Express Your Self

I can still remember seeing it for the first time. I was five years old or so. I beheld the beauty of a work of art—the background set in all black, the image of a beautiful, strong, young woman in the foreground, and the iconic garment she wore that would influence fashion in her era for years. Out from the neckline, ragged and gray, she peers out at me, longing for something, beckoning for the onlooker to notice her. And the lettering, scrawled in blue and white, I will never forget what it said: “Flashdance.”

Oh yes, the original vinyl LP of the motion picture soundtrack of Flashdance was a popular album in my house. We listened to it a lot. For those of you who don’t know the album, it’s a wonderful collection of energetic dance music from the early 1980s. And the movie, though perhaps a bit tied to its time, is also a good story about a young woman working to navigate male dominated spaces, including a steel mill and a bar featuring women performing choreographed dances in minimal dress, all to achieve her dream of being a professional dancer in a dance company.

Now, I am sure that my parents would like me to report that I did not see the movie Flashdance at the tender age of five years old. I only had access to the soundtrack. It was only later when I learned that many of the songs on the soundtrack, were the very songs that women were using to choreograph their dances on stage for their routines.

My poor parents.

Because what I also remember at five years old is creating my own, totally innocent, yet fully choreographed, dance routines to “What a Feelin,’” the Irene Cara hit from the soundtrack. Now, let’s be clear here. I don’t mean that I was bopping around the house to the music. No, no. I mean I had fully choreographed dance routines.

Now, I think we can all agree, that there are times in every person’s life, when what might be adorable or delightful in the privacy and the safety of our home with our families, might not be as well received, say, on the playground. I’m sorry to report that I did not get my opportunity to try out the dance routine at recess in kindergarten for all to see. Because that would be a great story.

But there are times when people do just that. They take what seems fun and interesting to themselves and they put it on display. They share it with their friends or their peers.

The mother of a young boy captured some of the risks we take when we do this in a letter to an advice columnist recently.

The mother writes:

I wonder how to help my children embrace their own likes and dislikes without succumbing to pressures from peers.

I am a big advocate for letting them express themselves, as long as it is in a safe and thoughtful way. To give an example, I was painting my daughter’s nails and my 7-year-old son wanted to join in on the experience. It doesn’t bother me that he has his nails painted, but I am not blind to how other kids may react. I explained to him that I love that he wants to express himself this way but that he may experience a different reaction when he goes to school. He was seemingly unfazed by this, so we compromised and did his pinkie nails. Sure enough, the next day he comes home upset and demands that we take the polish off.

How do we balance these types of situations knowing we can’t control the reactions of the people around us? I don’t want to compromise my acceptance of how he wants to present himself, but it also seems cruel to put him in scenarios that I know can end unfavorably.[1]

This caring, thoughtful mother and her child are experiencing the challenge of negotiating spaces where we try to express who we are, where we try to express ourselves.

We each might have handled this situation differently. I suspect that many of us have similar situations as parents or loved ones of young people we could share. And I have a hunch that in a room with a whole lot of Unitarian Universalists, more than a few of us can identify with the experience of the young child, trying something new that seems fun and then getting some tough feedback.

In her response, the advice columnist Carolyn Hax shared some things for the mother to consider.

She writes:

You already did what I would have advised, so thank you for saving me all that typing. Our approach with our kids was (is) to say we had no problem ourselves with nail-painting or whatever else, but we warned them more bluntly: Instead of, “You may experience a different reaction in school,” we say outright they might get picked on for it. And then we ask specifically: “Are you ready to take that on? If so, then we’ll support you.” It’s informed consent for the playground set.

Your version and mine, tomayto-tomahto, but kids can be so literal that I prefer explicit statements of risk.

We diverge on one point, though, and it’s an important one to wrestle with. I don’t think self-expression in general can be entirely “safe.” The risk is built into the whole concept: To express ourselves is to take who we are inside and to put it on the outside for public consumption. The very definition of vulnerability, no?

