Service: Role Models and the Spiritual Self

Order of Service 6/28/15

Welcome and Announcements 
Chris Dame

Prelude “The Pride of Kildare” from Six Etudies in English Folksong by R. Vaughan Williams
Karen Allendoerfer, viola, Guy Urban, piano

Chalice Lighting from The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, by Carl Sagan
Karen Allendoerfer

Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light-years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual. So are our emotions in the presence of great art or music or literature, or acts of exemplary selfless courage such as those of Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.

Love is the spirit of this church
and service is its law.
This is our great covenant:
To dwell together in peace,
to seek the truth in love,
and to help one another.

From all that dwell below the skies
Let songs of hope and faith arise.
Let peace, goodwill on earth be sung
Through every land by every tongue

First Readings 
Chris Dame

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.
–William Shakespeare, As You Like It

If I don’t practice one day, I know it; two days, the critics know it; three days, the public knows it.
-Jascha Heifetz, violin virtuoso

Opening Hymn #346, Come Sing a Song With Me

Second Reading from Waking Up, by Sam Harris
Chris Dame

We seem to do little more than lurch between wanting and not wanting.Thus, the question naturally arises: Is there more to life than this? Might it be possible to feel much better (in every sense of better) than one tends to feel? Is it possible to find lasting fulfillment despite the inevitability of change?

Spiritual life begins with a suspicion that the answer to such questions could well be “yes.” And a true spiritual practitioner is someone who has discovered that it is possible to be at ease in the world for no reason, if only for a few moments at a time, and that such ease is synonymous with transcending the apparent boundaries of the self. Those who have never tasted such peace of mind might view these assertions as highly suspect. Nevertheless, it is a fact that a condition of selfless well-being is there to be glimpsed in each moment.

Offertory 12 Duets for violin and viola, No. 4, Polonaise, by W.A. Mozart
Djalai Babazedeh, violin, Karen Allendoerfer, viola

Sermon “Role Models and the Spiritual Self”
Karen Allendoerfer

A couple of months ago, on the site where I have my violin blog, there was a poll: “Who is your musical role model? ”The choices were: a teacher, a superstar, a fellow student, a colleague, or I have no role model. I had a hard time choosing between my violin teacher and a friend and colleague who passed away a few years ago at age 97. But, I went ahead and picked “a teacher,” which was narrowly the most popular choice, picked by ~40% of the respondents.

It no longer surprises me, but it still puzzles me, that “a superstar” came in a close second. I have never really understood how superstars are supposed to work as role models: people one doesn’t know, probably will never know, and, unless one is uniquely gifted (unlike me) cannot reasonably hope to emulate. Among violinists, the 20th century virtuoso Jascha Heifetz is a perennial favorite for this sort of thing. While I treasure some recordings of his that I own, I have never been particularly fond of his quote about practicing every day. Sure, my reaction is a little self-serving, because I don’t, and have never, practiced every day. But more than the obvious and unbridgeable chasm between his level of playing and mine, what bothers me about this quote is the idea that the critics and the public are watching. Every day. If you are Heifetz, they are all there all the time, these strangers, invading even a place as intimate as your own practice room. Who would want that?

Shakespeare too said that “All the World’s a Stage.” Who would want that? Why?

As I learned in high school, though, if one is a teenaged student—of the violin, of Elizabethan drama, or pretty much anything else—one doesn’t ask those questions. One doesn’t get to say no to performance and to the accompanying evaluation and assessment from adults. One doesn’t just disagree with Shakespeare.

Maybe I just don’t get the appeal of the superstar role model because I’m not a professional performing artist. Instead, I am a PhD scientist and science educator who works with teenagers. I care deeply about STEM education and about a scientifically literate public, and I want to see all students succeed, including students from diverse genders and cultural and economic backgrounds. So, what was my reaction when I saw a different article in the Washington Post, called “Virginia student earns admission to all eight Ivy League schools, and others”?

After reading and mentally processing the article, I was filled with admiration for the young woman described there. She appears to be gifted, hard-working, and humble. A woman of color and the daughter of immigrants, she has made the most of her opportunities, and she demonstrates an uncommon level of maturity and generosity. She’s clearly a superstar, and deserves admission to any top college in the country or in the world. And science education is my field.

But my first reaction was still, “yikes!”

The yikes don’t have to do with this brilliant young woman herself, but rather specifically with the idea of her as a role model. Her principal calls her a “STEM superwoman.” Her guidance counselor is quoted as saying that the senior is “dedicated to pushing herself in the classroom . . . ‘she’s taking the hardest courses,the most challenging we offer’ . . .” And, her decision to apply to all 8 Ivy League schools is “not typically what we advise.” Some commenters say that we “need more” of students like this. Others want to know “how she did it.” Either way the implication is that others should read this article and emulate its subject. This superstar can be their role model. What’s more, articles like this are considered “good news,” an antidote to all the depressing stuff that comes across our screens every day.

