Russell Fidelman’s Aug, 27, 2017 Sermon


“What if clouds and lakes switched spots and every time you looked up you’d see waves being pulled by the moon and we’d wade through the clouds on a hot day. What if birds grew grass and the ground grew feathers. What if flowers were as tall as trees and trees as small as flowers.”

This is a quote by a Tumblr blogger by the name of Emery Allen. It brings to mind the words of Charles Mingus, the jazz musician, when he said “making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity.” Not to mention the classic Robert Kennedy quote, “there are those that look at things the way they are, and ask why? I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?” Allen does both, making the simplest statements almost profound through those mere two words, “what if?”

Now why did I start this way? Or, in Kennedy’s view, why not start some other way? Well, I want begin with something that makes an impact. To set the stage for a potent kind of message. For all the thought I’ve put into this sermon, my hope is the emotion’s here too. I figured that might be one way to show it.

This sermon I am giving is part one of a two part series on emotion and thought. I plan to give the one on thought next year. Why is emotion before thought? For the simple reason that it’s what to connect on first– emotion is much more base and clearly relatable than the realm of thought, where we’re already dealing with, say, a complex climate of fake news and global crises.

Another important question to clarify early is what makes emotion different from feeling? One theory, from the work of the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, is that a feeling is specific, an abstracted representation of an emotion. Where emotions exist in the subcortical regions of the brain, feelings exist in the neocortical regions. In plain English, think of emotions as a primal experience, and feelings as their more refined translation in our minds and to the outside world. Take note of this difference, since I will use the terms relatively interchangeably. The way I will be using them, emotion precludes feeling; all feeling includes emotion, but not all emotion includes feeling.

Today I want to talk about the immersive quality of our ability to feel and ability to emote. Specifically it is on the importance of what we do with our emotions and the ways we may utilize them as a decisive act. The way it feels to me is that using this ability to directly apply our emotion is a vital spiritual responsibility. In a sense, to feel and emote as a choice can be simply noticing what is already present within us. Further, to remain present with emotions and feelings gives us an important kind of spiritual flexibility. It is a flexibility which allows us to make a difference in our ever-globalizing world. The main takeaway I want to emphasize is to use emotion deliberately, in a responsible way and with wholesome intent.

Entertain yourself as a ‘vessel of intensity’, if you will. One already has their emotions, their feelings, and simply channels these elements through the vessel of their being. This is likened to the story of the king who went to meditate, but could not focus on anything other than a beautiful diamond bracelet of his– his obsession over this bracelet was simply that strong. When he asked his guru what to do, the guru told him to meditate on the bracelet itself, and find his clarity through what about the bracelet enamored him so immensely. I would say the king in this case served as a vessel for the intensity of this emotion toward his bracelet, and learned to channel his balance through the medium of that desire itself.

Perhaps, instead of enamourment, I am in a state of grief, or one of dread, or maybe bliss. One speaker at my church in Boston expressed how she reacted to her grief with neutrality until she was ready to face it– which she ultimately considered to be an effective way to handle what was otherwise an overwhelming and crushing denial. That tactic is somewhat of a middle ground in the hazardous territory of heavy situations, and such a middle path is important. It lies in between obsessively preparing for the worst and not preparing at all, both of which inevitably lead to the worst. Life has no safety net, after all. Take the subjects from today’s readings for example. In both stories, we are met with people who are carrying the weight of preconceived notions, to the point of being noticeably biased, thrown off balance. Therefore, instead of consciously channelling their states constructively, they unconsciously channel bias instead.

I find that deciding to access and, therefore, channel emotions relates closely with respect for our interdependent web of existence, which is our seventh UU principle. Not only that, but it is important in the inherent worth and dignity of every person, our first UU principle. There are intensely emotional qualities to these principles. I find them relevant here because I feel all life has emotion. To me personally, even animals are in many ways considerably people in their own right, especially in an emotional respect, yet many people ignore and deny them as people. Furthermore, plants, as it turns out, are just as connected here and possibly solely on the emotional plane– when you hook a plant up to a lie detector, guess what happens to the lie detector when you simply feel like harming the plant? Some very interesting results, apparently! Thus we find that this interdependent web is quite intricate indeed. I take it something that delicate deserves being treated with worth, dignity, and respect.

A concrete way to express such profound elements of emotion is to observe pain in contrasting conditions. In one case, a kid gets a paper cut. That hurts, right? In another case, a kid sees a gruesome horror movie, grows up with personality issues due to the traumatic experience, and gets to the point of, say, migraine headaches due to the emotional imbalance as its source. This is obviously an extreme example, but is entirely possible, cluing us in to the fact that physical pain doesn’t necessarily originate from physical sources, at least not in the traditional sense.

I have a few ways to express such paradigms here and now. One way is to observe my excitement about emotion here, as well as to put such emotion into what I observe. Say someone here got a call and began to talk loudly right now– it would certainly take a lot of work for me to keep cool, despite the interruption, when there is so much momentum already present in this deliverance. Another way to incite emotion for some might be certain lyrics being sung to specific people, or offensive words being said to the party it offends. These are exemplary of deliberate ways for feeling emotional. Note getting emotional or feeling emotional is in itself some sort of state. I say we can “intend” our emotions as a choice because we can make such decisions for ourselves, which knowingly trigger such a state at certain times or places.

