Giving Ourselves a Break

I recently overheard one of my fellow congregants in Saratoga Springs complaining that with all the Priuses in the parking lot, we were creating smug pollution.

I mention this, because while by our very nature, we Unitarian Universalists generally avoid the “holier than thou” trap, we are terribly “good.” We are constantly fighting for justice. We support a plethora of charities. We recycle and invest in green technologies. And we are incredibly active in our personal lives. We are readers and writers. We travel to exciting places, and we revel in nature. We hike and bike and run and jump. We sing and play and dance and write. We have oodles of time set aside each day for our spiritual growth. I look out at you and see a group of very together people who certainly have no problems with keeping true to your diets, or meditating every day, or keeping up a regular exercise plan.

Whether it’s true or not, the stereotype can be intimidating. In my mind’s eye you’re all active and proactive and you are each the very model of a modern UU congregant.

It’s very easy to get intimidated and overwhelmed by such an existential burden; but we all do it. We get so caught up in being good, we are so surrounded by good, and we forget to give ourselves a break when we are not as good as we think we should be.

And I gotta tell ya: I don’t think I can handle the pressure. So… I’ve joined a new church. (Bear with me… because I think you might want to join me.)

Today, I declare my membership in the Church of 80% Sincerity.

I was first introduced to the Church of 80% Sincerity by Anne Lamott, in her book, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith. She talks about meeting founder David Roche when he spoke at her church. She found she was overwhelmed not only by the depth of his facial deformity – caused by the horrible after-effects of a 1950s radiation treatment for a tumor – but also by the grace of his presence. She describes watching him perform:

There he is, standing in front of a crowd, and everyone can see that just about the worse thing that could happen to a person physically has happened to him. Yet he’s enjoying himself immensely, talking about the ten seconds of grace he felt here, the ten seconds of love he felt there, how those moments filled him and how he makes them last a little longer. Everyone watching gets happy because he’s secretly giving instruction on how this could happen for them, too, this militant self-acceptance. He lost the great big outward thing, the good-looking package, and the real parts endured. They shine through like crazy, the brilliant mind and humor, the depth of generosity, the intense blue eyes, those beautiful hands.

In 2008, Roche published his book entitled The Church of 80% Sincerity. It is his story of coming to grips with his disability, balancing the very normal and human wants, needs, desires, and talents, and how he now shares them with the world. But it is also the story of all of us – how we can all come to grips with the foibles of humanity, and how we can make changes from a more forgiving perspective. I was quite taken by both Roche’s story and some of the ideas he shared – they seemed somehow different, or certainly phrased differently than I’d heard before.  I’d like to share with you some of these ideas – the tenets of this church:

In the Church of 80% Sincerity, we think 80% sincerity is as good as it gets. According to Roche, “you can be 80% sincere 100% of the time, or 100% sincere 80% of the time. It’s in that 20% area where you get some slack and you can be yourself.” Roche explains that “it’s the first postmodern church. We have no ideals. We try to accept people as they are. We adjust our beliefs and practices to conform to the reality of being human.”

It’s awfully comforting to know that it’s okay to be 80% helpful and 20% resentful. To be 80% compassionate and 20% selfish. To be 80% industrious and 20% lazy.

And here’s the interesting part: I have found that once you have permission to be human 20% of the time, it’s a lot easier to be 80% helpful and compassionate and industrious. Sometimes you wind up being 85, 90, even 95% helpful and compassionate and industrious.

In the Church of 80% Sincerity, we don’t believe in miracles. Or, I should say, we don’t expect big water-into-wine, walking-on-water, burning-bush kinds of miracles. Instead, we believe in mini-miracles: they’re bite-sized, microwavable, one-minute miracles. They’re the little things, like picking the first tomato off the vine, or running into someone you haven’t seen in ages, or finding a long-lost CD, or hearing exactly the right sermon you’ve needed to hear on a Sunday morning.

You could call these mini-miracles synchronicity, or coincidence, or karma, or good fortune. In the Church of 80% Sincerity, we prefer to call them “miracles built of grace.” As we open to grace, we are open to the mini-miracles that touch our lives.