Yet, I already know entire high schools worth of kids, kids from all different backgrounds and cultures, some privileged and some less so,who want, and who try, to be like the student described in this article. Who overload themselves with too many AP classes and too little sleep in order to gain that precious Ivy League acceptance. I have a teenager in one of these high schools now. Thirty years ago, I was one of them too (but back then the acceptance rate at my alma mater, Princeton University, was around 17%, not the 6.99% it was in 2015). There isn’t a shortage of teenagers trying as hard as they can, to be super. It’s just that most of them don’t succeed, at least not by this definition.

A few spaces in my Facebook feed down from the article about the Ivy League-bound student, I saw another one from Time magazine, called “Why kids who believe in something are happier and healthier.” I was more than a little put off by this title at first. I don’t believe in a personal God, and in my own life I experienced the opposite: I became much happier when I became an atheist, and then married another atheist. It remains puzzling to me why Richard Dawkins gets the hate mail he does. While I don’t agree with everything he says or believes, he has never come across to me as anxious, depressed, or wallowing in existential despair. In fact, his good humor as he reads some of the choicer excerpts of this mail aloud on YouTube is a good lesson in how to deal with haters. And you can barely find a picture online of New Atheist Sam Harris that doesn’t have a smile on his face. Atheists seem plenty happy and healthy to me.

But I read the article anyway. Its author, Lisa Miller, is a clinical psychologist who sees a lot of unhappy teens, and who has written a book called The Spiritual Child. Miller claims that over the past decade, up to 65% of teens have been shown to struggle with intrusive depression symptoms at some point, and often with anxiety and substance abuse as well. And this is especially a problem for the kids who should, theoretically, have the easiest chance for happiness: those who are economically well-off and whose parents are able to provide them with opportunities and choices. Clusters of teen suicides are reported in the most affluent and successful communities: Newton Massachusetts, Manasquan New Jersey, Palo Alto California. Is this the bad news that articles like that Ivy League one are supposed to provide an antidote to? Is it working yet?

Miller’s theory to explain this paradox is that “an increasingly narcissistic culture and the constant reward for achievement, whether on the playing field, the music stage or the math test, creates the unbalanced “performance self” of the child; a child who feels his or her worth is founded on ability and accomplishment.” Miller’s antidote to the unbalanced “performance self” is the development of the “spiritual self,” which she says is neglected in our culture.

Here too my first reaction would normally be skepticism. I tend to associate the term “spiritual” with goofy New Age crystals and chakras at best; and at worst with the sort of fear-and guilt-based religion that is at odds with modern science. Even the word “self” can be problematic. Atheist Sam Harris has recently been trying to reclaim the word “spiritual” for atheists in his book, Waking Up, but seemingly at the expense of the self. In that passage from Waking Up that was our 2nd reading, Harris comes across to me as being as certain as any religious fundamentalist, that feeling “at ease in the world for no particular reason” requires selflessness. “It’s a fact,” he states, without providing any evidence other than his own personal experience. “A true spiritual practitioner” knows this, whereas those who haven’t felt this way, who aren’t in the club, “might view these assertions as highly suspect.”

Well, chalk me up to the highly suspect category then. I have felt at ease in the world for no particular reason, I’ve even felt connected to other people and the universe in a way beyond words. But even then I never felt like my self actually went away. I was free of the fear of negative judgements from others, free of pressure and performance anxiety. But I, my self, was still right there.

So I think Miller is onto something. The spiritual self she writes about is not connected to any specific religion, or even to religion, per se. It is measured as a deep spiritual connection with a sense of a sacred world. It can be encouraged and fostered by steps such as meditation, prayer, or long walks in nature, and modeled by such traits as caring for others, empathy, and optimism. It stops short of self loss or self-negation. She says:  “In contrast to the performance self, the spiritual self is sturdy and resilient, happy at a win, but not dependent on it to feel worthy as a human being.”

Since becoming a UU 20 years ago, it has seemed to me that UUs and musicians both have a great deal to contribute to the development of the spiritual self in people of all ages. We can be the role models. Historically people came to music through the church, and music served a spiritual function, first and foremost. Its spiritual meaning is what drew me to music in the first place.

I’ve found many people who feel this way right here in this congregation. When I first walked through the door of this church, back in 1998, I wasn’t playing the violin much. But I came and sang a song with Patty DeVore and with many people in the choir who are still my friends today. Then, when I started playing the violin and viola again, Patty supported me. Sure she provided my timid performance self with expert piano accompaniment, but she, and others such as Djalai, Beth, Jerusha, Mark, and now Guy and Charlyn and Nick and Lauren all provided my spiritual self with something more important: the opportunity to connect with others through music.

To a spiritual role model in music, it’s still a good thing if you practice every day, but it’s also okay if you don’t, and they don’t necessarily need to know one way or the other. I’ve been especially delighted to see the formation of the UU Ukulele group. My teenage daughter has been playing the violin since she was 7 and I think she has already practiced the ukulele voluntarily, as in un-nagged by me, more often than she has ever practiced the violin that way.

