Reading – “Seeing People” by Brene Brown, from Daring Greatly
Last week, while getting my nails done, I watched in horror as the two women across from me talked on their phones the whole time, employing head nods, eyebrow raises, and finger-pointing to instruct the manicurists on things like nail length and polish choices. When I finally made a comment, one of the manicurists said in a whisper, ‘Most of them don’t think of us as people.’
Unfortunately I see these moments happening all the time these days. When we treat people as objects, we dehumanize them. We do something really terrible to their souls and to our own. Martin Buber wrote about the difference between an I-it relationship and an I-though relationship. An I-it relationship is basically what we create when we are in transactions with people whom we treat like objects – people who are simply there to serve us or complete a task. I-thou relationships are characterized by human connection and empathy. Buber wrote, ‘When two people relate to each other authentically and humanly, God is the electricity that surges between them.'”
Sermon – “Time to DTR”
I completed my requirement for clinical pastoral education – or CPE– at St Anthony North Hospital in Westminster, as a chaplain, with a group of 3 other women.
Two of these women were in their early twenties, and the other was in her sixties. Which meant I was often the bridge in our shared intergenerational learning.
CPE is an experience where you constantly draw from your life – that’s the point – you take the stories you are hearing in your ministry, and you put them in relationship with your own life story, and see what comes up. The idea is that you become more conscious of your past and how it could be a barrier or a help to good ministry.
This basic learning strategy meant that a lot of our time in CPE was spent with the four of us sharing stories about our lives. The youngest of our group was 23, which I confess I had some initial prejudices about.
I remember thinking – what life experiences will she have had that will be enough to really get the depths of life as it presents itself in a community hospital?
But, as we got to know each other, and I remembered my own self at 23, and just how intense that time can be – it is often the time where life’s biggest questions and transitions are all on the table….I realized there was plenty for me – and for all of us to learn from her.
For example, she was falling in love that summer. It was new, and long distance, and though had been just friends before, she was realizing something new was happening. But what, she wondered? What was their status? She told our group, I think it’s time to DTR.
The other younger member nodded – yep. Time to DTR.
My older colleague looked at me for translation, but I was just as clueless as she was.
So much for being the bridge.
Time to what? I asked.
Oh, DTR, you know – define the relationship?
And, we got it.
We had never heard the exact expression, but we knew precisely what she meant. The slang was new, but the concept – ancient. Getting to the point in a relationship where you need to clarify expectations of who you are to each other seems like a pretty timeless human practice. No bridge needed. DTR. I liked it.
With access to such a handy little acronym for the idea, I started to consider how we DTR not just in our romantic relationships, but in most of our human relationships.
At some point or another, we usually need to say explicitly who we are to each other, and who we hope to be. With friends, family members, and even employers.
Which brings me to the story behind this sermon.
Last June, church member Hugh Wallace took me to lunch to tell me his hopes for this sermon.
See, he had purchased it at the prior November’s service auction. It was the first time I had auctioned off a sermon, and I was excited. I like a challenge, and I like to believe that regardless of the topic, I can find within it something that intrigues me and that will be meaningful to the congregation.
I had heard the nightmare stories about auction sermons with obscure or incomprehensible topics – but I was undeterred. That is, until we started the conversation.
What I’ve been thinking about, Hugh said, is Edward Snowden.
Oh, God. Is there any figure more polarizing right now? Some feel strongly he’s a hero, others are sure he’s the devil himself. …I could not imagine how I would be able to offer a sermon on Edward Snowden that wouldn’t sow seeds of conflict and discontent.
Well it turns out, Hugh wasn’t actually interested in whether Snowden’s actions were laudable or deplorable – so it turned out my initial trepidation was unnecessary. What he cared about was the fact that Snowden was basically a temp – a contractor, without any real accountability or investment in the relationships within the organization. How did we get to the point in our global economy where we would trust a “temp” with such top level confidential information? Are we so keen on the cheapest fastest labor that we’ll just hire whomever, whatever, no accountability at all, no relationship, and just tell them to do the job, as long as they come cheap and without hassle? I mean, where is the moral foundation in that?
Hugh, I realized was wanting to DTR.
But not about a specific relationship, but about all of us.
Who are we to each other? All of us in this “global economy.” It sounds abstract – but it actually dictates the large majority of our lives.
Buying, selling, serving, receiving, producing, consuming. We spend most of our lives doing one or the other of these things, sometimes all of them, sometimes all at once.
So is this who we are? And what does that mean? So, here we go. Time to DTR.
Humanity. We need to talk.
I really need to know where this whole thing is going.
Because lately I’ve been feeling like we just aren’t on the same page.
And when I say lately, I mean, forever.
I’ve read our origin stories – a few different versions of them in fact, including the one told by Darwin, and in that one, as in many, the lesson seems to be: survival of the fittest. I need you because of the ways you can serve me. Feed me. Help me. And so I’ll help you, feed you, serve you. But only because of what you will do for me. Otherwise, it’s all competition, and I will try at all costs to win.
Yeah, I know, all my friends are saying this is a change, a new development in our relationship since capitalism and industrialism or the rise of advertising or technology or….. But I don’t think so. I’m pretty sure this is how it’s been from the beginning.
We’ve always been in an I-It relationship. I-Thou is an exception, not the rule. And our market today just reflects this human reality.
As theologian Rebecca Parker puts it, “Homo economicus – the economic human – of market capitalism – is self-interested, focused on immediate gratification of wants and needs, and unconcerned with what happens to others in the process of getting his needs met.”
Theologians and business people call this kind of relationship, transactional.
And dear humanity, this feels pretty accurate. Looking at how we act and how we move through the world, – this is our relationship, we are transactional. We are objects to each other. We use each other to get what we need. Not judging, just defining. DTR.
