The Dance of Interdependence
By Rev. Karen Fraser Gitlitz
Adapted from a sermon delivered at the Unitarian Congregation of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, September 14, 2014
A good relationship has a pattern like a dance and is built on some of the same rules. The partners do not need to hold on tightly, because they move confidently in the same pattern, intricate but gay and swift and free, like a country dance of Mozart’s. To touch heavily would be to arrest the pattern and freeze the movement, to check the endlessly changing beauty of its unfolding. There is no place here for the possessive clutch, the clinging arm, the heavy hand; only the barest touch in passing. Now arm in arm, now face to face, now back to back — it does not matter which. Because they know they are partners moving to the same rhythm, creating a pattern together, and being invisibly nourished by it.
— Anne Morrow Lindbergh
The partners in the dance are conscious that they are dancing. They are able to touch lightly because they sense the slightest shift in weight, the leaning in or leaning out that indicates a change in direction.
If our place in the interdependent web of life is best understood through the metaphor of dance, I am generally only aware of the dance when something dramatic happens – the moments of transcendence, of awe, of wonder, when the beauty of the universe breaks in on my consciousness and I feel connected in every fibre of my being. I notice those moments when the pattern of the dance is broken, or interrupted; when someone steps on my foot, or in a square dance, when one couple gets out of time and throws the whole square off.
I try to make times to notice the dance, when I step back and call the web of life into conscious awareness. Walking outside in the morning when everything is still and hearing the first bird call, I am reminded of my kinship with all the early morning creatures rustling themselves awake, following the cue of the sun. Pausing before dinner, we take a moment to give thanks for the land and all the people who brought the food to the table. But most of the time, I just trust that the pattern is in place, that things will fall into place as they normally do. I’m focussed on my day-to-day life, doing whatever it is that is in front of me, making dinner, taking a phone call.
So it is that our mutual interconnectedness stands out for me during moments of intense feeling, and great change. A baby is born, and the dance of a family shifts and re-forms around the newcomer; the health of one partner declines, or strengthens, and the health of the other shifts too. It doesn’t even have to be someone I know.
One day this summer I was in the car with Paul. One of us turned on the radio. The announcer was halfway into a report: someone had died. I heard Robin Williams’ name. It took a moment before I put the two statements together and I realized that Robin Williams had died. So surprised I was, so not taking it in, that my first thought was, it must have been another Robin Williams, as if there were another Robin Williams famous enough to be talked about on the radio. This man, who I never knew personally, who had been in my living room and my local movie theatre with his humour and his humanity, had shaped my understanding of what it means to be human. It was only in his passing that I realized how deeply he had affected me.
In the days that followed, it was clear that Paul and I were not the only people compelled to respond. His place in the interdependent web of life mattered to me: I felt connected to him because of the way he talked about things that other people didn’t talk about. I connected with his empathy and compassion. And I connected with him also as we learned of his suffering, his addiction and his struggles with mental illness. The dance shifted when he died and I found myself wanting to do something to mark the empty place left by his passing.
Each generation can speak of the events that shaped their world: moments that brought people together or pulled them apart; events that made the world feel smaller, and less safe, or smaller, like a village. It may be the events in our own lives that open us up to the interconnectedness of life. A woman, nursing a baby, hears of war in a land far away, and for the first time the reality of children growing up and being sent to war hits her, deep in her body. It may be ancestral connections to the Ukraine or Israel or Palestine. It may be a sense of the fragility of peace. I still remember one of my roommates standing at the top of the stairs looking into my room, telling that a man in Montreal had shot and killed women students at École Polytechnique. I remember the expression on my roommate’s face. We were in university too, not very far away – in Kingston. It could have been us, it could have been our friends.
I feel the impact ot these events even if I cannot see all the threads, the lines of cause and effect, that create the impact. People we never meet, events we don’t participate in, can shape our lives. The dance is complex. I cannot see the pattern shifting until suddenly all is changed.
