How This All Gets Better

October 30, 2022

Rev. Douglas Taylor

Sermon video:

At our Soul Matters gathering this month, our theme was Courage. One suggested question was this: “What seems more dangerous these days: Pessimism or Optimism?” I like that. It doesn’t ask the usual ‘are you a pessimist or an optimist?’ Goodness! That gets boring quickly and everyone jumps on how they’re neither pessimist nor optimist, we’re all realists these days. But that was not the question. Instead, it asks, which do you think is more dangerous?

Well, dangerous to who? To me for thinking that way? To our society that would be happy to have me prop up the status quo? Now the question is exciting again. Shall I risk too-soon surrender and needless despair with my pessimistic perspective? Or will my optimistic outlook risk unwarranted hope leading to a near-willful blindness to the suffering of others while I accept Positive Vibes Only. Which is more dangerous?

And this question is in the context of our current situation together. What seems more dangerous these days? Is it realistic to think things are getting better, or that they will soon be improving? Or might it be more realistic to anticipate that we have not yet hit bottom and things will be getting worse?

I was talking to a member of the congregation after a recent worship service in which we played a portion of the General Assembly speech by UUA President Susan Frederick-Gray. The congregant expressed some dismay at how pessimistic the speech had seemed – dire warnings for us to rally together for justice. “General Assembly occurred at the end of June,” I responded, “right when the news broke that the Supreme Court had overturned Roe v Wade. Many people are feeling that the country is losing ground.”

The congregant nodded, acknowledging the point. But then continued, “Overall, though, we are making progress. We’ve been gaining ground! Things are much better today than a generation earlier.” We didn’t talk in terms of optimism and pessimism in that conversation, but the undertones were there. It made me pause and really consider the situation we are in.

Don’t get me wrong. The situation we are in is not good. The federal protections of reproductive rights are being undermined. Our country’s democracy has taken a heavy political blow with election deniers and voter suppression. Racist white nationalists are in the public sphere seeking respectability. Our society is severely divided politically. Corporations continue to post record profits while regular folks suffer economically. And globally, this pandemic is still taking lives. The climate continues to spiral in crisis. And countless other calamities abound.

But our question is not about if there is trouble today. The question is about being pessimistic or optimistic given this trouble. The question is, do we think things are going to get better or worse from here?

Enter Robert Putnam. Our reading this morning was from a new book by this political scientist, The Upswing. Putnam’s answer seems to be – yes things are going to get better if we want them to. The subtitle of the book is “How American came together a century ago and how we can do it again.”

Now, Putnam is a researcher. He didn’t look at if things were “better” or “worse.” He studied topics a little more concrete. And, his scope was vast, reviewing more than a hundred years’ worth of data. He looked at four specific metrics: economic, political, social, and cultural.

First, economic equality – when the gap between the haves and the have-nots is large, a small number of wealthy individuals find the situation better but the vast majority of people find the situation worse. When there is greater economic equality, more people are better off. The second metric was polarization in politics. You’ve probably experienced this as well, but it seems to me from all the negative political ads this year that my choices are between the corrupt fascists who will ruin the country and the radical socialists who will ruin the country. When there is more cooperation and compromise across party lines, more can be accomplished and more people are better off. Third, Putnam looked at society and if people were isolated or had cohesion. I recall an earlier one of his books, Bowling Alone, dug into that specific metric at length. His fourth metric he framed as cultural – are people focused on their responsibilities to others or on a narrower self-interest.

Here is the most interesting part of all this. In charting these big trends, he noticed an unmistakable pattern in each of the four independent metrics. There is a steady rise toward “a more egalitarian, cooperative, cohesive, and altruistic nation” (p11) for several decades and then a turn followed by all four metrics falling. And they all lined up to have this rise and fall occur at the same time in the life of our nation. He shows it all on one chart and calls it an inverted U, a shift from “I” to “We” and back to “I” again.

It started in the Gilded Age, the 1890’s and early 1900’s: a very narcissistic, polarized era. That’s what he means by “I.” The measures climb until the mid-1960’s. to the more egalitarian and altruistic time which he labels “We.”

“Between the mid-1960’s and today – by scores of hard measures along multiple dimensions – we have been experiencing declining economic equality, the deterioration of compromise in the public square, a fraying social fabric, and a descent into cultural narcissism.” (p11)

This research is interesting, but what are we to do with it? I do enjoy hearing a sound perspective on history. But I want to know how it will help me grapple with where we are today. What do we do with this information?

