Message 117, Uncommon New Year’s Resolutions: Accepting Others as They Are, 1-6-13

(c) Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering UCC, All Rights Reserved


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Some anonymous witty person once said, “A New Year’s resolution is something that goes in one Year and out the other.”   And, for those of you who keep track, I used this same monthly message theme of uncommon New Year’s resolutions last year.  While all of my messages and their weekly topics are original and I have yet to repeat one, I do repeat some of my monthly themes.

So, if the uncommon resolutions we considered last year did not go in one year and out the other, you’ll remember they were for us to perhaps resolve to be more gentle, more forgiving or to laugh more.  You can find and listen to those three messages online.  This January, I’ve chosen three more uncommon resolutions that resonate with me.  We’ll consider resolutions to accept others as they are, to be slow to anger and, finally, to stay teachable.

It is said that over 100 million Americans make at least one New Year’s resolution each year.  Only a third will have at least modestly succeeded in keeping their resolution by the following year.  Experts encourage us to allow for lapses and not quit our resolution if we do fail a few times.  The important thing is to approach a resolution one day at a time and seek success for that day only.  Having a friend or family member to act as a cheerleader or encourager is also helpful for most people.  This year, the five most popular resolutions, according to one poll, are to be more productive at work, to get organized, to start a business or find a stable job, to work on boosting one’s self confidence and, fifth, to be more open and friendly toward others.  The resolutions I’ve chosen this year don’t appear on any top ten resolution list for any of the past several years – so, as I assert, I think they are uncommon.

George Bernard Shaw, the famous English playwright, wrote in his play “Pygmalion” that people should consider other people as if they were in heaven, where each soul is equally good and beautiful.  As a socialist, Shaw used many of his plays to poke fun at the arrogant and snobbish attitudes of British aristocracy and the class system that perpetuated their control.  And his play “Pygmalion”, better known to Americans as “My Fair Lady”, is one of his most famous and most pointed comments on the class system, whether it be in England or anywhere else.

For our purposes today, Shaw asserts in “Pygmalion” that efforts to judge and classify people by outward appearance, speech or behavior is not only wrong, it overlooks the unique human differences within each person.  Critically judging others is not only arrogant, it ignores what is good, decent and right in each person.  Shaw implicitly suggests in “Pygmalion” that we negatively judge others and seek to change them far too much.  Instead of focusing on our own issues in need of change, we are too eager to note the deficiencies in others, to call their attention to the perceived flaws and then to offer unsolicited opinions on how they should change.

While most of us would never presume to critically judge another because of their race, faith, gender or sexuality, many of us are too willing to find fault with those closest to us – family, friends or associates. We set ourselves as the arbiter of how others around us should act, appear or think.  Without realizing what we are doing, we convey the message that our way of doing things – from the big to the small – is the right way.  Indeed, while we believe we are tolerant and accepting of others, we often fail to really accept and celebrate the differences in those closest to us.

Faced with many pious religious critics of his own, Jesus pointedly called them out for their judgemental attitudes.  He said to one group of religious elites, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?”

This vivid analogy used by Jesus – of big or small pieces of wood in one’s eye – is memorable and perfectly captures his teaching style.  What Jesus taught with the analogy was not only a lesson against hypocrisy but also a well-known fact.  It is not our duty, nor within our capacity, to create lasting change in others.  Change in behavior must come from within a person and from their own conscious decision to learn, grow and improve.   As Jesus taught, we must not try to change or be critical of others.  We should judge and change ourselves first.

This attitude gets to the heart of loving the self and loving others.  It’s a spirituality of acceptance and total tolerance of others that is rooted in a love foe all people.  Jesus taught that we must not judge and we are to turn the other cheek.  The Buddha encouraged his followers to cultivate a limitless heart toward others.  Echoing Jesus, the prophet Muhammad taught his followers to first accomplish a “conquest of the self” and thereby love others first.  Deepak Chopra, the contemporary spiritual commentator, says that inner peace comes from an acceptance of other people, events and situations as they occur.  While he says every event in our life offers seeds for self growth, we must engage in “defenselessness”.  This involves letting go of a desire to blame or find fault in others or in ourselves.  Genuine peace and love comes not from complaint, bitterness or anger at others or at ourselves.  Instead, we are to act in a manner that models the better behavior we advocate.

