HOW (AND WHY) TO STAY CENTERED WHEN EVERYTHING IS AWFUL
by Ruth Ann Jenkins
presented April 23, 2017
at First Unitarian Universalist Church of Springfield
Before I begin I want to inform you that there will be some material in my message and my friend Gabriel’s poetry that you may want to be emotionally prepared for. This is a content note, or trigger warning, in case anyone in the audience suffers from PTSD or other trauma related to these topics. I’ll be dissecting the current state of affairs in sometimes gruesome detail, and Gabe’s poems contain some vague imagery related to intravenous drug use and masturbation. I also really like to curse, and we’re all grownups, so I’m going to. If any of those things bother you, please be prepared or feel welcome to step out if you don’t feel up for hearing about them today.
As many of you know, this month’s theme is Presence. & As you can see in your programs, my message is about being Centered. We’ve talked about presence being, “The state or fact of being present.” Being present and being centered are basically the same thing, but I’m going to define what it means to be centered, anyway (just for funsies). According to my personal favorite dictionary, the American Heritage, to be centered is to be “Self-confident, stable, and well-balanced.” Personally, I think another defining characteristic is clarity; wherein you’re able to see things more objectively and place them in a global context (whether global is literal or figurative, it works). I’ll refer to this a few times later on simply as, “context.” Because I believe they’re practically synonymous, I’ll use them interchangeably from here on. And just in case this needs to be said, I don’t claim absolute knowledge on these subjects. I’m simply speaking because of my strong feelings towards them. Take this as an invitation to start an internal dialogue and practice self-love, as well as to share delicately with your circles.
There is a tangent I need to explore before beginning. I do believe being centered is important—which is why I’m discussing it today—but without metatalk this subject can be dangerously counterproductive. For those of us not familiar with metatalk, it just means to discuss the ways we discuss things, which helps to ensure that we choose carefully not just our words, but the impact of our words and our choices in discourse. Being present and centered can help us remember and better understand the scope of our personal actions and our agency in the lives of those around us, but to avoid glorifying the philosophical exercise, we must examine the relevance of our topic; that is, why we should even bother being centered and present. It can seem superfluous if you’re part of a minority or an intersection of minorities because the world is so terrifying (especially lately). It can even seem impossible. Literally impossible. You’re probably living with a great deal of fear if you’re Black, brown, Jewish, fat, non-Christian, trans, queer, disabled, poor, addicted to an illegal drug, an immigrant, a woman… among other things, and in any combination. Our worlds are changing in a terrible way. Some of us won’t make it through this administration. Police brutality disproportionately affects black and brown communities, mentally ill or intellectually disabled people, and pretty much all of the groups I just listed. Antagonistic legislation also largely affects us. These realities kill us every day; every community I belong to is bracing for loss. As a result, we’re often left out of conversations relating to presence because it invites a discussion about just how much we’re suffering, and if we’re being honest, that makes most people really uncomfortable. We’ve been left out of these conversations for a long time.
But the flip side, when we are included, is why being meta is so important. The people who’re suffering the most and need the most support are sometimes told to change our attitude as a silencing tactic rather than a show of support. For example, if I (the marginalized person) say, “Working part-time has is so stressful, it’s difficult to even apply for full-time positions. I only make $13 per hour and at the end of the month I never know how much I’m going to have. It’s usually less that $1000,” some well-meaning privileged person might come back with, “At least you have some work!” They’re trying to see the bright side! But HOLD UP. That’s also invalidating as hell. We’re allowed to be frustrated and speak to our experiences. Don’t give in to that gut reaction, if you have it. Try validating the person sharing instead. I’m hoping to change the narrative that you somehow should be happy all the time in the face of obstacles in order to earn the “Present” badge. This Presence talk is for US who suffer, not those who would have our experiences muted if they could. The purpose is to remind us to be introspective and occasionally rediscover the ability to appreciate the beauty within our OWN limited lives. Everyone, be mindful not to weaponize this philosophy against someone whose difficulty finding their feet is due to the weight of their reality.
Now that we’ve carved out that caveat, let’s talk about what practicing finding your center looks like. (This would be the “how” part of the title). I thought of a few examples that are pertinent to my experiences, but there’s a good chance you’ve felt these things in different contexts. As a parent, presence might mean noticing how small your child’s hands are as they throw a tantrum, and appreciating that they’ll never be this small again rather than engaging in their shenanigans. (It’s very hard to avoid engaging in the shenanigans!) Presence as a disabled person might mean letting yourself feel comforted by the thought of a friend who listens to you without gatekeeping. Gatekeeping is when someone tries to make you solve the problems of the world that make your life difficult, as in “Before you complain, I’m going to make sure you’re doing an arbitrary amount of work I deem sufficient.” Presence as a trans person might be noticing parts of your body that affirm your gender and loving them for a few moments. Being centered allows you to focus on the fact that your value is inherent whether or not the world sees it; that being in danger should not necessarily rob you of your ability to see beauty in your personal life. Presence won’t protect us, but could help make the headspaces we occupy more enjoyable. Our lives are our only experiences. Though the oppressive society we live in is the context for them, it can be empowering to remind yourself that you can enjoy the fuck out of any moment, for any reason, and improve your life by that tiny degree. That’s kind of neat.