This definition of our relationship was often the source of my heartbreak when I worked as the director of a large corporation.
I would hire someone new, thinking they were going to be a real partner, really invested in the good of the whole, but ultimately they would reveal themselves as primarily invested in what was good for them, their individual self.
Eventually I started to give in: this was the deal. We – the employers – just needed the job done. And employees just wanted the paycheck. Fastest typer, least errors, most willing to stay late and come in early, creative and collaborative- sure, but teamwork was simply a means to an end. And those ends were paycheck, profit, promotion. You get the idea.
We were a fast-growing company. I was the first employee, hired to start and grow the organization. Within the first few years, I had a couple hundred employees.
By year seven, I had a $16 million a year budget, and in the range of 1200 employees. This sounds amazing, right? and it was…but behind the scenes, what it meant was – constant change. Big pressure to get a lot done in shorter and shorter periods of time.
Which also meant – lots and lots of turnover. Not that this turnover slowed the pressures of productivity. Not when you can turn to temporary workers. Temps. Like Edward Snowden, I suppose. Immediate fixes, warm bodies, we sometimes said.
Sometimes – many times, I didn’t even bother to learn the temp’s name. They would be gone too quickly. And if they seemed hurt or worried about whether or not I knew their names, maybe they’d be gone even more quickly – because they clearly wanted something we couldn’t offer – wanted something that isn’t realistic, I’d think.
We just need the job done. They got paid, after all. That was the deal.
It sounds kind of dastardly, but I didn’t think of it that way.
It was just, the way it was. This was the game, and I do like to win.
But, then, and now, I wonder, is this really all we are meant to be?
Warm bodies who do stuff in exchange for small paychecks in service of a profit?
Because I have these glimmers, the ideas that made us- dear humanity- give it a go in the first place, the reasons we keep trying after all these generations, and the reason Hugh was troubled by Edward Snowden – and this question of – what have we come to?
Because it just doesn’t seem that we aren’t meant to be so disposable.
We can’t just be a means to an end. We aren’t just objects. We are meant for something else, something more.
Writer Margaret Wheatley describes how studying evolution reveals life as having two great imperatives. The first is indeed about self-determination – she says, “life accepts only partners, not bosses.”
But the second, supports my glimmers – and an alternative definition of our relationship. As she says, evolution reveals that all life has “a need to be in relationship, to be connected to others. Independence is not a concept that explains the living world. It is only a political concept we’ve invented. Evolution progresses from relationships – not from the harsh and lonely dynamics of survival of the fittest. If we look at the evolutionary record, it is cooperation that increases over time.”
So we might better say – survival of the kind, the cooperative, the connected.
We might even say that the definition of our relationship – in the purest sense, its inherent definition – would not be I-It, but I-Thou. Not – self interest, but generous, capable, kind, loyal, joyous. Not transactional, but covenantal.
We are all in this together, we belong to each other.
We are just taught, as Rebecca Parker says, “to function as if we are self-interested individuals and that this is human nature. But what is truly natural – what is given in the nature of things – is interdependence.” Why else would we be so heartbroken at the ways we treat each other in our “global economy” except that it works against our greatest and truest selves?
And yet what are we to do, dear humanity? Given how much of our structures and systems today, our habits and incentives, are based on a transactional definition, how can we reclaim our true purpose? How can we re-DTR?
I think back to my time in the corporate world – what could I have done differently? At the time, I couldn’t imagine. Even though I was in one of the most powerful positions in the organization, an alternative way of relating – just wasn’t possible. It wasn’t “realistic.” And you can’t change reality, right?
Which is why this DTR is so important. We need to help each other remember – this is not our natural state, and the idea that it is – I’d call that evil. Because it makes us feel powerless and act against our best nature without us even realizing it. Which is how I define evil.
And only when we resist this evil only then will we know that we can act differently, and that what we do – all of it, in fact, everyday matters.
Everyday we have the chance to see each other, not as objects, or as means to an end, but as fellow human beings in a shared project of fostering greater life, and of evolving, together. To look at each other, to connect, to remember.
Every moment, we have opportunities to resist the I-it definition, and to embody and live out the I-thou; another chance to define our relationship.
This is harder than it would seem, of course, because almost everything keeps us practicing transactional relationships, and our habits are strong and stubborn.
Which means, we need help. We need a place, and a time set aside to to create new habits and gain new insight.
A place and a time and a community of people who walk together not based on “what’s in it for me” or “If I give this, I better get that”, but on the idea that we give and share and serve because we are all in this together, we are partners working towards a greater and better life for all.
We need a community that challenges us, that is different than us, and that can help us see things differently, so we might break free from these deeply engrained habits and ideas.
We need a community where we can practice patience, humility and forgiveness. And we need a community who will work together to bring these practices into the larger word, so that we can transform not just within, but also without.
My friends, my particular slice of humanity, this is our place, and this is our time, and this is our community of practice.
This congregation and our commitments to one another give me hope that we can live into our covenantal relationship, and resist the transactional pull. It should give us all hope.
No doubt, we sometimes get confused and fall into transactional habits here too – and move through this community with a stance of “what’s in it for me?”.
This is what I call Unitarian Universalist sacrilege. (You wondered if such a thing existed. It does.) When we bring transactional relationships here, when we say these are our purpose. Sacrilegious.
Because this is our holy work, our sacred purpose: to bolster one another in this practice of resistance. To act for and with one another fueled not by self-interest but by generosity, kindness and courageous love. To see each other as more than just objects. To love, to belong. And to let God be the charge – the electricity – that surges through us.
Now, and always.
So may it be. Amen.