And that is exactly what Jesus taught the pious religious critics who enjoyed judging others based on how they acted, prayed or believed.  They judged others while ignoring the blatant ways they themselves were unloving and hypocritical.   This is also an essential message found in the play “Pygmalion”.

Henry Higgins spends weeks cajoling and teaching Eliza how to be a refined and genteel woman.  After she successfully acts out at a garden party what she has learned about being a so-called lady, Higgins exults.  He had crafted an aristocrat out of a supposedly low class prostitute.  But it was all veneer with no substance. Indeed, the socialist Shaw makes the larger point that by focusing on Eliza’s outward appearance, language and behavior, Higgins followed the arrogant notion that goodness is found in superficial qualities like dress, speech and wealth. That is the false criteria of class, according to Shaw.  Higgins treated Eliza like an object to be shaped, much like the play’s namesake Pygmalion of Greek mythology.

In that myth, a lonely and unmarried artist yearns to meet a perfect woman.  He sculpts his image of female perfection in marble, which the goddess Aphrodite then brings to life for him.  The artist soon learns that perfection is not the ideal he envisioned, as the woman is too perfect and thus lacks the kind of real humanity we all desire in our romantic partners.

But that is also how Eliza turns out.  She is too perfect.  After all of Higgins’ teaching efforts to change her, Eliza acted the part of a beautiful, elegant and refined aristocratic woman too well.  It was a false front that hid the unique inner strength and power of Eliza, the street smart survivor whose own parents had largely abandoned her.

Shaw uses Higgins’ friend Colonel Pickering as the moral center of his play.  Pickering does not instruct Eliza how to act nor does he endorse efforts to change her. Instead, he very simply treats her with respect, concern and decency.  Shaw notes in the play that while Higgins treats everyone he meets with the same condescending manner that only he knows how people should act, Pickering treats everyone he meets, no matter how low or high class they are, as a Duke or Duchess.  Indeed, Eliza herself tells Colonel Pickering that it was HE who taught her how to be a real lady – one of kindness, gentleness and humility.  He did so not by instruction, but by simply being a man of kindness, gentleness and humility.  Pickering democratically celebrates each person without trying to change or judge them.

And that is precisely the spiritual message we might learn and New Year’s resolution we might adopt.  Instead of seeking to tell others how to act, we must simply BE an example of how we believe others should act.  If we want to change others or change the world, we must BE the change we want to happen.   Does a loved one or partner or friend have a behavior you wish they would change?  Instead of nagging the person or telling them how wrong they are, our call is to accept the person as they are and encourage change, if it is even needed, by being the person we are.  We are to stop judging and start being.  That does not mean abandoning values and principles we believe are right and true.  It means, instead, that we accept the truth that the only person we can change is ourselves.  Genuine change in any person is a function of inner resolve and not a force that comes from outside.

This truth is consistent with the idea that god is not an outside force that influences the world.  We are the gods and goddesses who change the world for better or for worse.  The same holds true for our inner minds, thoughts and behaviors.  We are the gods and goddesses who make ourselves grow and learn.  Change in us comes not from the God of the Bible or from anyone who presumes to act like God by judging us. It is we who initiate inner change and we who then execute it.

Combined with our resolve to accept others as they are, is the need to be empathetic and humble – two ideals I believe are important in any person.  If we accept others as they are and how they act, we empathize with them by seeking to understand the circumstances, facts and underlying reasons for why they act as they do.  Second, in accepting others as they are, we practice humility by realizing our way may not be the only way.  Others act in ways that are neither good or bad – they are just different from our own.  Humility means accepting that fact.  It means seeing the world in a vibrancy of differences – not only of race, faith, gender or sexuality – but in opinions, politics, behaviors, personalities, likes and dislikes.

