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A meditation by Rev. James Ishmael Ford delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, Sept 25, 2011

A Consideration of Human Liberation

I grow up by internalizing some of the stories that society provides: they create me and I reinforce them by acting in ways that validate them. Stories teach me what it means to be a boy or girl, father or son, Caucasian or (or Black or) Hispanic, American or Chinese, Christian or Buddhist, the importance (or not) of school and church, the importance (rarely not) of money, including the best ways to get it and spend it.

We accept the world we story together as ‘the way things are.’ Yet the stories we take for granted are not the only ones possible or the best possible, a discomforting realization easier to evade when society is homogeneous and we are not exposed to different lifestyles, worldviews, and cultural values – to alternative stories about the world and how to live in it.

—David Loy, The World is Made of Stories

I’m pretty sure most here know how among other things, I’m a writer. I love to write. Or, perhaps most accurately I love to have written. I cannot express the pleasure of holding a book, the work of my mind and heart in my hands. So far, everything has been non-fiction, after co-editing one volume on Unitarian Universalist thought at the end of the twentieth century, its been all about Zen, its history and its practices. No short stories or novels.

Well, this summer that has just passed I sent off the final edits for my next book. And, I’ve been thinking about what follows. Of course, I guess, of course, I have an idea for another Zen book. And I’m sure I’ll get around to it. But, I’ve been finding my imagination increasingly drawn to the idea of trying my hand at a novel, and, specifically, to writing a science fiction novel.

I’ve got it in my head I might be able to tell more truth in a novel than I’ve been able to so far in my non-fiction. Okay, it also doesn’t hurt that science fiction is generally forgiving of mediocre writing. Some years ago I wrote a chapter for a mystery novel, which ended up at the bottom of a drawer somewhere. Two or three years later, I stumbled on it and read it. That’s when I realized my future as a writer probably was more with non-fiction. Still, whatever comes of it, right now I find the plot for a novel and the world in which it plays out is what I’m thinking about, when I’m thinking about writing.

The idea for this story belongs to the sub-genre called dystopian fiction, where the story takes place against the backdrop of a world where things have gone seriously wrong. Here, as I think about this story, it takes place in a world destroyed by libertarian excesses. Inspired by Dante who put just about everyone who ever offended him in one or another of the circles of hell, in my world the libertarians win the day, our infrastructure is dismantled, a power vacuum is created, and various corporations step quickly into that space. Now with armies of their own, the corporations, of course, almost immediately slip into conflict. The beginning of the end, or the beginning of the various things that create the world where I want my story to happen, comes when Pepsi Cola nukes Coke’s home city, Atlanta.

Of course that’s background. What I want to write about is the human heart. How we live. How we create our lives. And how we can change. All storylines are about change, all plots, as it were, are about movement. As one commentator once said, even Proust’s Remembrance of Things Pasthas movement, as hard as it might be to discern.

Stories. I love stories. Actually it seems we all love stories. I recall once getting advice on writing sermons from a dear friend who is a UU. She said in writing sermons I should tell stories. “We, in your congregation, we love stories.” And then, almost as an afterthought, but not quite, she added, “And jokes. We like stories and jokes.” You know, I don’t think she’s far off. I know when I’m sitting in the pews I may or may not get the point of the sermon, if there is one. That’s not always so clear. But, I pretty much always remember the stories. And sometimes, I even recall the jokes. When they’re there.

Today I want to focus on the matter of stories. One can argue, and some have, quite forcefully, that the basic building blocks of our human cognition are metaphors. Starting with standing and walking and eating and excreting and our various human relationships, subtle and gross, we understand one thing through another. This is like that, or even this is that. And, I’d add, as metaphors are also the building blocks of stories, strung together into a narrative; it is fair to say we understand our lives through and as stories. And, and, we’re doing a lot of the writing of those stories we live in.

In short, we’re all writers. We all are telling stories, whether we like to think of them as fiction or non-fiction, we constantly are telling stories.

Now, Philip K. Dick once dryly observed, “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” And, absolutely, I’m not calling for denial of what happens to us. Earthquakes happens whatever story we tell. Hurricanes happens whatever story we tell. Birth, sickness, old age and death happens whatever story we tell. But, I am suggesting the meaning we find in what happens to us, comes to us in the stories we tell about what has happened from earthquake to cancer. And this is an important thing to notice.

David Loy, a writer I greatly admire, and who through his book The World is Made of Stories, largely inspired this sermon, observed how “stories are not abstractions from life but how we engage with it. We make stories and those stories make us human. We awaken into stories as we awaken into language, which is there before and after us.” Then he adds the most important thing, I believe. David suggests, “The question is not so much ‘What do I learn from stories?’ as ‘What stories do I want to live?”

