Category Archives: Spiritual Life

Peace by Peace

After I moved from New York to Massachusetts, I transferred my clinical license between the states. When my Massachusetts copy arrived in the mail, I was horrified. In addition to the letters after my name, in the background of the license appeared the seal of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, which I had never before noticed. This seal depicts an Indigenous man in traditional garb standing underneath a hand grasping a sword, complete with the Latin motto that translates: “By the sword we seek peace, but peace only under liberty”. It reads like an inscription on an atrocious trophy. The very paper that my license was printed on seemed tainted. I put it a folder in the back of my filing cabinet, some place far out of sight, where it could not further contaminate anyone’s consciousness. Honestly, I do not even like having it in my home. I feel implicated by it. I am implicated by it. As a citizen of these United States, in particular an Anglo member of the dominant culture, I am the heir of conquerors. Some conquered using the sword, some using gunpowder, some even using small pox. How much peace can there be, I wonder, after centuries of genocide?

Earlier this year, the Commonwealth created a commission to create a new motto, seal, and state flag for Massachusetts; the nineteen members of the commission hope to propose those before the end of the year. It is social progress, undoubtedly, but it is long overdue. It marks our latest reckoning with our troubled past — in this country, in the New England region, and in this state. This month, for the first time ever and by executive decree, Boston will be celebrating Indigenous People’s Day instead of Columbus Day, the October holiday it has commemorated for decades. It is one of more 20 municipalities statewide to make this change. Within a couple of years, I expect, the change will be made statewide. The more people learn about the terrible exploits of Columbus, the more reluctant they will be to honor his memory or legacy.

Honor Indigenous Peoples’ Day!

The Unitarian Universalist congregation I serve as Senior Minister has officially commemorated Indigenous Peoples’ Day each October since 2012, since that was the year that the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations passed a resolution to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery, a 15th-century manifesto that provided Europeans with the religious ideology that sanctioned their profiteering and imperialist drives toward expansion into the New World and its Americas. Overseas explorers were empowered to convert the heathen natives by any means necessary — but only after subduing them first. 

This summer, Canadian citizens were horrified by the discovery of the remains of hundred of indigenous children who had been buried on the grounds of mission boarding schools in mass and unmarked graves. Around the U.S., such mission boarding schools were operating throughout the 19th into the 20th centuries, a few of them funded by the institutional precursor to the Unitarian Universalist Association. One Unitarian mission school was opened in Montana in the 1880s, on the Crow reservation, and run by the Rev. Henry F. Bond. In correspondence, he shared his views that the Crow children who had been forcibly separated from their families and brought into his custody would “enter at once upon a life of usefulness, and… do credit to their training, and become zealous and successful laborers for the civilization of their race” and never “be… thrust back into a sea of barbarism with no career open to them, and no one to look after them.” The relish with which this clergyman assumed the proverbial White Man’s Burden is unmistakable — and appalling.

These days, people in my denomination are joining with interfaith networks across the Americas in undertaking a process of truth-telling and reconciliation. One such network released statement in July 2021 that acknowledged that “tribal communities have been testifying for years to the truth of forced removal, assimilation, abuse, and death perpetrated through boarding schools…. We also know that the trauma of this history lives on in the lives of people and communities, and all of us are affected.” It concluded: “Telling the truth is a critical step to healing… we know that a radical shift must occur in our own theologies as we seek to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery and the way [that] has been used to justify colonialism, domination, slavery, and genocide of indigenous people.” This long weekend in October, we can all take part in making that spiritual shift ourselves. 

“And I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that make one circle, wide as daylight and starlight… to shelter all the children of one mother and one father,” Black Elk of the Lakota tribe long ago told us, “and I saw that it was holy.” Can we see so many interlocking circles? Can we appreciate how enormous and inclusive they are? Can we revere them as holy? This year, my church has begun work on installing a permanent land acknowledgment marker on our church campus, acknowledging that our buildings and ground are located on the traditional territory of the Massachusett tribe. That is true and somehow entirely too easy for us to overlook.

Last summer, my husband and I moved to our new home in Watertown, MA and inherited a couple of big green recycling bins in our backyard emblazoned with the town seal. Watertown is located on the traditional territory of the Pequossette tribe and the seal makes reference to that fact. Admittedly, this town seal is much more benign than the one emblazoned on our state flag and also etched on to my clinical license. Watertown has a Latin motto of its own, but a kinder, gentler one: In pace condita, or “Founded in peace.” I told my husband that I had to question that historicity of that account and so we made a closer study of the claim. 

