This I Believe: Steve Kahn (2009)

I thought about starting with “I believe in fluff,” but decided that needed some background. If I had given this talk before finishing high school my beliefs would have been typical for a New York City boy raised in a middle of the road Jewish family, not orthodox, not reform, but certainly believing in Yahweh of the Old Testament and all the stories that came with the cycle of holidays. Passover was the story of freedom from oppression, period. The story was true as told. Good guys in white hats, bad guys in black hats. River separates for the good guys, waters pour in on the bad guys. I started college in 1969 and began questioning everything and if I had given this talk during those years I might have started with my belief from those days that Eric Clapton was God.

For many years after that I would have given a better talk about what I didn’t believe than what I did believe. More recently, I toyed with the idea Richard Dawkins was God and that evolution explained everything. But as I approach my 58th birthday, with two children launched, and 27 years of marriage, here are the beliefs I find most helpful.

  1. We can change the size and properties of external events.
  2. We do so by using our viewing skills.
  3. We can use the ordinary times to improve our viewing skills for the extraordinary times.
  4. There is also my belief in fluff but more on that in a moment.

Here’s what I mean by changing the size and properties of external events. Things happen, many wonderful things and more than enough crummy things. And while it often seems as if the external events dictate our reactions, (how we feel and how we act) they do not. There is a middle step where we view the external event and choose how to view it. Rather than the external events causing our reactions, the middle viewing step is what causes our reactions.

All you have to do is think about some event and how you might react differently on different days. One day you are caught in traffic and you are absolutely fine thank you very much and you catch up on a phone call and are calm as can be. Another day you might be tense and irritated and drive impatiently. One day your kids might roll their eyes at you, talk back to you in a disrespectful or sarcastic tone, and you shake your head kindly, forgive them instantly, give them a consequence, and make them dinner. Another day you might race them to the basement, matching them eye-roll for eye-roll, disrespect for disrespect and sarcasm for sarcasm. Clearly, it is not the external event that controls us.

Even with just a few obvious examples, it becomes clear that it’s the viewing skills that cause our reactions. How we choose to view the external event is the middle step between what we are dealing with and how we are dealing with it. Are we mildly annoyed or really mad? Do we feel resigned to the normal inevitability of traffic and parenting or do we feel unfairly treated, unappreciated and terribly inconvenienced? When someone dies, do we grieve in a way that keeps us healthy and moving forward or do we lose our balance and fall apart?

Now, here’s where it gets tricky. We start our adult lives with the viewing skills that came to us without any effort on our part. We watched our parents parent and we watched them deal with the ordinary ups and downs of everyday life. We listened to sermons or homilies from preachers or rabbis and without any kind of a purpose or a plan we ended up with some set of viewing skills when we were in our early 20s that were unnamed and unnoticed by us.  Something happened and we felt a certain way and reacted in a certain way and we came to know ourselves as people who felt and reacted in certain ways to certain kinds of life events. Unthinkingly, we blindly followed the teachings and models of others, until we began to consider who we were as a person to be the way we reacted. That must be my personality, the way I am wired.  One of my viewing skills from those early days was of the Jews as the chosen people, following certain traditions because that was what God wanted us to do. Remember the movie? The fiddler on the roof represented tradition and there was this powerful scene at the end of the movie when Tevye beckons to the fiddler to come along with him and his family to the new world.

I think many people just bring along the one set of traditions of their parents without even realizing how limiting this can be. Here, we invite not only the fiddler but the best of all the orchestras the world has ever known. Why, we even search the comics. There is a terrific Calvin and Hobbes with Calvin digging a hole in the ground. Hobbes (the stuffed tiger/best friend) asks him why are you digging a hole. I’m looking for buried treasure, Calvin explains. What have you found? A few dirty rocks, a weird root and some disgusting grubs. Hobbes then says “On your first try?” And Calvin responds: “There’s treasure everywhere.”

We scan the rooftops for ideas that can help us develop skills to view the ordinary everyday moments of life. And we try to practice the skills as much as we possibly can so that when the extraordinary times come, as we know they will, we already have our skills finely tuned. A whole orchestra sounds better than a single fiddle and the more practice, the better the sound.

Here’s where fluff, Eric Clapton and a hodgepodge of Buddhism, mindfulness and folk rock come together, right now, over me. What could be fluffier than to live in the moment? What kind of air-heady pop psychology nonsense is that? If you are doing the dishes, then do the dishes! But truthfully, this is one of my life-saving viewing skills. I feel differently about doing the dishes depending on whether I am doing the dishes when I do the dishes or whether I am thinking about why is it me doing the dishes and wondering whether my kids even know what dish detergent is or how to turn the dishwasher on and why is it always me doing the dishes and fall into a Rodney Dangerfield impersonation of how come I don’t get no respect.

What do fluffy clichés like “live in the moment” warn us about, guide us to, and protect us from? A burden shared is a burden halved. A joy shared is a joy doubled. Treat others as you would like to be treated. We are all so connected even when we feel so apart. The love you take is equal to the love you make. Turn the other cheek. It’s not how many times you fall down; it’s how many times you get up.

I think these and countless other fluffy clichés are easy to remember, quick reminders of how precious life is, how we are not guaranteed a long life or guaranteed anything at all in our life, that it’s up to us to do what we can with what we’ve got, give back, do for others, and avoid the traps of entitlement and self-pity. And I think we need quick fluffy easy to remember reminders.

