Life With a Beeper

A sermon delivered by the
Rev. Donna Morrison-Reed
to the First Unitarian Congregation of Toronto
on Sunday, 28 March 1995


In Willa Cather's novel, Shadows on the Rock, Euclide Auclair, the philosopher apothecary of Quebec, stands on the cliff above the small colony watching the last ship leave for France. It is the fall of 1697.

This was October; not a sail would come up that wide waterway before next July. No supplies; not a cask of wine or a sack of flour, no gunpowder, or leather, or cloth, or iron tools. Not a letter, even -- no news of what went on at home. There might be new wars, floods, conflagrations, epidemics, but the colonists would never know of them until next summer.

A report of all the wars, floods, conflagrations and epidemics of the world arrives at our house every morning at about four o'clock. If I'm awake I hear it hit the front door and fall to rest on the step, waiting.

When we first arrived in Toronto, someone in this congregation suggested we ought to have an answering machine. I forget who made the suggestion, but I do remember my reaction. I thought that person had lost her mind. Who would want to come home to a zillion messages and hours of return calls?

Seven years later, thankfully that struggle has been settled. We have, not one, but two answering machines, for our two telephone lines, of course. Our home has a fax, a modem and an e-mail address.

The church office also has two telephone lines, two answering machines, a fax and about forty volunteers, primarily to answer the phones. Angela is looking into a few more phone lines and voice mail. "Welcome to the First Unitarian Congregation of Toronto. To rent a room in our building, press one. To get married, press two. In need of spiritual advise, press three ..." That's not all. A committee is working on our very own congregational Home Page on the Internet, and someone recently suggested that Mark and I ought to have a phone in our car. I'm not going to tell you my reaction to that suggestion.

So far no one has suggested a beeper. But can you imagine?

Our fourth principle as Unitarian Universalists is a covenant to affirm and promote the free and responsible search for truth and meaning. We are spiritually questing people, fully engaged in life as it unfolds all about us and beyond.

As Unitarian Universalists, we also say that revelation is not closed. No minister or bishop or pope has an exclusive, or even privileged, pipeline to god. No single scripture or religion holds sole rights to divine truth. The seeds of inspiration do not come from up there, but are all about us, open to all.

The challenge is to make ourselves available to hear. And the extrovert in each of us says: that's why we need beepers and e-mail, telephones and answering machines. What if divine inspiration calls and we aren't in? What if revelation hits but we aren't there? What if a happening happens on the other side of the planet and our televisions are off?

The sacred is an aspect of all life, it is all about us and beyond. Our extroverted side is literally inspired by these outside forces, for all the rough and tumble of interaction are the bread and butter of an extroverts quest for truth and meaning. Martin Buber, Jewish theologian, says that we encounter the divine in the I-Thou relationship. Every interaction has the potential of unlocking a holy moment. That's why we wouldn't want to miss one.

With a beeper, we don't have to. Even a walk in the woods need not mean being out of touch. Thanks to the advances of technology, no longer do we find ourselves, like Euclide Auclair, cut off from the world for eight months of every year.

There is, however, an introvert in each of us as well. The introvert needs to ruminate. For an introvert, meaning is forged through communion with the still, small voice within. Rather than facilitating revelation, too much outside input is like static on the line. For an introvert, beepers are not gifts from god, for the struggle is not to increase, but rather to limit, the amount of data coming in, limit it so that we might find some space to actually feel our feelings and think our thoughts through to their conclusion.

There are more problems with beepers, however, than merely their disruption of the introvert's quest. Edwin Friedman, author of Generation to Generation, claims that three emotional barriers, three universally held, unquestioned assumptions, blind our late twentieth century western world. The first of these he calls "the valuing of data over self."1 We live in a world governed by facts and experts. All about us "truth" speaks in newspapers, in books, on television. Friedman claims that our society accepts the authority of this information over the inner authority of the individual. We believe what we read or hear, even when our own senses and experience tell us otherwise. In the hospital the doctor looks at a monitor to see how the patient is doing. The real tragedy is when the patient does the same thing, when the "facts" speak and we hardly even pause to ask if our heart agrees. We value data over self, information more highly than personal conviction.

