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Sunday, August 19, 2012

Try Throwing Socks

Presented by Ken Redd, Worship Associate


Try Throwing Socks

A sermon preached by the Reverend Diane Teichert

Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church

August 19, 2012

“Try Throwing Socks.” What an odd sermon title! 

I received that advice eons ago.  I’d like to tell you the story.

Not that long ago, really… well, time is a matter of perception – is it linear or spiral?   Factually, it was in the mid-seventies, as a young twenty-something, I met a man my age… who I came to enjoy and he me. This process happened at a pace that, I much later learned, for him was slow … whereas for me it was an appropriate pace …

Now, he happened to own a waterbed (they were popular back in those days – a giant vinyl sack filled with water and set in a wooden frame on the floor, taking the place of a mattress). He came home one day to find his housemate sheepishly mopping up a huge puddle in the dining room. They both looked up to the dripping ceiling… and the story was told:  the man’s seven-year-old son and a young friend had found the waterbed to be a great trampoline…  and had busted a seam.

This unfortunate incident prompted the two of us to evaluate where we were in our relationship, nearly two years since we met. We decided that it seemed like the next right thing to do was to move in together, so he moved into the collective house I shared with some other activists … conveniently requiring no purchase of a new bed.

This was the mid-seventies, young people like us were doing that, living together as unmarried couples. Some of you probably did it too.

But, I hadn’t been raised to “live in sin” … I began to experience what seemed like a nervous stomach.  I thought it might be due to an internal conflict between what I felt to be right for my life and the values my parents had instilled in me.

Aware there was some complexity to this conflict, I went for some counseling at the Women’s Growth Center, the feminist counseling center in Baltimore. I don’t recall that the therapist helped me explore the religiosity and inhibitions of my upbringing in the context of the sexual revolution of the sixties, though she may well have.

What I do still remember is that she asked me a question that surprised me. She asked about how we as a couple worked out our disagreements – in other words, how did we fight, how did we argue? I replied, “We don’t.”

And that’s when she said, “Next time you’re folding laundry together, try throwing socks.”

We did. It must have helped. We’re still together, married even…

As Ken Redd, our Worship Associate today, described, some folks are inclined to avoid conflict and others are inclined to provoke it. But conflict is a normal, necessary and even helpful part of life. Whether internal to an individual, between two people, or in a family, other group or system, in the workplace, neighborhood, organization, or religious community such as this, and in broader contexts like state, nation and inter- or multi-national, conflict is happening. Duh.

What I want to know is:  how is it that we can come to experience conflict less often as “that-which-rhymes-with-fit happens” … and more often as compost: when conflict is turned and worked over, heats up, and is allowed some time and air, it becomes like rich soil. It’s the context for growth, maturation and change in our lives.

This sermon about “conflict as compost” has three parts. First, that different people have different conflict styles. Second, that there are cultural differences in conflict styles. The third part is about a specific conflict in Maryland right now, regarding marriage equality.

Part One. Human beings are complex and complexity is inherent in how each of us engages in conflict. So many factors influence each of our conflict styles. And people also seem to be directed by different factors in different conflicts, so our style of engaging in conflict may shift in the present as well as over the course of our lifetime.  Very few of us have just one style of engaging in conflict that we use all the time, yet we tend to have a typical style. So where do these different styles come from?

They arise from a real multiplicity of factors. I think they may arise from our personality type (introverted, extraverted, perceiving, judging, etc); and/or from the conflict pattern in our childhood family; and/or from our birth order and level of acceptance within that family; and/or our gender and gender identity; and/or from our racial/cultural/ethnic and/or class heritage; and/or from our generation and/or age; and/or in relation to our mental and emotional health status.

Lots of and/or’s! We human beings are complex!

A self-administered survey tool was developed that enables individuals to identify their conflict style. It asks questions about your experience with conflict and your answers place you along two continuums: how indirect or direct are you in how you express your disagreement? and how emotionally restrained or emotionally expressive are you when you express disagreement?

What about you? How indirect or direct do you tend to be in conflict? How emotionally expressive or restrained?

So there are four possible combinations of the two.  a) You can be direct and emotionally restrained, b) you can be direct and emotionally expressive, c) you can be indirect and emotionally restrained or d) indirect and emotionally expressive.

The theory names the style of those who tend to be Direct and Emotionally Restrained as Discussion style. The style of those who tend to be Direct and Emotionally Expressive is named Engagement style. The style of those who tend to be Indirect and Emotionally Restrained is Accommodation style. And the style of those who tend to be Indirect and Emotionally Expressive is Dynamic style.

Direct DISCUSSION ENGAGEMENT
Indirect ACCOMMODATION DYNAMIC
  Emotional
Restraint
Emotional
Expressiveness

Here is where I landed in the four:  in conflict, I tend to be very direct, and nearly in the middle regarding emotional restraint versus expressive, but more so restrained. In this schema, Discussion is my typical conflict style.

What about you? Indirect, or direct when in conflict? Emotionally restrained or expressive, in conflict? The more we understand our differing styles, the better at making compost we will be.

Part Two.  Because we live in a multi-cultural region, and because the congregation has affirmed its commitment to being intentionally multi-cultural, let us look for a few moments at the racial/cultural/ethnic factor in our conflict styles.

One theory about conflict, which is somewhat narrower than what I just described, is that “our style is initially learned during our primary socialization in one or more culture/ethnic groups. That is, as a member of a cultural community, we learn from other members specific attitudes, knowledge, behaviors, interpretive frameworks and strategies for defining and then responding to conflict situations.” (Intercultural Conflict Style Inventory Interpretive Guide, Mitchell R. Hammer, 2003)

Because this survey tool has been used by  more than 15,000 people in many parts of the world, the researchers have been able to see patterns in cultural differences in conflict styles.  Like any generalization, they are not intended to be prescriptive, judgmental, or limiting – individuals may differ from their cultural community, of course. But sometimes generalizations help us understand what is going on.

