(c) Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Re
Key West is one of my favorite places to visit because of its generally relaxed and open minded culture – in of course a tropical setting. And it’s history proves that point. Artists like Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, and Judy Blume were all at least partly drawn to the island because it’s a place with a decidedly open mind about many things.
As tourist driven as Key West is today, it’s popular because it’s a type of bohemia – a place figuratively at the end of the earth and as far as one can travel south by car in the US to perhaps escape, for a time, the stress of the mainland. Key West, I think, has a gentle and accepting culture where people can be themselves without judgement. For many artists, and the LGBTQ community, Key West has always been an oasis of acceptance. One’s inner truth can be openly expressed here without fear.
And in many ways, this weekend’s Fantasy Fest in Key West, as one version of a Halloween street party, exemplifies that ethos. During this holiday, someone can be who they want to be by dressing up – or down – in some fun or outlandish costume. It’s a way to live out one’s fantasies in actual reality – which is the topic of my message this morning.
If we think about it, that’s what most people seek in life. We want to live true and honestly by being on the outside what we are on the inside – if even for just a short while on Halloween. How we think, feel, dream, and fantasize in our hearts and minds is also how most people want to outwardly act and speak. I believe that in order to be genuinely happy, being outwardly true to one’s inner self is a goal to seek after – and hopefully attain.
And that is also what spiritually minded people want. Instead of just accepting what most world religions say are absolute truths about life, death, and the universe, spirituality instead encourages exploration and an ongoing search for truth. Religions generally say they have all the answers. But spirituality says the opposite: instead of answers to life’s great mysteries, it has only questions. Some answers might be found in one religion, some in another, and some in science, or even from nature itself. The idea is that capital ’T’ Truth, what I believe is god, that’s elusive, it has yet to be found, and so it must be sought after. Once again, if we think about it, that’s what we do when we dream, hope or fantasize. We envision a possible truth about life or about ourselves – and then we determine if it aligns with reality.
For most of us as Unitarian Universalists, the search for Truth is what we have as one of our principles – and it’s one we try to practice. From my perspective, Unitarian Universalism perfectly symbolizes the Key West culture of acceptance and open minded exploration. Instead of adhering to one standard of appearance and mindset, Unitarian Universalists, the people of Key West, and other like-minded people consider and practice multiple ways to think and appear.
Jesus, of all people, taught that the truth will set a person free. When we don a costume that expresses a hope, dream, or fantasy, we share a truth about ourselves. We might dress up as a pirate, an angel, or heroes we admire – perhaps police or fire persons. For just a short while, we wear what we hope for and think on the inside.
And that is just the same as what is done here and in all Unitarian Universalist churches. We ponder and dream of different ways to build a more just and equitable world. We explore new ideas on what animates the universe. We also seek ways to be better people who create legacies of kindness and service to others. In other words, we fantasize about potential new realities – and we are set free from any shame, judgement, religious creeds, or social standards that try to tell people how to think and act.
And for me, that is exactly why I love both Key West and Unitarian Universalist churches. They are literal and symbolic Edens – places in which we can be who we really are.
I’ve shared before with my congregation in Cincinnati, Ohio how admitting my truth set me free both personally and spiritually. It’s a long and involved story and I’ll save you the details. Suffice it to say that for over half my life I felt deep shame about my inward reality of having same-sex thoughts and attractions – even though I did not act on them. It was not until I realized my dissonant self – thinking one way on the inside while acting a different way on the outside, that I then finally came out and found contentment and peace.
For many years when I was closeted, I desperately wanted not to have gay thoughts and attractions. I was a Minister in a Christian church and I constantly prayed for god to take away those thoughts and fantasies. At one point, after I had desperately tried and prayed almost non-stop for several weeks to be inwardly straight – and it hadn’t happened, I cried out to god, with great anguish, asking why he had not answered my prayers. Had I not devoted my life to him? Had I not done all I could to change my inner thoughts? Christianity teaches that if one believes in god and genuinely seeks to be changed, god will make it happen. But, for me and many other LGBTQ people, he didn’t change me because he couldn’t. And I say he couldn’t because in my epiphany fifteen years ago, I realized another truth – that god could’t change me because he likely did not exist in the way I had thought he did.
And that prompted a new theology for me: God is not some supernatural being that controls our lives. Instead, god-like power is within all of creation and importantly within us. It is we who have the power, ability and responsibility to build a more compassionate, kind and beautiful world. In so many ways, we are little ‘g’ gods and goddesses of this world.
