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Sunday, 19 December 2004 09:02
a sermon by
The Reverend Diana Jordan Allende 
Auburn Unitarian Universalist Fellowship
9 December 2004

Two weeks ago, my sermon topic was What Becomes of the Broken Hearted?  and, in some sense, today’s sermon, Caring, is intended to be a companion piece or follow-up to that one.  They are linked because, after all, “caring” can be both the cause of and the remedy for broken-heartedness.  When we care “too much” or in the wrong way, or when we care for people or events or processes that disappoint or betray our caring, we can become broken-hearted.  Or, conversely, when we, ourselves, feel un-cared for, we can become broken-hearted.

You may recall that in the “broken-hearted sermon” I quoted playwright Eugene O’Neill, who said, “We are born broken.  We live by mending.  And the grace of God is the glue.”  Perhaps “mending” and “caring” are synonyms, or could be synonyms, where caring is rightly understood.  Perhaps we mend by caring.  But then again, since “caring” can be the source of our broken-heartedness, how can it also be its cure?  Ah, that is the question!

Other questions that come to my mind when I think about caring include: In what ways do we care for others? Care for ourselves?...How do we demonstrate our caring?...What is the difference between care-giving and care-taking?...What about ‘care fatigue’?...How many things can we truly care for at one time?...What are the spiritual resources in which we can ground our caring and from which we can draw upon for sustenance in caring?...How do we collectively care for something we hold in common, such as this community?...How do we care for the one, and care for the many?...What are the hallmarks of caring, the qualities of a caring person?   Let’s see how many of these questions we can touch upon.

I am indebted to Milton Mayeroff’s little book On Caring for a philosophical perspective on this commonplace human endeavor, although I daresay there is a wealth of information–nay, wisdom--readily at hand in this room, for I believe that each of us has experienced caring deeply about some one or some thing or some idea–and probably all of the above.  

Mayeroff defines caring as helping “the other” to grow, whether “the other” is another person, an idea, or, say,  a community.  The “other” can be anything to which one is related, but which also has its own value, independent of us and the value we assign it.  

Insisting that “helping the other to grow” is central to caring, for Mayeroff caring is different from “wishing well, liking, comforting and maintaining, or simply having an interest in what happens to another.”  It is also not an isolated feeling or a momentary relationship.  Caring, he says, is a process.  It takes place over time.  It requires and builds on such qualities as knowing the other, mutual trusting, patience, honesty, humility, hope and courage.   As you can see, caring becomes–over time–a specific way of being in the world.  It shapes us.  And caring people are drawn to other caring people, which is interesting when you consider that we say each Sunday, that the Auburn Unitarian Universalist Fellowship is valuable to us especially as a “caring, committed community, whose words and deeds enlighten our minds with reason and warm our hearts with love.”  Exactly!  We help each other grow and we ‘grow’ our community through our caring commitment!

Here’s what Mayeroff says of caring as a way of life: “In the context of a person’s life, caring has a way ordering other values and activities around it.  When this ordering is comprehensive, because of the inclusiveness of one’s carings, there is a basic stability in one’s life; one is ‘in-place’ in the world, instead of being out of place.  Through caring for certain others, by serving them through caring, a person lives the meaning of his or her own life.  In the sense in which a person can ever be said to be at home in the world, he or she is at home not through dominating, or explaining, or appreciating, but through caring and being cared for.”  

This “caring” is pretty potent stuff!  It can order and anchor our lives.  And caring for others not only helps them grow and be transformed, it helps us grow and be transformed.  

Before I continue, I want to quarrel a bit with Mayeroff’s requirement that caring always involves “growth,” and that “comforting and maintaining” do not rise to the level of caring.   I think he’s mistaken here.  Perhaps we could substitute the word “growth” for “flourish” or “thrive.”  Caring is helping the other to flourish or thrive, for instance.   

Or perhaps we could just decide that “comforting and maintaining” in cases where growth is no longer the issue is, indeed, caring.  Too many of you are caring for your parents in situations where attending to their health, happiness and well-being (without holding out for growth) certainly meets the standard of caring.   Perhaps Mayeroff hadn’t had that experience when he wrote his book!

Okay, so let me go back to that list of questions I have about caring and address them against Mayeroff’s philosophical treatment of caring, keeping in mind his argument that only through caring and being cared for will we be able to find the meaning of our lives.  Through caring, he says, we will create and discover a centered steadiness, a being “in-place” in the world.  Obviously this takes some skill.  And some practice.  And some discernment.  

The questions, again, are these:  In what ways do we care for others? Care for ourselves?...How do we demonstrate our caring?...What is the difference between care-giving and care-taking?...What about ‘care fatigue’?...How many things can we truly care for at one time?...What are the spiritual resources in which we can ground our caring and from which we can draw upon for sustenance in caring?...How do we collectively care for something we hold in common, such as this community?...How do we care for the one, and care for the many?...What are the hallmarks of caring, the qualities of a caring person?    

Let me start with the last question as a way of also addressing the first ones: What are the hallmarks of caring, the qualities of a caring person?  

One of the qualities that Mayeroff lists that I don’t think I would have thought of is patience.   A caring person is a patient person, a person who is willing to make both time and space for the other.   Remember when we talked about “emptying”–making room for  others in our lives, in our selves.  It’s a similar idea.  Caring for an-other, be it a cause or a person, or a pet, requires getting to know that other, deeply, over time.  Particularly where other people are concerned, a willingness to enter into the other’s reality, to see the world through his or her eyes, is deeply–and sometimes painfully–patient work.   It is long term work.  It is the work of building mutual trust and respect over time.  

