Learning the Principles by Heart
Learning the Principles by Heart

"I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America..." "Twinkle, twinkle, little star, how I wonder what you are!..." 1
"Sisters are we, Spurs always true, our hearts ring out for the yellow and blue..."
"Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and sorry I could not travel both..."
All you need is love, love. Love is all you need." 3

I've memorized these lines. I imagine many of you carry similar words in the recesses of your memory as well. I learned some of these words by heart because I was instructed to do so or found it convenient to do so. Some words just weaseled their way in and took up residence.

In my early years as a Unitarian Universalist, a minister challenged the congregation to learn by heart the 7 UU principles and promised a prize to anyone who could successfully recite them. So I set out to memorize the principles and quizzed myself in the car with my handy pocket card as a prompt on the seat next to me.

[miming hands on a steering wheel]

OK, We Unitarian Universalists affirm and promote:

  1. The inherent worth and dignity of every person. (that's the easiest to remember)
  2. Justice, equity and compassion... Justice, equity, compassion in what? Oh, yeah - Justice, equity and compassion in human relations.
  3. Then something about encouraging spiritual growth... Right,... Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.
  4. A free and responsible search for truth and meaning (that one's easy too)
  5. Then the one about democracy in our congregations and in society, but what's that first part? Oh, the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.
  6. Next is the one that sounds like the pledge of allegiance but not quite. The goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all. Right, we do it for the world, not just the US, and we add peace. That's good.
  7. And finally the interdependent web. Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

Whew. I did it. I learned them by heart. Pretty much. I didn't think I really merited a prize, but I was glad I had put in the effort to learn the principles by heart.

Learn by heart. Except that my heart wasn't really involved in this exercise. I was using my mind and occasionally my eyes glancing toward my cheat sheet. It was an academic exercise rather than a spiritual practice. The principles remained abstractions to me, worthy aspirations which didn't really affect me. They were floating around my mind, but were not having a real impact on my body. I didn't feel any different for having recited them.

What would it be like to really accept one another, to genuinely practice equity and compassion in the human relations with the actual humans in my life? As I genuinely imagined this possibility, I could feel something shift in my body; I could feel my heart open. It felt different to consider the principles this way. There were certain words that had an impact on me. Worth and dignity. Equity. Compassion. Search for truth. Interdependent web.

So there I was driving down the highway feeling my heart opening at the thought of treating the people in my life with genuine compassion, honoring their inherent worth and dignity. It felt good. I felt hopeful. Until suddenly two lanes of traffic were closed, and people had ignored the signs and were cutting in front of me. My heart immediately clamped shut as I started expressing my righteous outrage at these inconsiderate bozos. No compassion for what might be going on for them, how they might be feeling. No sense of equity. Those weren't people with inherent worth and dignity in those cars. I realized it wasn't so easy to carry these principles in my heart. The academic exercise of memorizing the words was much simpler than actually changing how I treated my fellow human beings.

As I considered the challenge of moving the principles out of the theoretical realm and into the sphere of everyday living, I remembered a challenge from another Unitarian Universalist minister, Harry Meserve, "If you were arrested for being a Unitarian Universalist, would there be enough evidence to convict you?" 4 What might it mean to alter behavior according to these principles such that a case could be made to convince an impartial jury to convict a person of Unitarian Universalism.

Let's consider Terry and Pat, a Unitarian Universalist couple. They have amassed enough incriminating evidence of living by the principles to be successfully tried and sentenced as genuine Unitarian Universalists.

They are parents who are actively involved in the Parent Teacher Organization at their child's middle school. Other parents are advocating removing some books which describe sexual development during adolescence from the school library.

Terry and Pat are frustrated and astounded by the idea of banning books from the library. Terry believes that they need to stand up for justice and fight these parents every step of the way to prevent books being removed and limiting information available to support the young teens in a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. Terry dismisses the other parents as close-minded, ignorant, and uptight and frequently expresses this opinion during the meetings at high volume with colorful language.

Pat more calmly but just as passionately argues with these other parents to the point of utter exasperation with how they just don't get it. Until one time, Pat realizes that the other parents have the exact same feeling from their side of the argument. Utter exasperation with Pat who just doesn't get it. In that moment of recognition, Pat sees them as fellow human beings rather than as inferior ignoramuses. Pat realizes that by dismissing them with belittling characterizations, they have lost the opportunity to see the other parents' perspective. If they can remember the other parents' inherent worth and dignity, then they can listen to understand their objections to the books. Pat asks Terry to meet with the other parents, assuring Terry they don't have to agree with them. Pat believes that if they genuinely want to promote justice, equity, and compassion in human relations then they need to start in relation to these humans in the PTO.

They meet for coffee with the other parents. They listen with curiosity. When they feel the temptation to respond indignantly, they take a breath and keep their mouths closed. They keep turning their hearts back towards them. They come to realize how much these parents also care about their kids and the kids at the school. They hear that the other parents believe that good parenting means providing clear guidelines and protection from potentially corrupting influences like drugs, uncontrolled desires and moral temptations. Pat and Terry calmly explain their vision of parenting as providing nurturing support and protection from external dangers like drugs, crime, dangerous toys and the like. They all feel like they understand each other better. They don't agree with each other completely. They don't become friends. They continue to debate what books belong in the library at PTO meetings. Pat and Terry feel like they are being true to their UU principles in each meeting as they promote widespread availability of information and as they keep their hearts open to all the other parents.