Canadian historian Margaret MacMillan has written two studies of the First Wold War and the events leading up to it. She carefully traces the interconnections between European royal houses; the culture, economics and politics of the time; all of which resulted in young men and women living here, on the Canadian prairies far away from Europe, to sign up to fight and nurse in the trenches. Rare is the small town that does not have a memorial to those who did not come back. It is the task of historians such as MacMillan to tease out the pattern of the dance, to help us understand the threads that pull and bind.
In real time, in the moment, as events are happening, it is not yet clear which cause leads to which effect. There is research, there is analysis, there are many opinions from various ideological perspectives, including my own, as to which factors are important in the rise of the Islamic state or the roots of the Israel-Palestine conflict. In real time, the connections are harder to trace, the pattern not yet visible. Or, perhaps more accurately, there are so many connections it can feel overwhelmingly complex to trace them all, and we cannot know in advance whether our actions will have an impact.
Here is an example. Last winter there was a study resolution put forward by a group of Canadian Unitarians. I won’t go into the details of how study resolutions work, but suffice it to say that Canadian Unitarians have a process for making resolutions whereby a group of people can bring an idea forward and present it to the annual meeting. The meeting can then pass a motion recommending that congregations study the issue using materials developed by the study group. I had a number of concerns with the resolution. The way it was written, it felt like the study group already had their minds made up, and they wanted the rest of us to hurry up and get on board. To be fair, they took that criticism with good grace and re-wrote their resolution so that it was a bit more nuanced. They also made a provision for adding people with differing views to the study group.
I still wasn’t happy with it. I spent a lot of time talking to people about it, trying to understand my own reaction. Partly, I think, it seemed to me – still seems to me – that there are issues where we could have more impact, where the threads of interconnection are clearer and more directly connected to our daily lives, and therefore easier to lift up and pull. There are issues closer to home: we have neighbours here in Saskatoon who would be happy to have us take the time to walk beside them. And it feels overwhelming to add yet another issue to the table.
When I’m sitting at the CUC listening to delegates debate about the call for a study resolution on human rights in the Israel-Palestine conflict, I might think, well, good minds have been working at this for many years. What do we think we are going to add to the conversation? That’s not really being honest with myself, though. What I’m really thinking is, good grief. Our congregation just finished creating a statement of mission and purpose that we want to take out into the community this year. The social action coordinating committee has projects they want to support; the green sanctuary team spent last year laying the ground work and this year they’ve got all sorts of exciting plans for helping us become a green sanctuary in practice as well as in principle. Then there is my own passion for seeing us stand in greater solidarity with First Nations people in this province. And you want me to go back to Saskatoon to advocate for a year of study on human rights in Israel and Palestine?
Realistically, what I can imagine is that we would do a second hour programme on Sunday morning, or a workshop. This is what most congregations would do unless there were one or two people who wanted to go deeper. This would be the process that would feed into a resolution; it would come back to the Annual Meeting and we would vote on it; the Executive Director would try to create a monitoring group to send out letters and press releases when appropriate, and that would be that. I’m sorry, but I don’t think that has much impact beyond us feeling good about ourselves passing resolutions.
As is often the case, it wasn’t until after the Canadian Unitarian Council’s Annual Meeting that my thoughts came together. The Presbyterians in the United States had just voted to divest themselves of share in Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola because all three companies are profiting from the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. One Canadian Unitarian asked online, “If they are voting on action, whey can’t we get a study group together?” Because – I thought – because the Presbyterian vote was the result of ten years of work within the Presbyterian Church – because the Presbyterian vote was the result of collaboration with a group outside their own denomination, much of it with the Jewish activist group “Jewish Voice for Peace”.
Yes, the Presbyterians studied the issues and debated them. They also built sustained relationships; they got to know people they wouldn’t have otherwise met or learned from. This is a very different process.