Because even after we do the young adult work of reviewing the viewing skills that came to us without effort from our first twenty years and we purposefully put together our own set of viewing skills for our lives as adults, it is so easy to fall back. We have to push that boulder up everyday or else it will fall back on us.  If I can do the dishes when I do the dishes, and practice breathing in and out when I am in traffic, and always be working on the separateness of the external event and my internal reaction to it, then maybe, just maybe, when my turn comes again to deal with unwanted external events, I will be able to access my viewing skills right then in the heat of the moment, and keep myself moving forward and not lose my balance.

When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me. Speaking words of wisdom, let it be. He’s in a better place. At least she’s not suffering any more. I don’t have to believe in Mary or Yahweh or heaven, hell, or life after death, to be comforted by the idea to let go and let God. It’s a reminder to me that not only am I not in control of external events but that I have the ability and the opportunity to choose how I view those events. All is suffering. Be careful about attachments. We’re captive on the carousel of time. We can’t return, we can only look behind from where we came and go round and round and round in the circle game.

It’s hardest to think clearly during the crises, that’s why we have to practice during all the other times. It’s true in baseball, that’s why there are batting cages. It’s true in golf, that’s why there are driving ranges. It’s true in life, and we can choose to view the everyday ups and downs of life, the small inconveniences, the dishes and the traffic, and the times when our spouses aren’t perfect clones of us and the times when our children don’t realize that we know what’s best for them and why don’t they just let us run their lives for them. We’d do such a better job!

They are all practice opportunities for when a single phone call brings us to our knees, for the days when the sun can’t be seen, the birds can’t be heard, when all we see are clouds. But are the clouds bows and flows of angel hair? Ice cream castles in the air? Feather canyons everywhere? Or do they only block the sun? Rain and snow on everyone. Something’s lost, but something’s gained, in living every day. The action isn’t only in the clouds or in the cloudy days, but in how we look at the clouds.

You’ve got to look for the silver lining. Just remember that sunshine always follows the rain. When skies are cloudy and grey, they’re only grey for a day. Wrap your troubles in dreams, dream all your troubles away. Fluff as reminders of viewing skills.

Nobody ever promised you a rose garden. You can’t have the rose without the thorn. Find someone who hasn’t grieved. Time heals. Annoying platitudes if we hear them from others at one of our extraordinary times of loss and sorrow, but helpful viewing skills if they come from inside of us. When the tsunami hit Indonesia in 2004 a man who had lost everything, his family, his village, his means to be self-sufficient was quoted by the NY Times as saying “Now I get to see what I can learn from this.” I can only imagine how deeply rooted this viewing skill was inside this man for him to be able to call it up during his time of extraordinary loss. I get a new chapter, even though I was perfectly happy with the old chapter. Let me see what I can do with this new life of mine. When we can’t change the external event, we have to allow ourselves to be changed by it.

And the amazing thing about viewing skills and this community of ours is that we can search the world over, pick and choose the best ones for us, and we can even develop our own. If it wasn’t for my 20-year involvement here, I never would have been able to develop my ideas about parenting the way I did. And to this day, it helps me with my kids when I rely on the “protect the connection” and “forgive instantly” viewing skills and my fluffy reminder to myself that “dinner is in five minutes.” When they are being completely themselves, not taking me seriously or my goals for them seriously and I remember that parenting, like traffic, includes times when the road is wide open and times when it is chaotic, and we just want to get home safely, and that I am supposed to be in charge of my half of the relationship at all times. Even when, especially when, they are not doing such a great job with their half. Parenting is not cloning. Things happen. There are no guarantees in life. We have to be responsible for our part.

So, there it is. I believe that fluff, whether it is Old Testament fluff, New Testament fluff, Buddhist fluff or Joni Mitchell fluff, can be quick and easy to remember reminders, shortcuts actually, like the F11 keyboard stroke that makes it easier to read the webpage, or the Control S that saves a document. And that life includes both the sunny days and the cloudy days and that we’ll be better able to get through the cloudy days if we practice our viewing skills when we don’t need them. Because, whatever gets you through the night, it’s alright, it’s alright.

And I believe that love is the spirit of this church and service is its law and that love is something if you give it away, you end up having more.  And I believe that Jackie and I have benefited from this place, not only on Sunday mornings with the brilliant UU fluff, but through our involvement in projects and committees and Tuesday night meetings and Wednesday night dinners and teaching RE and I believe that you have also. Remember what Billy Joel said in River of Dreams, about searching for something taken out of his soul, something he would never lose, something somebody stole. Well, maybe the search for what feels missing is resolved by finding what to give back.


In fact, I am reminded of an article I read about volunteering that gave me some useful fluff that I would like to share with you in closing. He argued that when you are deciding what to devote yourself to with the limited hours available to devote to volunteering, you shouldn’t decide by the value of the project, there are so many and they are all worthwhile. Better to decide by whether or not you have a unique connection with the project. There are a lot of people who can help at school or in the local hospital but there are only so many UUs and  those other people who can help there can’t help here because they don’t have the unique connection that we have with this place.

Evolution – men as hunters, silence of else, competing with other hunters for food

Women as gatherers, sharing wisdom, helping each other, safety in numbers

Caveman story about identity and job, job was staying alive, finding food and shelter