Friday, January 23, 2009

While She Was Rubbing My Ankle

I'm now halfway through with physical therapy, and it has helped. The people at the rehab hospital are very nice, very patient, and they listen. From my experience, the stories of "pain and torture" are myths. The therapists I've worked with all say that if real pain starts, the exercise should stop. The goal is not to hurt me, or reproduce the pain, but to strengthen the ankle. It's begun to hurt a bit on the outside now, instead of the inside, which to me is good. When the inside and Achilles tendon hurt, it was a reminder that the two small bones there had ground together, pinching nerves, ligaments, etc. between them. Outside ankle pain is something I've experienced numerous times before; it seems to dissipate quickly, so it's not a problem. I'm almost starting to remember what my real walk is like.

Anyway. My first session was an evaluation, after which they outfitted me with one of those fat rubber bands you use for resistance while exercising at home. The next two sessions this week were actual supervised exercises. The first time I wore my standard work outfit and regretted it as soon as I started perspiring. Next time I wore my church t-shirt under my work clothes and stripped down to it, changing back before heading back to the office.

The therapist wore a tiny cross on a chain. She noticed the discreet logo on my shirt and asked me about it. I was happy to give her a general sort of description of a Unitarian Universalist church, but had no intention of launching into any kind of a spiel. I assumed she was just making small talk. But at one point,
things weren't going all that well on the treadmill, so she sat me down and began carefully massaging the inside of the ankle, where the pain was. She asked me more about Unitarian Universalism, and I told her a bit about the 7 principles, to explain how they take the place of a creed. The one that most seemed to interest her was "A free and responsible search for truth and meaning."

As always, my ability to explain something extemporaneously was extremely sub-par. I know perfectly well that Unitarian Universalism is so much more than a feel-good, anything-goes organization. I know there's deep spiritual purpose to it, and that for many who join, it helps them to discover something truly meaningful, far beyond platitudes and spoon-fed dictates. But having been steeped for 15 years in evangelical Christianity, I could pretty much predict what I'd hear in response to my weak descriptions.

"Oh, so your principles are basically man-made. They can change anytime, just to fit the circumstances. There's no transcendent, universal truth."

She didn't say any of this in a challenging, smug sort of way; she was exceedingly soft-spoken and decent from beginning to end, but the body language was revealing. The set of the mouth, the slow shaking of the head, the rather compassionate tone in her voice...all were quite familiar. I suspected that after I left, she was going to be telling her like-minded friends how sorry she felt for me and that they should all pray for me. Again, I know these people. I spent a decade and a half listening to this.

I've mulled this ever since it happened yesterday morning. I had a sore, tender, vulnerable part of my body literally in her hands, and had no desire to sharpen a debate, so I held my tongue. The closest I came to a confrontation was to agree that no, there is no "universal truth" in our denomination. I instead did my best to focus on more practical examples -- we emphasize behavior over belief, the pursuit of peace, liberty and justice, and other things that never stop being important to everyone, in the here and now, no matter what their religion. I explained how our principles were tested when the shooter wreaked havoc in the Knoxville church last summer, and how some members of our congregation were frightened enough to think perhaps we needed to hire an armed guard. And how others said no, if we didn't stand on the side of love and continue to welcome all, then everything that was ever said from the pulpit or in our meetings would have been a bald-faced lie and we'd be nothing but a bunch of grinning hypocrites. And how our doors remain open and we now have more visitors and new members than ever before. I told her about the Civil Rights movement in our city, and how our upright piano still bears the scars of a firebombing that took place in the early 1960s.

And later I started thinking about these "universal truths" that she and so many others seem to find so essential. Taking our principles and boiling them down to terms, you get inherent worth and dignity, justice, equity, compassion, acceptance, encouragement, spiritual growth, truth, meaning, conscience, democracy, community, peace, liberty, and respect.

True, our principles don't address specific such as what color thread your garments should be made from, or how to slaughter an animal, or what eternal consequences we might face for letting our personal convictions slip from time to time under duress...but it seems to me that without conscious striving toward those ingredients of our principles, or by assuming that someone else will take care of them for us, the underpinnings of humanity itself will collapse. And in some parts of the world, they have come extremely close to doing exactly that.

I'll hazard to speculate that this very compassionate, kind, precise, knowledgeable and competent physical therapist would have grown into EXACTLY THE SAME person she is now, without scripture, without religious indoctrination, and without some authority figure telling her what her universal truths ought to be. How very sad that she doesn't have enough faith in herself, and in reality, to accept that.


Kay Dennison said...

