All of these things have resonance, in our lives. They make us who we are.
This month we are exploring the theme of self love — and today I want to ask what loving ourselves means for others.
Is loving ourselves simply the oxygen mask method — you put yours on before helping others?
Is it extreme individualism — putting yourself first?
Or is it a means recognising the bonds that exist between us more deeply by including our selves within the gaze of loving kindness and unconditional acceptance with which we seek to meet the world?
And if that is true — what is the good of that — that good which we believe in — other than making ourselves feel better?
I’ve called today’s address ‘Brave New World’ after the words that Miranda says in Shakespeare’s play The Tempest — written late in his life and 400 years ago:
At the end of the play, Miranda, who has grown up on a remote island where she has seen almost no one in her life, meets visitors for the first time and says —
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in't.
With these words she opens up the possibility of relationships with others. The world offers itself to her, new and hopeful. Brave New World is also the title of Aldous Huxley’s future fantasy written in 1931, a period when new freedoms and new hopes were being countered by the rise of totalitarianism. It was a period when the world teetered on the edge of possibility and chaos. It was also a time when the breakdown and change that happened in the aftermath of the First World War had generated new ways to be a new kind of self — from issuing in votes for women to the anti-colonialism of Gandhi and others. By 1931 the horizon had begun to be shadowed with totalitarian responses to that new world. Huxley’s title is bitterly ironic and dystopian. The 1930s was riven with terrifying instability, in fact the early part of the 20th century swung between utopian hope and deep despair — progress and degradation seemed to walk hand in hand. The feeling of menace and gathering storm that underlined the 1930s seems to resonate today, as new kinds of forces gather around new zones of conflict that seem to echo the past. And today I want to look at that.
In The Tempest Miranda’s speech ends—
O brave new world,
That has such people in't.
And her father Prospero’s response is simple. He says to her
New to thee.
In every generation we emerge into an old world that is new to us. A world ever teetering on the edge of brutality and chaos and yet filled with wonder — and Miranda’s name means ‘she who wonders’ — as in Prospero’s imaginary island 400 years ago.
As in Shakepeare’s time, we still live in a world where the relationship between self, individual, state, choice and freedom is troubled with ancient griefs, and always new, always poised on the edge of the miraculous.
What does this have to do with loving ourselves?
Last week our minister, Rev. Andy Pakula, talked about the humanistic psychotherapist Carl Rogers and his belief that giving and receiving unconditional love is at the heart of being whole, saying that self acceptance is to live within the embrace of unconditional love.
Born in 1902 in America, Rogers was among the many people in the early & mid 20th century for whom the terrifying instability unleashed in their time called them to healing and in that call to healing he and others were also called to deeply consider questions of love and mutuality — of self and other.
And when I say ‘terrifying instability’ it is not simply the two World Wars, the Russian Revolution, the Spanish Civil War, the rise of fascism in Germany …
but the feeling for Rogers and others of utter homelessness in a world bereft of the old certainties that were unravelled at the end of the 19th century. As freedoms which had been long coming were realised people were offered glimpses of liberating hope and frightening loss.
By being ‘homeless’ in this context I mean that many felt they were no longer held within a clear story, or within a clear moral world — church and duty and place in life were all changing, and bringing with them freedom for women, for working class people, and for colonial states, but that very freedom also brought the uncertainty that melted the glue that kept things together. That process is what we think of as our version of modernity— that world in which our sense of self, of choice, of the freedom to do and be and believe what we wish, is formed. But we also know that it is a process that is also fraught with fears and disillusionment.
Many now think that the process of modernising that is still happening in different ways in different parts of the world, continues to unleash contradictory energies — with huge consequences for our global well being, our sense of who we are, and of of human connectedness.
The modern Lebanese French writer Amin Maalouf — puts it like this: freedom makes orphans of us all.
For Carl Rogers and others, part of the response to our orphanhood, our aloneness and uncertainty in this brave new world had to be to learn to care for and nurture ourselves.