There are of course huge payoffs for allowing ourselves to be vulnerable: Intimacy, in a word, since you can’t achieve it being insincere or walled off. But we can’t control even how carefully chosen audiences will respond.[2]

We can’t control even how carefully chosen audiences will respond. Damn, that’s a scary idea, right? That we might express our inner self, that we might carry a part of ourselves we keep on the inside on the outside for a time, hoping to connect to others, and then we will not be able to control how people will respond.

As Carolyn Hax describes it, that is the act of becoming vulnerable. Dancing our heart out for our families in our living room is wonderful. It’s the first step toward real intimacy. It’s self-expression. Wearing the nail polish to school, taking a piece of self-expression from an entirely safe place to an unknown place, that’s the second step toward intimacy: vulnerability. Sharing a part of yourself in ways, in spaces, in situations where you don’t know how those you share with will respond can be terrifying, can be exhilarating, can be life-altering. Because the response to another’s vulnerability, their sharing of themselves, their opening of a part of themselves, that response is the birthplace of true intimacy. The experience of this mother, the advice she receives in response to her child’s self-expression, is something that might resonate with us here in this community in many ways. At least I hope it does.

First, I think if any person chose to wear nail polish in this space, regardless of our perceptions of their gender, we would welcome and affirm their choice…assuming, of course, it’s a tasteful and flattering shade for their complexion. I’m kidding…sort of. Second, and more importantly, this mother’s experience resonates with us because our shared vision in this church is to be, and I quote our vision statement: “a self-sustaining, growing, vibrant, inclusive community serving as a beacon of religious freedom and expression.”[3]

Make-up aside, our identity as a community, how we see ourselves, indeed, our own self-expression is tied to this vision.

And there is a lot that is good about this vision. There are so many words in that statement that warm the heart of a Unitarian Universalist: vibrant, inclusive, community, freedom. It’s got it all. And also in this vision is a word very common in Unitarian Universalist settings: beacon. You do not have to look very far in the UU world to find the word beacon. One of the two Unitarian Universalist publishing houses is named Beacon Press. For years and years, the headquarters of the Unitarian Universalist Association was where? That’s right, 25 Beacon Street. And take my word for it, a tour through the vision statements for UU churches everywhere will include a high number of statements that also include the hope to be a beacon. Have no fear, our vision statement stands in a long and proud tradition of beacon keepers.

And one of the most common images for a beacon is what? That’s right, a lighthouse. Now, I am going to invoke some privilege here as a person born in New England and familiar with lighthouses, to say this: a lighthouse is a terrible image for the kind of beacon we are talking about.

Think about it. What does a lighthouse do? In a dark and dangerous night at sea, it says, “No, don’t come here. There are rocks right here. Stay away.” Lighthouses mark spots of danger to avoid. Of course, they are vital in helping to navigate seas at night and to find eventual safety. I get that. But even applying that reasoning to a church, it would mean something like, “Well, this isn’t the place for you, but we’ll be so unwelcoming you’ll find somewhere safe real fast.”

I want to be clear. I’m not entirely taking issue with the word beacon. Mostly it’s the common image of a lighthouse. Now, I don’t want to get letters from the lighthouse lovers either. Lighthouses are wonderful. But I want to suggest a shift in our thinking about what a beacon really is. Because beacon means something else, something so needed, so rare, something so beautiful.

Beacon comes from Old English and sits stolidly in our vocabulary and our writing today. But its child from Modern English does so much more. It beckons to us. Beckon is all about action. When you beckon someone to come, you are actively calling them to you. You want them to come to you. You are inviting them to come to you. Listen to this: “We are a self-sustaining, growing, vibrant, inclusive community beckoning all who yearn for religious freedom and expression.” How does that sound? Yeah, that’s a little better.

But isn’t that when the really hard questions come? Once we beckon, once someone answers our call into our community, what happens then? Well, the answer isn’t really that far off from what our loving mother was told about her child. We strive to create a community that meets a person’s self-expression with our understanding and acceptance. And by this we build the intimacy that binds us together.

And if that was exactly what happened in UU churches every Sunday, without any issues or hiccups, then we could head out now and go get that coffee, but we know it’s not.

