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(c) Paramount Domestic Television

(c) Paramount Domestic Television

I had a friend who used to refer to Commander Deanna Troi, ship’s counselor of the Enterprise in Star Trek: the Next Generation, as “the pain lady.” Her main function, he claimed, was to cry out “Pain!” and take on an aspect of agony whenever some entity, on board or nearby, was suffering. (Actually, I think her main function is to state the obvious–“He’s lying, Captain,” about someone they encounter who is so shifty-eyed that only a masochist would buy a used car from him–which is why I’ve dubbed my wife’s phone’s GPS the Counsellor Troi of Navigation Software. As soon as we hit a traffic snarl, the GPS is there to inform us that there’s traffic in our location.)

Troi is in fact an empath, being half Betazoid; the people of the planet Betazed are natural telepaths. She can sense all emotion to an acute degree. And yet it’s her cry “Pain!” that lives in the memory.

In his novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera muses on the etymology of the word “compassion.”

All languages that derive from Latin form the word “compassion” by combining the prefix meaning “with” (com) and the root meaning “suffering” (Late Latin, passio). In other languages–Czech, Polish, German, and Swedish, for instance–this word is translated by a noun formed of an equivalent prefix combined with the word that means “feeling” (Czech, sou-cit; Polish, współ-czucie; German, Mit-gefühl; Swedish, med-känsla).

In languages that derive from Latin, “compassion” means: we cannot look on coolly as others suffer; or, we sympathize with those who suffer . . . . In languages that form the word “compassion” not from the root “suffering” but from the root “feeling,” the word is used in approximately the same way, but . . . . The secret strength of its etymology floods the word with another light and gives it a broader meaning: to have compassion (co-feeling) means not only to be able to live with the other’s misfortune but also to feel with him any emotion–joy, anxiety, happiness, pain. This kind of compassion (in the sense of soucit, współczucie, Mitgefühl, medkänsla) therefore signifies the maximal capacity of affective imagination, the art of emotional telepathy. In the hierarchy of sentiments, then, it is supreme. (19-20)

Do we actually experience compassion differently depending on the etymology of the word we use? Maybe we do. A native English speaker myself, I tend to think of compassion in the context of empathizing with someone’s suffering, although if asked to define it, I would say it encompasses all feelings, joyful as well as sorrowful.

If we wish to cultivate compassion–for example, in the children we raise or teach–maybe it would be more effective to speak of compassion in this wider context. If we only invite compassion for people when they’re suffering, compassion has a steep hill to climb. It has to conquer our natural desire to avoid pain. That is often what we do: we invoke compassion for suffering: “Oh, he fell down! That knee must really hurt.” “Imagine how she felt when you took the paints she was using.” Partaking of someone’s feelings becomes a chore. But if we invite compassion for all feelings–

“Look at the daddy in this picture. Doesn’t he look like he loves that baby?”

“Mommy’s listening to music on those headphones. You can see how relaxed she is.”

“The kids are laughing! They must be feeling very happy.”

–then children learn that feeling others’ feelings, far from being always painful, can be a source of great pleasure. It’s an act of imagination, engaging and fascinating, which sometimes does carry us into experiences we would rather not have, but also brings us happiness that we would not have experienced had we remained shut in our own minds.

Kundera suggests that love built on the Latin-derived compassion is “an inferior, second-rate” feeling barely deserving of the term love: “To love someone out of compassion means not really to love,” whereas the compassion that is co-feeling, “in the hierarchy of sentiments, . . . is supreme.” I’m less inclined to rank the feelings, but as a pragmatic matter, I’d like to cultivate co-feeling as a form of compassion that is both more complete and easier to embrace.

(c) Paramount Domestic Television

(c) Paramount Domestic Television


Lent begins next Wednesday, and once again, despite not being Christian either by upbringing or conviction, I feel a pull to do something spiritually significant during these seven weeks. It’s important to me that it be challenging, and not primarily for my own health or well-being, but something that helps me to serve others or elevate my purpose in some way. Some practices do double duty, of course. For example, I read this morning about how some people pledge to drink only water, which is healthful for the practitioner and also has an outward focus, because they take the money they usually spend on a daily coffee or whatever drinks they prefer and give it to charity.

That one wouldn’t be enough of a stretch for me, since I mostly drink water anyway. I also already give to charity on a budget I set annually, so shifting some of it to Lent would just be taking it from the rest of the year. I think I will return to a practice I began last month and did for a couple of weeks, but want to do with more discipline: the 40 Bags in 40 Days De-Cluttering Challenge. There is a purely self-care aspect of that: I’m stressed out by the amount of stuff I have, especially papers and e-mails, and I will feel better to lose 40 “bags.” However, it’s deeper than that.

Hoarding living room

(Not actually Amy’s living room.) Credit: Shadwwulf at en.wikipedia; used by Creative Commons license.