He thought that we could and can only do this with others. We are, by virtue of being human, creatures born into connection. We are never alone —we give and receive in the same moment, we are born into the hands of others, we learn with and from others, we learn who to be with others, but we can also lose that deep connection and what it means.
We come to have what the philosopher Martin Buber called an ‘I - it’ relationship with the world — based in the value that things have as things, or people, or institutions that we can make use of. While we experience ourselves as real, we take the rest of the world — people, things and animals— subjectively.
Carl Rogers and Martin Buber were among many thinkers in the early 20th century who recognised the deep existential problems that modernity had unleashed. Freedom makes orphans of us all; its liberating potential is almost vertiginous. Each of them put forward the idea that only by trulyrecognising one another, can we engage with the possibility of real transformation, and that personal, interpersonal transformation, was and is essential to transforming and caring for the world we share.
In 1923 Buber put those ideas into a book published in German — and while not published in English for many years it was widely influential by reputation and dissemination. Usually called I-thou in English, he proposes that, while we have an I-it relationship to the world most of the time, there are times, just moments, when we come to truly empathise with and experience others as they experience themselves. In those moments we cross the barriers of self and other and together we inhabit and experience the mutuality of the present in which we live.
It’s a view of life and of living which sees being human as fluid. We are not as separate as we think, our sense of self is fluid, we are all wrapped up in one another, and learning to experience the other truly is healing, loving and ultimately the most profound way to care for and accept the self.
In 1957 those two remarkable men came together in a conversation that was recorded and transcribed, and in which they talk about this deep and fundamental idea of self in and as dialogue. What is clear from this dialogue is that, for Buber and Rogers, these moments of I-thou, those moments in which we ‘happen’ to one another were moments of grace, moments when whatever we call God, appears.
What is commonly understood, or apprehended, as sacred is held in those moments- just very briefly. The Lutheran theologian Peter Berger calls these, and all moments of such apprehension of what it means to be here, ‘signals of transcendence’, moments when we know there is more — and though we might also say that we made the ‘more’ of our connectedness, this is what we have — and we come to it, fully, in loving recognition of one another that is also recognition of ourselves.
I referred earlier to the Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf, whose book On Identity I have been reading. At the heart of his book is the perception that many in the world , especially in the Middle East, cannot recognise who they are in this huge process of change we call modernity, and that in experiencing the falling away of old orders, of duty and service and clear principles in favour of personal choice and freedom, they are now unmoored, lost, homeless, orphaned. It is a repeated condition that appears and re-appears, in our own lives, across time. It is not something outside our own ken — outside our own culture, or specific to the future which are experiencing this vertiginous sense of loss and possibility, now. It is a process whose horizon is always on the move. This month we recognise that there is a politics of love, which we subscribe to, a politics in which love of self contributes to the dialogue we have with the world, the ecology of the self which we are working to nurture for ourselves and for us all.
In 1795 another social revolutionary was writing in difficult modern times — Robert Burns. Humanitarian, reformer and believer in the power of the connected human spirit. I want to end with his words.
Part of my own journey of selfhood has been that my highland Scots father took us from the south of England to live in Ayrshire when I was 13, and I attended the academy that Burns had gone to 200 years earlier — that’s a tale for another time — but Burns is part of my own sense of the spirit of change, personal and social, and in his poem 'A Mans a Man for a’ that' he talks of a’ that — all that the world keeps us from with its absurd hierarchies and money and status - love of one another. But for him, good sense, that great Unitarian value, with bear the gree — take the prize in the end. For him humanity was expressed as brotherhood and man, but within the embrace of his extraordinary hymn to love and connectedness, I know that we are all included. This is where we are going — and the work of love, despite everything else we know about in this world today, opens us up to possibility and hope.
Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a' that,)
That Sense and Worth, o'er a' the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an' a' that. (take the prize)
For a' that, an' a' that,
It's coming yet for a' that,
That Man to Man, the world o'er,
Shall brothers be for a' that.