading some of the comments from people who watched the “presidential forum with Matt Lauer,” I was struck by the number of women who wrote in expressing views that were widely represented by this statement:

“Watching the address last night I found myself taken back by her tone. About 10 minutes in I realized I was conditioned to feel that way. If a man had the same tone I would have thought nothing of it. We need to do better.”

Part of what makes the assault on Hillary Clinton so effective … is that, deep down as a nation, we really do not respect women. We say we respect them as mothers, but we don’t support them with childcare or healthcare or family leave. Men still make more for the same or lesser jobs, and people rant about boycotting the NFL because one player didn’t stand for the national anthem and yet will tolerate hundreds of players who have domestically abused and/or raped women without a word.

Rampant, underlying narratives that tell a damaging story that we don’t even realize we’re buying into. And that’s just misogyny. I won’t even talk about racism, or homophobia and transphobia, or xenophobia today – each one also filled with rampant, underlying narratives that tell a damaging story that we don’t even realize we’re buying into.

Now this sermon isn’t just about misogyny, although if that’s all I talked about, that would be okay too – misogyny, like racism and other oppressions are worth a lot of sermons and examination and hard work.

But in talking about shifting the narrative, we have to look at not only big ideas in our culture. We also need to examine the narratives we have about ourselves, our families, and our religious community – narratives that sometimes give us comfort, but sometimes can be damaging or at the very least difficult to overcome, if we don’t examine them.

Over the past year, I’ve sat down with most of you – many more than once. We’ve talked about your hopes and dreams. We’ve talked about the saving message of this faith, and your longing for community. We’ve talked about building and rebuilding – not just a structure, but growing your own community so that First Universalist can serve the greater world. I know your stories, your pains and sorrows, your joys and accomplishments. We have cried and celebrated together, and I stand here honoring those connections.

And yet, the narrative I hear over and over is that ‘we are dying” and “we’re too small” and “we’re too old” and “we love conflict” and “we always fight.” That is the underlying narrative of this place – a narrative that will keep you small and fearful and fighting amongst each other instead of growing and being courageous and fighting for justice and helping those who are desperate for our saving message. This narrative is in the water, just as misogyny and racism are in the American cultural waters.

But how do we shift the narrative? What is the other side of the story, if this isn’t our story?

The first step is to admit the narrative isn’t complete, or isn’t working. In my silly story about Bear and the ham, what doesn’t work is that the narrative isn’t complete. In bigger stories about misogyny, what we say about women’s behavior and worth clearly causes distress, abuse, and in some cases, fatalities. Racism and xenophobia are narratives that work against freedom, justice, and dignity. In our own lives, a narrative that we’ll never be as good as someone else dooms us to apathy. We have to admit that this narrative just isn’t working.

The second step is to check our assumptions – what are your assumptions about the facts of a situation? What is it doing to our emotions – does a woman speaking passionately in a meeting make you uncomfortable? Does a challenge to the seven deadly words of the church – but we’ve always done it this way – make you anxious or angry? Do you assume the worst of someone’s motives or actions because we don’t trust them? What role does a stereotype play in your assessment of what’s going on? And are we relying on myths and “conventional” wisdom, or are we looking at the actual facts and consulting reliable sources?

The third step is to decentralize. What do I mean by this? It takes asking “who am I in the story? What is the other side of the story? Am I complicit in telling a false or damaging story?” So many times we hold on to a narrative because we are so invested in our own view point – but remember, we are only ever the main character of our own story; for everyone else, including a spouse or parent or child, we are supporting players. And by and large, we’re lucky if we’re glorified extras. And if it’s not our story, we need to sit down and listen to the people whose story it is – whether it is a woman who has been raped, or a black man who has been shot by a police officer, or an Iman whose Islamic center was burned down by an arsonist, or a fellow congregant who feels slighted.

The fourth step is to retell and rebuild – if that isn’t the narrative, what can the new narrative be? Women are worthy of being heard, so I will listen and ask others to listen. People of faith have different ways of honoring their traditions, so I won’t denigrate them and ask others not to. The community I love and find meaning in could be stronger and bigger and kinder, so I will look toward growth and encourage more gentleness, respect, and honest communication. I may not be as good as someone else is at this thing, but I’m good at something else and will celebrate it. Nothing is inevitable, so I will be open to possibility.

Like I said, this stuff isn’t easy. But it’s important that we always examine the stories we are living into, the ways we express those narratives, the language and behaviors that support or betray our narratives. It takes practice – it takes compassion for ourselves and each other and for those we don’t know or only know from afar.

This work is a key part of what we’ll be doing in our religious explorations and programs this year. We are, as you know, taking up a Conversation with World Religions – each month, we will put a world religion in conversation with our own. This means we’ll be looking at some of their narratives – sacred texts and stories, rituals and traditions, theologies and beliefs. But we can’t be at the center of those narratives, because they aren’t ours. Instead, we will take time to look at our own assumptions – the stereotypes and narratives we have about those religions and reexamine them so that we can both understand the wisdom they offer the world and understand how we might shift our own narratives in the search for truth and meaning and the work toward our goal of world community.

And ultimately, we will be stronger ourselves – ready to fight for justice and equity, ready to stand for the inherent worth and dignity of every person both in our closest circles and throughout the world.

May it be so.

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