Tuesday, May 4, 2021


Our most recent sermon was all about common "Jedi Mind Tricks" we're doing unknowingly everyday!  We studied the concept of Limbic Resonance and how this relates with a related issue, Cognitive Dissonance.

Check the whole talk out here!

Main Points:

  • We're influencing each other subconsciously all the time - one name for this is 'Limbic Resonance'
  • Cognitive dissonance involves tying your ideas to your sense of self, when the idea is challenged, it activates a physiological "fight-or-flight" response, or "amygdala hijack"
  • You can't disarm cognitive dissonance using force, people just dig in further, but you can use THE FORCE - our subconscious empathetic resonance.

Detailed Sermon Notes/Transcript:

"Each time we meet another human being and honor their dignity, we help those around us. Their hearts resonate with ours in exactly the same way the strings of an unplucked violin vibrate with the sounds of a violin played nearby. Western psychology has documented this phenomenon of 'mood contagion' or limbic resonance. If a person filled with panic or hatred walks into a room, we feel it immediately, and unless we are very mindful, that person's negative state will begin to overtake our own. When a joyfully expressive person walks into a room, we can feel that state as well."

Jack Kornfield 

You might remember the famous scene, it’s in Star Wars.  Released in May of 1977… i was about to be born a few months later, so I didn’t get on board until Return of the Jedi in 84!

In both of these films, main characters are able to use “Jedi Mind tricks” to influence the thoughts or emotions of those near them.

I don’t want to convince you today that you are capable of this type of mental magic, no something even more extreme - that you’re already doing it all the time!

I remember first reading of a strange study in McGonigal’s “Science of Compassion”, in which a person in a waiting room did not know when the other person was “beaming” them compassion, but their stress response changed anyway.

On some subconscious level, we pick up emotional cues from one another.  These are generally not being delivered to our conscious mind, but the whole process unfolds in an invisible dance from subconscious to subconscious.

I’m not aware of research on olfactory cues in humans - outside of romantic situations, that is - but there’s a great degree of research by people like Paul Eckman and the Gottman Institute on how we’re affected by each other’s micro-expressions - tiny, fleeting facial expressions that we don’t consciously pick upon.  All this micro-level info adds up to create a sense of vibe.

Some specialists can learn to make these subtle cues conscious - translating tiny signs of danger into an accurate assessment of a situation requiring action.

Naturals at emotional intelligence have an opposite ability - the capacity to put almost anyone at ease.

One name for this wordless communication is “Limbic Resonance” -  This term was pioneered in a book called  A General Theory of Love, where the authors describe it as:

"— a symphony of mutual exchange and internal adaptation whereby two mammals become attuned to each other's inner states."[

Another term for this is “Empathic Resonance”, and sometimes “Empathic distress”, which is an important aspect of this in the study of compassion.  This is the ability to feel the hurt of another as if it was your own.  It’s  a prerequisite for compassion, but one cannot stay there, one has to then be able to distance  their self from these feelings and offer help from a sovereign sense of separate self-hood.

As mammals and hominids, this empathic resonance is our great strength.  The Limbic system is the “emotional part of the brain” and this allows for mammalian bonding and mutual care, the social instincts which Darwin thought of as Homo Sapiens’ greatest strength.  

We can see this in the necessity for close relationships for an infant to thrive, and we can see it in the intensification of laughter if others are laughing at a comedy show - which led to the development of laugh tracks on TV.  We see it in contagious yawning and contagious smiling.


Cognitive dissonance, on the other hand, seems like the exact opposite of Limbic Resonance.

Have you ever tried to have a conversation with someone mired in cognitive dissonance?  It can be a dreadfully tedious exercise of willpower to persevere through!

Cognitive dissonance is simply the tendency to hold onto one’s position despite evidence to the contrary.  Even worse, cognitive dissonance can bring with it the “backfire effect” and this is where you’re almost better off NOT bringing up contrary evidence because the more alternative points of view or debunks you offer, the deeper one digs in to their position.

How does this work?  Well oddly it’s all wrapped up in your survival circuitry.  This point is crucial for us to understand.  Cognitive dissonance happens when we become so identified with an idea that we associate it with our sense of self.  There is then this amazing misfire that happens in our brain where if someone attacks our philosophical position, we experience it as if they’re attacking “me”.  What ensues is a full activation of the “fight or flight” response.

