Flipping the Script: Uncovering Possibility by Shifting the Narratives that Hold Us Back

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Have you considered the possibility
that everything you believe is wrong,
not merely off a bit, but totally wrong,
nothing like things as they really are?
If you’ve done this, you know how durably fragile
those phantoms we hold in our heads are,
those wisps of thought that people die and kill for,
betray lovers for, give up lifelong friendships for.
If you’ve not done this, you probably don’t understand this poem,
or think it’s not even a poem, but a bit of opaque nonsense,
occupying too much of your day’s time,
so you probably should stop reading it here, now.
But if you’ve arrived at this line,
maybe, just maybe, you’re open to that possibility,
the possibility of being absolutely completely wrong,
about everything that matters.
How different the world seems then:
everyone who was your enemy is your friend,
everything you hated, you now love,
and everything you love slips through your fingers like sand.

Federico Moramarco: “One Hundred and Eighty Degrees”

For a number of years, I’ve been convinced that a part of the problem regarding our ability to embrace diversity, particularly in positions of leadership in our religious and civic organizations, has been the way that we approach the conversation and the questions that we ask. 

Let me explain. In my final sermon prepared and delivered in my preaching class at Eden Seminary some years ago, I shared the results of a recent survey of Unitarian Universalists. I believe the survey was conducted sometime in the early 2000s, or perhaps late 1990s. I do apologize, but I no longer have the text of that message and haven’t been able to locate that particular survey again to get the accurate numbers. Even so, the point remains, in this survey, respondents were asked whether or not they would be comfortable having as a minister an African-American Man, a woman, and a person who was gay or lesbian. If I remember correctly, the responses indicated that below 50% of UUs who responded would be comfortable with a minister from those categories. 

And my question was this: who is writing these questions? And UUs, really? If UUs aren’t comfortable with African Americans, a women, and/or LGBT folks in leadership, then who is? And if that’s the case, we might need to back up on our claims to be liberal or progressive. But seriously, when did a bunch of church folk ever gather in a room and say, listen, I know this might be a stretch for you all, but do you think you could be comfortable with a straight white man as your minister? It sounds preposterous, doesn’t it? But it continues to be the norm, because in part we have enshrined it as the norm. The questions that we don’t ask say a lot about the assumptions that we’re willing to support. 

In the denomination in which I’m ordained, I have the (sometimes dubious) honor of participating in interviews with candidates for commissioned ministry.  As a committee member who identifies as gay, it seems to fall to me to ask the “gay question” when we get near the end of the interview and everyone else has forgotten. The conversation usually goes something like this: “In this denomination, we’ve made a commitment on a general church level to the inclusion of LGBT persons in the full life of the church, including ordination and every potential position of leadership. How do you feel about that and how are you prepared to talk about that in a small rural conversation that may disagree with it?” “um, uh, well…” I should add that some of the people being interviewed are former (or even current) pastors from more conservative traditions who are trying to find a place in one of our pulpits. One such candidate responded quite positively “well I don’t think that just because someone is homosexual that they are necessarily a bad person.” He said other things after that, but to be honest I’ve forgotten them because I was busy preparing my retort, which was to say “I’m so glad to hear that because now I feel comfortable telling you that just because you are apparently heterosexual, I think it’s possible that you might not be a bad person either. I’ll withhold that judgment for the time being.” As you might imagine, my conversation partner was speechless, as was the rest of the committee, so we ended the interview there. And for some reason, they keep inviting me back to those meetings. 

But here’s the thing. Some of the assumptions that underly our attitudes and behaviors are completely bogus, based on racist, ageist, ableist, sexist, (insert all the other -ist words here) stereotypes that most of us would probably be embarrassed to admit we hold. 

how durably fragile (are)
those phantoms we hold in our heads,
those wisps of thought that people die and kill for.