What about when Terry and Pat arrive home? How do they hold the UU principles in their hearts with each other?

When they walk into the kitchen after a PTO meeting, Pat notices a pile of dishes in the sink. The general agreement is that Pat does the cooking and Terry does the dishes. In that moment, Pat feels infuriated because the dishes have been sitting in the sink for two days. Terry shifts from beloved human partner to inferior dishwashing unit in under ten seconds. Fortunately, in the car they had been discussing the power of living the UU principles at the PTO meetings, so Pat is able to remember the central concept of compassion in order to open up to Terry in that moment. Asking Terry about the dishes in the sink with genuine curiosity elicits a very different reaction from Terry than if Pat had spoken up a few seconds earlier with righteous resentment. Terry explains how tough work has been recently and asks if Pat would be willing to help with the dishes. They do the dishes together and then relax before going to bed. Pat falls asleep acknowledging how the attitude of compassion had contributed to the warmth and connection they had experienced that evening.

The next day Terry is at the office leading the weekly team meeting for the project team Terry manages. The status reports indicate they will miss an important deadline. Terry feels the anxiety mounting, imagining the potential setback if the project is late. This anxiety is so uncomfortable that Terry quickly covers it over with anger and starts peppering the team with accusatory questions. Terry's heart closes. The people on the team are no longer fellow human beings but are instruments to deliver different elements on the task list; in fact, they are substandard instruments who aren't performing their functions. Looking around the table, barely hearing a word through the wall of anger, Terry notices Kim, who's in charge of the budget. Terry remembers that Kim has visited the UU congregation a few times and is suddenly embarrassed by the intolerance and authoritarian stance Terry has assumed in the discussion. Terry stops and thinks "This isn't how I want to be." Terry brings to mind the word "equity" from the UU principles and suddenly sees fellow human beings around the table. Terry can hear what they are saying and listens with compassion and curiosity. Together, the team evaluates the situation honestly; they challenge each other respectfully, and come up with a modified timeline that is realistic. Terry feels proud for bringing the UU principles to life at work, recognizing this effort is a key task of leadership.

While Terry leads the project team at the office, Pat takes a step into a leadership role on the street. While walking to work, Pat regularly passes by people smoking outside a mental illness day program. Pat is irritated each day because of the smoke and the crowding on the sidewalk; frustrated because as a healthcare worker, Pat is aware of the dangers of smoking and knows some effective techniques for quitting; and anxious because Pat';s brother has experienced psychotic episodes and Pat's preference is to avoid confronting the confusion and pain his mental illness brings up. Typically, Pat ignores these thoughts and feelings and keeps on walking. This day Pat stops long enough to feel the emotions and consider the UU Principles about the interdependent web of existence and the vision of a world community with peace, liberty and justice for all. After a few thoughtful minutes, Pat walks past the smokers, into the building and volunteers to lead a smoking cessation program for any of the staff or clientele who are interested. Pat's decision to take the initiative and live the principles in the face of uncertainty and discomfort produces more evidence for an airtight case to be convicted as Unitarian Universalist.

Terry and Pat cannot recite the Principles word by word. But they have learned them by heart. They take the lead in their lives to live the principles. They have committed to notice when their behavior is out of synch with the principles and to make the effort to reconnect with their values and expend the energy to act differently. They actively seek opportunities to bring the principles to life. It's rarely easy, and it's always worthwhile. It takes strength and leadership. Their lives are different because they are Unitarian Universalists.

William Sloane Coffin, renowned progressive Christian minister, said "It is terribly important to realize that the leap of faith is not so much a leap of thought as of action." 5

How could you take the principles out of the realm of thought and leap into action? What kind of case could be made to convict you of full-fledged whole-hearted Unitarian Universalism? What do you do when life calls on you to live out your principles? When someone's opinion is different than yours. When someone at the committee meeting interrupts and goes off on a tangent. When your beloved doesn't take out the trash. When someone makes an offensive joke. When you speak at the condo coop meeting about the building's environmental impact. When you request that your employer make a policy change. When you are living your life every day.

I won't challenge you to memorize the principles. I invite you to learn them by heart and be willing to back them up with the life you lead.

1 Tayor, Ann. The Columbia World of Quotations. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996. Bartleby.com.

2 Frost, Robert. Mountain Interval. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1920; Bartleby.com, 1999. Bartleby.com.

3 Lennon, John. “All You Need is Love”, The Beatles, Magical Mystery Tour, 1967.

4 Quoted in Frost, Edward (ed.). With Purpose and Principle: Essays About the Seven Principles of Unitarian Universalism, Boston: Skinner House, 1998, p. 32.

5 Coffin, William Sloane, Credo, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004, p. 7.

About the Author

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