Here’s another opportunity to learn some terminology about the limbic system, the “amygdala hijack”.  This is Daniel Goleman’s term for when the emotional/survival system takes the controls away from our advanced pre-frontal cortex.

It makes sense then, doesn’t it, why someone in cognitive dissonance can go from an apparently reasonable modern human, to cornered animal unwilling to explore other perspectives.  In the worst cases, raising their voice, using name calling, or even becoming physically violent.

It seems as though there’s no emotional resonance going on here, but there’s a surprise!


It turns out that a big portion of cognitive dissonance is all about limbic resonance.

This is why experts tell us that if you want to help someone out of cognitive dissonance - like the work people do to help people deprogram from cults - you need to treat them gently.

This makes perfect sense, doesn’t it?  If cognitive dissonance is related to fight or flight response, we would want to make sure that we’re not giving a person signs that they’re under threat.

This is actually well known in terms of education - our brains work better to pick up and store new or complicated information when we’re relaxed, at-ease.  Perhaps like our ancestors would be hearing teaching stories around a communal fire?

Unfortunately, while this makes sense conceptually, creating an open and soothing environment is usually the last thing on our minds when confronting cognitive dissonance.  Why is this so?  Because the type of things we get cognitive dissonance about are often religious or political belief systems that might cause one to harm their self or others.

It makes sense that we’d feel a sense of urgency when we try to communicate with someone expressing these views - they’re triggering our survival circuitry - we’re worried about the good of the tribe, our own safety, or even the safety of the one expressing the dug-in view.  

From Neil Degras Tyson’s Masterclass on scientific thinking and communication:

Crystal example - cultivating effective skepticism 

If got this crystal that heals you with energy

  1. Great, I’ll buy it!

  2. You’re crazy

Both are intellectually lazy.   Instead, try questions:

  • What type of energy is it?

  • What diseases is it known to affect?

    • How do we know, has there been research?

  • How is this “energy” perceived?

We have a chance here, through questioning, to practice a master tool of communication.  To shift out of trying to get the other person to see things our way, and instead work to be able to see together.

In this case, the outcome might not be they are convinced that their crystal has no healing power, and you may not be convinced that it does

  • But you can come to understand each other’s perspective MUCH more clearly

  • Why’s that important…. Keep listening!

2nd practice!

Think of a dug-in uncle and practice crafting your argument

Ask them questions rather than just saying they’re crazy

Name-calling doesn’t contribute to expanding scientific literacy

Climate change - well, how do you feel about sea-level rise?

Would you move to a place where hurricane incidences have increased?

What do you think is the cause of that?


What it boils down to is the Limbic Resonance thing - we’re more attuned than we know. Dr. Dan Seigel even refers to it as “interpersonal neurobiology”.  What this can mean is that if you come into the conversation with a need to prove yourself right or bring the other around to your way of thinking….. Guess what they’re likely going to be most concerned with!!!

On the other hand, some of us have had those miraculous experiences where we managed to change our own state to a more open and accepting one, and saw how our conversational partner followed suit.

It’s happened to me often enough for me to become convinced that there really is a science to it we could learn to master!

My hope is that we can make these “miraculous” occurrences commonplace.  We can train so that instead of making our differences something that leads to stonewalling, backlash effect, and greater division, we can make it an opportunity to understand each other more deeply.

Even when our viewpoints don’t get any closer, we’ll at least have done our part to share from the heart.  The truth is that the most effective form of teaching is always by example.  When we try to shout another down and bully them to our side, they don’t learn our arguments, they learn bullying.  If we want our arguments to have any room to land, we must first teach the primary lesson - that it’s safe to let down our guard and learn together.

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Sunday's sermon was on the "Bliss of Unknowing" watch the replay here!  

Main Points:

  • To thrive in these times of great and rapid change, we need a friendly relationship with nuance and complexity - and that means we must become comfortable with unknowing.
  • The momentum of our evolution is weighted toward hasty thinking rather than comfort-amidst-nuance.
  • The techniques of the world’s great contemplatives, when stripped of cultural trappings and magical thinking, are all about training our higher human faculties - our higher sapiens brain.
  • Rather than the known, which is all in the past - if we long to boldly go where no one has gone before, it means we must learn the bliss of unknowing. 


