Love. Revere. Discover. Connect.

August 5, 2018: “Making Memories, Making Meaning”

Call to Worship (Rev Denis)
“How does one address a mystery?” Gordon McKeeman asked, back when he was the last president of the Universalist Church of America, before it consolidated with the American Unitarian Association in 1961.

Cautiously, he said, let us go then to the end of our certainty, to the boundary of all we know, to the rim of uncertainty, to the perimeter of the unknown that surrounds us.

How does on address a Mystery? He asked. Reverently – let us go with a sense of awe, a feeling approaching the powerful holy whose lightning slashes the sky, whose persistence splits concrete with green sprouts, whose miracles are present in every place and every moment.

One addresses a mystery Hopefully – out of our need for wholeness in our own lives, the reconciliation of mind and heart, the conjunction of reason and passion, the intersection of the timeless with time.

One addresses a mystery Quietly – for no words will explain the inarticulate or summon the presence that is always present even in our absence.

And so we gather here, under this beacon of promise that the mystery will continue to draw us forward together, as we love, revere, discover and connect.

Reading “You-Ness,” from Memory by Julia Shaw Bree Byrd
This morning’s reading is called “You-ness,” by Julia Shaw from her book the Memory Illusion: Remembering, Forgetting and the Science of False Memory

When we define ourselves we may think about our gender, ethnicity, age, occupation and the markers of adulthood we have achieved, such as completing our education, buying a house, getting married, having children or reaching retirement.

We may also think about personality characteristics – whether we tend to be optimistic or pessimistic, funny or serious, selfish or selfless. On top of this we likely think about how we compare to others, often directly monitoring how our Facebook friends and LinkedIn connections are doing to see whether we are keeping up.

However, while all of these descriptors may be more or less appropriate ways of defining who you are, the true root of your ‘you-ness’ almost certainly lies in your personal memories.

Sermon “Making Memories, Making Meaning” Rev Denis Letourneau Paul

Last week, I was visiting a friend at her office in Northern California. She works for an agency that represents literary talents to book speaking engagements, people like Eve Ensler, Michael Pollan, and David Sedaris. Some of my favorites.

We learned Anne Lamott had been there earlier in the day,
so I was telling Holly and her coworkers about how just before Joe and I left California, we went to a writers workshop with Ms Lamott, attended by 298 women plus Joe and me. Everyone laughed.

Joe stopped me.

“We weren’t the only men there,” he said. “There were three others. So that means only 295 women.”

More laughter.

“My version of the story,” I insisted, “is funnier.”

Then one of Holly’s co-workers said, with a little twinkle in her eye, “but you’re such a liar.”

I knew she was kidding. At least I hope she was kidding.

The truth is that in my memory, we were the only two men in the room. Maybe it’s because we were sitting way up front and were the last to leave like the nerdy church boys we are,
or maybe it was because I was the only man to ask a question of Ms. Lamott. As I told that story, I was sure there were 298 women.

But memory is a funny thing. It’s slippery. We change our memories as much as our memories change us. And our own memories are affected by the input of others. Memory is mutable.

Julia Shaw, the author of The Memory Illusion: Remembering, forgetting, and the Science of False Memory,
argues that memory is where the root of an individual’s identity lies, and she says it “shape[s] what we think we have experienced and, as such, what we believe we are capable of in the future.” 

Shaw, a German-Canadian psychologist who has spent her career studying false memory, was asked frequently about Brian Williams, back in 2015, when he was fired from his position as anchor on NBC Nightly News.

You may remember that Williams had told a story about being in the field during the Iraq war and almost being shot out of the sky in a helicopter that had to make an emergency landing. Turns out, he wasn’t in the helicopter that had been hit, he was in a helicopter that came twenty minutes or so after it.

Shaw argues that, in general we tend to mix up our memories. Stories change slightly with each telling. Details become blurry, so that we become more of the center of each memory, even if we were just peripheral in the actual event. It’s perfectly normal.
Everyone does it, quite subconsciously, to varying degrees.

About Brian Williams in particular she wrote, “given the nature of the work that I do, I cannot help but try to contextualise the immediate jump to the conclusion that he was making it up.

“To me it seems premature to pull out the pitchforks when we aren’t sure why someone is giving an inaccurate account, mostly because we can unfortunately never actually tell apart unintentional and intentional fabrication unless the person later tells us that they were lying. What it definitely does bring to light, however, is a core assumption that many people make about memory.

“To me it very much seems like what happened in the Chopper Whopper scandal was that Williams was accused of being a liar, at least in part, because our general assumption is that no one could possibly misremember such an emotional event. But is that really the case?”

The bottom line is that we all have false memories, even those of us who are paid to report accurately. And our false memories can cause a lot of problems for ourselves and other.

Shaw’s research has made many in the justice system question whether anything can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt when it relies exclusively on memory recall. But this morning I won’t even go down the rabbit hole of the criminal justice system and the unreliability of witnesses.

Even though our memories are so unreliable, ultimately they help us shape our identity, they help you “shape our you-ness.” But why would we want to make memories if they’re so unreliable?

