Call Me By My True Names

Rev. Joshua Mason Pawelek

“Please call me by my true names, / so I can wake up, / and so the door of my heart can be left open, / the door of compassion.”[1] Words of the Vietnamese Zen monk and peace activist, Thich Nhat Hanh. “Please call me by my true names.” I happened upon this poem a few weeks ago while I was contemplating bringing a sermon on compassion to you this morning. Through the course of this week the focus of my sermon has changed, but these words—call me by my true names—still speak to me. Weather events like the autumn snowstorm from which we are still recovering, events that cause damage, disrupt our lives, leave us without power—some of us for eight days and counting—have a way, a unique way, of calling us by our true names.

Some context: Thich Nhat Hanh wrote this poem after receiving a letter telling a tragic story about a young girl—a boat person, a refugee—who, having been raped by pirates, threw herself into the ocean and drowned. He writes, “When you first learn of something like that, you get angry at the pirate. You naturally take the side of the girl. As you look more deeply you will see it differently. If you take the side of the little girl, then it is easy. You only have to take a gun and shoot the pirate. But we cannot do that. In my meditation I saw that if I had been born in the village of the pirate and raised in the same conditions as he was, there is a great likelihood that I would become a pirate …. If you or I were born today in those fishing villages, we may become sea pirates in twenty-five years. If you take a gun and shoot the pirate, you shoot all of us, because all of us are to some extent responsible for this state of affairs.”[2] When Thich Nhat Hanh says “call me by my true names,” he is saying, essentially, not only am I me, I am also the young girl. And not only am I the young girl, I am also the pirate. He asks: “Can we look at each other and recognize ourselves in each other?”[3] Can we look at a tragic situation half-way around the planet and recognize ourselves in the people in that situation? Can we recognize those people in ourselves?

We are interconnected—each of us, with each other, with the entire mass of humanity, past, present and future. Thich Nhat Hanh would add we are each interconnected with all there is, past, present and future. He uses the term “interbeing” to express this fundamental condition of interconnectedness.[4] We have many true names. This is not just something Buddhists teach, nor is it just abstract or flowery liberal religious language. It’s a truth claim. We are interconnected. I remind us of this truth claim this morning in part because I know it’s easy to forget; because we wake up to it from time to time, but then quickly fall back to sleep; because we learn it but then continually unlearn it through the course of our lives; because even though we know it in our heads—even though we can say the words, “We are interconnected with the whole of life”— we don’t always feel it in our hearts, we don’t always feel it in the marrow of our bones, we don’t always live it. I remind us of this truth this morning because our capacity to be compassionate people ultimately depends on our ability to remember it, to wake up to it, to relearn it, to feel it in our hearts and bones. “Please call me by my true names, / so I can wake up, / and so the door of my heart can be left open, / the door of compassion.”

Compassion is our theological theme for November. As theological themes go, compassion is relatively easy to talk about. It isn’t one of those haunting words that remind some of us of a religious upbringing we’d rather forget. It isn’t one of those strange, other-worldly ideas we have to accept in order to belong. It isn’t wrapped up in layers of doctrine and dogma. It isn’t a belief. Compassion is a way of feeling towards ourselves, towards others, towards the world. Compassion is our ability to recognize, name and respond to suffering. It is our ability to suffer with others, to stay present to suffering—to accept it, to validate it, to affirm it as real, to not look away. If the ethical ideal and the sought-after behavior of so many world religions is some version of love your neighbor as you love yourself, compassion is the emotional ingredient that makes such love possible. I’m wondering this morning what ultimately makes compassion possible. I suspect it arises and takes hold in our hearts, as Thich Nhat Hanh suggests, when our true names are called and we recognize ourselves in those around us, and in those around the world.

Last Saturday, as we know, an uncommon October snow storm hit the northeastern United States, dumping heavy, wet snow on trees still covered with leaves, snapping branches and limbs and even bringing down some trees, many of which fell on power lines, leaving millions without power for days on end in the impacted sates. Some, my family included, continue without power. This storm comes just two months after Hurricane Irene caused similar long-term power outages, as well as flooding and property damage in much of the northeast. We know extreme weather events—hurricanes, floods, droughts, wild fires, tornados—even snowfall—seem to be occurring with greater frequency, greater severity and greater cost than in years past. I’ve preached recently about a growing collective anxiety regarding the apparent increase in extreme weather events. Is it simply an anomaly? Is it the result of global warming? Is it the new weather normal? Are we prepared for a future in which such events are common? It’s not my intent to address these questions this morning. I simply want to say there is nothing like an extreme weather event to call us by our true names, to show us the full range of who we are and, hopefully, to cause feelings of compassion to take root in our hearts.

Around 6:00 on Saturday evening, our power already gone, I stood on our front steps and listened to the sounds of limbs breaking under the weight of the snow all around our neighborhood. I’d never heard anything like it, except maybe at a firing range or on a live news report from a war zone. The larger the limb, the more the earth shook when it hit the ground. At that moment I felt awe in the presence of Nature’s power. There was something thrilling about it, something fascinating, magnetic, drawing me to it, something wild and emotionally familiar, like the feeling of falling from a great height in a dream. Awe in the presence of Nature’s power is one of my true names. The storm was calling me by that name.

But that call did not last. There are some large oaks on our land whose massive limbs, were they to snap, could cause damage to our home, could cause injury or death. Later that night, around 10:00, I woke up to the sound of our fire alarms telling us their batteries were running low. The wind was blowing. I looked out the back window. The old oaks’ limbs were hanging low and even their thick, eighty foot trunks were bending towards the house under the weight of the snow. Every time the wind blew, I braced for the worst. My mind raced with what ifs. I recognized, in me, fear. And because there was nothing I could do beyond watching and waiting, with that fear came a feeling of helplessness. I think of myself as a brave and resourceful person, so it wasn’t pleasant to admit to myself, let alone to anyone else, that I felt genuinely afraid. But this fearfulness is part of who I am. Fear and helplessness: the storm calling me by two more true names.