The motto underlines a pastoral scene containing what is no doubt an idealized encounter along the banks of the Charles River. In it, a Puritan man is offering a tribesman a hearty baked good in exchange for proffered bass no doubt fished from local waters; in the backdrop are other members of the Pequossette tribe standing in front of their teepees in stances signaling they are interested onlookers, with only friendly curiosity and no misgivings whatsoever. The scene portrays amiable commerce and equal exchange. My husband suggested that there might be some value in even having a revisionist history of the town founding, at least in its expression of a collective hope that things might have been fairly decent when they in all likelihood there were not. Perhaps?

Like many White kids in my generation, I grew up playing games of “Cowboys and Indians” with others in my neighborhood, and there was never any question among us about who were the good guys and who were the bad guys — about which was the preferred (and indeed, superior) identity. As schoolchildren, we use ethnic slurs like “Indian giver” in the most casual manner imaginable in public contexts where they went entirely unchallenged. That is a mortifying enough admission in its own right, but today I am doubly disturbed by the way that insult presented so blatant an inversion of reality. An Indian giver was supposedly someone who gave you something only to take it back. Think of the bitter irony of that. How many insidious lies were we raised with about our Indigenous siblings, how many derogatory caricatures? More than I care to catalogue now. Lately, I better comprehend how prone we are to confusing the victim and villain roles. School and national sports teams no longer making use of so-called “Native American” mascots is just one concession we can make to ending confusion about what constitutes savagery. 

As the U.S. Poet Laureate and Indigenous author Joy Harjo writes, “Remember you are all people and all people are you.” We have work to counter our strongest social conditioning, which in the U.S. valorizes and vindicates settler colonialism by White Europeans. In Boston, there was considerable upset among its residents that Indigenous People’s Day represented the undoing of Columbus Day. It did, yes. Yet how could it have been otherwise? We have to surrender our allegiance to the conquerers in order to challenge the demonic logic of conquest itself and join in solidarity with all the conquered. Unless we want that hand grasping a sword on the Massachusetts seal to be representative of our own, we have to renounce both the ideologies and practices that make us complicit with triumphant tales that would turn Indigenous Peoples into human trophies. Unless we want to become strangers to our highest selves, we have to become familiar with the traditional territories we inhabit; we have to understand how that ground was gained; we have to resist the mental, emotional, and spiritual legacies of colonialism; and we have to apprise what settler colonialism has cost us in terms of a shared humanity. Let us start to correct some of the errors of the past with Indigenous Peoples Day. Let us seek whatever peace can be made with our history this holiday. Let us begin in earnest today.

Broken Angel

At the counseling center where I worked in Manhattan for a number of years as a psychotherapist, I had a minor specialization in an obscure item in the diagnostic manual known by its v-code as “religious or spiritual problem.” Clients whose religious or spiritual upbringing or involvement interfered with their emotional, mental, or spiritual well-being came to me for help and I was glad to provide however much of it I could. One of my very dearest clients had what I called “double trouble”. She had been raised in a strict household in a religiously repressive tradition constrained by moral absolutes, radical intolerance, and punishing parenting; in an attempt to escape it, she found her way into another faith community that she later came to characterize as a cult, which she eventually exited with remarkable courage and clarity. We’ll call her Sandy, which is not her name. These choices cost Sandy a great deal, personally, but proved worth it in the end, given the spiritual and emotional freedom she won for herself. 

Because she was someone who was obviously built for devotion, though, Sandy dedicated herself to the the therapeutic process. The first December we worked together, she brought me a small gift for the holidays, a Christmas ornament — which before I even finished unwrapping she announced was broken. I soon saw how. Oddly, Sandy had bought it that way at one of the craft fairs in a nearby park; she told me that because of that, she’d gotten a good discount. Not only was the ornament broken, but the box it came in was, too. Inside the warped box with the lid that did not quite fit was an angel whose halo had snapped off and string had come loose. Sandy told me that she loved that angel at first sight. I did, too, with an intensity and immediacy that surprised me. More than a decade later, I have the broken angel sitting in a places of pride on my shelves, alongside the warped box; both testify to the bold wisdom of imperfection. 

