Takes One to Know One

Reading 1: 

Bertrand Russell: 

 

Three passions have governed my life: 

The longings for love, the search for knowledge, 

And unbearable pity for the suffering of [humankind]. 

Love brings ecstasy and relieves loneliness. 

In the union of love I have seen 

In a mystic miniature the prefiguring vision 

Of the heavens that saints and poets have imagined. 

With equal passion I have sought knowledge. 

I have wished to understand the hearts of [people]. 

I have wished to know why the stars shine. 

Love and knowledge led upwards to the heavens, 

But always pity brought me back to earth; 

Cries of pain reverberated in my heart 

Of children in famine, of victims tortured 

And of old people left helpless. 

I long to alleviate the evil, but I cannot, 

And I too suffer. 

This has been my life; I found it worth living. 

 

adapted

 

 

Reading 2: 

 

The Secret of Perfect Relationships

 

The less we learn to long for -- or depend upon --

Special understanding from others,

The less we will suffer for not receiving this.

 

The less we suffer over what others

Seem incapable of giving to us,

The less unhappy will we find ourselves

In these unanswered moments of our lives

Spent in the company of friends and foes alike.

 

The less pain we have over what life appears to deny us,

The more at peace we naturally become with ourselves.

 

The more of this serenity we grow to know within ourselves,

The easier it becomes for us to give to others

This harmony founded in our New Understanding.

 

Whenever we give others this new order of Understanding

Without asking for anything in return,

Those we greet with this Gift are silently touched; they are moved

By this willingness to put their concerns before our own.

And it is this one action that awakens in them . . .

Their sleeping need to respond in kind.

 

Happiness is the wholeness found in conscious kindness.

This is the secret of perfect relationships.

 

Guy Finley

 

 

 

 

Sermon

 

As I passed by a group of children in the street the other day, I caught just a bit of their conversation. They were not debating the existential challenges of post-modern society.  They weren’t even suggesting bold new solutions for our difficult economic climate.

 

No, they were typical children just like I remember being.  And as typical children, they were hurling insults back and forth. It brings it all back. It may have been more common for boys…  Can you remember that age where communication with your peers included a lot of this sort of verbal combat?

 

Besides taking the offense with oh-so-clever lines like “you’re stupid”, “you’re ugly”, and the ever-popular “you smell,” an essential component of these exchanges is the defence – the comeback.

 

We had a number of different comeback lines at the ready when I was a child.  It wasn’t enough to say “no, I am not!” – although that combined with a punch in the head could be pretty effective…  But there were also what we thought were the clever responses: “I'm rubber you're glue, whatever you say bounces off of me and sticks back on to you!” “Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me.” “I know you are, but what am I?” “Liar, liar, pants on fire!” 

 

If you ordered someone to stop and they foolishly replied “make me!” you could use the ever-popular “I don’t make monkeys, I sell them!”  To be honest, I still don’t understand that one…

 

I’m sure the comeback lines you heard or used were different from the ones in the states. Have you got others?

 

There is one come-back line that I want to highlight today: “It takes one to know one.”

 

The idea is that if you call me a liar, then you must also be a liar because – “it takes one to know one…”

 

On the face of it, it may seem silly and easy to dismiss, but let’s think about it...  Do I have to be a liar to recognise lying?  Can a person who is not compassionate recognise compassion in others?  The larger question arises: How do we know anything about the motivations of other people? How do we know their feelings, their values, or their tendencies? 

 

In the absence of other reliable information to judge what is outside of us, we rely on what is inside of us.

 

Once, a fish and a frog became friends. The fish was puzzled. He noticed that his friend the frog had a mysterious tendency to appear in front of him at odd times.  He became curious and asked the frog “how is it that you sometimes suddenly appear out of thin water and then disappear again?” The frog began to explain that she could live in the water and also in the air on land. “Liar! The fish cried. “Land? Air? You’re making it up! You’re tricking me!” And he swam away none the wiser.  A fish can not begin to understand the water he swims in.

 

What we know best is the way we ourselves see the world, how we think, how we feel, and how we react. And with this as our filter on life, we tend to assume that others think and feel and see and react in exactly the same way.  We don’t limit this tendency to humans. Think, for example, of how we see animals. We can’t seem to help ascribing human emotions to them. A fox is sly. A lion is brave. Beavers are determined. Dolphins are fun-loving. Think of all the fables that involve animals who act in these ways.  

 

I don’t want to say that it literally “takes one to know one” – that we are blind to characteristics we don’t share or that recognising a certain trait means we share it. We certainly know and can recognise more characteristics than are present in ourselves.    