What stories do I want to live? What stories do you want to live?

We live in stories as individuals and we live in stories as members of society. So, as Shaun McNiff wisely observes, “Our (American) culture generally lives the myth of the heroic and self-sufficient ego rather than the collaborative community. We unconsciously act out the heroic story in our dealings with the world by conquering adversaries, actualizing personal potential, and practicing self-reliance.” This is not a story without value. But, the larger majority of us are also increasingly becoming victims to its excesses. Seeing this life we share as a story, or if you prefer, a big story, or a meta-story opens doors to re-mything, re-imagining, re-storying, if you will, our shared lives.

Understanding how we understand through and as story, allows us freedoms we would otherwise not have. Understanding stories gives us a key to life, to our lives.

In these few minutes we have together, let’s keep it more intimate, more focused on how you and I can engage our own lives as stories. Our invitation is to look at them, see how valuable they can be, and how damaging, and then to think about what we can do with that knowledge. Doing this will help us later as we find ourselves of necessity engaging the big stories, the meta-stories of our lives. And, who knows, this exercise might actually help us living our own lives here and now.

It is all about freedom, for us in society and for us as individuals. David Loy offers how “one meaning of freedom is the opportunity to act out the story I identify with. Another freedom is the ability to change stories and my role within them. I move from scripted character to co-author of my own life. A third type of freedom results from understanding how stories construct and constrict my possibilities.”

Perhaps a story can help here. Once there was a couple who lived together more happily than not for twenty years. Much too early the woman became ill with a terrible disease. As sometimes occurs the woman became obsessed with what would happen after she died. Not her afterlife, her husbands. I’ve been with too many people in hard times to really pass judgment on what it is that people think or feel. Life is too hard to harshly judge the vagaries of our human hearts.

Anyway, she asked her husband to not marry again. We don’t know if he was reluctant or not, but he agreed. She then went on to say, “If you break your promise I will return and haunt you and make your life a living hell.”

Not long later she died. A few years after that in a widow and widower’s support group he met a delightful woman. In addition to the shared sadness, they had many, many things in common. They began to do things together, movies, museums, evenings at WaterFire. Gradually they fell in love. At some point he asked her to marry him.

The night he proposed marriage, his late wife appeared. For a week she came back every night, reminding him of his promise. It was a terrible ghost, who knew everything about him, every thought that popped into his head, every feeling that raced through his body. The ghost told him everything he held secret, and seemed to have complete power over him. The ghost told him he had to break off his marriage plans or never get another night’s sleep.

Deeply frightened he went to an old friend, someone he knew to have wisdom about her, who knew the stories of the human heart. He told her this story, and wept. His friend listened, thought a little, and told him what to do.

That night he put a bowl of dried red beans on his bedside table. When the ghost appeared he told it “I’ll do whatever you ask. But on one condition.” He then reached into the bowl and grabbed a handful of the beans. “I’ll do as you ask, but only if you can tell me how many beans there are in my hand.”

The ghost vanished, and never reappeared.

Here’s a simple truth. We are co-authors of our lives, sharing creative credit with reality and everyone else, collaborating in establishing, if you’ll forgive a clunky term, our consensus reality. Perhaps we, like I often do, like to call these stories non-fiction. As I’ve said, non-fiction seems easier to write. But, however we name it, we’re writing, all the time. We’re telling stories all the time. And we’re living those stories we’ve written.

And, and this is so important, we all own an editor’s red pencil. We can move beyond the small spiteful delights of Pepsi nuking Coke or how I’ve been wounded by my past or how I’m not good enough, and into some genuinely more useful territory.

So, is your story you’re not good enough? Or, is your story that these idiots are keeping you down? Can you tell your story? Do you know your plot? First, we need to see these stories. We find them in any number of ways. Meditation, disciplines of presence are golden for this. But, also practices like our Chalice Circles, or journaling all come to mind. A good therapist.

Once we have that sense of the story we’re caught up in, then what? Well, then bring your editor’s red pencil to the matter? How much of these stories are we stuck with, just the way things are, and how much can a delete or a new paragraph change what is into something new and maybe a bit healthier, for you, and for the world, the great web of stories that we all share? That’s the editor’s art.

So, is this plausible? If so, then what next?

Stories. I love stories. Of course that reality which exists even when we cease to believe in it, is also a story. But, this story, holding our lives a little more lightly, a little more with options, creates opportunities. Seeing ourselves as holding that red pencil opens possibilities.

And, so, that burning question at the heart of it all.

What stories do you want to live? What stories do you really want to live?