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Widening the Circle – 2/26/2012

Reading: Call Me By My True Names, by Thich Nhat Hanh

Don’t say that I will depart tomorrow —
even today I am still arriving.

Look deeply: every second I am arriving
to be a bud on a Spring branch,
to be a tiny bird, with still-fragile wings,
learning to sing in my new nest,
to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower,
to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.

I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry,
to fear and to hope.

The rhythm of my heart is the birth and death
of all that is alive.

I am the mayfly metamorphosing
on the surface of the river.
And I am the bird
that swoops down to swallow the mayfly.

I am the frog swimming happily
in the clear water of a pond.
And I am the grass-snake
that silently feeds itself on the frog.

I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,
my legs as thin as bamboo sticks.
And I am the arms merchant,
selling deadly weapons to Uganda.

I am the twelve-year-old girl,
refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean
after being raped by a sea pirate.
And I am the pirate,
my heart not yet capable
of seeing and loving.

I am a member of the politburo,
with plenty of power in my hands.
And I am the man who has to pay
his “debt of blood” to my people
dying slowly in a forced-labor camp.

My joy is like Spring, so warm
it makes flowers bloom all over the Earth.
My pain is like a river of tears,
so vast it fills the four oceans.

Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and my laughter at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.

Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up,
and so the door of my heart
can be left open,
the door of compassion.[i]

A few weeks ago I preached from this pulpit about love. It’s an important enough topic that it comes up from time to time. And one of you sent me a note after the service. You confessed that love, universal love, was a concept you struggled with sometimes. There were certain people you just couldn’t see your way clear to loving. Rush Limbaugh was the example in this case, but each of us could come up with our own, I’m sure.

Now, indeed, you do not have to love Rush Limbaugh. You are permitted to have whatever feelings you have about him, good or bad. But I would counsel you with the famous words of the Universalist Edwin Markham: “He drew a circle that shut me out; heretic, rebel, a thing to flout. But love and I had the wit to win. We drew a circle that kept him in.” Deeper than petty grievances or fleeting affections run the ways in which we actually treat each other, the attitudes of malice or kindness that we show to one another. It matters how we draw the circle – not just because it is nice to be treated nicely, and it hurts to be treated hurtfully, but because of the way it shapes the lives we lead.

Allow me to illustrate with a story. This comes from the great Chinese philosophical work the Zhuangzi. Once there was a frog, who lived at the bottom of a shallow well. The well was very small, but he did not understand how small it was. One day a friend came to visit the frog – a turtle, from the great East Sea. When the frog look up into his tiny blue circle of sky and saw the turtle peering down at him, he croaked. “Hello friend; it is good to see you. I bet you were just thinking how perfect my home is! I think it is too!”

And the frog hopped up to the rim of the well. “You see, when I want to go out I just hop up to the rim in one jump. And when I come home, I simply hop back down again. My home has water enough to float in and rest when I’m tired, and nice cool mud to dig my feet into so that they never dry out.”

He was very pleased with himself and his home, but his friend the turtle seemed unimpressed, so the frog continued to boast. “Of all the many creatures that live in this well – the small worms and the little crabs and the tiny tadpoles – I am by far the greatest and most important. I am the lord of this well, which is larger than any puddle or rain barrel I have ever seen. Surely these waters must be the most bountiful in all the world.” After saying all this, the frog invited the turtle, who still seemed unimpressed, to come down into the well and experience its glories for himself. The turtle tried to make the climb down, but he couldn’t get both his front legs to fit into the opening at the same time; he was simply too big.

Then the turtle explained to the frog about his own home. “My friend, I live in a place so vast you cannot imagine it. The great East Sea is so wide and so deep and so far across that no one could count all the creatures it holds.” The frog was unimpressed at first; he assumed that the turtle must be making up a story. But the turtle continued to try to help him understand.

“In the time of King Yu, there were floods nine years out of ten, but the waters of the sea did not increase. And in the days of King Tang, there were droughts seven years out of eight, but the waters of the sea did not decrease. The sea is so enormous that it does not rise or fall according to the rains. It is the greatest happiness to live in the immeasurable East Sea.”[ii]

In life we are sometimes the turtle, and we are sometimes the frog. There’s a concept in anthropology called Dunbar’s Number. This is a theoretical number, somewhere around 150, that’s thought to be the uppermost limit of the number of people with whom we each can maintain stable social relationships. This is the number of people we can truly know as more than acquaintances. If we limit ourselves to the constraints of Dunbar’s Number, only

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caring about the people we are already intimately connected to, we end up like the frog. A myopic existence, one where we fool ourselves into thinking that our little pool and our particular patch of sky must be the greatest that there is. We grow beyond this narrow, limited state when we seek to treat others with compassion and respect without having to know them first. When we accept, like the turtle, that the sea in which we live is vastly larger than us, and that the countless creatures we share it with exist on their own terms, and not only in relation to us.