Switching gears a little, another way to assess emotion’s place in the realm of deliberate action is to consider just how powerful it is standalone. There is a comic strip, Owlturd, which, in one of its panels, points out that while thought conceives of great weapons capable of mass destruction, emotion uses these weapons. Thomas Merton conjects that “the sane ones… can without qualms and without nausea aim the missiles and press the buttons that will initiate the… destruction that they, the sane ones, have prepared.” Carl Jung famously said “show me a sane man and I will cure him for you.” These people are all saying the same thing: thought without emotion means thought that can be exploited by emotion. At the same time, while there are limits to our reason, many people also become run by impulse and their emotion. Awareness of our states is important in our interactions with ourselves and the world, and it takes a harmony between emotion and thought to effectively work with the various pressures we may face.

Twain said “the two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why”, Ghandi said to “be the change you want to see in the world”, and Tolstoy said “everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.” Somewhere in this string of quotes lies a certain quality to the balance of emotional pressures, also the ways we express emotion directly, and the decision to be deliberate with one’s emotion. It is the work to get our own lives through their various turmoils. It is the sense that in some way when we apply ourselves, in this case our emotion, we discover another way to live. It is a way in which we harmonize and empathize with ourselves and each other, in which we act with purpose and channel ourselves wholesomely. This way is the expression of our emotions with awareness, with intention and purpose, and an understanding of the reason we may recognize this side of ourselves at the right time and place.

So, now that we’ve examined the why of expressing and applying emotions as a conscious action, let’s switch gears again, and briefly consider the how. How can we responsibly allow and accept the tough emotional realities we grapple with daily, and how can we use such active decisions responsibly? How do we avoid losing ourselves in our worlds but also keep others from overreacting either? There are some basic methods I am aware of which may help.

One very effective way of showing emotion constructively is as an assistance for those who deal with buried or complex emotions– even the strength to be there for someone or a group of people can be vital in changing peoples’ lives. Another process is non verbal emotion. My specialty of non verbal emotional expression is dance, which among other arts is a power of direct expression all its own. Actions, deeds, intimacy, and so on, these are all ways of non verbally entering the world of emotion responsibly.

Having now touched on communicating emotion in various ways, I would like to express some of my own emotion, much in the way I did with the starting quote. Listen for it in my voice. I want you to hear that I too am not ignorantly spouting opinions without openly revealing my own emotions. I am happy, and I am sad. I am angry. I am fearful, surprised, disgusted. I am all of these by all sorts of things. It’s like the senses of taste– maybe anger is spice and sadness is bitterness. Maybe happiness is sweetness. What if, right?

Consider for just a moment feel good stories– what are they but sedatives when not used for actual good? As the Jesus character in the show South Park puts it, “life is about problems, and overcoming those problems…. If God just fixed everything for us, then there’d be no point in our existence.” So I say let’s face the right problems. This way our ability to emote deliberately can be reasonably used to better our lives. One caution about this however, is that facing the right problems may be a feel good notion in itself. When problems are imposed on us instead of ones we face by choice, it’s won’t be as easy to apply that feel good notion.

I have one more story I’ll throw out there, not necessarily a feel good one, but one worth recounting. Colin Beavan, known as the No Impact Man, fighting pollution and promoting sustainability, recounts a tale in his eponymous book, where he walks his daughter home in the rain. He tries keeping an umbrella over them to keep her dry but she cries, until the umbrella is blown over a couple times by some wind and, each time, his daughter quiets. He realizes she’s actually crying because he wouldn’t let her feel the rain. In his words, “This is what walking on a rainy day, instead of using mechanized transportation, is like: you get wet sometimes…. People are running past. They look desperate, miserable, trying to get out of the rain. What has happened to us?”

So that’s it. What has happened to us indeed. For one thing, we are in a hyperconnected age– it’s now much easier to focus on the world’s problems than our own. We feel the world’s troubles when we want to avoid our own. It’s amazing to me that it’s possible to consider feeling our own troubles instead of the world’s could be selfless in some way. I say, let’s make the decision to communicate these emotions. To express our emotions. To “feel” our emotions. They’re there after all, right?

There is a story about four people, named Everybody, Somebody, Anybody, and Nobody. There was an important job to be done and Everybody was asked to do it. Everybody was sure Somebody would do it. Anybody could have done it, but Nobody did it. Somebody got angry about that, because it was Everybody’s job. Everybody thought Anybody could do it but Nobody realized that Everybody wouldn’t do it. It ended up that Everybody blamed Somebody when Nobody did what Anybody could have done.

Think about this story as you go out into the world today. Remember the main takeaway here is in wholesomely utilizing what things like this story make you feel. So, how do you feel about it? What could you do today? Will you do it? Please do. It’s worth your time and energy. What if you did? Now here we are, back at these words. What if?

“What if clouds and lakes switched spots and every time you looked up you’d see waves being pulled by the moon and we’d wade through the clouds on a hot day. What if birds grew grass and the ground grew feathers. What if flowers were as tall as trees and trees as small as flowers.”