Extended sermon notes/transcript

The Bliss of Unknowing

What is the bliss of unknowing?  It’s understanding the difference between facts and theories.  Facts are on-the-spot, in your face, undeniable - even if they’re facts we don’t particularly like, there’s something grounding about them.

Our theories, speculations, projections are not so easy to ground into - they flit and change as the future unfolds, as more information becomes available.  They are our best guesses, our stories, poems, and art that we use to try to understand life.  This is no problem so long as we don’t think our theories should be something solid we can stand upon.  Like the bible verse said, we must build a home upon rock, not sand.  The bliss of unknowing is the freedom we feel when we stop making the unknown a problem, and start seeing it as the source of art, surprise, mystery, and creativity!

Main Point: We need to re-condition our relationship with the Unknown.  

It’s said that “familiarity breeds contempt”, but this common wisdom is wrong, as advertisers and propagandists the world round know: what familiarity actually breeds TRUST.  The unfamiliar is threatening.

We’re wired up for snap-judgements, but quick judgements are also sloppy.  To thrive in these times of great and rapid change, we need a friendly relationship with nuance and complexity - and that means we must become comfortable with unknowing.

  • Gut-Checks are easy, but faulty.  

    1. For 55mil years of primate history, evolution has been selecting for effective snap judgements

    2. For only a couple hundred thousand have we been developing the higher cognitive faculties of homo sapiens, and for only 50 thousand have we been using language.

    3. We’ve built our human societies with the newest parts of our brain - societies that require advanced emotional intelligence, extrapolation from incomplete data, adopting multiple viewpoints simultaneously, and all the advanced skills that you can only pull off with a functional neo-cortex!

    4. The momentum of our evolution is weighted toward hasty thinking rather than comfort-amidst-nuance.  

    5. We do a “gut check” because we feel we need to know NOW!  We need to know what it IS, and then we’ll know what to DO about it.  But while human intuition is a powerful force - putting together data that we’re not even registering consciously faster than the speed of thought - we also overlay cognitive filters, biases, and re-creations of the past faster than the speed of thought.

    6. When we’re comfortable with the unknown, we can use the primate gut-check sparingly and appropriately - because we don’t need to default to our hair-trigger conclusion jumping just to feel safe from our own unknowing!

  • I have seen the future, and it is curious

    1. Curious has a double meaning!  I mean it both in the sense of weird, and also if we’re going to make it to the future, we’ll need to be more inquisitive!

    2. We have to learn to use your brain properly!

      1. I was going to write a blog about this earlier this week where I was like use your brain “right” - implying that it was made for something specific and we’re misusing it.  

      2. Actually, we’re using the brain just as it’s made - It’s made primarily to survive, we have to train it to be happy!  Dan Gilbert

      3. Our genetic inheritance is wired up for snap judgements, we have to train it to enjoy not knowing

    3. Enter meditation

    4. The techniques of the world’s great contemplatives, I believe they’re are all about training our higher human faculties.

      1. When stripped of religious trappings and magical thinking, what remains is a corpus of techniques by which we can step into our human potential.

      2. Not just mythic human potential my favorite new-age authors write about, but potential we have seen in research, but which most of us have not fully inherited of yet.

    5. The evidence is all over the place

      1. Growth vs fixed mindset

      2. Wired for empathy

      3. Development means taking on more perspectives

      4. Psychedelics, Nature, and the Ahamkara

  • How to train

    1. Who am I?  What is this?

    2. Via negativa, the door to the center

      1. It’s not about a nihilistic way of being - it’s about humility as the entrance to openness.

    3. This allows us to embrace a poetic stance on life

      1. The Zen term “Great Doubt” or the tibetan “Whirling diamond drill of doubt” or the Christian “Cloud of Unknowing” don’t sound all that romantic to me.  But living a poetic life?  That one sounds good - and what makes it poetic is the underlying mystery.  

The tendency to seek fixed and simple answers to life’s questions is out of phase with what the real answers look like.  Nowadays, real answers involve complex understandings, and they’re likely to change as the circumstances change.  It’s easy for us to do a “gut check” and see how a possible solution feels, it’s much harder to open ourselves up enough to get a complete picture.  