The next morning there were many adjustments to make. Water was not an issue, as we have city water. Hot water and cooking were not concerns, as we use natural gas for both. We even had a modicum of heat, because our gas furnace has one of those automatic-to-manual switches for use in power outages. It’s designed to keep pipes from freezing, but it generates some heat which made some rooms livable, including our bedrooms. We had to think about where to get food and what kinds of food made sense to get in the absence of refrigeration; how to get a prescription filled; where to get a few more batteries for flashlights and fire alarms; how to charge cell phones and computers; how and where to do laundry; and where to get gasoline. We thought about our neighbors: is everyone OK? Does anyone need anything, any help? We had to think about how to explain to the kids what was happening, how long the outage might last, how to wear multiple layers of clothing to stay warm and how to keep occupied without the typical recourse to television, DVDs, and video games. In the end we’ve had a relatively easy experience. My parents, who live in Hamden, did not lose power. We’ve spent a few of our nights there and met most of our outage-related needs there. I’ve been able to keep breathing, to stay calm, to stay relaxed, to accept the situation with as much gracefulness and dignity as I can muster. I even had a moment to build Max a fort out of some of our downed limbs. Gracefulness dignity, playfulness: more true names calling in the aftermath of the storm.

And still, all week long there have been moments of frustration and anger; moments when I’ve had enough; moments when I’ve felt tired of it all; moments of stir-craziness; moments when my conditioned expectation of heat and electric lights overcomes me and I want everything back to normal, not Sunday night at midnight, now. Frustration, anger, tiredness, longing for the normal comforts—not feelings I necessarily want to admit because I believe I should be able to handle this, because I know there are people in much worse situations not only in Connecticut but all around the world, but nevertheless, here are more true names calling out as the days drag on. By what names did this storm call you? By what names have these days called you?

My colleague, the Rev. Barbara Merritt, writes facetiously, I “hope each morning when I open my eyes that the day will go smoothly. (Smoothly being defined as nothing interfering with my pre-existing plans, no unpleasant delays, and especially no events that make me aware of my dependency or limitations.)”[5] Two more true names in the aftermath of devastating storms: dependency and limitations. This sounds cliché, but I don’t think it is. We’re so used to, so reliant upon, even addicted to the power of modern technology to keep our lives running smoothly, that we forget the truth about who we are, about how our ancestors lived just a few generations ago before the advent of electricity and the marshaling of fossil fuels. We forget our true names. We only remember the truth when technology fails. We are awestruck and courageous, but fearful and helpless; graceful and dignified, but frustrated, angry and tired; creative, innovative, resourceful, and playful, but dependent and limited. Sometimes it takes a storm and its aftermath to call us by our true names, to wake us up, to leave open the door of our hearts, the door of compassion.

Barbara Merritt continues, not facetiously, “Reality has a persistent way of showing up on your doorstep. You can waste a whole lot of time wishing reality were simpler, less demanding. But the ever-changing circumstances of this life keep presenting themselves to us. The question is, “How will we respond?”[6] I was so happy, when we found out we had power back at UUS:E, that we could announce to people who were still out of power (if we could get in touch with them) that they could come here and get warm, take showers, do laundry. I was so happy as the week dragged on, that people with phone service were willing to attempt to call through our directory to see who we could reach, to find out if anyone needed help. Hank Schwartz and Nancy Massey made calls, JoAnne Gillespie, David Garnes, Chris Joyner, Cory Clark and Jean Labutis made calls. Thank you so much. We couldn’t reach everyone and I know we didn’t get all the way through the directory, but it was so wonderful to learn that those of you who had power were willing and eager to open your homes to those without power, and not only to those in this spiritual community, but to those in the wider community who were in need. There were and are so many stories of people responding to suffering and need with open arms and open hearts, stories of the storm and its aftermath calling us by our true name of compassion. Yes, through it all there was frustration, fear, anger, anxiety, tension, even despair—these are also our true names—but there were so many stories of people recognizing themselves in those around them, recognizing their own potential for suffering in those around them, recognizing their own basic needs in those around them, recognizing their own ability to help even if only in some simple, small, human way.

I believe Thich Nhat Hanh is right. I accept this notion as true: We are ourselves, but we are also the girl. We are also the pirate. We are interconnected—each of us with the entire mass of humanity, past, present and future. We are interconnected—each of us with the whole of life, with all there is, past, present and future. This interconnection is our true name. Sometimes we forget. Sometimes it takes a storm to remind us. “Please call me by my true names, / so I can wake up, / and so the door of my heart can be left open, / the door of compassion.”[7] Please call me by my true name, so I can respond well to whatever unexpected challenge reality brings. Please call me by my true name, so I can love myself, love my neighbor, love the world.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Thich Nhat Hanh, “Call Me by My True Names,” Peace is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life (New York: Bantam Books, 1991) p. 124.

[2] Thich Nhat Hanh, “Call Me by My True Names,” p. 122.

[3] Thich Nhat Hanh, “Call Me by My True Names,” p. 122.

[4] Thich Nhat Hanh, “Interbeing,” Peace is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life (New York: Bantam Books, 1991) pp. 95-96.

[5] Merritt, Barbara, “Next,” Amethyst Beach (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2007) p. 27.

[6] Merritt, Barbara, “Next,” p. 28.

[7] Thich Nhat Hanh, “Call Me by My True Names,” Peace is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life (New York: Bantam Books, 1991) p. 124.