Questions and answers: How?

Do you ever mention to friends or family members or maybe strangers that you are involved in a Unitarian community? Do you get a completely blank look in response?

You've probably noticed that Unitarianism has a rather low profile in this country. Sadly, it's not a whole lot better known in other places.


Through the years though, there have been some attempts to capture the Unitarian essence in a short phrase - maybe a tagline or slogan.

We have "spirituality without conformity" on some of our signs. We also say "many beliefs - one faith." 

One of the more amusing ones is "Unitarianism - where all your answers are questioned."


There is certainly something to that one. It has a very nice post-modern feel to it with a bit of a dismissive wink about all those religions and others who want to offer you the one-time, certain, true-for-everybody and all time answer - "the answer."


I don't, however, want to dismiss answers. One of the reasons we come to this place is that we have questions. And although one of our songs ends with " even to question truly is an answer", and although we know that questions can lead to exploration that itself renders the question irrelevant - despite all that, it would be really nice to have an answer every once in a while!


And this is not a place or a tradition that says there are no answers! There are indeed answers worth finding - it's just that in this tradition, many answers can have equal validity. They may be answers for different people, different places, and for different times.


This month, we are talking about questions and answers. We'll talk about "how" and "why" and we'll finish the month with a special sermon where you'll provide the questions and I'll do my best to answer them on the spot. One of the reasonable questions at that service - and one I might ask myself - is "what made you think this was a good idea?" You might want to think about what questions you want to bring on that last Sunday of the month.


Today we are going to explore "how?"


Usually, when I want to know how to do something, I have a time honoured and most often successful approach. Google. Really. 

Checking "how" on Google, the top "how" queries include some of the eternal questions we've been asking for centuries or even millennia. I know they have been asking these since humankind first developed speech. The great questions: How to kiss, How to lose weight fast, and - of course - and I think that Socrates was deeply engaged in this one - how to get six-pack abs.


Oddly - another one that seems to be extremely popular is "how to make pancakes." Somewhere, there are millions of people aching to make a perfect pancake. Imagine the pain of their longing?


Finally though, when the superficial "how" questions are done, the most popular question beginning with "how can I be" is not "how can I be rich?" It is not "how can I be younger looking?" It has nothing to do with physique or kissing techniques. It's not even pancake-related.


The question is simply "how can I be happy?"


Beginning this series with "how?" is a bit risky. Surely, we should begin with "what?" as in "what is the purpose of life?" or "what is the meaning of life?"


You'll forgive me if I'm not quite ready to take on those questions, right?


I think that - at least for a simple-minded person like me - the thousands of years of discussion and thousands upon thousands of pages of text about those questions boil down to something rather simple and easy to understand: We want to be happy. And given a bit of thought, we also recognise that the only way to be happy is for others also to be happy. 

Ann Frank, that young bright Jewish girl with a wonderful spirit and a terrible fate knew this simple truth. She wrote in her diary: "We all live with the objective of being happy; our lives are all different and yet the same."


Oh yes, of course, there are many other goals we think about and ask about. Losing weight, great abs, and better kissing are only the beginning. Love, popularity, money, power, prestige... and even pancake making - and in the end, they are all about happiness.


All these questions boil down to that simple question "How can I be happy?"


Now, I know what you're thinking. You're thinking that I'm going to say that the question I've raised has many answers and that - as Unitarians - we need to recognise the many paths that all share truth - you think I'm going to say that only you can answer this question for yourself.


Well, you're wrong.


This is question and answer month. We have a simple question. I'm going to give a simple answer.


The way to be happy is this - and this wisdom is not going to be the one that comes up on the web in a Google search. In fact, you may not even like it. In its bluntest form, the secret path to happiness is this: "Get out of your own way."


Let me give you a different kind of example.


In recent years, I find that manufacturers have decided to use smaller and smaller print on their products. (I know this has nothing to do with my aging eyes, right?) In order to read that micro-writing, I need to get very very close to it. But as I get very close I notice - to my frustration - that it starts getting even harder to read. It can take a while before I realise "oh, the writing is in the shadow cast by my own head!" It's only when I get further away from the object of my inspection that the light can come in and reveal what I wish to know.

We can get in the way of our own happiness.


For many, many years, I got in the way of my happiness by carrying around a set of expectations whose weight kept me from changing my life. I carried around requirements for myself like "have a big house", "make a lot of money", "succeed in business", "be well-known". 


To meet these expectations, I kept labouring in a field that made me miserable. I knew I wasn't happy but for a long time I couldn't get out of my own way enough to let the light in that would show me a better way.


When I was finally able to put those expectations aside - when I was finally able to get out of my own way - something very different happened. At last I was able to do what truly felt right and the result was happiness.


I don't mean to say by any means that there are not times when I'm unhappy. Like everyone, I do and will continue to encounter deep dark nights of terror and I know the unfathomable depths of grief are always there waiting. What I mean though is that I am living with purpose and with meaning. I enjoy the overall shape and flow of my life.


When I changed my life, I was not really seeking happiness. I did not, in fact, ask what would make me happy as I considered in which direction I might head.

I sought a fit and I tried to identify a path that felt right. What felt right was helping others.


Had I asked instead what made me happy, I would have made a list of enjoyable activities that would have led me nowhere. And this is part of getting out of your own way. Seeking happiness does not lead to happiness. Henry David Thoreau said this very well:


"Happiness" he said "is like a butterfly; the more you chase it, the more it will elude you, but if you turn your attention to other things, it will come and sit softly on your shoulder ..."

We all carry around a variety of impediments to our own happiness. We all have ways in which we stand in the way of the light of our own happiness.

Many of us carry around anger for the hurts that have been done to us. Anger is understandable. It is a natural reaction. It is also a poison that we prepare but - unable to deliver it to our tormenter - absorb ourselves. The poison makes us unable to feel and touch. It closes us off from the sources of love and beauty around us. It causes us to stand in the way of our own happiness.


Shame is another heavy burden to carry and a dark shade to the light of happiness. Who was it who told you that you were not smart enough? Who told you that you were not attractive enough? Who told you that you were bad or evil? 


And still you carry the shame they planted there so long ago - you nurture the weed that it is and allow it to blot out the light.


And I say the answer is simple - get out of your own way. 


It is indeed simple. You can say it in six words. And yet it is also the work of a lifetime - work that we must begin although we know we will never finish. It is work that we can do better together than we can do alone - work that takes unconditional love and acceptance to begin. Some find that kind of all-encompassing love in human beings, as I do. Some find it in a more ineffable source that we cannot name but only sense.


One thing is certainly true. Whether you call it God or goodness or love or something else entirely, the light is there - shining bright - shining for us if we but learn to walk in its radiance.


Let us recommit ourselves to the simple but terribly hard and never completed work of allowing the light to shine in for us and very everyone.