spirit flows thru -- Alison Rittger's spiritual reflections on finding the holy in the daily

Pride Reconsidered


Safe at any speed/A UU photographer
 Once I rode in the Pride Parade in a motorized cable car for seniors. It was my first time to participate. Last year, I was a wheel monitor for the Unitarian Universalist truck of musicians from the Oakland UU. I was in charge of the right rear wheel, mostly to be sure no one fell under it. I can’t say trudging along in the exhaust of the truck was as much fun or made me as proud as when I rode with other older women, waving at people who cheered and laughed when they read our sign, “Two, four, six, eight, what makes you think your grandma’s straight.”

And despite missing the parade this year, officiating at a wedding in the redwoods in Lagunitas, I feel proud that I and the gay and straight parade participants and cheerers who line Market year after year support the inclusion of all people whatever their sexual proclivities and activities.

When I first considered pride, I did so because the then-minister was preaching about each sin. Because I am familiar with all seven, I was part of the service and had my four minutes as Worship Associate. Doing my research at the time, I found that Wickipedia called pride the deadliest of the seven sins, the one from which the other six flow. Furthermore, hardly anyone has escaped the admonishment that pride goeth before a fall. As I learn more about eastern traditions, I worry less about any of the seven including this deadliest one, pride, and pay more attention to grasping or pushing away.

But since yesterday was Pride Parade in San Francisco, I am inclined to think about pride and what makes me most proud of myself.  I’d have to say it is my humility.

In the days of having a significant other, I recall a conversation like this. I am introduced to my girlfriend’s friends, one of whom says to me, “I hear you are a writer.” Rather than a thoughtful response, a pause or an inquiry, I stiffen, unhappy with a ready-made label, even if it is positive and something I could be proud of. Really priding myself on abhorring labels, I say solemnly, “A writer is someone who writes. Do you see me writing?” Following the silence, the conversation veers away, sparing me embarrassing questions like “Have you been published?” What do you think of Joyce Carol Oates?”

I grew up in a family that said achievement and honors signal superiority. Over the years, family bragging solidified in me anti-aggrandizing strategies to ward off feelings of inferiority and self-loathing, as none of my accomplishments seemed big or important enough. Sundays at the Cousins’ Club I remember how my Uncle Ben would regale the rest of us with his son, my cousin’s, accomplishments. He’s been appointed chair of an English Department. He’s had a book published, and it’s the story of my father’s life. What have I done lately?

Of course, accounts of other family members’ superior achievements can inspire children to seek and earn acclaim, preferably punctuated by trophies, prizes or certificates of merit. But these accounts can also have the opposite effect. In my case, from childhood up, tales of superior family accomplishments created an urge in me to try to accomplish nothing worth bragging about. Perhaps a kind of false modesty more than the real thing.

It’s been my experience that fragile egos like mine do one of two things, neither of which looks or sounds like pride or humility. We may hunker down behind a barrier built for protection, a false case of don’t show and don’t tell. Behind such a barrier resentment builds each time nobody notices or listens.

On the other hand, fragile egos can catalog their accomplishments for a very long time, taking every conversational break as an opportunity to detail their splendor. To these people, I am willing to listen for five minutes and no longer. Apparently the biblical admonishment not to hide one’s light under a bushel has passed the candle stage and become a neon sign with pulsing arrows that end in a big “me.”  

I don’t know which is worse or less interesting, listening to others belittle their accomplishments, or bragging on and on. In either case, I don’t have the energy or interest, no matter how kind I wish to be. But I don’t consider the wonderful sense of accomplishment we feel when we have done the right thing to be a deadly sin at all. I’m sure the ancients had more heinous crimes in mind when composing their list of sins and calling the worst one pride.

In fact, once pride became an operating principle in my life rather than just a five-letter word, I realized that there is actually plenty of praise, prizes, and pride to go around. If I want to, I can write a book about my father’s life and publish it myself. And next year as I ride or walk in the parade in spirit or in fact, I will celebrate my own as well as everybody else’s accomplishments no matter how big or small.

Slice o cake / The Pink Peppercorn
The whole idea of lust leaves a lot to be desired. I don't like lust, most of all because the word itself sounds too much like lost. And lost, as in being subsumed in the pursuit of an object, sounds like the beginning of the end of being present and authentic.   

Lust, just like envy or gluttony, or pride or sloth, or any "sin" I plan to reconsider isn’t bad as long as no one disappears in the pursuit of their desire. 

However, if you are a child at your third birthday party where there really is no polite way to refuse all the goodies Mommy puts in front of you, the image is of a lusty appetite for fun and frolic. No sin being committed here.

Nevertheless, from a grown-up perspective,  the word itself, lust sounds too much like lost. 

Risking whatever reputation I might ever hope to have, I admit to lusting for objects I imagined would increase my worth. Because I now know the difference between lusting for people once viewed as desired objects and being in  genuine relationship, I will name no names and limit my lust-list to material objects, such as, the paperback edition of Marcel Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past” newly translated. I once desired a large flat screen TV, an espresso maker, I had to own a microwave, I was powerfully attracted by a digital camera, another digital camera, heavy breathing for a wireless modem, a laptop computer. Believe me, this is not the end of the list. However, none of these objects, the pursuit of which felt overpowering and compelling at the time ever generated the joy and meaning I now experience as I fiercely desire to be authentic, pursuing goals not produced by marketplace pressures to conform.