The practices of the world’s contemplatives are not about checking out and entering a different realm where there’s pie in the sky all the time - they’re about learning our own future - a future where the high-road capacities of our brains are the new normal.  Rather than the known, which is all in the past - if we long to boldly go where no one has gone before, it means we must learn the bliss of unknowing.  Admitting we don’t have all the answers and embarking on the great ADVENTURE!

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Why Good/Evil Paradigms are EVIL!

Our latest Sunday sermon from Rev. Fa Jun explored how a good vs evil paradigm does more harm than good!  You can check it out here!

Main points:

  • Good vs Evil started out as an instinct to identify "Tribe vs Other" in our early human ancestors  
    • This facilitates QUICK decision making, but not nuance  
  • Later humans gave us the notion of "evil" in the great dualistic religions, or "mythic membership" societies with their strict codes and walled cities 
    • this adaptation moved us from tribalism to nationalism, and resulted in even more strength in numbers gathered around an ideal. 
    • but dualism sorts the world into only two options - smoking or non-smoking, us vs them, good vs evil
  • Peace-minded modern people are the inheritors of this ancient brain-architecture  
    • while our concepts about inclusivity and tolerance are very compelling, they often have a difficult time standing up to our brain's low-road circuitry for tribalism when we're triggered.
    •  we need to train our minds in better options if we want to be able to respond from our values when under stress. 
  •  A powerful method to help us stay in the "high-road" circuitry of the brain and not be hijacked by ancient, dualizing shortcuts is the Nonviolent Communication technique of "observation without evaluation" 
    •  This lets us speak our truth, but not have to immediately sort a person or group into a limited binary category. 
    •  We learn to tell someone what they've done, rather than needing to find out who they are, and thus lock them into an identity we must ostracize. 
  • staying out of the good-evil sorting trap, we can move forward knowing that we’ve refused the fool's choice of silence or violence, and the false dichotomy born in an era long gone!


Full Transcript:

Why is a good/evil paradigm “evil”?  Well, obviously because when you spell Evil backwards it’s LIVE, and thus evil is anti-life!

Ok, that’s not the proof, but it is a good encapsulation of my premise!  :D

“Evil” is anti-life because it’s part of the tendency in us to fixate the world into something manageable - and that almost always means reducing complexity and dynamism.  Maybe a good/evil paradigm isn’t “evil” per se - but it is quite clunky and outmoded - when what we need are more adaptive ways to deal with nuance in our world of ever increasing change!

In our hominid ancestors, survival was based on the ability to identify OTHER in a split second and then fight/flight/or freeze in response.  This gave rise to the existence of tribal taboos, the precursors to good/and evil.  While novelty is rewarded in our brains - unfamiliarity signals danger.  Woe to you if you broke a tribal taboo and became an other.

Sadly, we humans still use this "othering" tactic to manipulate one another’s behavior this is the basis of shame.  Do it my way or I’ll other you!

And to our primate brains, being othered is equivalent to a death sentence.

Later humans expanded this brain architecture through the great CODES given by the prophets and founders of religions and walled city-states.  By the power of incorporating together around sacred ideals, we gained the ability to stand our own against stronger tribal opponents.

In the post-enlightenment period Unitarian thinkers and others realized all the ways that these great codes were not UNIVERSAL, but often highly arbitrary.  The good-evil paradigm set up in the dualistic traditions of 5000 years ago is sometimes like “when all you’ve got’s a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”  Everything in the universe, we’re sorting it into two categories - smoking or non-smoking!

And thus we find ourselves in the modern age.  Set free in many ways from the bondage of archaic codes - yet still neurologically wired up for dualism and othering!  

Have you noticed that many of us hold a very sweet and kind philosophy until we’re pushed too far?  

A question on many of our minds for about the past 5 years has been:  When faced with horrors, do our UU principles of peace, unity, and inherent dignity hold up?  Or were we better off in the old tribalist style, where at least you know clearly which side you're on.

It’s all too easy to default to slip from “inherent worth and dignity,” to name-calling, othering, and even demeaning entire groups in our mind.  

Although one of our 6 UU sources is “Words and deeds of prophetic people which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love;” The low road in our brains doesn’t do master-of-divinity level contemplations on what we mean by “evil” - it just judges.  Sometimes the ways we think, speak or act under the influence of our sadness or rage can be a version of ourselves we don’t even recognize.  This pendulum between an unreasonable hyper-inclusiveness on one side, and a shadow us-them tribalism on the other is unsustainable.  It’s time we created a better option.