It might seem like the obvious answer is to look back at what we were doing as the trends were climbing and do more of that; look at what we were doing as the trends were falling and do less of that. But it’s not that simple.

Part of it is that simple. Looking back at the early 1900’s we can witness a progressive movement toward national shared values and the Social Gospel movement and eventually the political New Deal. In part, it is as simple as harkening back to some of those efforts and enacting them again together. We can and we should encourage the revival of communal care and mutual responsibility as a nation.

However, when we look at what happened in the 1960’s as a template for what we should not do, we do well to be more nuanced. The book even warns that it is important to realize the cohesive “We” developed over the first half of the 1900’s was fundamentally a white, male “We.” As the measures trends down from the 60’s, the country was experiencing very positive strides forward in civil rights and women’s rights, for example. The book makes the point that the part of the turn away from progress was a backlash as the progress began to include African Americans and women.

Society shifted away from increased mutual responsibility and toward increased individual freedom and rights. It is important to notice that the civil rights and women’s rights movements are part of the freedoms and diversity that have grown in our current individual-focused culture now. On the continuum between “I” and “We”, our individual rights are strongest at the “I” pole.

So, yes. We need to encourage more of the progressive steps we took during the previous climb. We need to vote and petition and push for economic and political changes that support greater economic equality and at least a chance of political pluralism across the party lines. But that’s not enough. As we build rebuild a new “We” as a nation together, we must acknowledge that the new “We” needs to be expanse enough to include the “We” that we really are today: Not only white men, but women and African Americans as well. And while Putnam’s book only goes that far, we can certainly go farther. Not only women, but non-binary and trans people and queer people as well. Not only African Americans but indigenous and immigrants and other people of color pushed to the margins still today.

And to accomplish this, the call for greater equality and mutual responsibility must be in balance. It is not so simple as to call for more “We” and less “I.” We need both. The new upswing needs to create a new “We” rather than nostalgically reach back to the “We” we used to be. The new “We” must include and honor some of the particular elements of “I” or it will not work.

This is not a foreign topic among us as Unitarian Universalists. Our faith tradition has long been strongly individualistic. We have long focused on our freedoms and on each person’s inherent worthiness and personal searching. Lately we have swung our focus together toward covenants, recognizing this need to balance the “I” with a strong “We.” Every community needs to find the balance between the freedom and the equality, that leaning too heavy in “I” or in “We” is ultimately destructive. Other faith traditions, other nations need to grapple with too much communitarian focus. Our faith tradition and this nation need to grapple with the opposite at this time in our history.

And in the end, the point is not to swing the pendulum to the other side. The point is to allow the balance to emerge – to work for and clear space for that balance to emerge. To allow Rights and diversity to flourish even as we declare shared values and work for equality together. Shakespeare wrote in The Tempest “What’s past is prologue, what to come, in yours and my discharge.” This is how this all gets better.

We must address the economic inequity and the way we’ve been pushing all the wealth up toward a miniscule percentage of people. We desperately need to find a way to reach across the political divide while exorcising the fascist-tendencies out of our system. And this pandemic has only heightened our awareness of how isolated we all have become – if that is not the work of a religious community, what is?

In the end, the question of will things improve or will things get worse is a misleading question because it implies that we simply need to wait to find out rather than acknowledging that we have a role it figuring it all out. In the end the question “What seems more dangerous these days: Pessimism or Optimism?” is a false question because the most dangerous stance is an active one of a people ready to work for the change we long to see in the world. It is a dangerous stance for the old “We” that is dying as the new “We” emerges.

Our Unitarian Universalist theology is dangerous in this way. Our theology calls us into both equality and freedom. We need to live out our faith. We are called to balance the “I” and the “We,” called to break each other out of the isolation around us, called to build coalitions across our differences – even politically, called to seek greater economic equality among all people. This is the dangerous platform I want to vote for, I want to participate in, I want to have us realize together.

As Shakespeare wrote, “What’s past is prologue, what to come, in yours and my discharge.” What is to come is ours to build! In our choir sang in our anthem (We Shall Be Known by MaMuse) we are in a time of Great Turning. It is time now; it is time now that we thrive.  In this Great Turning we shall learn to lead in love.

The great turning says the changes will not simply happen; it not something we can sit back and receive. We have to make the changes happen. As Shakespeare wrote: they are ours to discharge. We need to grab hold of the moral arc of the universe and help shape the new “We” we are to become; to help bend that arc toward justice; to optimistically believe that we can. That we will.

In a world without end

May it be so.