To a spiritual role model, it’s also okay if you cry. Dr. Miller doesn’t address it, but in my own view, a healthy spiritual self is able to cry without shame or apology. I’m not there yet. I’ve cried in church more times than I’d like to admit, and I still feel embarrassed about it. Music in particular will make me cry, sometimes when I don’t even expect it, mortifying my performance self. I once cried while playing the Barber Adagio for an RE Class, while trying to tell the kids about Vedran Smailovic, the cellist of Sarajevo. I cried when my cat died, and when I found out I was moving to California. I cried at the service following the manhunt for Dzokhar Tsarnaev. Way back in 2001,the Sunday after the 9/11 attacks, I stood here and sang hymn #159 “This Is My Song.” You might know the tune from Sibelius’ Finlandia. Dry-eyed and weary until that Sunday morning, I barely made it to “This is my home, the country where my heart is” before starting to weep. And by the end, “O hear my song, thou God of all the nations, a song of peace for their land and for mine,” I wasn’t singing anymore at all out loud, only in spirit, having lost my voice completely from crying. Even without being able to perform the song, I felt healed and uplifted.

I might be crying now. If I am, so be it. If not, it’s because I practiced this speech over and over again, so I could make it through. I won’t know until this moment whether I did or not. But I do know, even as I first write these words, that either outcome—crying or not crying—would be okay here.

I’ve made a big deal about being a skeptic, today and in the past. And so people, especially people who don’t know me very well, or don’t know much about UUs, have asked me more than once, “why do you go to church?” Today I’ve tried to give the answer: to care for and support my spiritual self so that when a crisis happens, I’ll know what to do, I’ll have hope.

In Palo Alto, after a cluster of teen suicides last fall, a psychiatrist in the community, Dr. Adam Strassberg, wrote: “Why does it need to take a suicide, or worse yet this cluster of suicides, to justify and invigorate public conversation over improving the mental health, happiness and quality of life for our teens?! More sleep, more free unscheduled time to play and to grow, less homework, more balance, better stress tolerance — these are inherent goods and worthy continual goals for our school district and community. These goals should be active and ongoing and not be predicated upon any “crisis” in student mental health, “perceived” or “actual.” He urged not just parents, but the whole community, to “Keep Calm and Parent On.”

Over the past week, as the national news has swung from terrible tragedy to joy, I’ve heard echoes of these words: “Why does it need to take a suicide? (Or a horrific murder?) To justify and invigorate public conversation about the underlying issues? These goals should be active and ongoing and not be predicated upon any “crisis, ”perceived or actual.” This church already understands that. And, it understands that nurturing the Spiritual Self isn’t just for teens. It’s for all of us.

Responsive Reading “Keep Calm and Parent On,” Adapted from an article in Palo Alto Online by Dr. Adam Strassberg

Make your teen sleep

Our children need to be sleeping more than us, not less than us. Poor sleep is just one of many contributing factors to depression, but it is such an easily controllable and preventable factor. Sufficient sleep must take priority over homework, athletics, social life, work,etc.

Talk with your teen

Asking about suicide does not increase the risk of suicide. Asking about suicide willnot implant the idea of suicide into your teens. Asking about suicide decreases the risk of suicide.

Model mental health treatment for your teen

In my many years as a psychiatrist, I have observed so much success, and yet so little happiness. Create a life worth living for yourself first. Make it optimistic, wonderful and balanced. Seek treatment from a professional if you need it. Model onto yourself the attention to mental health you aspire for your teens.

Want the best for your child, not for your child to be the best

Our community is so intelligent and so educated, and yet the basic sociological concept of “regression to the mean” is misunderstood so widely. The “more” of a quality any parent possesses, the less likely their child will equal or exceed them in that quality.

Be brave. What a strange world we have when having your child only take the SAT once, not take advanced math, not play a varsity sport, not have a college coach, not take an AP class — what a strange world indeed when this is a type of bravery? Since when does it make sense that a 16-year-old’s weekly schedule should be twice as packed with meetings and assignments than his middle-aged parents?

Get a pet

Before my own teenagers slam the door on me, they always take one of our cats into their bedrooms. They could be angry at their parents, at school, friends, the world, but their pets always understand them.

Keep Calm

Why does it need to take a suicide to justify and invigorate public conversation over improving the mental health, happiness and quality of life for our teens?

We must “Keep Calm.” But that does not mean we must do nothing. Do not overreact — please do react. Please “Parent On.”

Musical Meditation Double cello concerto, Mvt. 2, Largo, by Antonio Vivaldi (transcribed for 2 violas by KA)
Karen Allendoerfer and Djalai Babazedeh, violas

Joys and Sorrows

Closing Hymn #159,This Is My Song

Closing Words from Max Ehrmann, Desiderata
Karen Allendoerfer

Go placidly amid the noise and the haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. . . . Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.


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The Brain—is wider than the Sky

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