The Path: Relationships

September 11, 2016


Robin McGonigle
University Congregational Church
Sept. 11, 2016

“The Path: Relationships”
Proverbs 13:20
Hebrews 10:24-25
Quotes from Confucius and “The Nature that Emerges from Decree”

A couple of weeks ago, my young niece and nephew came over to paint with me. They were telling me about their grandma (who is my mom) and how they beat her at cards! They were so excited to tell me that they had learned how to play canasta. That’s a pretty hard card game for 7 & 8 year olds, but they were ecstatic to tell me about how they had stumped “Nonny” and won.

I didn’t have to ask many questions to find out the whole story – I used to play cards with my mom when I was little. She allowed me to lay my cards on a chair beside me (where she couldn’t see) because my hands were too little to hold all the cards. Occasionally, she would discard just the right card for me to pick up and win. I loved beating her at a game she should have won when the competitor was a kid.

Less frequently, she made a mistake on the score pad. My 7 year old niece reported this too: “Nonny thought 3 + 4 was 6! I had to convince here it was 7!” And then she laughed at her silly Nonny. I realized anew that Nonny had created scenarios where these two could experience success and build confidence. They were learning new roles and laughing the whole time!

Today we begin a new venture together – studying “The Path; What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life” by Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh. Lillian Mayer introduced the book to me several months ago, and your church council selected it for this fall’s sermon series. Each week, we’ll explore a practical topic (like relationships, decisions, vitality, spontaneity, influence and humanity) from the point of view of ancient Chinese philosophy and apply it to our lives today. We will also look at Christian teachings about each of these aspects.

Today’s topic is about how to apply Confucius’ teaching to our relationships. Confucius lived from 551-479 BCE and was the first great philosopher in the Chinese tradition. His vast and enduring influence came not from grand ideas, but from deceptively simple ones – ideas that flip on its head everything we understand about getting to know ourselves and getting along with others.

If you take most any philosophy class, chances are the philosopher will jump right in with life’s big questions:
Do we have free will?
What is the meaning of life?
What is morality?
But Confucius took the opposite approach in his teachings. Rather than start with the great big philosophical questions, he asked this fundamental and deceptively profound question: How are you living your life on a daily basis? For Confucius, everything began with this question – a question about the tiniest things.
Confucius noted that when we recognize our daily responses, we can fine tune them and actually change our lives. So many of our actions, he noted, we do without thinking. But, if we cultivate new actions, we can refine ourselves and our relationships.

Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh explain this process in The Path: “A Confucian approach would be to note your patterns and then work actively to shift them. Over time, breaking those patterns – say, suppressing your usual sigh when your father starts in on one of his political tirades (even though you are irritated); or making it a point to greet your wife at the door when she gets home from work (even though you’d rather stay glued to the computer) – will allow different sides of you to emerge. Over time, you internalize a more constructive way of acting in the world instead of being led by your undisciplined emotional reactions. Little by little you develop parts of yourself you never knew existed, and you start becoming a better person.”

Most of us have certain “rituals”. It may be a morning cup of coffee, a story for children at bedtime, a regular date night, or way to greet others. Human beings are creatures of habit. We become accustomed to doing these small things, and then we do them unconsciously.

However, when we go through life performing most social conventions by rote, they lose their power to become rituals that can profoundly change us. They don’t do much to help us become better people. In order to help ourselves change, we must become aware that breaking from our normal ways of being is what makes it possible to develop different sides of ourselves. Rituals – in the Confucian sense – are transformative because they allow us to become a different person for a moment. Consider my story of playing cards with my mom. She offered a role reversal in which the child could become the one who outsmarted her. These short-lived changes actually slightly altered our regular reality (the child, normally so vulnerable, gets to play at being a powerful person who bested an adult. The adult gets to play at being a person who bumbles through the game. Of course, the child realizes eventually that it was arranged this way purposely). For a brief moment, they are living in an “as-if” world.

For Confucius, this “as-if” ritual was essential because of what it did for the people performing it. He wrote that people need to act “as if” because it brings about change within themselves.

Modern counselors and therapists agree. One person can do much for a relationship even if the other party is not willingly participating. The way to change ourselves and our relationships is for one person to act in ritual “as if”. When you play a familial role as if there is no discord, you will slowly change the way you and the other act/ react. Gradually, doing these rituals or role plays again and again creates healthier connections and improved relationships. This week, I noticed a saying. It spelled this concept out: “You can’t start the next chapter of your life if you keep re-reading the last one.” Or, in the words of our Bible, “Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise,
but the companion of fools suffers harm.” Proverbs 13:20

Role reversal breaks the usual pattern. The child gets to experience a feeling of competence that s/he remembers after the game is over. The adult doesn’t become a befuddled adult, but the role reversal helps her develop more complex, nuanced sides of herself that she, too, can take into other situation: vulnerability, connection, levity, and the ability not to cling to power too tightly. These repeated rituals will develop aspects of each of them that eventually enhance other relationships in both of their lives.

Think of a therapist’s office, where people go to talk about their troubles during a set period of time. Although many of us assume that this time is helpful because we are slowly uncovering who we really, from a Confucian standpoint, the greater benefit comes from the fact that we have set up a de facto ritual space in which we take on as-if roles that we cannot play outside. Therapy helps break the patterns that dominate our lives and, through the interactions between therapist and patient, allows us to construct very different ways of relating to others.

Another example: Many couples say the common phrase, “I love you” on a semi-regular basis. Couples who are in the habit of saying this probably don’t feel fully loving every second of the day. They almost certainly have a bevy of complicated feelings toward their partner from time to time. But there is a greater good in nurturing the relationship through such rituals that let them break from reality and enter a space where it’s as if they do love each other fully and at every moment. At the moment that they express their love in an as-if way, they are really doing it.

Quite often, when someone comes to me as a pastor to talk about their difficult feelings – whether grief over a death, a relationship, a job, or hurt feelings – I suggest that they conduct an as-if ritual.
• Write down the hurtful thing someone did… and burn it.
• If someone died and you can’t get to the funeral – have a ceremony of your own, even if it is just you.
• If you are sorry for something but can’t make amends for one reason or another – write out an apology or speak it aloud to the air.
• If you are having trouble forgiving someone – take the things they did to hurt you and literally go outside, dig a hole, and bury that wrong.
• If the inner child within has a memory that needs to be processed – have a conversation between your adult self and your inner child.

All of these are ritual ways to change ourselves. Our models for ritual in the Christian tradition are very similar.
Joining a church
Giving an offering
Receiving communion

As one of our Biblical texts exhorts: “And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” Hebrews 10:24-25

From the before to the after of the ritual, we are transformed. Instead of being led by our undisciplined emotional reactions, we internalize a more constructive way of acting in the world. Isn’t this what Jesus spoke of when he talked of salvation? In progressive theology, salvation is not a moment when you acknowledge a belief in Christ – it is the daily process of choosing to act differently until your life is changed from the inside out. Salvation isn’t about getting some eternal reward after death; it is about learning to live every day in a new way with the possibility of new life right here and now.

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) thought along these lines too. He argued that no matter the situation, you should act as if your action could become a universal law for anyone in any situation. These ordinary as-if rituals are the means by which we imagine new realities and over time construct new worlds. And what great worlds we could create!

Resource Used:
Puett, Michael & Gross-Loh, Christine. The Path; What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2016.