 

But, imagine trying to really understand anger or fear or love if you had never felt these emotions. If I told you that I feel a certain emotion called fregnap and that it made my eyes burn, my toes tingle, my stomach churn, and my fingers feel cold…  If I said that fregnap made me want to go up to the nearest person and shake their hand vigorously and then kick them in the shins… in a loving way, of course…  You could note these things. You could look for examples. But you would never really know what fregnap feels like unless it happened to you. We know many things from experience, but the deepest kind of understanding comes from feeling.  Indeed the word compassion means literally to suffer with…  It is only by feeling along with another that we can truly know what they are going through.

 

The assumptions we make about what others are feeling or thinking are often unreliable.  

 

When I worked in academic science, I went to a conference where the waitresses were all teen-aged girls.  Every once in a while I would catch a group of them looking at me from a distance and laughing.  I was absolutely certain that I was being ridiculed. I began to feel terribly self-conscious. What was I doing or wearing that made me appear so ridiculous? As I was about to leave, one of the girls came to me and gave me a note from another girl in which she declared the crush she had on me! I looked over to see her blushing on the far side of the room. 

 

We can not know and we often misjudge what is happening in the minds and hearts of others. The guy on the bus who looks angry might actually be sad. The woman who seems suspicious might be worried about something. We just don’t know.

 

We must be wary of our assumptions about the attitudes, motivations, and emotions of others, but examining our own assumptions can also teach us something. The fact that we assume someone is dishonest does not necessarily mean we are dishonest ourselves, but it might mean something revealing and important.  Certainly, we all have the capacity for dishonesty.  Understanding the conclusions we jump to can be a powerful tool for self-knowledge.

 

I will also suggest that being aware and cautious of our assumptions is our religious duty. Unitarians hold many diverse beliefs and values – among any 3 Unitarians you can find at least 4 opinions on any subject you name. But among the principles that almost all of us will agree upon are these: that each person has worth and dignity and that community is a central part of our spiritual life and growth.  Making assumptions about people violates our religious duty to affirm worth and dignity. It is also one of the most potent ways to sabotage the building of trusting, nurturing community.  It is for this reason that our congregation has included “assume best intentions” in its guidelines for how we want to be with each other.

 

Making assumptions gets in the way of truly understanding others. It is said that we should walk a mile in another’s moccasins to understand them.  The golden rule says that we should treat others as we would like to be treated. Both of these notions are good, but ultimately inadequate. It is not enough to be exposed to the same environment to understand someone - that does not tell us what it feels like to be them, only what those shoes feel like. 

 

Some have suggested a replacement for the golden rule - the platinum rule.  Treat others as they would wish to be treated. I’m sure you recognise the deep work required to do these things, but this is sacred work, the work that helps to build the reign of heaven on earth.

 

The question may arise: “what if I expect the best of people?  Doesn’t that put me at risk?  Isn’t it safer to expect the worst and to change that opinion only when it is proven wrong?”

 

Think of the people you like best to be around. For me, the people who come to mind are the ones who seem to pour their full attention on you when you are with them.  They are the ones who praise your best and don’t mention your worst. And remarkably, at least for me, the interaction with someone like that invariably brings out my best.  It makes me rise to meet the wonderful affirming expectations that these gracious people have for me.

 

Expectations are a self-fulfilling prophesy.  Often, if you expect the best, you get it.  If you expect the worst, you get that too.

 

Truly, understanding others – feeling along with them – is a path toward wholeness.  As HH the Dalai Lama has said, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”

 

I have mentioned what our negative expectations say about us. They can be harmful to others and to ourselves and they can also be valuable tools in the quest to for self knowledge.

 

What about our positive expectations?   It takes one to know one. When you recognise goodness, generosity, compassion, kindness and love, is it not a sign that such a quality resides also in you?  Who do you admire? Nelson Mandela? Mother Teresa? Martin Luther King? Ghandi? The Dalai Lama? As we think of the people we admire and yet do not know personally, what is it that we see in them that inspires us so? Compassion, kindness, understanding, love, peacefulness…  If you see it in them, it is probably because it is within you as well.  It may well be true that in anyone we admire, we can see what is best in ourselves, waiting perhaps like a seed to germinate and grow tall.

 

Finally, consider the divine – the epitome of goodness for many. God is almost by definition unknowable. We can not begin to imagine or understand or envision God, but that doesn’t seem to stop us from trying. And so, we do the best we can. We make our assumptions. We have created our image of God from all that is best about humankind.  God is wise and just and compassionate – and each of these qualities is within each of us.

 

Most of all, it is understood that God loves deeply and unconditionally.  

Truly, this great love lies waiting in every human heart.

 

May it be so.