And so my epiphany revealed to me two things. First, my thoughts, dreams, fantasies, and hopes define me as a gay man. I just had to make my outward reality conform to my inner truth. Second, that same inner truth about myself reveled to me that there cannot be a god that condemns me or anyone else. Instead, I am little ‘g’ god and so are you – and it’s we who must love and accept both love ourselves and other people – just for who we or they are (so long as we do no harm to others.)
We all dream and fantasize of a perfect world – one in which everybody lives in peace and everyone’s needs are met. There’s no greed, hatred, anger, or fear in our dreamed for world. It’s just love, justice for all, and equality. That kind of perfection has not, of course, come about yet. But it only will if each person acts according to their inward fantasies for a perfect world – and does their best to make it happen.
For me, that’s the great beauty of fantasies, dreams and hopes. We may trivialize them as sexual – or like pie in the sky daydreams that are not grounded in truth. And yet, that is not so. Many experts tell us that our fantasies and dreams reveal truth to us – just as they did for me.
While many psychologists no longer believe all that Sigmund Freud proposed about the human mind, his theory that dreams reveal our knee truths is nevertheless still widely accepted. People often venture into a world of fantasy in order to chart a new direction for themselves. In order for us to change, we often need to imagine what that will look. If we seek to lose weight, gain a new skill, come out of the closet, or become more empathetic and kind, we first have to imagine how we do that, what the outcome might be like, and what the benefits are. By fantasizing of a new and different self, we can then begin a path toward its realization. Ultimately, healthy fantasies and dreams are not escapes from reality, but rather explorations of its possibility. Fantasies may or may not exist in a concrete sense, but they do exist as truth. They can happen if we make them happen – if we act as little ‘g’ gods and goddesses.
Last evening in the various Fantasy Fest parades, I saw some of Key West’s famous drag queens. They are in many ways the fantasy-reality I’ve spoken about. Some men appear and act as women. They bring their inner feminine side, something all men have some degree of, out into the open. And as somewhat exaggerated women, they are joyous and playful precisely because they are freely expressing something good and real within themselves.
That’s why most experts in psychology say that fantasies and dreams that envision situations and actions which do no harm – actions that exemplify the Golden Rule to treat others like one wants to be treated herself or himself – that such fantasies are healthy and beneficial. Such healthy fantasies not only make us happier because we express an inward reality, they also make us happy because they envision something hopeful and positive.
Fantasies can also mentally help people escape trauma. Those who are depressed or who have been deeply hurt and abused by others, often fantasize about taking back their power. They envision themselves as strong enough to overcome their sadness, or to no longer allow an abuser to hurt them. Such fantasizing is usually a path to healing and regaining a love of self.
Fantasies also, experts say, enliven our creative and imaginative minds – to see things of great possibility that, as I said earlier, are usually grounded in reality. The famous author H.G. Wells described in his fictional nineteenth century books things like space travel, genetic engineering, email, lasers, and nuclear energy. Back in the 1950’s, the famous Caltech scientist Richard Feynman gave a speech about a fantasy he had of writing the entire Encyclopedia Britannica on the head of pin. He theorized how using a modified electron microscope as a writing tool could do this – and not only that, but also build things on extremely small scales. He essentially envisioned the computer microchip which, as we know, continually gets smaller and more powerful.
Finally, I believe healthy fantasies foster empathy. When we dream of better conditions in the world, when we fantasize about finding a cure for cancer, or eliminating childhood poverty and homelessness, or having a beautifully diverse society, we build empathy for those who hurt because we’ve fantasized about good attitudes becoming reality. And I believe Fantasy Fest does much the same – building empathy for marginalized people by openly celebrating, with costumes and fun times, the goodness of diversity. And afterwards many people might be inspired to go out and do something to help those who are affected by discrimination.
What we need in these troubled times are, indeed, millions of people – like those of you who reside in key West – who dream and fantasize about good and great attributes in themselves and in all humanity. Such people don’t accept the status quo in their hearts and minds. They envision something better. We need people who align their fantasies with what is true in the universe and world – people who see the good in themselves and in humanity – and then in turn strive to make it happen.
That’s why, as I said at the outset, Key West for me a wonderful place. Fantasy Fest, Unitarian Universalists, and places and people around the world like them are equally wonderful. Let us each endeavor to be fantasizers who are true to themselves, and who are true to the idea of one human family living in a world of compassion, generosity, and equal opportunity for all.
Thank you for listening and I wish you each a happy Fantasy Fest – along with much peace and joy.