Actually, as a professional, she should have kept her mouth shut.

At least she didn't say, "Well, I'm a Christian . . . " at which point I'd have had to use every bit of inner strength I have to keep from pummeling her senseless.

I'm glad your ankle is healing! That's great news!!!

Volly said...

Yeah, I was caught off-guard when she started asking questions. That moment of being glad someone was interested faded quickly when I realized it was a "cat-at-the-mouse-hole" type of interest.

Dana said...

You know, I find it bothersome that in the year 2009 we cannot speak of religion without needing to be "right fighters" - without having to somehow one-up the person who believes differently.

Was she out of line asking questions and opening a conversation? I don't think so, but to be judgmental? Out of line.

Mike Haubrich, FCD said...

As you describe her body language, it is so telling. And unprofessional, though I would imaging not enough to lodge a formal complaint.

What do you plan to do on the next visit; explain to her how you appreciate the nature of what she does and that you are glad that humans have developed the practice of PT?

Rather subtle example of your humanism, eh, but it should help develop your point.

Elzoid said...

Isn't absurd that:
1. People think they are entitled to a complete understanding of existence
2. People think they are capable of a complete understanding of existence
I am very comfortable with not knowing
I am uncomfortable with people, by virute of their certainty, who are no longer mystified by existence

Oh, I'm writing again:

Persephone said...

I'm one of those cradle Unitarians. Been one all my life. (We're kind of rare.) I have always found the Seven Principles to be rather lame. Sure, they're good principles, but they sound like something you come up with at a managerial seminar.

I agree a massage is a strange occasion to initiate a theological discussion, but you could have listed some famous Unitarians: Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Julia Ward Howe (who wrote the lyrics of "Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory"), Beatrix Potter, Florence Nightingale, four US presidents (five, if you count Jefferson, who apparently claimed to be Unitarian on the quiet), Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau...

More recent Unitarians: Pete Seeger, Malvina Reynolds, Kurt Vonnegut, Bruce Cockburn, Jackson Browne.

However, you may have a problem with some of the people in the list, particularly the earlier ones. Can you guess why? They were overwhelmingly Christian as well as Unitarian. Christian Unitarians are still around, usually keeping their peace for fear of criticism. I know. I've worshiped with them. (I consider myself a theist Unitarian.)

So your last sentence is a little saddening to me. Doesn't it have the same "compassionate pity" that was making you so uncomfortable. Or am I missing something and you were being ironic?

Volly said...

No secret that I have some negative attitudes toward believers. If 100 people read this post, a good many would say "Yeah, what kind of UU are you anyway...not very tolerant, huh?" The other half would say I'm TOO tolerant toward religion and not a strong enough atheist. My flaws: Much too moderate for anyone's taste, meaning I can't win for losing; brought up in an environment where religion was considered "personal," where talking about it, especially to a stranger, was always a risky proposition; and worst of all (IMO), little or no ability to speak passionately on the spur of the moment and then kicking myself for having missed a good opportunity. I was an evangelical Christian for 15 years, and feel I wasted a lot of my life on it. Admittedly, I project this disappointment with myself onto those who continue in that lifestyle. My biggest issue is this "absolute truth" business. If scripture contains "absolute truth" that you can't get anywhere else, then why can't those truths be enough for everyone, without having to read scripture? I have heard so many Christians make negative judgments against people who conduct their lives with incredible charity, love and compassion ("It doesn't matter what you DO, it matters what you BELIEVE."). Bollocks, as the Brits say.

Not sure how to respond to your last point, though I've been sitting here for 10 minutes trying to. Do I have a bad attitude?

Yes. Probably incurable.

Persephone said...

Oh poop. I waited two days before responding to your post, thought out my comment carefully, reached for the preview button to edit and tweak it --- and hit "publish"...
Now I really get the impression that you think I'm attacking you. I'm really not, it's just that the final paragraph in your post really got to me. I think it's partly my history of being a Unitarian married to a devout Anglican. He's okay, but my in-laws were quite snooty. To be fair, my Unitarianism was only a tiny part of the problem. On the flip side, it broke my heart when he stopped coming to church with me because he finally found the anti-Christian stance to be alienating and unwelcoming. (I know "Welcoming Congregation" applies to gay, lesbian and transgendered, but aren't we supposed to welcome everybody?) Add this to the fact I'm a "Special Needs Mum" which puts me on the receiving end of a lot of "compassionate pity", from believers and non-believers alike Both categories seem to think this will never happen to them, either due to God's grace or excellent planning on their part, presumably. Basically, I sometimes walking around battling back to urge to smack people. Possibly a very bad attitude....

