Just the Way You Are

(note: this is adapted from my April 10 sermon “Just the Way You Are.”)

Many of us have a hard time truly believing that we are worthy of love, just the way we are. The dominant culture teaches us that we have to DO more, or buy more, in order to be worthy. This idea of “working for our worth” can even infect our work for social justice and beloved community. Have you ever encountered a justice effort that was at least partially motivated by shaming? Or felt like maybe the only way to assuage feelings of inadequacy was to be socially virtuous? That maybe you’re only a good person if you’re marching in the streets for social justice, or singlehandedly ending poverty and oppression?

I don’t mean to give us a pass on acting on our values, taking risks to counter oppression, confronting evil, or helping one another. We absolutely must do those things. We are called to do them. But at the same time, we need to be clear that our worth as human beings doesn’t depend on this. It doesn’t depend on how many protests we attend. It doesn’t depend on how many phone calls we make or whether we buy the most ethical food or say all the right things. It doesn’t depend on anything. We are enough.

We worked with this notion of “enoughness” last year in our work with shame researcher Brené Brown’s book The Gifts of Imperfection. (If you’re not familiar with it, I recommend checking it out!) One of her “guideposts” to wholehearted living is self-compassion.

Self-compassion is also a Buddhist practice I have encountered in recent years as I have (somewhat sporadically, I admit) explored “Metta” meditation, which means something like “lovingkindness.” This meditation always begins with directing lovingkindness toward oneself. Sharon Salzberg, a meditation teacher writes, “when we do metta practice, we begin by directing metta toward ourselves. This is the essential foundation for being able to offer genuine love to others. When we truly love ourselves, we want to take care of others, because that is what is most enriching, or nourishing, for us.” My meditation practice is not incredibly robust, but I can tell that this is right. When I am able to start with myself, I do also feel a little more tender toward the people around me and the rest of the world.

If you’re like me, you’ve been noticing a distinct lack of “genuine love for others” in the public discourse these days. There are many reasons for this, of course, including persistent racism in the DNA of this country, as well as escalating income inequality, which correlates with political polarization.

But beyond these factors, or maybe as a part of them, is an emotional and spiritual component. When we feel shame—a feeling that we ARE bad—we can respond by lashing out with blame and anger. Brené Brown says, “blame is the discharging of discomfort and pain.” I think we have an epidemic of blaming in this country, and I think that means we have an epidemic of shame.

So alongside working for social justice and economic equality, we are called as a congregation of caring people, to work through our own shame, and to help one another to cope with our feelings of inadequacy and anger. At our best, spiritual communities like this one build spaces of trust, where our vulnerability can be shared and received with honor and empathy. Where we can affirm that all of us are worthy of love, just the way we are. When we work for justice from a place of care and worth, rather than shame, we truly build the beloved community we dream of.

It is weird. It is countercultural. It is not “cool.” But it is life-giving, transformative, and much-needed.