The survey participant responses tend fall into certain broad cultural patterns:

Again, there is no judgment of better or worse, and individuals may differ from their cultural community. For example, at the training last May at which I was first exposed to this Intercultural Conflict Style Inventory, the two trainers were women, one white, one black, neither fitting into the style of their apparent community. The black woman, an African American originally from South Carolina, told us that her natural conflict preference has always been the Discussion style. While the white woman, explaining Jews tend to be demonstrative, said hers is Engagement.

It seems to me that in our contemporary multi-cultural American mix, depending on how many generations removed from a community’s native land the community is, its people may be more or less like that culture than like the dominant American culture which is Discussion. Also, given that the dominant culture has defined the institutions and mores in the US for several hundred years, in conflict styles, we are all expected to be Direct and Emotionally Restrained in public. Think about it. What ramifications does that have for people whose naturally conflict style is one of the others?

So, how does it apply to us, here? Unitarian Universalism in this country has its roots in New England, and before that, England, suggesting that its conflict style will tend to be (no surprise here) Discussion… Some actually would accuse us of endless discussion, in which conflicts are not resolved so much as the resolve to resolve them is worn away!

Even our worship has tended to be Direct and Emotionally Restrained, and we might also say that about the dominant humanist theology of mid to late twentieth century Unitarian Universalism:  very direct, few metaphors, modest in passion at most. But Unitarian Universalism is changing – it is, after all, our “living tradition.”

So, how does it apply to us, here? Well, suppose you’re comfortable in the Discussion style, but a congregant who tends to be in the Dynamic mode, is apparently upset with you about something, and expressively demands to know why you did or didn’t do whatever (instead of telling you directly how she feels about it and why), and intimates one of you will need to leave the church and it won’t be her. She raises her voice and you feel like withdrawing, and then you feel anger. “Who is she to treat me this way?” you ask yourself, “it’s not very UU of her.”

But you truly want to be in relationship with her, and you want her to be in relationship with the congregation, and you’ve given some thought to conflict styles, and are feeling fairly secure. So, you step physically closer to her, and in a louder voice than you tend to use, with much more emotional energy, but not anger, you bridge the distance between the two of you, and expressively respond to the heart of the matter, which isn’t why you did or didn’t do it, but rather the hurt you caused her. You convey that you love her, not so much in words, but in the expressiveness of your engagement with her. You first meet her at her level of expression, she responds more calmly and directly which suits you; you both talk and you both listen, some understanding is achieved, and this remains the place you both call “spiritual home.”

As our church becomes more multi-cultural/racial/ethnic, the conflict styles here may become more varied. But, so far, the congregation has the same conflict style as the dominant culture – Discussion - to which people in minority cultural groups must adapt, day in and day out.  Think about it… So, here, those of us who tend to approach conflict in the Discussion style may want to practice other styles in preparation for being fluent and flexible when there is conflict in our multi-cultural congregation. Compost!

Part Three. Conflict about marriage equality in our state in heating up and is expected to get hotter as we reach Election Day, when we will vote on whether to keep or scuttle the state law passed in March that allows civil marriages for gay and lesbian couples. Will you speak up against the negativity about gay and lesbian people expected in these next few months? Will you state your objections to the behavior and your support for marriage equality? If you do, what will your conflict style be?

The vote will be close and if we want it to pass, we heterosexuals especially (because we are not the targets of the opposition) have the opportunity to help it happen, by conversing with friends, neighbors, co-workers and relatives who may not share our views. How will we engage them? How will you draw on your Unitarian Universalist faith and principles? Will you cite facts or speak from the heart?

With a personal story about why you support marriage equality and an open mind to the views and story of the other person, you may help him or her who was opposed decide not to vote, or you may help someone who was undecided to vote for this law that ends discrimination and honors the love and commitment of all Maryland families, or you may help someone who was already quietly in favor to be an activist working to help it pass! UU’s will have some influence beyond our small numbers if we engage in thoughtful one-to-one conversations with people who do not support marriage equality.

Today after the service, in the Kelley Room, there is an opportunity to learn and to practice these conversations with Tricia Most who attended an interfaith training about this. Also, you will meet Melanie Carr, the organizer with Marylanders for Marriage Equality working in Prince Georges County. She can tell you about an upcoming chance, this Saturday, to have lots of conversations, going door-to-door, meeting up for training and maps at 10:00 am at the Starbucks in Greenway Plaza on Greenbelt Rd or at the organization’s office on Georgia Avenue near Colesville Road.

This past week, I asked over our list-serve for humorous stories about conflict over marriage equality to include in this sermon, and no one replied. So I will conclude with mine.

A woman I know, who on many topics has liberal views, told me that she is going to vote no, against equal marriage, on Election Day. I suggested, “If a lesbian woman is lucky enough to find a woman with whom she wants to make a life-long commitment, or a gay man is lucky enough to find a man, like my husband and I found each other, shouldn’t this couple be able to get legally married, and have both the responsibilities and the rights that my husband and I enjoy?” 

“But, would they be having sex?”

“Well, ya-ahh.”

“I don’t like that idea.”

“Is that what’s holding you back from giving them the legal right to wed? Just don’t think about it! I mean, when a man and a woman announce their engagement, you don’t then imagine what they’re like in bed together, do you?”

“Yes, I do.”

Sigh.

I guess I don’t think about sex THAT much.

And I had no idea what to say next.

May we all remember, conflict is like compost: when conflict is turned and worked over, heats up, and is allowed some time and air, it becomes like rich soil. It’s the context for growth, maturation and change in our lives. 

And, if nothing else, throw socks. Amen.        

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