© Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering UCC, All Rights Reserved
For any of you who may not have noticed, Ed is not here today. He left town this past Thursday on a business trip but we will meet up again tomorrow. At the start of this month, we were apart for almost two weeks. Because of our schedules, we are apart at least one week a month – something which is not necessarily easy but which we have learned to accept. Indeed, and I will say this only to you – so don’t tell Ed! – sometimes I actually enjoy my time alone! I can eat when and what I want. I watch shows on the Discovery or History channels – which are not his favorites – and I get the whole bed to myself. I don’t have to share! Of course, the downside is that I sometimes find myself lonely in the evenings and I miss his company. We are partners, after all, because we really like each other!
What we are working through, as almost everyone does, is how to be both independent and dependent. How can we exercise the form of tough love on each other by asserting our own identity and sense of self while still loving and serving the needs of the other? Can we be happy alone? Can we learn to love ourselves and our own company? Can we develop friendships that are unique from the other? To frame this in a somewhat ironic way, can we be relatively well-adjusted, independent singles who also happen to be in a loving, dependent relationship?
During this three week series on tough love, we have explored various ways of asserting our individual rights, personalities and needs while living in a world where how we relate with others is crucial to our happiness and well-being. As we discussed in the first week, how can we pursue values of individualism and personal liberties while still staying focused on serving and caring for others? Last week, we looked at how to set boundaries in our lives so that we protect ourselves and ultimately help others around us learn and grow. And this week I want to explore how we can be dependent without being co-dependent and how we can be fully actualized individuals without being hermits and lone rangers.
A consistent theme through each of these three messages is that answers to these questions are not easy to answer nor are they found in one extreme or the other. We have to find for ourselves some middle path between individualism and communal thinking, between establishing firm boundaries and having none and, today, between dependence and independence. Ultimately, I believe these issues get to the essence of who we are as a species – we are social animals who also lean strongly towards finding and asserting individuality and uniqueness.
Personally, I love the fact that here at the Gathering we are a collective whole – a beautiful family of faith and spirituality – comprised of many distinct and unique people – liberal, conservative, atheist, Christian, Buddhist, agnostic, gay, lesbian, straight, transsexual, black, white, Asian, young, old, middle aged, etc. etc. In so many ways, we are a microcosm of the larger community. It is not easy being such a cohesive group comprised of many unique individuals but I think we are learning to model the fact that we can celebrate and respect our differences. I can claim my gay identity and enjoy a deep friendship with a straight woman; a conservative is honored and listened to because he is loved and people enjoy his company and listen to his opinions; an African-American is welcomed and befriended not because he is a token individual within our largely Caucasian midst but because he is a genuinely good, decent and pleasant human being. We have created here a colorful tapestry of vibrant threads – each woven together to make a beautiful whole.
But as I said, this wonderful tapestry was not easy to create and it is not easy to maintain. Forces and opinions that make us each unique can lead us to prefer homogeneity and reject or disrespect those who are different. Nor, for that matter, is it so simple for Ed and I to be partnered and yet assert our own individuality. For any of us, whether we are single, partnered or somewhere in between, I hope this message series is about the tough love choices we must make in life – and that boils down to how we love ourselves while still loving others.
Co-dependency is an un-healthy way of failing to find a middle path between dependence and independence. Two dysfunctional people at the opposite poles of individualism and selflessness come together. A co-dependent person allows the opinions and actions of another to determine his or her own. For one partner, it is self-limiting with a focus on taking care of the other with little or no regard for the self. In this type of relationship, neither partner feels capable of standing alone. One person is the care-giver and the other is the care-receiver with no reciprocity in the giving and receiving. The ethic is “I need you to need me” and “I can’t live without you.” The care-giver only feels fulfilled if he or she is serving the other and enmeshed in his or her life. Life is solely about the “you”. The care-receiver, on the other hand, is fulfilled only through being needy and self-focused. He or she has no thought or desire to give, share or serve someone else. Life is mostly about the “me”. In such relationships, boundaries rarely exist. A lame – but humorous – joke about this issue asks how can one tell if a drowning person is co-dependent? Someone else’s life is passing in front of his or her eyes!