Widening our circle, from the size of the well to the size of the great East Sea is not a matter of instantaneous transformation. It is a constant process, as Thich Nhat Hahn said in our earlier reading, “Don’t say that I will depart tomorrow—even today I am still arriving.” One challenge in this process is practicing compassion towards strangers, people we do not know and have no special prior connection to. This is hardest when we find ourselves relating to them in the context of our own unhappiness. It can be difficult to think nice thoughts about the soul one car ahead of you in a two-mile traffic jam, even though they are blameless for your frustration. When I find myself on wasting my anger on strangers who don’t deserve it, I sometimes try to imagine the life of this person I don’t know. I picture them eating breakfast or chatting with friends – just being human beings. The practice reminds me that they are just as real as I, just as deserving of life and love, just as much in need of a kind word or a hug or some other reprieve from the challenges of life.

Then there are the people whom we do know, and whom we do not like precisely because we know them. It becomes hardest to treat the people in this group with kindness and decency when they have already shown the opposite attitude towards us: drawing a circle that kept us out. There is a widely read parable with some relevance here; I will summarize it for those of you who have not recently been parents of young children:

This is the story of the Sneetches, by Dr. Seuss. Sneetches are vaguely fuzzy, slightly birdish creatures who spend their lives at the beach roasting marshmallows and frankfurters. They come in two sorts: those with stars on their bellies, and those without. The star-bellied Sneetches had a cruel habit of looking down on those without, and excluding them from their ball games and beach parties. Understandably, this made the star-less Sneetches unhappy.

One day a capitalistically-inclined monkey recognized that there was money to be made from the demand for belly-stars. He arrived at the beach with a peculiar machine and said, “You want stars like a Star-Bellied Sneetch…? My friends, you can have them for three dollars each.” So all of the star-less Sneetches bought themselves stars on their bellies, explained to the original star-belly Sneetches that now there was no longer any reason to exclude them from their frankfurter roasts. The first group of star-havers were worried about this: they might have to examine some of their assumptions and really take stock of their lives, now that they could no longer distinguish themselves from the group they had arbitrarily ostracized.

But the unseen hand of the market was ready, as always, to offer a quick-fix in the place of meaningful personal growth. Up sidled that same enterprising monkey, to say, “Things are not quite as bad as you think. So you don’t know who. That is perfectly true. But come with me friends. Do you know what I’ll do? I’ll make you, again, the best Sneetches on beaches and all it will cost you is ten dollars eaches.”

Then stars were removed from tummies, at considerable expense; first from the original star-havers, and then from the original star-nots, in an effort to keep up. And then, “On again! Off again! In again! Out again! Through the machines they raced round and about again, changing their stars every minute or two. They kept paying money, they kept running through until neither the plain or the star-bellied knew whether this one was that one…or that one was this one or which one was that one…or what one was who.”

The economy of the entire beach collapsed, owing to severe capital shortage. Having fleeced every Sneetch, that monkey skipped town. And the Sneetches all learned a valuable lesson, not just that commercial exploitation can be dangerous for sheltered communities, but also the profound spiritual truth that “Sneetches are Sneetches. And no kind of Sneetch is the best on the beaches.”[iii]

In this story, it is clear who the heels are (besides the nefarious monkey). The star-bellied Sneetches were rude and unkind, and took a superior attitude towards many of their neighbors. Kindness does not require us to treat all people the same – I am bound by love and responsibility to feed and care for my 3-year old daughter, but if Rush Limbaugh wants fried tofu and broccoli he can make it himself. But the reasoning behind any outlook of contempt or superiority is arbitrary, just as all reasons for denying basic kindness to others are just that: arbitrary.

Here is the thing though: you can never be certain which sort of Sneetch you will be. At some point or another, in even the most privileged life, we have all been a star-less Sneetch, on the outside looking in. But even having that experience, we still may harbor private grudges and hidden animosities, like an isolated, indignant, star-bellied Sneetch. If, however, we can begin to move from the perspective of the narrow well to the outlook of the great East Sea, we can start to live out that deep spiritual truth: that Sneetches are Sneetches. The wider circle of life and world connect us, even when we cannot perceive it. Even when we wish it was not the case. So we must be constantly straining against the boundaries of our own circles of compassion, expanding them until they match the one that encircles us all.

“Please call me by my true names,” Thich Nhat Hahn writes, “so I can wake up, and so the door of my heart can be left open, the door of compassion.”

It is the job of a spiritual community like this one to call us by our true names, to remind us that we are connected: to those we know, to those we do not know, and to those we may have come to think of as our enemies. We are here to challenge and to be challenged by each other – as individuals, and as a congregation. To help us grow beyond the limits of Dunbar’s number, and draw an ever widening circle of love.

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the collection of the same name, Parallax Press, 1999.

[ii] The Zhuangzi is a Taoist classic named for its (possibly semi-mythic) author, Zhuangzi. This version of the story owes much to the retelling in the collection Harmony, adapted by Chen Hui and Sarah Conover, Skinner House Books, 2010.

[iii] From The Sneetches and Other Stories, by Dr. Seuss (Theodor Seuss Geisel), Random House, 1961.


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