Fortunately, the question of "which side you’re on" is often a Manichean fallacy - assuming that in every situation there’s an all-good pole, and an all-bad one.  Almost never are situations or people sorted so neatly.

If the discomfort above wasn’t enough, I’ve got one more sales pitch for you.

Demeaning others never looks good on peacenicks.  We’ve distanced ourselves far enough from these neural low-road tactics that when we try to use them, it just weakens our message.  It looks like tribalism IS more powerful than something like “the goal of world community with peace and justice for all.”  

So what’s the other option?  I’ve longed to offer the kind-hearted a way to express themselves which does not rely on archaic ways of ostracizing, shaming, and demeaning.  If we don’t have a method like this, we’re stuck with an inner false dichotomy - our only options are Silence in the face of harm, or Violence.  I believe that neither of these options is a road to the world we long to see.

The best tool I know here comes from the discipline of Nonviolent Communication, and I want to share it with you.  Don’t worry - “Nonviolence” can sound like weakness to some, but only because we’re so conditioned by the fool's choice of silence or violence.  There’s a third option available, where we can speak from the heart with great power, vulnerability, and inclusiveness all at once.

Principle number one is about making observations.  It sounds boring, but it’s revolutionary.  

Reading from Dr. Rosenberg's 'Nonv-violent Communication, a Language of Life' - p28-30

So, it turns out there’s an easy way that we can speak from the heart, stand our ground, and still not have to resort to archaic worldviews that some are good and some are evil.  If we hold off from our knee-jerk tendency to FIND A DIAGNOSIS AT ALL COSTS AND AS SOON AS POSSIBLE.  We could actually make an observation.

Evil is the inverse of “Live” because we’re not used to being with what’s really happening, what we’re observing, how we’re feeling about it.  These are “high road” capacities in our human brain, and they’re definitely not cultural norms yet!  Rather than relating to this living dynamism and nuance, it feels powerful to fixate all of life into something dead and rigid - then we know what it is, we can get our hands on it, we can make snap judgments like the ones that kept our ancestors alive.  Good vs Evil - or capitalist vs communist, republican vs democrat, vaxxer versus antivaxxer - was a pretty good survival tactic back then, with all it’s nuance-diminishing ways, but alas it’s a doorway to the past, not a path to the future.

It’s a vulnerable move, to let go of the sense of power we gain by diagnosing another as on “My Team” vs “Other,” but we are most adaptive when we’re showing up to reality as it is, not draping in our convenient, unmoving categories.

In the very best cases, when we hold back from assaulting another with our evaluations and pigeonholes, we can be pleasantly surprised.  Rather than the vindication of a self-fulfilling prophecy, we can experience another as a three dimensional human - maybe holding harmful views, or making choices we don’t condone - but complex and multifaceted.  Sometimes we even find a way to grow and change together!  But even in the worst cases, by staying out of the good-evil sorting trap, we can move forward knowing that we’ve refused the fool's choice of silence or violence, and the false dichotomy born in an era long gone!




Thursday, April 1, 2021

Our latest sermon from 3/28 "How to Take the High Road" is up on Youtube, you can watch it above!

Main Points

  • A problem with the high road is that if we tell ourselves or someone else to take it, we are in danger of telling them to “get over” whatever they’re feeling - equivalent to saying one’s feelings are invalid!
    • We fail to acknowledge the unmet needs that would have meant our thriving, and instead we follow the messaging that we should soldier on while repressing our trauma.

  • For some of us, it is a deeply spiritual thing to take the “high road” when it means we are expressing our core values.  When we mix up the call to live these high values with messages of shame and tone-policing, we’re doing all of us a disservice.
  • We can take "off ramps" from the high road of three varieties
    • we mistake being uncomfortable with challenging emotions for "virtue"
    • we repeat tropes of cultural dominance and assimilation by telling some groups to "calm down"
    • we get a secret ego boost by flaunting our high standards
  • To actually take the "high road" means living up to ourselves and acknowledging the inherent worth and dignity of every person
  • When we give in to taking our OWN low road, we weaken ourselves, we weaken what we normalize in our world.  But when we live up to ourselves, we can adopt countless creative tactics for change, and the only one we’ll never adopt is cruelty.