That returns us to the teachings of Buddha and Deepak Chopra.  By viewing others with a Buddhist limitless heart, we will practice Chopra’s “defenselessness” – accepting people and events as they happen without blame or criticism.  Not only will we find peace within ourselves, we will be at peace with others.

And that is precisely a lesson I must learn.  Not only do I need to try and be more “defenseless” with myself – accepting what I have done and not worrying about the past  – I must find a greater peace with others.  As a parent, I too often nagged and repeatedly suggested how I thought my daughters should act.  I can lapse into that mode too easily now, even though they are adults.  I tell them, for instance, what classes they might take or career paths they could choose.  While I don’t advocate abandoning the role of parent for minor children who depend on safe and loving guidance, my approach with my adult daughters must be more in the form of a cheerleader.  Yes, I’m available to offer advice if I’m asked but often that needs to be in the form of sharing my experiences instead of my opinions.  It should also involve far more listening than talking.  By allowing my daughters to share openly and freely with me about their dreams, fears and mistakes, and without judging them, I offer them the freedom to figure things out for themselves.  And it endorses the idea that only they can change their lives.  I am powerless to do that for them.

As your Pastor and thus your employee, I put myself in a different position with regard to suggestions and criticisms.  I have openly invited and asked for your advice about my work.   Your advice in that regard helps me not only know how you feel about my work performance, but also helps me determine ways to improve and better meet your needs.  And that holds true in most romantic relationships and employee / employer relationships.  If we are truly humble and willing to learn, then we will seek the advice of others.  We will gladly give close family members, best friends and our employers the permission to advise us on matters that pertain to them.

Importantly, however, how we advise or criticize others, even when they ask for our wisdom, is crucial.  Nobody gives permission to be abused or attacked by anyone.  Is our advice to family members or those who work for us about lovingly helping them, or about attacking them?  Do we listen?  Do we have all the facts?  Do we seek solutions?  Do we practice the ethics of love, gentleness, empathy and humility in what we say?  Ultimately, do we practice the Golden Rule – advising and speaking to and about others in the same manner we would want to be advised and spoken about?

A New Year’s resolution to accept others as they are does not mean we should  abandon our own core beliefs and values.  Nor is it about being a doormat and victim.  Instead, it is about a spiritual form of finding peace for ourselves and encouraging it with others.  It’s about finding the kind of inner confidence in ourselves such that we have no insecure impulses to find fault in others.  It means accepting that we alone are responsible for our happiness and success in life.  We cannot expect others to create it for us or to always please us.  Indeed, accepting others for who they are lets go of self-centered thinking that others around us must act and behave as we wish them to act and behave.

Imagine a world where everyone acts as Colonel Pickering does in the play “Pygmalion” – one who treated everyone as a Duke or Duchess. Imagine a world that follows the examples of Jesus, Buddha, Muhammad and Gandhi – those who sought not to judge others but to instead BE examples of peace and goodness themselves.  There is an old Christian cliche that rings true in this regard – one that few Christians truly follow but one that all people could heed.  The saying encourages people to preach the good news of love, generosity and forgiveness as often as possible and, only when absolutely necessary, to use words.  The moral of that saying is to focus on the self and act according to the ideals all of us claim to admire.  We must walk our talk.  Let us not judge as much as let us love.  Let us not seek change in others as much as we seek it in ourselves.  Only by each person working to improve their own inner selves will the world be a better place.

I have many pieces of wood in my eyes.  I assume some of you have a few in your own.  Whether they be bits of sawdust or large planks, such differences about us are what makes the world a beautiful, engaging and fascinating place.  Let us resolve to accept others – and ourselves –  without blame or fault.  And let us acknowledge that if change is needed, it can only come from within.

I wish us all a peaceful and joyous New Year.