Clearing out space and organizing information makes it vastly easier for me to serve my congregation and care for my family. Looking for items that are submerged in the piles wastes time that I would rather devote to them, and to my spiritual practices. I want my church office to be a space that’s harmonious and welcoming to the people I meet there. I’d like our home office to have space for a desk for our daughter, so all three of us can work and create there–that will mean getting rid of a file cabinet’s worth of papers. I have clothes I never wear that I will be happy to take to a community thrift store for people who will benefit from them. And someone who may help me with this job is a young woman who’s struggling with addiction and looking for a useful way to spend a few hours a day, so working side by side with her will be a service to her as well as a way to keep myself on task. And when my space is tidy and well-ordered, I feel a burst of energy that I can put toward any number of more important goals.

What other spiritual aspects this practice may prove to have, I’ll know by Easter.

The February Quest for Meaning is out, with this sermon of mine that I gave a couple of years ago. It was almost Christmas, and I was all set to preach about how the heart of Christianity was the simple command to love one another, and why we forget that. Then I turned on Facebook and saw posts like “Oh my God . . . Prayers for the people of Newtown,” and the Universalist message of love for all was severely tested. That’s when the writing got real.

The rest of the issue is here.

Alan Turing at age 16

I’ve been interested in Alan Turing ever since I first encountered his work in Gödel, Escher, Bach, a book I read obsessively in my teenage years, so the moment I heard there would be a movie about him I started lobbying Joy to see it with me (we don’t go to the movies very often). It didn’t hurt that Turing would be played by Benedict Cumberbatch, who is starting to impress me as one of the best actors of my lifetime, and sure enough, we saw The Imitation Game last week and his performance is humane, subtle, and heartbreaking. It does him a disservice to suggest that the role of Turing is an easy jump from his Sherlock Holmes. Sure, they’re both geniuses drawn to socially-useful work yet painfully lacking in social skills (the writers hint that a modern-day diagnosis would place them both on the autistic spectrum), but Cumberbatch, who must have been aware of the trap as he prepared for this role, never mixes them up. His Turing is his own person.

At the time Douglas Hofstadter wrote Gödel. . ., the story of the breaking of the Enigma code was still classified. We now know that Turing was not just a brilliant mathematician, originator of computer science, and pioneer of the concept of artificial intelligence, but also a behind-the-scenes hero of World War II, and it was no doubt the fact that the Bletchley Park codebreakers knocked probable years off the war and saved millions of lives that got Turing pardoned, over the heads of the House of Lords, by Queen Elizabeth. Of course “pardon” is a legal term; what he really deserved was an apology, as he had done nothing wrong: he was just a gay man at a time when his government regarded acts of love between people of the same sex as “gross indecency.” What the rest of the world lost by Turing’s being forced to choose among prison, a mind stunted by chemical castration, or the option he took, suicide, we can only imagine. Or, given the astounding originality of his thought, it would be more accurate to say that we simply can’t imagine it.

That loss, the misery he suffered, and the knowledge that it’s no easier to be gay today in most countries than it was for Turing in 1952, left me feeling shaky as the theater lights went up. So did the information that over 49,000 people (all men, from what I’ve read) were prosecuted in the UK before the “gross indecency” statute was terminated. Turing’s pardon was won because of a petition launched on the internet and his accomplishments, but he’s just one of the victims of this stupid law, and the argument made against the pardon that “these acts were illegal at the time” just adds insult to the injury against them all. Of course they were illegal–but some laws are nothing more than the enshrinement of injustice, and the least we can do, after repealing them, is to apologize to everyone they’ve harmed.

So I was very pleased to learn that Cumberbatch has thrown all of his Oscar-nominee influence into getting an official pardon for everyone convicted under those laws; Stephen Fry has enthusiastically joined him. You can add your name to these more famous ones, as I did, at the petition site.


These six, the last from my great sweeping-up of all the accumulated drawings from several months, have something in common. In all of them, I was trying to use mostly the shadows and darkest places, rather than lines, to indicate shape as well as the fall of light. It works well. For example, I think the most successful bit of this one is the shadows defining her right hand.

141201c 7min

This next one too. (Same person, left hand.)

141201d 10min

Same day, therefore same person modeling, in this next one. I was just really taken with what was emerging when I looked for the shadows and reduced a lot of grays to black and white.

141201e 10minThe last three are also all of one model, and from one day. The approach was quite different than in the above three, but had a similar narrowing of the range of shades. Not too many grays. Black, or white. Lines and the edges of shadows show the contours of muscles more than they do the outlines of the body against the background.

150105c 7minIn this next one, I used hardly any outlines at all. It gives a very different feeling about the relationship of the man and his environment.

150105d 10minAs sketchy as the face is in the last one, it’s still a rather good likeness, which goes to show . . . something. Amazing how little it takes to make a recognizable portrait.

150105f 20minAs I often do when I draw, I feel very moved looking at these drawings, at how vulnerable people are, and how beautiful.

The Rev. Lillian Daniel, who is so often wise and measured, kicked up a duststorm on the internet a few years ago among people who think about spirituality, religion, and the communities that make them possible, when she published a piece on her denominational website that was neither measured nor wise. It was full of dubious statements such as “There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself” and pure nastiness such as “Please stop boring me” (the latter was a headline, so it might not have been her writing).

As my colleague Jeremy Nickel responded at the time, Unitarian Universalist congregations welcome people who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR). Or we do to the extent that they aren’t put off by defensive and angry ministers.