Detailed Sermon Notes/Transcript:

“Whoever established the high road - and how high it should be - should be fired” - Sandra Bullock

It seems pretty inevitable that when an injustice strikes you’ll hear someone express their distress or outrage - and then some well meaning (or not so well meaning person) comes along to tell them to calm down their feelings, be the bigger person, and “take the high road.”

Through the month of March, I like to talk about activism - rising up - like the energies of Springtime.  And I think our study of activism would be incomplete without exploring this notion of “taking the high road”


The problem the high road is that if we tell ourselves or someone else to take it, we are in danger of telling them to “get over” whatever they’re feeling - equivalent to saying one’s feelings are invalid!

We fail to acknowledge the unmet needs that would have meant our thriving, and instead we follow the messaging that we should soldier on while repressing our trauma.

The worst part is that for some of us, it is a deeply spiritual thing to take the “high road” when it means we are expressing our core values.  When we mix up the call to live these high values with messages of shame and tone policing, we’re doing all of us a disservice.

There’s value in “taking the high road”

Can you think of someone who seems to totally live their values?  They become a source of inspiration to those around them.  I think of people like Fred Rogers (aka ‘Mister’) who had such an impact on our whole society!  People like Dr. King held such consistency in their message that it had a potent impact lasting down through many years!

We can also see the power of congruence around messages less wholesome.  We’ve seen plenty of people hold the line on their commitment to violence and separation.  We easily get consistent and congruent inside around fear.

We know how potent it is to be true to yourself, and that’s what I really want to hold up as a way we can take the high roadWe’re not trying to incorporate some standard I learned in Sunday School 20 years ago about what’s virtuous or ethical, we’re uncovering what’s true to our hearts, and we’re committing to living from there.

When we do this, we’ll feel a welling up of energy, an inner empowerment.  We’re not “taking the high road” as a way of calming down, making less of a ruckus - in essence, disempowering ourselves.  No, we’re choosing to walk in total alignment with our deepest values, and we’re doing so so that we can tap the maximum power available to us for making beneficial change! 

This is the high road I want to get us all on together, but we gotta deal with a few detours - close a few false exits from the high road - we could say like toxic high-road analogues.


  1. First is our own discomfort with “Negative Emotions”

You may have heard of a new-ish term going around:  “toxic positivity” culture.  We think that “negative emotions” are bad, and so anytime someone expresses anger, grief, confusion, or rage, we want to guide them from that dangerous road and toward a more virtuous one.

Because we don’t understand that there’s such a thing as healthy aggression, necessary mourning, we assume that there’s something wrong with these emotions when they arise.

It’s actually an expression of our unhealthy relationship with power.  We’ve been conditioned to think that the only form of power is power over.  But when anger, rage, and grief arise- they can also be urging us to act toward a vision of power-with.

Just because the loudest people we see expressing challenging emotions express them in unhelpful ways doesn’t mean that’s the only way to do so.  Our emotions are the voice of our deeper values, and they arise in us as POWER to motivate change.  Power can be scary, but we can befriend it.

There are no unhealthy emotions, only healthy or unhealthy ways of acting on them.  When we feel the urge to tell someone they’ve got to simmer down, this is a problem in us, not them.  We must instead become comfortable being with rage, grief, shame, and confusion and not closing our hearts.  When we do so, we can “truly” take the high road, rather than merely just high-tailing it away from what scares us.

  1. Second is more problematic.  Without even knowing it, we have all likely internalized narratives that say some people are more dangerous than others.

Specifically in the US, this has been propaganda against People of Color.  Relatively recent forms of  propaganda have joined forces with even older messages meant to keep slaves in line, and a lot of us will have a triggered response when a person of color expresses rage that says “oh, they need to calm down!”  In Ibram X Kendi’s work, this is an “assimilationist” view, pipe down, don’t rock the boat.  We can hold it no matter the color of our skin and we’ve inherited it from the culture at large.

“Since the notion that we should all forsake attachment to race and/or cultural identity and be “just humans” within the framework of white supremacy has usually meant that subordinate groups must surrender their identities, beliefs, values, and assimilate by adopting the values and beliefs of privileged-class whites, rather than promoting racial harmony this thinking has created a fierce cultural protectionism.”

bell hooks, Killing Rage: Ending Racism


And so it can be very problematic if you hear a friend or a stranger mourning about a tragedy, and your impulse is to tell them to “take the high road”.