Conformity. Yuck. Several years ago, I watched conformity get a black eye  on YouTube as Susan Boyle sang Andrew Lloyd Weber’s “I Dreamed a Dream” from “Les Miserable” on Britains Got Talent. I am one of millions of Internet surfers who saw Susan Boyle, at that time a frizzy-haired, frumpy 47-year old transform the snickers and sneers of the studio audience and the panel of judges to cheers and shouts of approval for the soaring beauty of her vocal performance.

Watching disbelief turn to wonderment stirred my soul. But it wasn’t only Susan Boyle’s beautiful voice, but how quickly the crowd and the judges recognized the error of jumping to judgment based on appearances and stopped sneering to begin cheering. Later, interviewed on CNN, Susan Boyle said, "I wouldn't want to change myself too much because that would really make things a bit false. I want to receive people as the real me, a real person."

Real people are beautiful when they fully commit to being truly who they are and take seriously, as we do in  the  Unitarian Universalist community, the first and seventh principles which articulate our conviction that all people have worth and dignity and that we are all part of the interconnected web of  life.  Speaking, sponsoring, gathering, attending events, standing behind tables, marching, going to jail, risking foolishness – it’s all a kind of witnessing for what matters, especially as we join forces with many communities to effect change.  In San Francisco, Oakland, throughout the United States and the world, the Occupy Movement exemplifies  lusting for justice and for change that will improve the lives of many more than currently count as the one percent.

For in the throes of such a lust, people trust their actions to spring from deep, though not always popular, personal truth. And thus wittingly and willingly, choose to lose themselves in what they must and most lust for: “tikkun olam” healing the world. So if lust we must, I can see no better use for lust than this.    

Japanese eggplant with noodles/Ben Ostrowsky
Yaaaay gluttony, Yum, Yum. Why the exuberance? It was gluttony after all that plumped me up enough to be hired to instruct people with weight issues on how to practice self-control, portion control, and to say no or “not now” to food, food, and more food.

Of course, the weight control company I work for would never have hired me if I hadn’t followed their program and lost my excess weight, which had been clearly visible in my Sponge Bob Square Pants-like shape. By following the program marketed by my future employer, I shed enough poundage to be trained as a leader and receive an employee number.

I must have been ballooning up for close to 30 years before “gluttony” crossed my mind. What finally convinced me I might be more than occasionally splurging was a birthday spent in intensive care at a local hospital to undergo a test so life threatening, I had to sign a form saying I knew this test could kill me, but the doctor says do it or else. Frightened and suffering from a fierce headache, I agreed to exit this life on the date I entered it if fate dealt me those cards. I had the procedure, which resulted in medical bafflement. Eventually the headache subsided, and some doctor suggested I had been suffering from food poisoning.

Food poisoning? Could that be? Well, a few days before dragging myself to the emergency room I remember thanking my son and daughter-in-law for bringing me their leftovers from an intimate dinner at a Clement street restaurant to which I had not been invited. It’s hard to say what was in the carton they deposited on the table in my living room because the room was dark, it was late, and the grease on the food had congealed hours ago, but I ate whatever was in that carton. Immediately, I was violently sick, and a headache ensued. That could have been a brain tumor, couldn’t it? That could be why the hurry to inject dye into my brain.

So in summary, as a result of that gluttony-related scare and finally acknowledging that unflattering photos of me taken over the years weren’t entirely the fault of the photographers, nor were the doctor’s scales spiking toward the high end due to a flaw in the metric system or malicious health care providers, I accepted the fact of my gluttony and turned myself in to weekly meetings, sage advice and healthy weight loss precepts. And so I lost weight and got that job, but, and it’s a big but, was I cured of gluttony?

Happily, absolutely not. And why should I, or anyone, wish to be free from such a delightful capacity for excess, so closely tied to the experience of pleasure? In the words of the venerable Grateful Dead, “Too much of everything is just enough.”  And my partner, Corky, who is also a glutton, gave me this Mae West quote, “Too much of a good thing... can be wonderful.”

From the hell and damnation angle, gluttony refers to overindulgence in food and drink, but from a happier perspective, gluttony is hunger for new experiences, for warm and caring contact, for eye-to-eye communion with friendly dogs, for speaking one’s mind, for being heard, for listening, for learning, for weeping through La Boheme or Butterfly for the fourth or fifth time, for reading voraciously, books stacked by the side of the bed. If that sounds like gluttony, then that’s what you call it.

My oldest son, Guy, recently undertook an MBA program online from Wales. Blogging about making this choice in an uncertain economy, he called himself a “glutton for punishment.” But he went on to say that in the process of undertaking new learning, he found he is good at it and thrilled that being caught up in what he is doing is still part of his nature.

It’s not my plan to give up gluttony, but to continue to teach that old habit new tricks, tricks that will serve me better than eating past my point of true delight, what I used to do. I will be a glutton for choices, so if I feel like going to a potluck and nibbling chocolate truffles and sipping shiraz or cabernet rather than slogging through tepid garlicky spaghetti on soggy paper plates or chipping away at the cheese ball elbow to elbow with everyone else, thank you, I will. I’ll be practicing gluttony on my own terms.

So let me conclude with this glutton’s prayer: “Yaaaay life!! Yum, Yum.” Keep it coming. Pour it on. “Ayum.”