Unfortunately because of messages like yours, instead of finding that safe space within our congregational walls, they have found them in Yoga and Meditation classes, book clubs, in small group ministry settings in friends homes, in volunteer associations and online in chat rooms and on blogs, and in countless other ways that all turn out not to be your church. And I think at this point, it is becoming pretty obvious why that is.

It is not, as you mockingly suggest, because they find themselves “uniquely fascinating,” but rather because they find us, and our congregations, predictably close-minded and judgmental.

I thought he eloquently said what I wanted to say on the subject, and pretty much hit it out of the park. But the “SBNR people are rabidly individualistic” meme is alive and well, and among people that hold the key to the problem in their hands, as I learned yesterday. I’m in a workshop on preaching and worship for the future church, by Mike Piazza of the Center for Progressive Renewal, formerly pastor of the largest LGBTQ congregation in the world, and it’s terrific, and I am inspired and aided by almost everything he says. He brought up the SBNR briefly, though, and made the same complaint about individualism. The applause made it clear that a lot of UUs agree with him.

I wasn’t clapping, because as irritating as “I can do it all by myself” religion is, I don’t think that it is the main impulse behind “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” My congregation is full of people who describe themselves the same way. Hell, I would describe myself the same way if I didn’t have a lifetime’s experience of religious community’s being a place for my spirit to flourish: a nurturer of spirituality, not its enemy. But that isn’t what many Americans think of when they hear “religion.” They hear–and this information was shared, later, by Rev. Piazza himself–

It’s judgmental.

It’s homophobic.

It’s boring.

People in churches demonize everything outside the churches. (Rev. Daniel walked right into that one.)

It sets itself up as an opponent of science and intellectual thought.

Now, it’s easy enough for me to see why someone would conclude that their spiritual life was not going to be helped along by such an institution. Your average American has very good reason to think that churches are hotbeds of judgment, homophobia, and anti-scientific superstition. And the Barna Group study that yielded the above responses (it’s titled “You Lost Me”) wasn’t even of people who haven’t ever gone to church–it was a study of young people who grew up in Christian churches and left. As for Unitarian Universalism, as Rev. Piazza challenged us, we are none of these things (except sometimes boring) and very few people know we exist. Whose fault is that, and who’s responsible for turning it around?

If people don’t know that there is a religion that affirms the explorations of science; that celebrates our whole lives including our sexuality, regardless of sexual orientation; that is not concerned with defending its own dogma and doctrines; well, it’s mostly because we have hidden our own light under a bushel for all these years. Too many of us, which is why I don’t give in to the temptation to lie about my profession on airplanes, but tell those who ask that I’m a Unitarian Universalist minister. And when they start witnessing to me about their faith, which happens as often as their saying “I’m spiritual but not religious,” I tell them about us: that my congregation welcomes humanists and atheists (including me) as well as theists and Christians, that we encourage people to follow their own spiritual impulses in community, that we see the Bible as a document created by and for humans, that science and our observations of nature are one of the sources of our tradition, and of course, that we unreservedly affirm LGBTQ people (again including me). The very public fight for gay rights is helping to undermine the stereotype, I think–many of us have turned the media framing of “gays versus religion” to “look, here are religions that support gays,” and all those photos in the press of UU ministers, in collars and stoles to make it abundantly clear that they are ministers, officiating at the weddings of same-sex couples, are surely having an impact. Now we also have to let everyone–those outside and those inside our walls–know that we are a home for deep spiritual exploration.

Which is to say, we need to make sure we’re not boring. Time for me to get back to my preaching and worship class.





What all three of these have in common is that the gesture is expressive of what I saw. For example, in the first one, her right arm is totally wrong–I got the proportions off somehow and shortened it painfully. But I can feel the lift of her chin and the pressure her left ankle puts on her clasped hands as she holds it.

141117g 20min

I got lost in the weeds here and spent time on the shadows along his right side and other little fritterings, and I messed up the right knee so that it looks as if his elbow sinks two inches into it (reality is unforgiving–put a line half an inch in the wrong place and your drawing gives off a big neon WRONG sign). But again, the tilt of his head is here, even with nothing drawn in but his ear and chin, and the weight of his hand on his left knee, and the twist of his body.

141124d 10min

I fussed over the beautiful contours of his right upper arm but got them wrong and couldn’t fix it (erasing is a very limited option given the materials and time limit). What makes me happy about it is the gesture, again: his stare downward, his inward turn.

141124h 20min

Gestures and proportions, plus light and overall energy and mood of the situation–I don’t think I’ve ever made a drawing that captures them all to my satisfaction. Maybe that is the next goal to aim for.

It’s said that Bach wrote the Goldberg Variations to help a nobleman with insomnia get to sleep. I can’t imagine a more counterproductive sleep aid. This music makes the heart flutter, the toes flex, the mind fly, the diaphragm speed up until one is breathless, the eyes well with tears of ecstasy, the whole soul come alive and wide awake. If I could bring only ten recordings to the fabled desert island, one would be the Goldberg Variations, and I wouldn’t dare listen to it right before bed.

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