Welcome to the Practice of Holding History: Two Essays
from the writers at the Soul Matters Sharing Circle,
a Unitarian Universalist resource collaborative,
with an introductory note from Rev. Nancy
Before You Read—An Important Note from Rev. Nancy:
Beloveds, in the work of anti-oppression, we student-practitioners learn to ask this crucial question about any writing or speaking: “Who is the ‘we’?” Often a writer or speaker doesn’t identify whom they are including in their “we.” It’s easy to write or speak with the assumption that the readers and listeners are all just like us, whatever our identities may be. Sadly, that assumption almost always leaves a good number of people out. And when the writing or speaking comes from a member of a “dominant group” (in the United States, those groups include white, cis, straight, non-disabled, middle-aged people, to name a few), then the “we” reinscribes the exclusion of all the vast beauty, intelligence, and diversity of experience beyond those identities. We here at FUCSJ can’t get to the Beloved Community unless we pay attention to “who is the ‘we.’”
This essay from Soul Matters (the specific writer is unknown) falls into this trap: using a “we” that is not explicitly defined. I think they are actually writing to white people like me—to those of us who resist or who grow weary when we try to take in the racist past (and present) of these United States. So I have made some corrections to this essay—Soul Matters gives us permission to do this—to try to spell out who the “we” is.
And yet I love what this essay has to say about “holding history,” about how closed hearts can’t take history in and thus can’t change the present. You know how much I love to talk about the practice of living broken-openhearted. I’d be willing to bet that we all—all of us humans, all of us here at FUCSJ—have places where our hearts are closed to the pain of the past. And those closed hearts dramatically limit our capacity to live and love fully in the present. History matters—for all of us humans—right now.
May you read this Soul Matters essay with an open mind and heart. Where and how does it speak to you? Where might you too need to break your heart open this month in order to take in grief, confession, and understanding? May this community hold all of us—with the most expansive meaning of “we”—as we learn and grow and love together.
The Soul Matters Essay:
Let’s start with the words of Parker Palmer:
Jewish teaching includes frequent reminders of the importance of a broken-open heart, as in this Hasidic tale: A disciple asks the rebbe: “Why does Torah tell us to ‘place these words upon your hearts’? Why does it not tell us to place these holy words in our hearts?” The rebbe answers: “It is because as we are, our hearts are closed, and we cannot place the holy words in our hearts. So we place them on top of our hearts. And there they stay until, one day, the heart breaks and the words fall in.”
So, a closed heart. It’s admittedly a strange place to begin a month of exploring Holding History. And yet, when we are honest, we know that defensiveness, protectiveness and closed doors rule our relationship with history more than we’d like.
For instance, very few of us have pasts without pain woven through. And it’s just easier to shut out those traumatic times than confront them head on. We are all well taught in the game of sweeping old wounds under the rug.
And of course, there are the unprocessed horrors woven throughout our cultural history. They are the rule not the exception, but many of us—particularly those of us who are members of dominant groups—work hard to close ourselves off from them with standard lines like, “At our best, this isn’t who we are!” or “As Americans, we’re better than this!” The truth is we’ve never consistently been “better than this.” Amnesia rather than a courageous and honest reckoning describes the current character of America’s heart from the point of view of the privileged.
All of which is to say that there is a deeper relationship between history and vulnerability than we often recognize. Without a heart willing to feel pain and endure grief, the fullness of our histories just can’t enter in. Talking about past mistakes requires the ability to vulnerably say I’m sorry. An honest telling of racism requires the painful acceptance that some of us still benefit from the prejudices and oppression of our ancestors—and some of us still unconsciously perpetuate them. Healing historical racism requires someone experiencing the costs of reparations. And telling your full story requires navigating grief over choices you wish you had made differently.
It certainly seems the rabbis were right. Like those holy words, history in its fullness just sits there until our hearts break open and allow it in.
So let’s not just “remember” this month. Let’s not just talk of telling truthful tales. Let’s prepare to grieve, to confess, to feel, to forgive. The world needs broken-open hearts, not just good historians. That is, indeed, the only way the past gets in.