A Fool’s Assumption
Rev. Douglas Taylor
In a world without end, may it be so!
Assumptions are such a basic part of how we interact with reality it is hard to pull back and notice them. This is part of the definition of an assumption. They are assumptions in part because we don’t pull back from them and notice them. Now, assumptions are not necessarily a bad thing. Just on the basic level: I assume gravity is working. I am not going to check for evidence every day before stepping out. So, that’s not a fair example. But it gets at what I’m talking about: we don’t usually check our assumptions because their often in the background of our thinking. We expect the world to be a certain way. And this is not a bad thing. That’s just how we live.
I remember an old Sci-fi book (Stranger in a Strange Land) in which a character served as a perfect witness because she made no assumptions. Someone pointed to a house down the street and asked, ‘what color is that house,’ and the character said, ‘the side I can see is white.’ But she would offer no statement about the color of the whole house without first checking. No assumptions. The process of scientific inquiry is rooted in this perspective that we should prove all things and never assume.
I think this is taking it a bit too far. I contend that it is actually useful and helpful for us to make some assumptions. I think it is ok to trust life and each other a little more. The perspective that says we must never assume what has not been proven is useful in scientific research, but it can be disastrous when applied to relationships and life in general. (I’m actually being serious here.) To make no assumptions is to have no trust. And it is to be caught up in the fear of being mistaken. To make no assumptions is to take no risks, to always play it safe. Well, in the world of scientific research and other such places that is a fine and noble perspective. But in the world of relationships and living it is better to learn to trust, to risk false assumptions and mistakes.
Listen to this piece I found on a website called Tiny Buddha. It highlights how the real question is not should we assume or not assume, the better question is which assumptions we should make.
First Reading: DO HAPPY: ASSUME THE BEST by Lori Deschene
“We must never assume that which is incapable of proof.” -Unknown
You can never truly know someone else’s intentions.
If a coworker offers to cover your shift, she may be trying to ease your stress–or she could be vying for your job. If your sister-in-law offers to pay for your meal, she may want to help you out during tough times–of she could be trying to remind you you’re inferior.
You can always find a negative assumption that allows you to believe the worst in people. Or you can give that person the benefit of the doubt and believe they have your best interests at heart.
When you assume someone is being kind and not selfish, you may occasionally wrong, but for the most part you’ll feel appreciative and peaceful with the people in your life. The alternative is to believe people are bad, seek and find proof everywhere, and walk around feeling bitter and critical.
When you have no proof, it’s a judgment call: assume the best and feel good and grateful; or assume the worst and feel bad and suspicious.
Choosing to see and feel good does more than ease your sense of doubt; it also expands your awareness. Barbara Frederickson, a professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, explains that positive emotions allow us to see more, whereas negative emotions literally narrow our thinking.
When you feel more positive emotions, you form closer bonds with people, increase your resilience, and become more satisfied with life.
You can’t always feel good. But you can choose to feel good more often, starting with the way you interpret the things people do.
Thus, I think the better question in life is: which assumptions should we make? For, life is meant to be lived and it is a messy and mistake-filled experience for all of us. Rather than trying to protect yourself from mistakes and false assumptions, learn to roll with the absurdity that is life. And this is where humor comes in. Laughter and humor come on the heels of grace and love. Rumi said: “Sell your cleverness and buy amazement!”
Humor depends upon assumption. Humor is, at its heart, about incongruity. Humor draws connections between two seemingly unrelated things. A joke is often funny because we assume it is leading us one way and all of a sudden, it is something else.
There is a story of a young boy who suddenly announced to his mother after church one morning, “Mom, I’ve decided I’m going to be a preacher when I grow up.”
“O, my darling boy,” the mother gushed, “Tell me what made you decide to be a preacher.”
“Well,” the boy replied, “I’ll have to go the church on Sunday anyway, I figure it would be more fun to stand up front and yell.”
Life can be like a good joke. We think it is going one direction when all of a sudden it is something else. When we can learn to roll with the absurdity of life with grace and humor – rather than trying to protect ourselves by risking nothing – then joy will be our companion no matter how hard things become.
The question came up for me: isn’t this Palm Sunday? Isn’t it a little irreverent to have a joke service on Palm Sunday? This question helped me move deeper into the theme of ‘assumptions.’ Darin Goldenberg who co-created this service with me was the one who actually started us on the ‘assumptions’ theme for today; otherwise, I’d have turned the day over for just jokes and pranks. Palm Sunday is, in a significant way, a celebration of Jesus disrupting assumptions. People had an image of the messiah entering Jerusalem in power and in glory. Entering on a horse would have been more suitable. But Jesus chose a donkey because a horse is symbol of war. The people wanted him to wage a war for them. In some interpretations of the day, the messiah was supposed to come with a sword to free the people. But Jesus turned the expectations and assumptions upside down.
And he did that a lot! That’s one of my favorite things about Jesus. Blessed are the meek, turn the other cheek, the first shall be last, love your neighbor as yourself. Again and again, Jesus disrupted people’s assumptions. Listen to this story about Jesus found in Anthony de Mello’s book Taking Flight.
The priest announced that Jesus Christ himself was coming to church the following Sunday. People turned up in large numbers to see him. Everyone expected him to preach, but he only smiled when introduced and said, “Hello.” Everyone offered him hospitality for the night, especially the priest, but he refused politely. He said he would spend the night in church. How fitting, everyone thought.