In his book, The Road to Tolerance: The Philosophy of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, psychologist Albert Ellis sums up the insights he gleaned from decades of practicing the therapeutic method he dubbed REBT. While he spent most of his early years railing against the errors of religion and spirituality and touting the benefits of psychology and philosophy, nearer to the end of his life, he came to recognize the considerable overlap across domains. All of these influence mightily what we believe to be true about ourselves, one another, and the world we share. The rational and emotive were mutually informing, he explained. The problem for the unhappiest among us, he explained, were that their core beliefs were deeply irrational. Once we recognize that, we can correct some of their distorting effects. “We are, and admit we are, very fallible,” Dr. Ellis contended, “as humans, not being gods, should be. By admitting this, we make ourselves much stronger.” These days, we all need to be a bit stronger, don’t we?

Dr. Ellis recognized patterns that he termed the “major musts”. The “major musts” tell us that people and things must be perfect if we are to be spared unending misery in our lives. Those “major musts” are not only lies; they are also recipes for interpersonal disaster. Honestly! Who or what do you know in your own lives to be perfect? How long can they remain that way? Why is that even an expectation that any of us harbors? 

According to Dr. Ellis, our best hopes for happiness involve us surrendering our irrational ideas and major musts and adopting a more philosophical outlook centered on acceptance. This asks us to embrace three increasingly tolerant attitudes: firstly, unconditional acceptance of ourselves as we are; secondly, unconditional acceptance of others as they are; and finally, unconditional acceptance of life on its own terms, as opposed to our personal preferences. In these attitudes, Dr. Ellis sees similarities among teachings from the Buddhist, Jewish, Taoist, Christian, and Muslim traditions. Embracing such a spiritual orientation seems to improve everyone’s mental and emotional welfare. It not only makes us better, healthier people — it makes us good for one another, kinder and more accommodating of our frailties and foibles, rather a great deal more compassionate.

The twice fallen Sandy was first rejected by her family and then by the friends in the faith community she came to recognize as a cult, but somehow remained amazingly and unfailingly kind, warm and receptive. She went into a successful career in the arts and embraced all sorts of diverse people she had been taught were outside the reach of grace, which is by its nature boundless. Although she had stopped going to church, she still had a rich religious life. In our sessions, she was fond of quoting one of her favorite lines from scripture: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers,nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God…” Nor should anything try to separate from love itself, she concluded, love divine, love amongst us, and I agreed. So of course Sandy could not let a broken angel be cast away ahead of a holiday, and she intuited that I would appreciate the emotional logic behind that. 

Sandy’s was not an impulse purchase nor an trifling gift. Instead, it gave witness to her wise life orientation, one that Dr. Ellis would consider supremely rational. We live in such a polarized time in this nation, a time of emotional extremes, when far too many people are convinced of other’s villainy, when it awful each time our side does not prevail, when we never question whether our own attitudes might be damaging to the good of the whole, when we neglect to manage our individual upset and own how larger realities effect our lives. We have come to consider our various truths as absolutes, and we regard these truths as mutually exclusives instead of mutually informing. It’s hard to tolerate complexity, and we tempted to not even try. We have all kinds of cults we could join, secular and sectarian alike. These days, I am grateful for the brave (and dare I say, reasonable?) few who reach across our lines of deepest division and somehow stay centered in their values at the same time. No matter how fragmented our world gets, we always have the option to seek wholeness. 

While I am no longer Sandy’s therapist, and haven’t been for years, I think of her often and wish her well and recall her each time I see that angel on my bookshelf at home. Each December, especially, I am grateful for that touching gift she gave me. Over the years and in the course of moving various offices and houses, I learned how tie that snapped string from the angel around its loose halo so the two would not be separated and nothing would be lost. Every once in a while, when I see that halo coming off kiter, I weave the end of the string in a little tighter. That angel Sandy gave me will never fly. It will never hang from the tree in an ornamental way. The angel is rather a remarkably humble and honest one. It only stands, steady and grounded, its wings unfurled in defiant embrace of all that is as it is, showing me a simple posture that is both emotionally intelligent and spiritually mature, gesturing that such openness can be mine to assume, as well, at any time certainly, but most advisedly now.