Women, too, have been taught that they must be paragons of virtue while the men around them behave in every sort of disruptive, antisocial, or heinous way.  Don’t rock the boat, dear.

Before we can think of encouraging another toward taking the “high-road”, we should inquire if this isn’t the message they’ve heard over and over as a way of sustaining racist, misogynist, heteronormative, or other cultural dynamics.

If it is, then rather than landing as a well-meaning friend in the spirit, we are in fact serving up just another helping of double-standards, micro-aggressions, and generational trauma.  Our intent is to build the world of all our dreams, but our IMPACT actually creates more separation between us.

The good news is that there is something we can do!  We can refer back to step one - get ourselves comfortable with the discomfort of another, be an empathetic and compassionate friend who deeply tries to hear them.  And if we do that, we’re actually enacting the way of being we say we believe in!

  1. We may be using our high minded ideology to boost our own self-esteem

Many of us have heard of virtue-signaling,

You may not have heard that we don’t just do it in front of others, we do it to OURSELVES

In her book ‘Self Compassion’, Kristen Neff shares research that shows how we sometimes get an inner self-esteem boost by shaming ourselves.

It’s like the part getting shamed feels bad (of course), but there’s another part of you that feels self-righteous for having the standards you failed to meet.

Even if we’re not trying to shame others, we may be manifesting this inner drive toward esteem, where we hold somewhat unreasonable ideologies, and then criticize those who can’t live up to them.

Esteem actually always seems to work like this - it’s contrasted from Self-Compassion.

The research she shares shows that self esteem, as we tend to think of it, always has to do with comparison - you have to actually be better than someone to have this type of ego boost.  Self Compassion would be more like our UU principle of inherent worth and dignity - you deserve love without having to stand out from the crowd.

This third reason we should be wary of telling others to “take the high road”, then, is that we may be doing it just to bolster our own egos.  It’s no wonder we come off as self-righteous when we say it, because we ARE being self-righteous - even if we think we’re just a fun loving peacenik!

When we have avoided these detours and false off-ramps we’re now in a position to actually take the “high road”.  What is this high road?  It’s going to be different in every situation, but it’s root is compassion.

It’s inherent worth and dignity - belonging - worthiness

It’s not, shaming, ruthless criticism, or ostracizing.  For me, and for all of us who have inherited the wisdom of the Universalists, it means the bottom line that we refuse to dehumanize.

“forgiveness and compassion are always linked: how do we hold people accountable for wrongdoing and yet at the same time remain in touch with their humanity enough to believe in their capacity to be transformed?”

bell hooks

This Universalist paradigm is one that says if someone is acting in a way that is injurious to others, they need to be educated or protection must be insured, but we do not worship the idea that the evil must be punished so they  “get what they deserve”.

When we dehumanize another, we dehumanize ourselves

Hell is, in fact, a burning issue

for it is the issue of separation,

whether we can, with safety and impunity,

set up little islands in the human experience

and therefore protect ourselves

against any relationship with the mainland. 

And Universalism says unequivocally, it cannot be done.”

Gordon B. McKeeman

“I hold the restoration of all souls;

because having myself been the chief of sinners. . .

God. . . granted me the mercy and pardon of all my sins,

and plucked me out of a brand of hell. . .

I could not have a doubt but the whole world

would be saved by the same power.”

George deBenneville

The temptation to use shame and dehumanize - to deprive another of inherent worth or common humanity is powerful, because we know how effective it can be.  We haven’t fully integrated the idea that there can be other kinds of power.  Ways of power that aren’t based on division and domination.

When we give in to taking our OWN low road, we weaken ourselves, we weaken what we normalize in our world.  But when we live up to ourselves, we can have what Marcus Aurelius called the best revenge - to be nothing like the ones who wronged us.

Living our values for love, connection, and inherent worth does not weaken us, we can adopt countless creative tactics for change, and the only one we’ll never adopt is cruelty.  Neither cruelty to ourselves nor to others.  In this way we can make our faith so visible that it becomes a light for the whole world. 

For our closing words, we could try on Socrates

“One should never do wrong in return, nor mistreat any man, no matter how one has been mistreated by him.”


But perhaps that’s a bit heavy on the old fashioned “shoulds” - perhaps we can go with Oscar Wilde, who says: 

“Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much.”

Oscar Wilde