Rev. Douglas Taylor
More than 20 years ago I had my first encounter with the personality assessment tool called the Enneagram. I was part of a group of seminary students invited to take the test and learn more about the tool. This was not part of our regular courses, instead it was offered by the minister serving the church across the street from the seminary.
If you are not familiar with the enneagram, it is a personality tool which, through self-assessment, sorts people into nine interconnected types. It is often used in the business world similar to the Myers–Briggs Type Indicator, which is a little more widely known. The Myers-Briggs uses 16 types, each known by a string of 4 letters, while the Enneagram results are simply the numbers 1 through 9. (I am a 4, if you are interested in knowing).
As I was saying, I had my first opportunity to take the Enneagram while I was in seminary. That’s the other distinction of the Enneagram; other personality tests were designed for businesses but the enneagram was meant for spiritual exploration and self-development.
Traditionally, it is when we are students, often as children, that we are encouraged to spend time in the pursuit of self-knowledge, self-development. Or if we enter a particular field or career we might be so encouraged. Most of us as adults end up defining ourselves by what we do, It can be difficult to tease out who we are apart from our work. But through the ages, philosophers and great thinkers have extolled the virtue of self-examination in the pursuit of wisdom.
In his famous essay “Apology,” Plato describes the Trial of Socrates. The elder philosopher is accused of corrupting the youth of Athens with his teachings. He is given a choice of punishment – death or exile. As a rationale for accepting death over exile, Socrates said “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
Similarly, ages later, Henry David Thoreau would proclaim, “I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartanlike as to put to rout all that was not life.” Thoreau would have been fine with exile, Socrates came to a different conclusion. I suspect Socrates and Thoreau may have disagreed on methods, but agreed on the ultimate goal. Likewise, Emerson and Aristotle, Shakespeare and Schweitzer, Camus and Lao Tzu, Simone de Beauvoir and Sigmund Freud – again and again the message is offered that the way to wisdom is through some form of examination of the self. Philosophers and sages throughout time have followed the dictum of Socrates: “To know thyself is the beginning of wisdom.”
But here is the really interesting part: often when you do that deeper work on yourself, you tend to also have a greater capacity to understand and relate to others.
So let us consider our work this morning – to know ourselves, to learn what we may of life through self-examination. And our first point of reference shall be to acknowledge that the ‘self’ is a dynamic, growing reality. You are not going to take a course in yourself and finish after a semester, or take a test and discover everything you need to know about yourself and be done. We are always growing and changing. Rev. A. Powell Davies said life is a chance to grow a soul. May Sarton begins her poem (which we used as our reading) saying “Now I become myself.” Socrates spent a lifetime uncovering self-knowledge. And so it will be for each of us as well.
All of this is well and good – but let us admit these philosophers and sages tend to have competing ideas about what the ‘self’ is and how best one is to go about examining it. This can be daunting. Physician and poet, Lewis Thomas, in his book The Medusa and the Snail, wrote about the effort to figure out just exactly what ‘the self’ was, saying:
“I have had more selves than I can possibly count or keep track of, and sometimes they are all present at once, clamoring for attention, whole committees of them, a House Committee, a Budget Committee, a Grievance Committee, even a Committee on Membership, although I don’t know how any of them ever got in. No chairman, ever, certainly not me. At the most I’m a sort of administrative assistant. There’s never an agenda. At the end I bring the refreshments.”
This, of course leads me to call to mind Walt Whitman’s assertion “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself; I am large. I contain multitudes.” In short, our project this morning is to recognize that we are dynamically vast. We are both dynamic and growing, and there are multitudes of identities contained within this ‘self’ that I call “me”.
Allow me to offer a guiding principle for this journey. Something not as profound as what the philosophers have offered, but hopefully something that is enough of an opening to spur your own further exploration. My guiding principle is this: pursue this inquiry into your self with the style and rigor of the scientific method – even though, there is no way it can be a scientifically valid pursuit. The primary reason such a line of inquiry cannot be scientific is that the self is a purely subjective perspective.
Many of these Personality Inventories such as the Enneagram and the Myers-Briggs, are considered pseudoscientific because they are subjective and not grounded in the scientific process. They are not replicable, they make unfalsifiable claims, they rely on confirmation bias and subjective input, and are not open to evaluation or refutation from outsiders. This is not to say they lack value or cannot lead a person to understanding and insight. It simply means it is not science while being at risk of seeming like science.
For many years, Astrology was considered on a par with medicine, astronomy, alchemy, and meteorology (according to Wikipedia), a perspective not challenged until the 19th century and the adoption of the Scientific Method by the majority of academics and intellectuals of the western world. Today, Astrology is denigrated as unscientific.
