It’s Complicated

doctor untangling a brain knot

Sermon #51 (6th June 2021 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians)

Anyone who’s on our church mailing list – and presumably that includes everyone who’s with us live on zoom this morning, seeing as that’s how you get the link to join us – will hopefully by now have seen an email that we sent out on Thursday about our plans for the coming months. Roy and I sent out this message, on behalf of the church management committee, to explain how we’d carefully weighed up a lot of different factors in coming to the conclusion – that we’d keep our Sunday services online over the next few months – and take our time to prepare properly for hybrid services later in the year (subject to developments in the Covid situation).

We had our committee meeting to discuss all this a week before. I’d prepared a background paper detailing all the various factors I could think of that we needed to take into account. But on the evening of the meeting, to kick off the discussion, I said to the committee ‘if there’s one thing I want you to take away from this background paper it’s this: IT’S COMPLICATED’.

Life is complicated enough at the best of times but life-in-a-time-of-Covid is very much more so. We find ourselves ill-equipped to weigh up all the scientific, social, political and ethical factors that have a bearing on our day-to-day decision-making in relation to what will be, for some, a matter of life-and-death (or at least a matter of long-term-incapacity, for those with long Covid). And none of us can be experts in everything. So, at some point, we have to take the word of others who are better-equipped than we are, to help steer our decision-making. But who do we trust?

Epidemiologists and public health scientists are doing their best to interpret and communicate complex and ever-changing data for us as it emerges but they too are making judgement calls. And politicians – I don’t think this will be too controversial – do not always have our best interests at heart and are sometimes motivated by factors other than human welfare and the common good. But even the best of them are having to make hard choices about how to target limited resources, and about how to balance people’s yearning for freedom, and a return to pre-pandemic ‘normal’, with the need to protect people from the dire consequences that can come from this disease (the Office for National Statistics states 128,000 people have died and about a million have long Covid). It’s something that every one of us will have different thoughts and feelings about, I’m sure, and indeed that realisation was something we were very aware of as a church committee a week ago when we sat down together to try and make responsible decisions on behalf of this community.

Let’s take a step back from the Covid situation in particular and take a broader view; let’s think a bit about how we might steer a more thoughtful course, live a good life, in an increasingly complicated world. Particularly in terms of how we relate to others, perhaps – whether that’s in our closest relationships, in community, or in a larger socio-political sense – wherever we impinge on others.

As we heard in the reading from Sarah MacLeod earlier, the very first step, perhaps, is the act of admitting: ‘It’s Complicated’. Facing reality as it really is, even if that’s messy or uncomfortable or downright scary, rather than indulging in wishful thinking – or, conversely, catastrophic thinking – that oversimplifies the situation at hand. Not taking for granted that the right thing to do or to think is obvious but taking the larger view. Pausing to reflect on our choices, practicing some sort of discernment, rather than going with the flow, or following the past of least resistance. In truth, we make hundreds of choices every day, most of them relatively inconsequential (probably), and we can’t stop to stroke our chin about all of them – in reality a lot of our life has to run more-or-less on autopilot just so we can get through the day – but perhaps we need to be alert to those moments when we are unthinkingly following a social script, or following the herd, when we might do well to press pause and weigh up our own choices more consciously and intentionally. Particularly those moments where our choices will likely have significant consequences for ourselves or others.

And, as an aside, I want to acknowledge that even the insight that ‘It’s Complicated’ is complicated! Sarah MacLeod uses it to insist that her students take time to consider ‘both sides’ of every issue. But I think many of us will be aware than in this day and age that sometimes the insistence to consider ‘both sides’ is used to cynically derail and misdirect on issues that are pretty much settled: think of the time the BBC got a rap on the knuckles for insisting on wheeling out a lobbyist for the fossil fuel industry, whenever there was a news story about climate change, to provide spurious ‘balance’ against Nobel-prize winning environmental scientists and delay essential climate action. Similarly I don’t think we have to give equal airtime or brain-space to views that are pretty easily identified as running counter to our most dearly held ethical principles: those views that deny the inherent worth and dignity of every person, such as white supremacy, homo/transphobia, ableism, and so on. A lot of life is complicated but there are some things we can (and must) be clear about.

But, that said, today we’re focusing on the ways in which life is indeed more complicated than that. And I like to think that this is a very Unitarian way of looking at things: refusing to be satisfied with oversimplified answers; being willing to live with ambiguity and paradox in our truth-seeking; and, in awareness of the interdependence of us all, taking responsibility for our own actions, as we know our choices will ultimately have an impact on those with whom we share this planet. And so we do our best to remain mindful of the balance between self and other; individual and collective; the local and the global; as we all try to coexist, survive, and thrive, in these complicated times.

So how do we do it? How do we go about weighing up all the many factors that could potentially have a bearing on whatever complicated choice it is that we might be facing? Perhaps one thing it might be helpful to acknowledge from the off is this: none of us are capable of doing the sort of all-encompassing ethical calculation that could take every single pertinent detail, past and present, into account, and project all our possible courses of action into the future, to predict their likely consequences. Even the most powerful supercomputer couldn’t do that sort of calculation, and besides, chaos theory tells us the slightest change in any one of the inputs we might put into such a calculation (you know, the butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil) could make a big difference to the output. I say this to offer reassurance: we can let ourselves off the hook (up to a point) for being imperfect people, making imperfect choices, based on incomplete data, in a complex and confusing world. Still, surely, we should try to make wise decisions, and strive to act in service of the common good.

We do well to bring both reason and emotion to our decision-making. Despite life’s complexity, we do have a responsibility to seek out reliable and trustworthy sources of information, and to train ourselves as best we can in critical thinking, such that we can make sense of what we find. To sincerely seek the truth and stay in touch with reality – rather than allowing ourselves to be falsely comforted by wishful thinking – or allowing our catastrophizing to run out of control. And staying in touch with our feelings – noticing our emotional responses – can be a useful guide too.

But, when attempting to steer a more thoughtful course through a complicated world, perhaps the most important thing we can do is to keep hold of some guiding principles to lead us onward. And to be part of a community which reminds us of those principles and calls us back to them, again and again, even when times are tough. A community in which we can put our heads and hearts together to discern the way ahead, and gain strength from each other, as we struggle to make sense of it all.

So in the days, and weeks, and months to come – whatever they may bring – let us remember: ‘It’s Complicated’. And not shy from that reality, but instead face it, courageously, together. And as we do our best to discern the way ahead, individually and collectively, let us remind each other of our guiding principles: affirming the inherent worth and dignity of every person, and the interdependence of all, let us make our decisions with human well-being and flourishing in mind. Let us be particularly mindful of our responsibility to those who are disadvantaged and suffering. And let us always keep before us the vision of a better world, for the greater good of all. Amen.

Sermon by Jane Blackall

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