Of course, we aren’t always open to grace, and sometimes we miss the mini-miracle. We get to the garden too late, we run into the one person we DON’T want to see, we have to repurchase the long-lost CD, we miss the message of the sermon we’re listening to because we’re distracted by a worrisome thought. But that’s okay. If we’re open 80% of the time – or if we’re 80% attuned 100% of the time, we’ll catch most of them.

It’s interesting that today’s children’s message was about not only picking the big rock but the gravel and sand too. In the Church of 80% sincerity, we recognize that it’s easy to notice the big miracles –the big rocks of our lives. But the mini-miracles are in the gravel. I can get a big moment of awakening during a 20-minute meditation. But the one that surprises me and makes me a little humble are those big moments of awakening when I just stopped for a second to behold a flower or hear a melody or witness an act of kindness.

In the Church of 80% Sincerity, we are governed by the Principle of Delayed Understanding. This principle, according to Roche, “states that you can not understand what is going on while it is going on.” In other words, consciousness lags behind reality. How many times have you resolved issues from childhood in your 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s? How often do you get the lesson of a bad relationship years after it happened? How often does the message of a book hit you long after you have read it? That’s the principle of delayed understanding. It takes time to let down our walls, to remove the barriers that keep us from understanding. And that’s okay. We need to be in the moment when things are happening, not constantly analyzing it and putting it into perspective. Doing that removes us from the immediate – removes us from ‘living in the now’.

This is pretty handy – it makes one of my perennial resolutions, to be more aware, a lot easier to master. I can be in the moment without having to process the moment. I may not ever become permanently awakened, but maybe now I can minimize the length of time it takes for me to catch on.

In the Church of 80% Sincerity, we lay on hands. We believe that touch connects us, especially when we are searching for the right thing to say. Sure, about 80% of the time you will find the right words of support or love to be enough of a comfort. But in that other 20% of the time, a hug or a pat on the arm or a brief caress of a cheek will speak volumes.

More thorough touch – whether massage and body work or lovemaking – offers a deeper comfort and connection, which is pretty wonderful, and healing. Studies at the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami have found both emotional and medical improvements with this kind of increased touch.

As an adherent of the Church of 80% Sincerity, I make a point to touch as much as possible. My sister and I are sure to hug at least once a day, and my friends all know that I like to touch an arm or hug or simply be close. Even so, I have had times when I’ve been alone and felt ‘body hungry’. When I am in a relationship, I ‘assault’ my partner with a whole body, head-to-toe, full-contact snuggle. With my boyfriend living in another state, I have to hold those thoughts (it’s hard to go for full-contact snuggling on Skype) and go for the more socially appropriate version of visiting my massage therapist. This more extensive touch actually allows me to let go of a bit of the self-judgment and anxiety I feel – enough so that I feel I can be 80% sincere again.

In the Church of 80% Sincerity, we understand that the “basic motivating factor for human beings is not self-preservation, or sex, or love. It is the desire to not be embarrassed.” When we speak out about our thoughts or feelings, when we do something we’re not entirely comfortable with, we risk being exposed for the inarticulate, incompetent amateurs we’re positively certain we really are. We can’t hide behind the mask anymore. We’ve put ourselves out there, exposed for the world to see.

But in the Church of 80% Sincerity, we also know that when we do go out of our comfort zone, there’s a good chance – 80% – that people will not see us as inarticulate, incompetent amateurs, but rather as well-spoken, skilled professionals. Sure, there’s a 20% chance someone will think you’re an idiot. But there’s an 80% chance that person won’t say a word – for fear of embarrassment.

This is a big one for me: for whatever reason I’ve yet to understand – due of course to the Principle of Delayed Understanding – I live in fear of being found out. I fear people will figure out I’m not as strong or smart or efficient or together as they seem to think I am. Surely someone is going to figure out I’m completely out of my league.

