Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Emerald Coast
“The Ten Commandments, Edited”
By Amanda Piburn
July 15, 2012
What comes to mind when you hear The Ten Commandments? A Charlton Heston movie? Or the Decalogue, irrefutable biblical rules about ethics and the proper worship of God? Many of you grew up considering the commandments of great importance in your lives, laws from God not to be argued with or set aside when inconvenient, for fear of ever-lasting punishment. Written by the finger of God on two stone tablets which Moses brought down from Mount Sinai, the commandments have been central to the teachings of Judaism, Catholicism, and Protestantism for centuries.
As UU’s, you may, like me, think first of the never-ending debates about their public display. But not every church venerates the SAME ten commandments. Different sects number them differently and word them differently. Whose ten commandments do we post on the court house lawn? Which translation from ancient languages, leading to subtle differences in interpretation, do we use?
Before I continue, let me clarify one thing, especially to any guests or newcomers. Anyone who occupies the pulpit in a UU church, in this case me, is not proclaiming church doctrine. There isn’t any. What you hear is strictly the opinion of one person, who tosses out ideas to be caught or not, cherished or reviled, altered, contemplated, whatever you wish. My thoughts may help you crystallize your own whether you agree or disagree with me. It’s all helpful. As is often said, if you don’t like what you hear here today, try us again next week. It will be different, guaranteed. So here are my thoughts.
For some years, I’ve been mulling over the idea of rewriting the 10 Commandments. Yes, it’s a little presumptuous, but not so much for an atheist. My starting point doesn’t include a magical being handing down rules that I must follow or else, so I’m able to play around with ideas guilt-free. Somebody wrote down the others, after all, and they’ve hung around quite awhile. Some are still useful guides for ethical behavior, but others are woefully out of touch with my reality. Make no graven images, worship no other god before me, keep the Sabbath holy…just don’t apply in my worldview.
So I began jotting notes, leaving the project for months and coming back to it when a worthy phrase would catch my attention. Some of my commandments, which you will likely recognize, came from ministers, and others from magazines or books I’ve read. None are original, though I’ve tried to polish them up as my gift to you this morning.
When I began this journey, I assumed #1, of course, would be the golden rule. But I decided even that must go, along with not murdering, stealing, lying, and just being downright nasty to others. I already know those things, it’s in my best interest to behave better than that, and I really don’t need to be reminded. I wanted MY commandments to be things I need drilled into my head, that I struggle to do every day, that I need to repeat like a mantra for my own well-being.
So I started fresh.
Even the word “commandments” began to grate on me. I don’t know about you, (well, I probably do, since you’re here in this building), but I don’t like to be bossed around. Maybe the 10 — suggestions? Sounds awfully Unitarian and kind of wimpy. My 10 –Guides? Invitations? Prompts? I couldn’t decide. I leave you in charge of that detail. So here they are.
1. Take joy and scatter it
I love that phrase. It makes me happy just to say it, and it instantly changes my way of thinking. We have a choice in how we feel, how we react, how we interpret the world. However hard it is, when presented with a grab-bag of emotions, take joy.
Selective viewing is a big part of this. I once read an essay about a woman admiring an amazing mountain view out her front window. She enjoyed that view every day, in all weather, all seasons. A relative visited and said, “oh, what a shame to have that power line cutting right across your view.” Now who do you think was happier? We choose what we focus on, and what we let go. Focus on the beauty. Take joy!
When you hear somber news, do you fall apart at the seams, drown in remorse, berate the fates, or - look for opportunities? Suffering always brings a chance to connect more deeply with other human beings. On the news the other night, I saw a woman who’d just lost her home in the Colorado wildfires. In her first sentence, of course, she was grieving her loss. But in her second, she was expressing her gratitude to all the wonderful people she’d met, people she’d never have known in other circumstances. Helping, understanding, working for others makes me feel good, too. The old order may have changed, but something new is coming, even if I can’t see it yet. Take joy.
If no one else cares for my writing, I still have produced pleasure for myself with my words. I’m my own best fan. If no one else appreciates my garden, my cooking, my needlework, does it lose all worth? Not if I enjoy it.