He slipped away early next morning before the church doors were opened. And, to their horror, the priest and the people found their church had been vandalized. Scribbled everywhere on the walls was the single word “Beware.” No part of the church was spared: the doors and windows, the pillars and the pulpit, the alter, even the Bible that rested on the lectern. “Beware.” Scratched in large letters and in small, in pencil and pen and paint of every conceivable color. Wherever the eye rested one could see the words: “Beware, beware, Beware, beware, beware, beware …”
Shocking. Irritating. Confusing. Fascinating. Terrifying. What were they supposed to beware of? It did not say. It just said “Beware.” The first impulse of the people was to wipe our every trace of this defilement, this sacrilege. They were restrained from doing this only by the thought that it was Jesus himself who had done this deed.
Now that mysterious word “Beware” began to sink into the minds of the people each time they came to church. They began to beware of the scriptures, so they were able to profit from the Scriptures without falling into bigotry. They began to beware the sacraments, so they were sanctified without becoming superstitious. The priest began to beware his power over the people, so he was able to help without controlling. And everyone began to beware of religion which leads the unwary to self-righteousness. They became law-abiding, yet compassionate to the weak. They began to beware of prayer, so it no longer stopped them from becoming self-reliant. They ever began to beware of their notions of God so they were able to recognize him outside the narrow confines of their church.
They have now inscribed the shocking word over the entrance of their church and as you drive past at night you can see it blazing above the church in multicolored neon lights.
(Taking Flight, by Anthony de Mello; p 92-3)
So, what types of things must we ‘beware’ of as Unitarian Universalists? A joke or story of this sort can be useful in pointing out the assumption that might be getting in our way. Earlier I said, go ahead and assume; go ahead and make mistakes. But I mean it in the way Martin Luther meant it when he said ‘Sin boldly that grace may abound.’ Make mistakes, not for the sake of being wrong for the point of learning more about life and about yourself.
Humor challenges pretentiousness, pokes fun at pomposity, nudges our preconceived notions. Any time an opening is made in our assumptions and our fixed ideas of life there is a risk that we will uncover the dangerous opportunity of growth. I believe that a religion such as ours, at its best, presents a radical perspective that is different from the standard accepted perspective on life.
But we’re far from perfect. Sometimes listening to someone like Garrison Keillor tell stories about us can lead us to see our assumptions.
Q: Why can’t UUs sing very well in choirs?
A: Because they’re always reading ahead to see if they agree with the next verse.
Q: Why did the UU cross the road?
A: To support the chicken in its search for its own path.
Q: What is the most moving part of a Unitarian service?
A: When the members of the congregation stand and, in a single firm voice, recite the hypothesis. [Alternative answer: At the end when everyone gets up to leave.]
Do we tend to over analyze things? Do we have a difficult time letting go and trusting? I had a bumper sticker on one of my old cars that said: Don’t believe everything you think! And another one that said: Militant agnostic, I don’t know and you don’t either! These jokes about reading ahead in the hymnal and reciting the hypothesis poke a little at our sense of ourselves.
The joke about the chicken crossing the road is also delightful for another reason. We put a lot of emphasis on each person’s search, on the journey. So we help the chicken in its own search. It’s like the story of the bride who brought yards and yards of fabric to the dressmaker for her wedding dress and the dressmaker asked: “Why did you bring so much fabric, it would be enough to wrap around you three or four times!” To which the bride responded: “My fiancé is a Unitarian, he’s more interested in the search.”
Q: How many Unitarian Universalists does it take to change a light bulb?
A: None. We believe it must change by itself. We’re not in the business of telling anyone they HAVE to change.
Q: But really, how many Unitarian Universalists does it take to change a light bulb?
A: Eight. One to do it, seven to make sure that the power doesn’t go to his or her head.
Q: OK, but how Many Unitarian Universalists does it take to Change a light bulb?
A: We’re not in agreement as to whether the Light bulb really exists or if it just another myth.
Q: Douglas, seriously, how many Unitarian Universalists does it take to change a light bulb?
A: We strenuously object to the term ‘light bulb.’ We believe there are many ways of darkness dispersion and so would not want to participate in an activity validating the light bulb as the exclusive light source.
Q: Come on, now. How many Unitarian Universalists does it take to change a light bulb?
A: We choose not to make a statement either in favor or against the need for a light bulb. However, if in your own journey, you have found that light bulbs work for you, that’s fine. You are invited to write a poem or compose a modern dance about your personal relationship with your light bulb and present it next month at our annual light bulb Sunday service, in which we will explore a number of light bulb traditions including incandescent, florescent, halogen, three-way, and even candle light all of which are equally valid paths of luminescence.
In this life there are many things to make us worry and make us weep, and other things that lead us tripping through laughter into the joy of living. You can choose to interpret life’s challenges as an opening or a closing. Humor allows us to relax and open up to life. When we can laugh at ourselves we are more open to growth and grace. So take the risk, appear a little foolish. “Sell your cleverness and buy amazement!” Make a mistake and see your assumptions cracked open from time to time. Life is so big and so wonderful: open yourself to the humor and the joy, and live!
Let us sing.
Prayer to Laughter by John Agard
Giver of relaxed mouths
You who rule our belly with tickles
You who come when not called
You who can embarrass us at times
Send us stitches in our sides
Shake us till the water reaches our eyes
Buckle our knees till we cannot stand
We whose faces are grim and shattered
We whose hearts are no longer heavy
O laughter we beg you
Crack us up
Crack us up.