Even for Shaw, the value isn’t in the memory, it’s in the meaning:

She wrote, “I remember lying awake for hours as a little girl, unable to fall asleep because I was so engrossed in thought.

“Lying on the top bunk of my bed I would press the soles of my feet against the white ceiling of my room and reflect on the meaning of life. Who am I? What am I? What is real? While I did not know it at the time, this was when I began to become a psychologist. Those questions are about the core aspects of what it means to be human. As a little girl I had no idea that I was in such good company when I could not figure out the answers.”

It’s something third grader Gavin Luckwitz now knows.
Back in May, as part of his affirmation as a UU he asked “How do I know I’m not the only one who is real and everyone else doesn’t live in my imagination alone?”

He prefaced it by saying it was a question he knew couldn’t be answered. Maybe he mistook the exercise for a game of stump the chump. I don’t know. I do know that neither Halcyon nor I answered the question to his satisfaction. But I talked to him about the whole event the other night, and he told me the important lesson he learned: he now knows he’s in the company of great thinkers like Emmanuel Kant. That matters, because by simply asking the question, he’s beginning to make meaning of his life, to climb what one researcher calls Mount Maslow.

You probably know about the hierarchy of needs articulated by 20th century American psychologist Abraham Maslow, a professor at Columbia and Brandeis Universities.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a pyramid.
At the bottom of the pyramid are our basic physiological needs for food, water, rest.

At the next level are safety needs for security and shelter.

After that come our needs for belonging and love, intimacy and friendship. The need for sex, as most of us know, comes only after we’ve eaten and rested and are in a warm, dry, safe place.

Nearing the top of the pyramid come our esteem needs:
finding self-worth through our external accomplishments and the affirmation of others.

At the very top of the pyramid is self-actualization, or reaching our full creative potential. That’s the part of our lives, after we’ve taken care of all of our other needs, in which we can begin to make meaning of our lives, to engage in the mystery, find our place in the universe, and understand the impact we’ve had on the world and the people we love.

If you think about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs not as a simple pyramid, but as a mountain we climb our whole lives, the part at the top, the part about meaning making, is the part with the best views, the part that makes the climb through fulfilling all of the other needs worth the work.

Making meaning is what matters in life. Julia Shaw learned that when she was a little girl, putting her feet on the ceiling above her bunkbed, as she pondered the mystery of life.
Gavin Luckwitz learned that when he asked an unanswerable question.

The thing that plagued Abraham Maslow for most of his career was one unanswerable question: why don’t more people self-actualize, make meaning from their lives, if all of their other needs are met? We do so many of us stop at finding self-worth through the affirmation of others? Why don’t more of us ponder the mystery?

Maybe most of us just don’t know how to address it.
Gordon McKeeman, in this morning’s call to worship, suggested we approach the mystery cautiously, reverently, quietly and hopefully.

To approach the mystery cautiously, embracing the unknown, seeking answers to the questions we know are unanswerable.

To approach the mystery reverently, awestruck by the power of Mother Earth and the power of our relationships; awestruck by the progression of millennia and the expansive miracle that exists in every single second.

To approach the mystery quietly, knowing we can’t do it alone, that we have to listen more than we talk, mindful of how easy it is to miss the

To approach the mystery hopefully, needing wholeness in our lives which we’ll find only at the intersection of reason and passion, making memories and making meaning.

We just have to be willing to approach the mystery openly, and suspend our need for concrete results we can measure … or even explain.

Then, at the end of his prayer, the part I didn’t read earlier, McKeeman asked, “But what shall I say?”

“Anything,” he answered. “Any anger, any hope, any fear, any joy, any request, any word that comes from the depth of Being addressed by Being itself – or, perhaps, nothing, no complaint, no request, no entreaty, no thanksgiving, no praise, no blame, no pretense of knowing or of not knowing.

“Simply be in the intimate presence of mystery – unashamed – unadorned – unafraid.”

I like my memories. I like all the pictures I’ve taken, and the reminiscing they spark. But what I value more are the ways in which they get me to understand my life and my place in the world, giving me direction for the future.

The pictures of children in my congregations remind me to live up to their expectations of me. The pictures of elders who’ve passed on remind me to be part of the complex web of their existence, and to continue their legacies as they worked for justice.

The pictures remind me make art as an act of restoration and of community building.

The pictures – every single one of them, but especially the ones in which I’m wearing that yellow clerical shirt as an act of public witness to injustice – remind me that every single moment of every single day I have a sacred responsibility for every person in my life – a duty to the whole world – that I can’t ignore.

Those pictures remind me of my commitments, and the incredible views I can get from the top of Mount Maslow, if climb to the top beyond getting affirmation from others.

Those pictures remind me to be unashamed, unadorned, unafraid of the mystery, to climb up to see it.

But I still prefer to think of Joe and myself being the only men with Anne Lamott that day.

Benediction (Bree)
“The Opening of Eyes,” by David Whyte
Life is no passing memory of what has been
nor the remaining pages in a great book
waiting to be read.
It is the opening of eyes long closed…