Long ago I learned to defeat my own perfectionism by allowing myself to cut a few corners. Why agonize? Good enough is usually-well, good enough. As much as I love teaching, I know there are always things I could have handled better, more wisely, more fairly. I could have surely studied even harder, prepared even better lessons. But I’m reassured by a question children commonly ask me: “Why are you always smiling?” All I can say to that is, “Would you rather I DIDN’T??” Parents have reported hearing their children say, “Mrs. Piburn likes everybody.”
If you choose to be joyful and then scatter your joy, it will grow beyond measure. You’ll never know all those you affected, all the lives you brightened. Scatter liberally. Joy is never depleted.
2. “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.”
Dr. Seuss came up with this phrase, and I think it’s a great one.
When something or someone precious is being left behind, it’s easy to drown in self-pity. Be glad for the time you had! What a precious and unexpected gift! What a wealth of memories you have! And how wonderfully you’ve been changed by the experience!
This is a tough enough lesson to learn when the loss is fairly minor, like when we left a favorite quilt shop in Albuquerque that was teaching me so much, or a playgroup full of like-minded moms who’d supported me. OK, I did moan and carry on a bit about how awful it was to have to move away … but I got along much better than during a previous move because I had learned Dr. Seuss’ rule. Don’t grieve the loss, but be glad for having had that opportunity, if only for awhile. How lucky I was to have had those experiences!
When the loss is greater, a human loss or a beloved pet, we sometimes need to cut ourselves some slack, wallow in grief for a time, be ornery and impossible to live with. We need to sorrow and wail, and feel pitiful. But do it knowing that it’s a gift you’re giving to yourself, the gift of time to remember and be introspective, to pull within yourself, and that it will end. Be glad for the time you had. What a precious and unexpected gift. What a wealth of memories you have.
By the way, don’t ever let yourself fall into the pit of “deserving”. You didn’t deserve bad luck, and you don’t have to deserve anything good. Life is a gift, free to all for the taking. Remember #1? Take joy!
3. Have an attitude of gratitude
This brings us back to that “deserving” thing. Don’t worry about what blessings you’ve earned and what are gifted to you. Be grateful for everything and anything! The world comes without strings, without price tags, without duties you must perform before deserving happiness. Practice gratitude every day, every minute.
You have bronchitis? How wonderful that medicine can help you! And you might get to watch a good movie while you’re stuck on the couch. Your new dinner recipe is a bomb? How lucky you have other food in the house. You don’t care for the speaker at church today? What a gorgeous stained glass window you can look at instead! (Honestly, have we not ALL done that?? ) When your life is truly awful, this can be hard work. Start with the obvious: the sun still rose today. Then keep looking for more blessings. Practice gratitude.
I like the word “blessings”, even though I don’t believe anyone in particular is responsible for blessing me. If you don’t believe in a “thankable” God, thank the universe! I can be filled with gratitude without putting it into words at all.
Most things improve with practice. The more aware you become, the more you live fully in the present, the more things you’ll find to appreciate. Be your own caretaker of wonder. Who can do it better than you?
We had an interim minister some time ago. I don’t remember his name or anything else about him, but I do remember the crux of a story he told. A man had fallen over a cliff. He fell, knowing death would meet him at the rocky bottom. Yet on the way down, a strawberry was growing from a crevice in the rock. He plucked it as he fell, tasted it, savored it. It tasted so sweet.
4. Surrender your expectations; dwell in possibility.
We create so much of our own unhappiness by concocting expectations, only to have them dashed, our dreams unmet. Don’t do this to yourself! Dwell in possibility.
“Happiness is like swallows in spring. It may come and nest under your eaves or it may not. You cannot command it. When you expect to be happy, you are not…” Elizabeth Goudge wrote.
Focusing on a rigid list of expectations can blind us to the good things that DO happen, the happy surprises. As Sarah Ban Breathnach wrote: “Leave the screen door open for surprise visitors, for spontaneity, serendipity, and serenity. This month, revel in relinquishing, in casting off old agendas. When it’s 100 degrees in the shade, it’s too hot to be rigid.”
Little Orphan Annie and Scarlet O’Hara had it right-tomorrow’s always coming.