I think our national Unitarian resolutions process is flawed, for two reasons. First, because it treats each issue as a stand-alone issue: we vote yes or no on each resolution, never having the conversation about how each topic fits, together with the others, into the larger picture of who we are, what we stand for, and what we are able to do. I’d like to see us develop a process that would encourage a conversation about which of the many issues might best be addressed by us. My second concern is more about what I’d call habits of being. We like study and reading; they are important and we are good at this. Asking questions about who is telling the story and digging deeper into the issues is important. But it is not sufficient. We need to hear from more voices than just our own. We need to be in relationship with people affected by the issues over time. We can only learn about our place in the interdependent web of life by speaking with someone who inhabits a different place in that web.
I am not against resolutions and letters. They are important, they can have an impact. They have more impact, I think, when they come out of a real engagement with the other people who are also working on the issue.
Some of you know that last February I began work with Integrated Community Ministries, an outreach ministry of Riverbend Presbytery of the United Church of Canada. I work five hours a week with ICM’s “Essential Voices” project. The program started with one lay minister trying to figure out how the United Church could serve the core neighbourhoods of Saskatoon. Janet Clarke spent most of her time in two ways: one-on-one conversations with people talking about their lives, and meetings with community groups wanting to advocate around poverty related issues. One day Janet read about a lawyer who advocated for the homeless in New York. The lawyer said that she had hired a homeless person to go with her to meetings and to debrief meetings with her. This decision had transformed her work. Now she would not go to a meeting without the voice of lived experience at her side. Bringing the voice of lived experience transformed Integrated Community Ministries’ work, also, and now “essential voices” are a part of all their programs.
Yes, it takes more time. Yes, it adds complexity. And yes, it is worth it. The results are better. Increasing the diversity of voices at the table improves decision making. Including lived experience in the conversation improves outcomes and results in greater organizational impact. Including lived experience changes the way the organization works, because it changes the people in the organization. This is what it means to take interdependence seriously, as an ethical principle and as a theological principle. It changes us.
And if I am honest with myself, that is why sometimes I balk from noticing, because my life is full enough as it is and change seems like a lot of work. I have got my own stuff to deal with, thank you very much! What I need reminding of in those moments – why I need this community – is that the issue is already affecting me, even if I can’t see it.
Taking interdependence seriously as an ethical or theological principle reminds me that our liberation, our freedom, our peace and prosperity are bound up together with that of every other person on this planet. We share a common destiny. We quickly become pulled or pushed into each other’s conflicts. There is no peace for us here while there is unrest and suffering in the Middle East. Our Universalist ancestors said that we are all one; we are bound together in a common destiny. Our Unitarian ancestors believed with all their heart and mind and will that we can act together to build the common good. The questions we need to ask today are: what sort of actions and whose common good? Bringing more voices to the conversation ensures that our understanding of the common good really is held in common.
If we turn to biology, psychology, computer science, history, and many other disciplines, we can learn to act with systems savvy. Edwin Friedman was a rabbi and family therapist who devoted his life to understanding human systems. A few years ago I took his course in family systems where we were encouraged to ask questions of our family members. At first if seemed odd: why would I ask my brother about our parents’ marriage? But when I did call him and ask what he learned about marriage from our parents, I was completely surprised: you wouldn’t have guessed that we grew up in the same family!
Friedman encouraged his students to pay attention to their position in the system, to find the courage to do something differently when they wanted a different result, and to be curious, always, about what could be learned from other voices. When the causes are multiple and probably untraceable, we need to move with systems savvy, getting curious about our own position in the system, and about the knowledge that everyone else has about the system. Taking interdependence seriously means acknowledging that we won’t always be able to trace cause and effect. But we can uncover connections and learn to gently tug on the threads that bind, altering the pattern of the whole.
The partners in the dance are conscious that they are dancing. They are able to touch lightly because they sense the slightest shift in weight, the leaning in or leaning out that indicates a change in direction. If our place in the interdependent web of life is best understood through the metaphor of dance, the joy of the dance is that we are always connected, always able to try new steps and influence the pattern.
May it be so. Amen. Blessed be.