My suggestion is to try any tool available to you in the pursuit of self-knowledge, to do so with the methods science uses: make hypotheses, rely on experience and logic, test ideas and be willing to reach some conclusions but don’t cling to them when new evidence contradicts those old conclusions. Just know that it is all happening in the subjective realm. Your personality, your essence, is not something to be corroborated by peer review. Your resulting behaviors can be corroborated, but the ‘self’ is by definition subjective.
It’s like this: I took one of these tests and it told me I am an introvert. In considering this, I agree with that assessment. And yet from time-to-time people are surprised to learn that about me. I am gregarious and outgoing in many group settings. “You must be an extrovert,” I’ve been told. But my personality is not something to be corroborated by peer review. It is subjective. You can’t tell me I am not an introvert. You can say, “Are you sure you are an introvert? Your behavior suggests otherwise.” And then we can have an interesting conversation about it in which we can each explore more deeply of our self-awareness.
Remember what Lewis Thomas and Walt Whitman offered: while we may reduce the ideas down to a word or two (introvert, extrovert) – the ideas remain vast and multitudinous. And remember what May Sarton and others offered: it is a process of becoming, we evolve and grow, we live into ourselves. Our lives, our experiences impact who we are. It is well documented that our personalities are a product of our genetics and our environment together. The answer to the old argument of Nature vs. Nurture turns out to be: both.
I was attending a conference last week on Revolutionary Love. This is a national conference centered around liberal religious values in the public sphere. One of the presenters, Mickey Scottbey Jones was talking about the role of grief in the work of creating justice. She referred to an old Christian hymn about the Refiner’s Fire. The experience of the Refiner’s Fire, she reminded us, is different than that of other fires. Other fires will only damage you; they will cause destruction and injury, trauma. But the Refiner’s Fire burns away the impurities. Grief, she said, can be like a Refiner’s Fire. In the Refiner’s Fire the impurities are burned away and you become more truly you.
We have experience that bring our true self more clearly to the front in our living. The Velveteen Rabbit (our story from this morning) suggests we become more truly ourselves through being worn away a bit, through being loved into our true form. It is an example of how our experiences can impact and alter our personalities, can shape who we are and how we become ourselves. One of the conclusion Lewis Thomas reached in that bit about all the committees inside in terms of “the Self,” other than it feels like a committee of selves competing, is that “the Self” can only be understood in the context of the world. Who you are is caught up in the context of everything going on around you.
Are you inventive, efficient, or risk-avoidant? Are you curious, confident, or compassionate? I have found the exploration invigorating. Some of these personality inventories have given me valuable feedback on my temperament; about how I am approach being a parent, being a pastor, being a person. I don’t agree with everything every test has told me, but it has all be grist for the mill to learn more about myself. In turn, a deeper self-awareness has revealed for me a richer awareness of others. All this has helped me continue to grow and become myself. “All fuses now, falls into place” May Sarton tells us. “From wish to action, word to silence, / My work, my love, my time, my face / Gathered into one intense / Gesture of growing like a plant.”
In a world without end,
May it be so.
Did You Find Any Pieces Today?
A story about Tikkun Olam
by Douglas Taylor
When Mariam was a child, her favorite thing was when her grandfather would visit and tell her stories at bedtime. They lived nearby and so she was able to get a bedtime story from him at least once a week. She loved to hear his stories. And her favorite was the story about the shattered vessels.
“It is my favorite as well,” he would always say. And then he would tell her, “There are many versions of how the world came to be. But the best one is Tikkun Olam because we get to take part. At the beginning, God created Love, and there was so much Love it filled ten large vessels. And God sent those vessels to the world. But the Love was so powerful and so much, that it could not be contained by the vessels. The Love burst the vessels, it shattered them. The Love broke into many pieces and was scattered all over creation, all over the world.”
“And it is our job to find all the pieces?” Miriam would ask.
Her grandfather would smile and nod, “Yes Miriam. That is our part in creation, we need to gather all the scattered pieces and bring them back together to repair the world.”
And then he would lean closer to her and ask, “And did you find any pieces today?”
She always had an answer for him. When she was five, there was always a sparkly rock or a beautiful sunset she would mention to him. On this day, she said, “I found a very pretty feather today.”
“A feather?” he would say, impressed. “Tell me about it.” And she would.
One time she asked, “Grandfather, I have figured this out, right? It’s like a big hide and seek game, and I need to find all the bright and beautiful pieces and collect them.”
Her grandfather would smile down at her adoringly. “Maybe,” he would say with a shrug. “It is a mystery. We tell the story and we ask our questions. It’s good.”
That was when she was five. Later when she was twelve, she had found a different answer. She still loved that story. She still asked for that one as often as any other story each week. He would tell her about the Love and the shattering vessels and the scattering of the pieces. And he would ask, “Did you find any pieces today?”