5. Be the change you seek
Or as Allison Glock said: “Make the effort. Life is not to be phoned in.”
Most of us are fabulous arm-chair politicians, athletes, improvers of society and our neighbors. We can talk and talk about what someone ought to do, should have done, if only…. But as Edward Everett Hale said: “…because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.” Or Adrienne Rich: “I have to cast my lot with those who, age after age, perversely, with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world.”
Small steps are still steps. They build up, like drops of rain, each giving you the courage to take another. Most of us quail at the thought of undertaking a big project. Lose 50 pounds? Continue your education? Develop a homeless shelter? Make your goal small and reachable, then set another, and another. One day you’ll be looking back, way back, and be amazed at how far you’ve come, what you’ve accomplished. “Just for today”, Dear Abby writes, you can do it. Just for today. Then think it again tomorrow…
Still think you don’t have the money, or the education, or the savvy to achieve your goals? You’d be amazed at what simple good manners can accomplish for you. In Parade magazine, Colin Powell tells a story about a day he visited the immigrant and minority parking garage attendants near his office. He wrote:
“I asked them a question about their jobs that had puzzled me. Because the garage was too small for all the employees’ cars, the attendants had to stack cars one behind the other. “When the cars come in every morning, how do you decide whose car is the first to get out, and whose ends up second or third?”
They gave each other knowing looks and little smiles. “Mr. Secretary,” one of them said, “it goes like this: When you drive in, if you lower the window, look out, smile, or know our name, you’re number one to get out. But if you look straight ahead, don’t show you see us or that we are doing something for you, well, you are likely to be one of the last to get out.” At my next staff meeting, I shared this story with my senior leaders. “You can never err by treating everyone in the building with respect, thoughtfulness, and a kind word.” I told them. …Being kind doesn’t mean being soft. (But) if you develop a reputation for kindness, even the most unpleasant decisions will go down easier. As the old saying goes, “To the world, you may be one person, but to one person you may be the world.”
Be the change you seek. In big ways and in small, you can influence the world.
6. Practice loving
“If there’s something you dislike on the surface, keep digging,” comedian Paula Poundstone wrote. “My mother always said that if you don’t like nuts, it’s okay to spit them out, but the rest of a pecan pie is too good to miss. This philosophy has been my guiding light.”
When we come across something we don’t like, we so often dismiss it as not worthy of our attention. We see people who look different from us, or act differently, live their lives differently, and we turn away from them, never really digging in and finding the goodness underneath the nuts.
Or we give up on established friendships, relationships, things we thought we wanted, when the going gets tough. Love doesn’t always come easily; it isn’t as automatic as you might think. Sure, there are times when passionate love comes without any effort. But when your child spilled his milk-again? When your spouse is clearly ignoring your – unspoken needs? Love takes continual practice. Just for this minute, I’m going to love him no matter what. Don’t let down your guard! Without practice, love can be lost, slipping away unnoticed.
French poet Pierre Reverdy said, “There is no love. There are only proofs of love.”
Gretchen Rubin built on this thought with her year-long Happiness Project. “Whatever love I might feel in my heart, others would see only my actions,” she wrote. So give proofs of love. They can be simple, like hugging more, or cheerfully doing favors for others with no strings attached. “Not only did my proofs of love make others feel more loved by me, but they also made me feel more loving toward others,” she wrote. Act the way you WISH you felt. “Fake it til you feel it” really works, she says. Your own happiness gets a boost. (www.happiness-project.com)
It doesn’t just apply to those you LOVE in capital letters, either. It also applies to kindness toward anyone. Remember Colin Powell’s story? He went to the parking garage that day because an elderly priest from his youth had taught him this:
“Always show more kindness than seems necessary, because the person receiving it needs it more than you will ever know.” And YOU will never realize all the benefits you receive because of your kindness.
Jan Karon wrote, “Loving can be hard. Sometimes we don’t feel loving, but it isn’t all about feeling. Very often it’s about will. Practice that if you can.”