While impatience takes times away, patience gives time back.  Patience creates space for the other to live in and express himself or herself.  It enlarges that person’s ‘living room’.  Patience, Mayeroff says, includes tolerance of a certain amount of confusion and floundering.   It appreciates the “wastefulness” and free play that characterize growth.  So patience is definitely a hallmark of caring, and a is way we demonstrate our caring.  

Trust is closely related.  We need to be able to trust the other to grow in his or her own time and own way.  We need to be able to trust ourselves to companion “the other” in the process–trust our own abilities to engage, coach, encourage and yet also ‘let go’ of the other.  Remember, the goal is:  growth, flourishing, taking responsibility for oneself.   We need to be able to trust the process itself, and find a way to continue to trust through periods of alternating rhythms.  Ups and downs.  Advances and retreats.  Trust is a hallmark of caring.

Hope is another.  And honesty.  And humility.  If we are to be caring, we need to be honest about the situation at hand.  We try to see truly.  And to name the behavior we see.  We need to be able to honestly assess whether our caring is helping or hindering the other’s growth.  We need to be capable of modifying our caring actions when this is called for.   Always the ongoing question in caring is: What is the best thing to do in response to the specific situation at hand, as it is now, this minute?  

We need hope in order to be able to sustain our commitment, perhaps in the face of changing needs.  We have to be able to believe that there is something worthy of our commitment.   Hope is expression of “plentitude in the present.”  It is a present alive with a sense of the possible.  It’s focus is not a push toward a future that we have ‘designed,’ but an unfolding of the present within a reality that is resourceful–capable of providing ways and means.  It is hope that gives us the courage to continue to stand by or stand with, to let go, or to move into the unknown.   At one point or another, caring is likely to require each of these.   

Humility reminds us of our limitations and helps us to be “unattached” to specific outcomes.  Humility reminds us to stay respectful of the other and his or her development.  Humility informs us that we are not the only resource for another’s  growth and change.  

What about care fatigue?  How many things can one truly care for at the same time?  According to Mayeroff: Very few.  Perhaps there is no limit to the number of things or persons or situations that we can care about,  but if the process of caring is one that helps another to grow (to flourish, to thrive) and also shapes our own lives in profound ways, then obviously limitations of time and energy will require us to be selective.  Mayeroff writes of our discovering our “appropriate others,” by which he means identifying those people, activities, ideas, causes that both “complete” us and “require” us.   We might remember Sam Keen’s questions: What are my gifts?  What are my duties?  Who are my people?  

We need worthwhile commitments in order to grow ourselves.   And there are some ‘places’ where we are genuinely needed.  A congruence between what we need and where we are needed benefits all and positions us for more of our own growth and deepening.  

Everything I have said about patience and companioning, about hope and humility, about deepening and centering ourselves through the process of caring for others points to the spiritual nature of caring.  Caring can lead us through some dark nights of the soul, but it can also connect us to meaning in our life in a way that would otherwise be impossible.  We need those worthwhile commitments for the purpose of our own wholeness, our own creative unfolding.  

One such commitment that many of us have made is a commitment to this Fellowship, to help it grow–not just in numbers or activities or programs–but in its ability to receive people where they are, and to touch and nurture and transform them.  To help us grow.  To help us flourish.  To help us explore and mature spiritually.  Religious community is one of the few places in our culture where we should be able to come and feel safe, to come and feel open to new possibilities, to come and risk vulnerability in order to be known by others, in order to feel less isolated and alone.  This is high, holy work even though it is done through a thousand common gestures: greeting, welcoming, assisting, joining,  listening, sharing, considering, re-considering, making amends, forgiving, accepting, learning and beginning again.  

We rely upon the social graces of civility, courtesy, consideration of others.  

We rely upon the spiritual graces of love, humility, openness and trust.  

The relationship between “the one and the many” is characterized and balanced by the concept of covenant: how we agree to treat one another.  Our covenant should be consistent with our UU Principles and Purposes and with our AUUF Mission Statement.   The covenant we read this morning, No. 473 is this: To dwell together in peace, To seek the truth in love, And to help one another.   

Sounds a lot like caring, doesn’t it?  

Caring does not mean a refusal to set limits.  It does not mean relationships with no boundaries, no norms.  Caring can and often must include confronting a situation, a person, a behavior with love.   We care for our community by holding one another accountable to its covenant of mutual caring.   To attend to the needs of “the one” and ignore the needs of “the many” is just as unbalanced and unwise as to attend to the needs of “the many” while ignoring the specific needs of “the one.”  

We must genuinely care for each other in order to care for the community as a whole.   And we must be mindful not only of good communication, but also of open communication and honest communication, which includes listening as well as speaking.  

I think we are at a stage in our development as a religious community, where we need to be more explicit about our covenant with one another.  We need to develop shared understandings about responsible behavior and conflict resolution and management.   Disagreements and misunderstandings are part of being in relationship with others.  Approaching these in a respectful and forthright manner are part of staying in relationship with others.  

I trust that this community is up to whatever tasks lie ahead.  

©1999 Rev. Diana Jordan Allende
Auburn Unitarian Universalist Fellowship

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