As a mature twelve-year-old, she was proud to tell him. “I have figured it out, grandfather. I used to think the pieces were pretty things, like glitter that had exploded all over everything. But now I know it is not about finding shiny rocks. It’s about love. Isn’t that right grandfather?”
“Love?” He said, smiling at her. “Maybe,” he would say with a shrug. “It is a mystery. We tell the story and we ask our questions. It’s good.” And then he asked, “Tell me more about the Love you have found this week.”
And she would. She would tell him about how she loved her parents and how she loved him and grandmother, and on and on.
Later, when she was in high school, he would still come over sometimes and they would talk. Sometimes she would ask him to tell the story of Tikkun Olam – even though she was too old for bedtime stories. He would tell her and he would ask “Did you find any pieces today?”
And she would tell him about kindness she had given or received. About a boy who helped her figure out the answer to a homework problem, or the time she helped a stranger who had fallen in the grocery store. She said, “I think it is silly that I used to think the pieces of God’s love were shiny rocks. And it is embarrassing that I thought it was about something as mushy as love. It must be about kindness. Do I have it right this time grandfather?”
And he would smile and shrug, “Maybe. Tell me more about the kindness you found this week.”
The years went on and Miriam grew older. She fell in love and got married. She asked her grandfather to tell her favorite story at the wedding – which everyone loved.
A few years after that, when she was in her early-twenties, her grandfather grew ill and went to the nursing home. She visited him every week and he would ask her to tell him stories. Which she did. She would tell him her favorite story about Tikkun Olam, repairing the world. And he would ask her, “Did you find any pieces today?”
One day when he asked that of her, she was quiet for a while, thinking. She said, “Grandfather, I think I finally get it. The pieces are not just beautiful, shiny things. But they are not love or kindness either. It’s all of it. All of it together. Isn’t that right?” she asked.
He smiled up at her adoringly and shrugged. “Maybe. It is a mystery. We tell the story and we ask our questions. It is good.”
And so her life went on. She had a career helping people in her way. She and her spouse had a child together and she told her child the story. And each day, she would find a few piece; she would look for beauty and show it to others; she would make her life and the lives of people around her better; she would repair the world.
Rev. Douglas Taylor
Each year at this time, we call up the team of people who have agreed to be teachers for our congregation’s families. This year, things are a little different. Our program is hosted by our Family Ministry Team along with a multitude of story readers and other participants. Our program is in the hands of all the parents because we are doing things online. And so, this year, instead of singling out the volunteers who have agreed to serve as Sunday School teachers, we will offer a blessing for all of you who are teachers.
Blessings upon you who are spending time to teach and care for and be with the children and youth of this congregation. Tend to our young people with care and love.
We are grateful to you who step into this willingly and to you who have discovered this thrust upon you by the circumstances of this pandemic. Blessings upon you for your time and attention and care.
Our children are looking to you, wondering how to deal with this unusual situation. You are role models for our children and youth. Blessings upon you for taking up this responsibility and helping to strengthen the bonds of relationship within our community. You are tending to something precious to our community: our children and youth.
May we, in turn, offer our support to you; teaching is not something that can be done alone. We honor the role you hold in our congregation as teachers. We honor you who are teaching in schools in the community and online. We honor you who are teaching at the universities and at the high schools, at the elementary school and the pre-schools. We honor you who are parents, for in this pandemic you are teachers now too. Blessing upon you in your teaching. May you be equipped and empowered and encouraged as you equip and empower and encourage our children and youth.
Together we begin a new year. We all share in different ways for the good of our congregation and our community at large. May we all grow and be enriched together.
Prayer for Resilience
Rev Douglas Taylor
Gracious and loving God, from whom all things come and to whom all things return;
We gather on the edge of another week and, for some of us, on the edge of our strength; We come buoyed by events of our week or weighed down by them, or we arrive in some paradoxical mix thereof; We are here in our Sunday assembly of hope and restoration.
At times we come weary and worn down, and for some, that is how we arrive today; At other times we come with questions, with a longing, or with something to offer; But for those who come today shattered, broken, lonely and lost, let us offer our prayer of resilience.
Again, this week we test the tender places in our hearts and in our lives to see what healing may occur.
Gratitude is often a source of healing; We give thanks for the landscapes of grace in our lives, for music and for good companions, for the guidance of great principles, and the examples of integrity around us; We give thanks for all that lifts us up and for lessons that lead us on
For the times when we are brought low by anxiety or adversity, Show us the hidden wells of love we can tap into; Help us rise up once more, just once more, and once more again will surely be enough.
Remind us we do not strive in vain, that we are part of a chorus, that resilience is in our bones, that peace will prevail on earth and in our hearts, and that healing and grace come like soft rain.
Be thou an ever-present strength upon on journeys; And teach us that in falling down, we do rise again
This we ask in the name of all that is holy, May it be so