In the book The Art of Possibility, Benjamin and Rosamund Stone Zander write, “many of the circumstances that seem to block us in our daily lives may only appear to do so based on a framework of assumptions we carry with us. Draw a different frame around the same set of circumstances and new pathways come into view.”(1) Issues of social and racial justice in our society can seem insurmountable, keeping us stuck in despair and inaction. As people who value justice, equity, and compassion, we are called to challenge assumptions and reframe conversations until we can imagine that change is possible and then act to make that change a reality. What are the scripts that need flipping to uncover possibility in our current context?

People are literally killing and dying over flawed assumptions, our planet is perishing over flawed assumptions, our common life and our individual lives suffer from flawed assumptions, but we continue to gather here together because we believe that a better world is possible and we believe that we have something to contribute. 

And the benefits of removing faulty assumptions from our lives are deeply important to the kinds of systemic institutional changes that our country desperately needs right now, but they extend to our individual daily lives as well. There are plenty of areas in our lives where it would behoove us to flip the script and to change the underlying assumptions under which we are operating, to ask the two questions that Benjamin Zander suggests, “What assumption am I making, that I’m not aware I’m making, that gives me what I see? And, What might I now invent, that I haven’t yet invented, that would give me other choices?”

The most obvious one that comes to mind is deciding what I do and do not have time for. How can I possibly find the time to workout when I have 5 meetings today? Becomes How can I possibly make it through 5 meetings today if I don’t take care of my body first? 

A trip to New York and Washington DC for our family a few years ago, in which I was a little fearful to drive in that crazy East Coast traffic had me shift from “there’s no way I want to drive in that mess” to “I am just as smart and capable as every person driving out there and if they can drive there, I can too.” The stories we tell ourselves really do matter. 

“In her newer book, Rosamund Stone Zander shows us that life is a story we tell ourselves, and that we have the power to change that story. She illuminates how breaking old patterns and telling a new story can transform not just our own lives, but also our relationships with others—whether in a marriage, a classroom, or a business.”(2) And, I would add, in a society. She suggests that by flipping the script, changing the narrative, and telling ourselves a new story, we can take powerful action in the collective interest.

The Zanders talk about creating frameworks for possibility. I think Unitarian Universalism already has one such framework. I’ve seen my UU friends show up at lots of protests and rallies for lots of noble causes, wearing those bright yellow shirts that say “standing on the side of love.” 

Love is a powerful framework. 

UU Minister Rev. Dr. Mark Morrison-Reed said in his 2017 lecture “Historical and Future Trajectories of Black Lives Matter and Unitarian Universalism”(3): “The time in Unitarian Universalism when black lives didn’t matter has passed. Nonetheless, change is generational, incremental, and bruising. It comes, but not necessarily on our time schedule. We have fallen short and will again, and when we do we need to pause and pray and ask, ‘What does love demand of me?’ and then stand up and try again. Impatience is not what sustains us, but rather dreams, hope, work, and companionship—the chance to pour out one’s life for the faith, principles, and people whom we value.”

Some of our assumptions are flawed. Many assumptions guiding values and actions in our society are flawed. There is a great need for a new story. On Tuesday in UU Connections, we discussed the Maya Angelou poem a Brave and Startling Truth. Near the end of the poem, in that beautiful way that she does, the poet writes “We must confess that we are the possible. We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world.”(4)

May it be so.  

What does love demand of me? 

Let us lean into this question as a way to begin flipping all the scripts that need flipping and to engage with our hearts, minds, and bodies in the possibility that change is both feasible and necessary, and that we are the agents of that change.  

Blessed be and Amen. 

– Rev Michelle Scott-Huffman

Footnotes:

1 –  Zander, Rosamund S., and Benjamin Zander. The Art of Possibility. New York: Penguin Books, 2002. Print.

2 – Zander, Rosamund S. Pathways to Possibility : Transforming our Relationship with Ourselves, Each Other, and the World. New York, New York: Viking, 2016.

3 – “The black hole in the white UU psyche” UU World https://www.uuworld.org/articles/black-hole-white-uu-psyche

4 – A stunning performance of this poem can be viewed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UjEfq7wLm7M