One of the brightest threads in the fabric we weave together as a faith tradition is the thread of individuality. Out of the powerful re-awakening of the Unitarian strand of our shared faith came names like Ralph Waldo Emerson. Many like to refer to Emerson as a Unitarian saint. And it’s no wonder. Trained as a Unitarian minister, and later becoming disenchanted with the ministry, he founded the Transcendentalist movement in Boston, which gave birth to some of the greatest names in American thought: Whitman, Thoreau, Dickenson, just to name a few. Emerson would go on to write essays like The Over-soul and Self-Reliance, and Emerson’s self-expression was met with widespread acceptance, making him an intimate soul companion to many of his time.

But we as Unitarian Universalists still really, really like to claim Emerson as one of our own. His commitment to “the self” and to being “yourself” still rings true to many. In Emerson’s essay Self-Reliance he remarks, “To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.”[4] This kind of reverence for our own individuality, for our self, carries a lot of power with it. And this kind of disposition against the rest of the world carries a lot of danger with it.

You don’t have to look very far to see how the expression of this gene we carry in our spiritual DNA has caused problems. There are voices intoning the call for self-reliance now, not with the meaning that one should fully realize themselves, or that someone should try nail polish or choreograph dances in their living room. No. Self-reliance is now a fiction used as an insult, a demoralizing and impossible standard applied to persons against whom the deck of life is stacked. And in particular as a cutting insult to anyone receiving public assistance. It sits now along calls from these same voices to “pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” And these calls do more than congratulate people who already had all they needed or could ever have wanted. These calls shame those to never had a chance in the first place in a society that does not provide even basic access to the structures that make the fiction of self-reliance or the idea of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps possible. And these are the same calls that were answered by this very church in adopting our 8th Principle and devoting itself to developing an anti-racist identity.

The misuse of the writings of one of our cherished Unitarians is something we must bear in mind when we do beckon all who are seeking religious freedom and expression. We can start by acknowledging that devotion to hyper individuality, the preoccupation, dare I say, the worship of the self, causes damage. We can start by saying that this is not all of who we are anymore, that we have learned and that we have grown. We can start by saying we need each other to survive. Because, being on our own, being isolated from others, feeling that nobody gets us, that is not something any of us need any reminding about.

We do not have to be a five year old in a living room long ago to know that the dance of life is so often the companion of words like these,

All alone I have cried

Silent tears full of pride

In a world made of steel

Made of stone

And that is why, for as long as the tears of loneliness stream the cheeks of the children of our human family, for as long as the fears of showing others who we are haunt the fair playgrounds we love so well, for as long as the shallow waters of cheap grace and the rocky cliffs of condemnation send the sea-worn, shipwrecked souls of our human family through those doors, we must be here, beckoning all who seek a place where expression is met with understanding, beckoning all for whom understanding must be answered with shared intimacy, beckoning all to this place where intimacy binds us together, interconnected in this existence we share.

Hyper-individuality. Solitary self-reliance. Mistaking the “me” for the “we.” Even in Emerson’s time, these have always fallen short of the greatest of human potential: to build the Beloved Community together. The place where, as Thomas Berry puts it, we are not a collection of objects, but a communion of subjects.

Mary Oliver promised us in our reading that:

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.

If you are used to being here, may the world beckon you to express your self even more fully, and know the intimacy that awaits.

If you are new to being here, may you feel the invitation to share your self with those gathered together.

And if you are here for your first time, may whatever called you and your self into this place delight in the questions you will find here.

For as we are guided by love to glimpse together a new horizon, journeying ever onward toward home, toward family, toward the Beloved Community, finding, knowing our place in the family of things, if we listen closely, we might just hear that tiny, still, small, five year old voice say, “Oh, what a feelin’.”

And may it ever be so. Amen.

 

[1] Carolyn Hax, “Encouraging self-expression (and risk assessment), The Washington Post, April 27, 2017.

[2] Ibid.

[3] First Unitarian of Honolulu Vision Statement.

[4] Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance” (1841).

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