We may laugh at this joke but it holds more than a germ of truth for too many people. Many are single and feel that the only way they can be fulfilled is with a partner. On the other hand, many are in a relationship and feel that they cannot exist apart from a spouse, partner or close friend. In truth, neither is correct but we allow elements of such dysfunctional thinking to infect our minds. As much as each of us values our own life achievements, dreams, opinions and personality, we have an intrinsic desire – something hard-wired into our DNA – for community and togetherness. We are, many of us, such confused creatures. We are like the mythical creature from the story of Dr. Doolittle – a pushme-pullyou creature. “I want you and need you! No. I don’t need you. I want my independence!”
Interestingly, as in so many things about life, the wisdom and insights from spirituality can guide us. While I have often noted that each of the major world religions speak of the Golden Rule, many of us – and I am the worst at this – fail to recognize the main ethic of the Golden Rule – love others AS you love yourself. Do unto others AS you would have them do unto you. Jesus made it his purpose in life to serve and teach others – to reach out to the poor, the oppressed, the weak and the outcast. He surrounded himself with friends and colleagues. He sought his disciples almost immediately after he began his ministry and he directly asked them to follow him and hang around him. He went to parties, weddings and festivals. He enjoyed serving others and he enjoyed their company. But just as important, Jesus was not afraid to express his opinions or to manifest his unique identity – his individuality and his independence. He was not afraid to be alone and he frequently looked for places where he could be by himself. He grew so frustrated with the crowds who would not let him be that he rowed himself in a boat out into the middle of the Sea of Galilee just so he could be by himself. Jesus understood the tough love approach to both dependency and independence. He needed both. In truth, however, he was interdependent.
Paul echoed Jesus’ ethic when he challenged the churches in Corinth to grow up and act with greater unity. Even in the very first churches, members gravitated towards small cliques and like-minded friends. Many began to shun those who did not hold their same beliefs. In the Corinthian case, there was a dispute over whether animals that had been sacrificed in pagan temples could be consumed by Christians. Some said “yes”, some said “no” and thus began one of the first church doctrinal fights over a matter contrary to the ethics of their faith – love and unity. Even worse, many of these early church cliques began to hold communion dinners at which only a select few – the supposedly right people – were invited. Finally, many members began to assert that some abilities like prophecy and speaking in tongues were superior to skills like teaching and wisdom. Exclusion, arrogance and division infected these churches. Paul sternly and wisely called them to task. He implored them to see the beauty in their independence but, most importantly, NOT to allow that to cause disunity. After all, they needed one another.
Comparing the church to the human body, Paul wrote, and I quote from the New Living Translation, “The Divine One put our bodies together in such a way that even the parts that seem the least important are valuable. She did this to make all parts of the body work together smoothly, with each part caring about the others. If one part of our body hurts, we hurt all over. If one part of our body is honored, the whole body will be happy. Together we are all a part of the same Divine body.” Paul said that we are each like an independent part of the human body – like a hand, foot or eye. Each part has independence in that it serves different functions and is important in its own right. But no part can operate without the others. Manifested in our own human bodies there exists dependence, independence and interdependence. And it is the latter that Paul advocates just as Jesus lived out. We are unique persons each living interdependently with one another.
As in the ancient world, so it is today. And perhaps interdependence is even more important today than ever before. We live in a world of instant communication, we can travel half-way around the world in less than a day and our individual and national interests are deeply intertwined with those of other cultures and nations. When the Greek economy shuddered a few months ago, our own stock market dramatically fell. When there were fears of the bird flu in China several years ago, we knew that as quick as it takes a plane to fly from Beijing to New York, we too could be infected. The very gasoline that enabled us to be here this morning was likely far underground in Saudi Arabia only a few weeks ago. Symbolically, when India catches a cold, we sneeze.