Now, this is my friend Gabriel. I met him a few years ago through my brother, Daniel. I had recently become an atheist when we talked for the first time, and it was the first conversation I’d had with anyone about religion that was nuanced and complex and comfortable. Since then I’ve gotten to know him more and was thrilled to purchase his book of poetry when he published it in February. I’d like to take this time to allow Gabriel to introduce himself and his poetry.
// Vision — Gabriel Pedro Prado //
Thank you, Gabe. Now we’re moving on to the part of my message where we discuss “why.” Effecting change requires a certain amount of wellness, and that’s one really good reason for us to stay centered. Many, if not most, of us are politically involved. If we begin with the position that we’re dissatisfied with the state of things overall, and that we’re suffering, it’s not a great leap to activism. The strength and energy and wellness we can draw from those centering moments will help fortify us for the battles we face. We can’t fight oppression if we’re too depressed to leave the house, or hungry and broke, or lost in our lives without a sense of purpose. Presence can help. (Insert pharmaceutical jingle here). But really, I believe being centered helps us achieve a mindset closer to what we always had during our evolution, which makes sense to me as to why it helps us feel so good. I think we’re compelled to feel safe and powerful in our communities in order to feel peaceful, and globalization makes that hard. It’s good practice to remember and focus on our agency on an interpersonal level.
Another reason for us to stay centered is to support one another. We truly are all we have. This UU is a place I’m thrilled to call my church because of our principles which affirm my humanist beliefs. They’re all related and intertwined with each other and this topic, and I’m going to spend a little time discussing each one. If you’re not familiar with them or you want to have them to read while I discuss them, you can find them in your hymnals. They’re right before the first hymn.
First, we have “the inherent worth and dignity of each person.” Principle #1 is both a product of and a cause for staying centered. It’s like a positive feedback loop, and a really important one. When you have a big heart, passion, or both, it can be easy to slip into a performative mindset—to have value, you have to do something at all times for your friends or your cause. Performance is a great thing but that line of thinking is a fallacy that can drain our energy rather than replenish it. Remembering our worth & dignity is a good habit to form.
The second principle is “justice, equity, and compassion in human relations.” It seems so basic, but is something I find lacking in the culture of the United States of America. I consider our culture highly abusive. I don’t feel the need to expand on that much, except to say that I see it as the reason for such a clear divide that doesn’t really trace party lines. You have abusers, apologists, and the rest of us. Thinking back to when we talked about context being a part of presence, you may see how this understanding of this principle can help you to stay centered. Framing the shocking inhumanity we sometimes observe within the trauma that we’ve enacted on each other throughout the history of our country can provide insight.
Principle #3 is “acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations” and can seem pretty vague and broad. But once you have some practice exercising your humanist muscles, it transforms into an incredibly simple concept. This principle helps me to stay centered in my communications. For me personally, that’s a pretty big deal. I have inconsistent Executive Cognitive Functioning and experience hypomania. These can give me excessive energy and impulsiveness, as well as make it difficult to fully comprehend and evaluate my thoughts before speaking. It’s a really bad combination for presence in thoughtful discourse. This principle also ties into presence because it reminds us not to make value judgments about what our peers and neighbors are doing, but to respect their autonomy and humanity as much as possible.
Number four is so concise and lovely. “A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” I love this principle especially because it emphasizes a mindful concept with “free and responsible.” Without either aspect, you could find yourself lost in a wealth of useless or limited information. Free helps us remember to avoid dogma, while responsible helps us to remember that information and beliefs are powerful.
The fifth principle is “the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.” This principle may be the least like the rest in how it names a particular government structure. I mentioned earlier how one great reason to practice presence is to understand your agency. I feel like this principle embodies that aspect of presence; it asserts how we must uphold, if not participate in, the democratic process because each individual’s agency should be respected.
Number six, “the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all,” is the logical extension of the second principle. I’d argue that it’s more important as an equalizer than the second. Having an avenue for justice if interpersonal interactions fall short is a way for society to correct itself in the event that we get something horribly fucking wrong and end up treating someone like an outcast. This definitely operates as another piece of the context that I’ve referenced that I find central to presence.
And lastly, our seventh principle is “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” It reminds us that not only do we value these connections, but we also rely on them. Our human and natural connections sustain us. We’re a VERY social species and our brains and bodies thrive when we feed our need for community. Our planet is a fragile ecosystem on a space rock that we’re incredibly lucky to have, and our collective existence depends on the plant and non-human animal life worldwide. This concept is completely lost in our society at large; and even for those of us who’re conscious of it, the nature of corporations makes it incredibly difficult to live in a completely sustainable manner.
Yesterday, I participated in the March for Science because of the idea behind this last principle, and because of Earth Day, and because science denial is experiencing an unprecedented surge. On this note, I want to end with a passage from the epilogue of a really funny and witty book I just finished. It’s called I’m Judging You, the “Do-Better Manual,” by Luvvie Ajayi. It’s a New York Times Bestseller, so I certainly recommend it as well.
// I’m Judging You — Luvvie Ajayi //
To finish things off, Victoria Altic and I are going to perform Make You Feel My Love by Adele. I’ve always loved this song; I’ve sung it to very important people in my life. I hope you all can lend this kind of encouragement to someone in your life, and someone else can lend it to you in return.
// Make You Feel My Love — Adele //