I remember the first time I stood up in front of an adult ed English class I was hired to teach. I had spent weeks preparing materials, but I was absolutely petrified that I’d begin my first lesson and the students would snicker and scoff. With a deep breath, I began my lesson – on the use of commas – and I started by putting rules and examples on the board. When I turned around, my 20 adult students were furiously writing notes, reading the board, learning. They believed what I taught to be true (good thing I know comma rules by heart!). They looked to me as an expert, and they opened themselves to learning. Perhaps one or two of them were less enthusiastic, but I’d like to chalk that up to a general revulsion for grammar rather than a lack of confidence in me.

When I allow the fear of being exposed to take over, I become paralyzed, almost panicky. I become certain that one misstep will reveal my utter failure, the mask will slip off, and the façade of competence will get stripped away. But with an understanding that 80% sincerity is enough, I realize there’s a pretty good chance that I’m not faking it after all. What a relief.

“In the Church of 80% Sincerity, we believe in unconditional love. But we realize that it has a shelf life of about five to ten seconds.” This is pretty practical. Because we know that 20% of the time we might be less compassionate or less loving, we can allow ourselves to love in spurts. “Darling, I will love you until the end of dinner.” Or “I will love humankind until I turn on the 6 o’clock news.” Not that you don’t love them after dinner or after the newscast starts, but you can manage the absolute commitment that unconditional love takes, in manageable chunks.

The key, however, to unconditional love in the Church of 80% Sincerity, is being open to accepting love without conditions. This is my other big stumbling point – I can love unconditionally, but how can people love me back? I’m flawed. I’m a mess. I’m too much work. I’ve got bad habits and a strange sense of humor and I sometimes snore. Being open to letting love in – that’s the work. And at that, I’m lucky to be at 80% sincere.

Fortunately, in the Church of 80% Sincerity, we also believe in self-kindness. We know it takes years to learn all the hard stuff, so while we’re waiting, “we learn to be friends with ourselves and grow into and through our perceived flaws.” There are any number of things I don’t necessarily like about myself – although I suppose I put up with a lot of things that would drive other people crazy. But I am beginning to see that those things aren’t necessarily flaws but rather the 20% that lets me cut myself a break.

Adhering to the tenets of the Church of 80% Sincerity isn’t easy; it requires 100% commitment to good intentions – to being focused on tasks, to being aware of the workings of grace, to being always open to unconditional love, to being alert to the opportunities life presents. And yes, about 80% of the time we’ll get it right, which really isn’t bad. I believe I won’t mind dying with a solid B on my transcript.

Thanks to the Church of 80% Sincerity, I have learned to dispel some of the smug pollution that keeps me down. It’s okay that I meditate for four days and then don’t do it on the fifth. I can eat well all week and have a scoop of ice cream after dinner one evening and not have jeopardized the entire diet. I can walk on sunny days and skip rainy ones. I can be open to the possibilities of the universe most days and be a self-absorbed sloth on occasion. And more importantly, I can forgive myself for most things on most days. I still have some waves of guilt, but it doesn’t mean I’m not still mostly a good person. I can think ill of someone briefly – it doesn’t mean I’m always bitter and cynical. And – because I’m no longer paralyzed by fear, I have permission to take more chances.

Most of all, I can look upon you and know that you all – WE all – are good, and proactive, and attentive, and well-intentioned most of the time, and that maybe I DO fit in. Maybe, with that squidgy 20%, I too am the very model of a modern UU congregant.

Now I’d like to end my talk today with a helpful hint about spiritual practice.  In the Church of 80% Sincerity, you definitely don’t have to look good, but you are supposed to meditate. And here’s how Dave Roche says to do it:

Sit quietly with your eyes closed and follow your breath in and out of your body, gently watching your mind. Your mantra should go like this: “Why am I doing this? This is such a waste! Hasn’t it been three minutes yet? My butt itches…” And if you stick to it, from time to time calmness and peace of mind will intrude. After some practice with this basic mediation, you will be able to graduate to panic meditations, and then sex fantasy meditations. And meditations on what to do when you win the lottery. I invite you to use these methods when you meditate. And feel free to scratch.

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