And I hope that is the same here at the Gathering. As our dear friend Arlene has lost her close friend, Jean, all of us feel her loss. And all of us will come together to support her. When Paula Emerson found a new and much better job recently, many of us shared her joy. None of us are islands drifting in an empty sea. As the author Steven Covey has written, interdependence is the only effective strategy in life and work. Confident and independent people come together with unique skills to create a more effective whole. Interdependence creates win / win situations for both the individual and the group. As the group succeeds, so too will each person. And, as each person individually grows and succeeds, so too will the group as whole since his or her gifts are brought into that mix. Interdependent people learn to synergize their independent abilities and personalities so that, combined, they are even more effective than alone.
If we are to assert our independence so that we can become interdependent and thus ever more capable, how do we reduce our bonds of dependence and neediness in life? How can we learn to love our singleness – any of us – so that we find satisfaction and joy? Experts, therapists and armchair psychologists offer a number of ways for people to assert their independence. Most importantly, we must learn to love ourselves. On a larger scale, we should live with passion and purpose and meaning. Each of us should find the unique ways we work and serve the wider world. What is it that I want to do to change the world for the better?
We can set our own life agenda, within certain boundaries. On a day to day basis, we are each responsible for our own plans – not for those of others. We should set our schedules and not be co-dependently chained to the demands of another. We should not do for others what they can do for themselves. In other words, we must apply boundaries so that others can learn and grow for themselves. As I said last week, with gentleness and a certain amount of flexibility, we can allow others in our lives to experience the consequences of their own actions. They will become more of an individual, as will we.
We must be willing to leave our family and friends behind from time to time. Finding opportunities – like going to a movie, a party or out to dinner alone – is good and healthy and builds self-confidence.
We should be our own role models – and that means having confidence in our own opinions, actions and preferences. This is not arrogance but confident individuality that is still respectful of others. We must not settle for anything that contradicts our own beliefs and boundaries. We listen to others, we seek understanding, we are gentle but we are also firm in who we are. No person, no man, no woman – nobody – has the right to expect us to be different from our honest selves. We do not sublimate ourselves to the needs of others but rather come alongside another in a complimentary way. Our personalities, skills and gifts work together with the different but complimentary skills and personalities of a friend, partner, family member or co-worker. That is interdependence.
Another point for living more independently in life, several experts agree, is to, as much as possible, secure our own finances. This does not mean we don’t monetarily support others or that we never receive support from another. In today’s world, however, independence and self-confidence comes from having the means or ability to support oneself. One is therefore better able to be interdependent by adding to the financial welfare of a marriage, partnership, family, church or community – by adding to its combined resources. One is neither dependent nor independent. The welfare of the whole depends on the capability of each able individual to stand on his or her own.
Finally, independence that leads to interdependence is created by each person finding their own community of friends and activities. Experts advise us that it is not healthy to have only shared friends or shared activities. We must be willing to get out on our own – away from our families or our relationships – and find other ways to express ourselves. We must get involved in new things and separate communities of friends. Surprisingly, I believe that includes any of you regarding this church. A few of you sheepishly tell me that you visit other churches from time to time. In total honesty, I think that is wonderful. Doing so will broaden your perspectives and strengthen you as an individual. According to the theory of interdependence, that will only work to help the Gathering. Contrary to popular belief, this church and this Pastor are NOT the sources of all wisdom and all truth! I encourage you to sometime experience a different church, synagogue, mosque or temple but, of course, I hope you’ll come back here! We are so lovable!
In our vision of an enlightened community of individuals building together a world of justice, equality, and compassion for all people, I believe we will have to abandon some of our more rigid beliefs. Moral imagination and community cooperation will never succeed unless we as individuals are free to grow and develop. We need boundaries to keep us focused and self-aware and to protect us and others from harm. We cannot be shackled by the constraints of our own dependence or of people who harm us by their fears and unwillingness to grow. As we hear that high call to build heaven on earth, we cannot do it alone. Marshalling our strengths, our independent spirit and our yearning to find purpose and meaning in life, we come together to work interdependently and cooperatively. This is the Golden Rule in action – serving and loving others as much as we serve and love ourselves. Our personal relationships will prosper. Our emotional health as independent, healthy adults will grow. Ultimately, we will all be better off as a community, nation and world. Tough love calls us and others to be less dependent. Self-love calls us to be more independent. Genuine love calls us to greater interdependence. I win, you win, we all win…