7. Be a coffee table dancer
Bob Eddy taught us this gem. For some people it comes naturally. They’re outgoing, love being the center of attention, dance and sing with abandon, never hold back. Most of us, I suspect, are much more reserved. Jasmin Roser was right last year to light a candle for her “concern” that people would be too shy to participate with Jazzy Blue Dance’s 2nd Hour session. We worry what others will think, whether we measure up, whether we’ll look silly, and we miss out on so much fun. I should know, being one of those “holding backers”. I need choreography to dance, lyrics to sing. Sometimes our own reticence backfires! When I left my first teaching job, friends told me that when I first came, fresh from college and feeling I should know everything, others couldn’t decide if I was stuck-up or shy. I was appalled! Really, I’d been too insecure to admit I desperately needed their help and advice! So at my NEXT school, I made a point to give everyone a big smile and say hello when I saw them, and it made such a difference. Not EXACTLY being a coffee table dancer, but on my way. (Remember that one little step at a time?) Get involved, show your feelings, and you’ll be so much happier.
“When in doubt, do the positive,” is the favorite saying of Jeanne Marie Laskas’s mother. “The positive is the ACTIVE thing, never the inactive. …The best part about the rule is that it invariably leads to surprises.” When in doubt, DO.
8. Leave a legacy
A legacy needn’t be a million dollars, a thriving business, or a collection of famous artwork, though it could be. The memories you create are also your legacy. You can’t possibly know the impact you have on others, how you change them, influence them. Be careful of the legacy you leave behind. It ripples outward, interacting in countless unforeseeable ways. Character is what you are in the dark, wrote Dwight Moody. You never really know when someone has noticed you, been changed by your actions or your words, even just a smile!
Salman Khan, founder of the Khan Academy, was the commencement speaker for my son Graham’s graduation from Rice University in May. http://news.rice.edu/2012/05/12/khan-urges-graduates-to-increase-the-positivity-in-the-world/
While working as an analyst for a hedge fund, he made a tutorial video to help out a cousin. When tens of thousands of people used the same video, he realized he was on to something, and began envisioning a world-wide free education system. He quit his job and after 9 months had 900 videos but was hitting bottom financially, when someone believed in him and gave him some major seed money. He went on to establish this not-for-profit online education service that now has more than 3,200 tutorial videos on numerous topics. He spoke about empowering others. Even more important than the cash, he said, was the validation, the encouragement that he was doing a good thing, and should continue.
While most of us can’t independently finance new ventures we believe in, we can still help. It can be as simple as encouraging someone. “…you can validate others, empower others, increase the net happiness, the positivity in the world,” Kahn said. “Don’t just sit by and observe it. Recognize it. When you see someone do something great, tell them about it. Tell their bosses about it. Tell their families about it. When you do that, all sorts of exciting things are going to start percolating into the universe.” You’ll not only have made their day, but they’re likely to do that good thing again, expand on it, then others see it, emulate it…and the positivity of the world has grown.
So be aware of your legacy. Encourage others. Validate their good works. Spread the word. Be a blessing to someone today. That’s another of my favorite phrases. May I be a blessing to someone today.
I know about now, if not long ago, you began wondering if I’d ever finish. You’re in luck! The last two are by far the best, the most revealing, the most valuable and perhaps difficult to perform. I found them in a book about an effective teacher and what she told her students. Like most wisdom, it’s astounding in its simplicity.
9. Get started
10. Keep going
I can’t say that I’m expert at following all this good advice, but like the original 10 commandments, I find them words to live by, to strive to live up to. If you Google “personal ten commandments”, you’ll find many, many more lists people have created for themselves. Some of you may have already done it, perhaps as part of a UU Building Your Own Theology class. It’s a worthwhile endeavor. If you haven’t already, you might want to try writing your own. Unlike the original Ten Commandments, mine will always be a work in progress, open to revision as I encounter new wisdom or have new needs. As the bumper sticker says, “A mind, like a parachute, only works when open.”
Wish me luck on my journey, and I wish you luck on yours.
My Ten Commandments
1. Take joy and scatter it.
2. Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened
3. Have an attitude of gratitude.
4. Surrender your expectations; dwell in possibility.
5. Be the change you seek.
6. Practice loving.
7. Be a coffee table dancer.
8. Leave a legacy.
9. Get started.
10. Keep going.