I'm lucky enough to have friends in all camps: Unitarian, agnostic, atheist, mainstream Christian, charismatic Christian, fundamentalist Christian, Jewish, Wiccan... A lovely fundamentalist friend asked me, as your physiotherapist did, about Unitarianism, then said, "But that's cafeteria religion!" She was rather nonplussed when I responded enthusiastically: "Exactly!" Maybe that's what you needed to do. Except your physiotherapist is mistaken: freedom, truth and meaning are indeed universal. It's our interpretation that isn't. And the interpretation of reality isn't universal either, Volly. I think that's what bothered me so much about the last sentence of your post.

I don't enjoy theological confrontations either and avoid them when possible. When they've been unavoidable, it's always been either a fundamentalist Christian or an atheist, and the argument has always sounded startling similar. I think it's because most fundamentalists and atheists seem so convinced that they are right. I feel more comfortable in the humble company of those who have doubts, wherever their faith (or lack of it) lies.

Volly said...

No, Persephone, I didn't feel attacked. It takes very little to put me on the defensive, and that's my problem, not anyone else's.

For a bit more background, I'll give you the Reader's Digest version -- religion has ALWAYS been a "sensitive" area in my life, with a Catholic mother and a Jewish father, and an atmosphere in which outrageous anti-semitic remarks grew under the toxic nourishment of alcohol. I grew up feeling that people "needed to" have a religion, but that regardless of what religion you chose, somebody was going to get really mad at you for it. The topic raises my blood pressure and heart rate, deprives me of sleep, and causes all the muscles in my body to tense.

My Catholic friends thought my parents were "bad" for their mixed marriage. In college, my Jewish friends backed away as soon as I told them I wasn't Jewish "yet, but working on it." Part of what pushed me toward a premature and ill-conceived plan to convert to Judaism was my boyfriend saying "If you tell the rabbi you're 'interested,' he'll dismiss you out of hand and never accept your conversion." Needless to say, my mother pounded me verbally over my attempts to follow Judaic ritual.

Then, having decided against a conversion to Judaism, I became an evangelical Christian about 7 years later, and my "education" consisted of listening to Christian radio. Bob Larson, Pat Robertson, Focus on the Family, the whole enchilada. "If you're not with us, you're against us." During those years, the message I heard most was, if you're easygoing, tolerant, open-minded and non-judgmental, you're a WIMP! There's a scripture verse, Rev. 3:15-16, in which God supposedly says that because you are "lukewarm, neither cold not hot," he will spit you out of his mouth. One church I attended had that verse as a wall border in giant print, all the way down the lengthof one wall, a hundred feet or so. And down here in the Bobble belt, believe me, you CANNOT go through a week, and often not a day, without hearing someone's extremely assertive, know-it-all religious beliefs.

I don't trust religious people unless I know them really well, and even then, I've seen perfectly nice, reasonable individuals just get way out there in left field when you hit one of their hot buttons too.

My closing line about the therapist thinking it was her religion that endowed her with all the good qualities I saw in her was mainly just an amalgam of all the frustration that I feel when people put themselves down but "give God all the glory"; when they allow themselves to remain in terrible situations simply because they believe that's what God wants, and when they make statements that I can only describe as delusional, completely divorced from reality, supported only by statements from scripture and their preachers.

Another person sitting right next to me with the therapist, having the same conversation might well have forgotten the entire thing ten minutes later. Or, they might have said "Gee, that was such a nice, pleasant, friendly exchange." But all I hear is the rumble of cannons in the distance -- the same old religious war is a-flarin' up again... My God is better than your god, or any god is better than no god, or you're going to hell while I've got eternal-life insurance, etc. etc.

One of the things I like best about the congregation I'm in is that lots of other people are fighting the same kind of internal religious war. The minister is very adept at bringing it out in the open and then helping us see where our blinders are. He will often say "You can be as atheist as you like -- but if you want to be anti-theist in this church, you will have to deal with me first." He battled many in the congregation by allowing a fundie congregation to rent the church once a week. He knew perfectly well that there would be times when the differences between our theologies came to the surface. They tried to put a rack of literature in the lobby next to our rack, and he politely informed them that they could do whatever they liked on the day they rented, but not other days. That worked out fine. Objectively, I know that people with different religious views CAN get along. I haven't been able to comfortably reach that stage myself, but it always inspires me to meet those who can. I figure maybe before I'm 70 or so, some of that maturity may have rubbed off on me.

Thanks for the follow-up comment - it helped.