And as a result, our society becomes embroiled in an ever-exponentially-expanding proliferation of information and the technology to access it. Seven years ago, our home had a telephone. No answering machine, modem, fax or e-mail. The technology for staying instantly in touch, not to mention the sheer amount of information out there that one might stay in touch with, has exploded all about us, into the beyond.

Why? Why the explosion? Of course the answer is simple. Because we want more information. But why do we want it? Why do we buy modems and hook up to the internet and quest after more and more facts and data?

Perhaps because we are used to believing outside authority. The stories of the elders are revered. The creeds and texts of religious tradition are sacred. Our system of schooling, with its requirements based upon the memorization and regurgitation of facts, teaches us that our job is not to question or to think for ourselves, but to learn the right answers that are already out there somewhere. But, this, I think, hardly explains the explosion. A hundred years ago, even Unitarian Universalists were content to turn to the bible for divine truth. We felt comfortable accepting family and community standards of behaviour.

No, the problem runs deeper. Today we are confused and uncertain. We yearn to believe in others. But at the same time we distrust the old, accepted authorities. In these uncertain times we have grown all the more frightened by the realization that our bible stories and family myths are not inviolate -- that which we once believed unquestioningly, we now see as relative, limited, and often flawed. And because we have been taught not to trust the still small voice within, in our fear and uncertainty, we turn elsewhere, seeking more and more answers, ever hoping to find the one voice that might be unconditionally trusted. Unitarian Universalist, Tony Schwarz, travelled across the United States for five years before writing What Really Matters: The Search for Wisdom in America. The search for wisdom in America? By contrast, Friedman observes: "A focus on pathology results in an unending amount of data. A focus on strength can be summed up in about ten principles."

And the core of our "pathology"? Perhaps we are terrified of being alone with ourselves. Seeking to cover up our essential aloneness, we fill our lives with the patter of voices. In our fear we try to fill the void with ever increasing amounts of trivia.

Or perhaps we are insecure, turning outside ourselves to avoid responsibility, or at least seeking to delay personal responsibility as long as possible. Before I step forward with my own view, before putting my own opinion on the line, I'll just check out a few more sources. If I know what everyone else thinks, perhaps I'll know what I think. I'll refer to the data instead of taking a stand. The technology actually exists to enable politicians to pole every single constituent before every vote, allowing every decision on every issue to perfectly represent the majority. Why not simply giant voting machines instead of real people running our country?

Friedman claims that the proliferation of consultants in today's society is in large part reflective of a crisis in leadership. Our leaders fear alienating anyone, and so, turn to consultants to name the uncomfortable truths. He writes, "As long as you base your confidence on how much information you have, you are doomed to feeling inadequate."

Ralph Waldo Emerson, nineteenth century American Unitarian, in his essay on "Self-Reliance", wrote:

The highest merit we ascribe to Moses, Plato and Milton is that they set at naught books and traditions, and spoke not what [others] but what they thought. A [person] should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages. 

Of our six Unitarian Universalist sources of truth and meaning, the first is "direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life.

The information explosion is all about us, spinning out into wider and wider circles, into the beyond. The pressure to get on board, to connect, hook up, to buy a beeper and stay in touch, is ever increasing.

But we must ask ourselves: "Stay in touch with what?" Let us not lose touch with ourselves, our yearnings and dreams, our hopes and fears, our joys and sorrows. Keep a beeper if you must. But never allow it to replace your soul. You have your own thoughts and feelings, opinions and perspective. Name them and live by them.

In 1697, Euclide Auclair watched the last ship leave the harbour, cutting off the small colony of Quebec from the rest of the world. For the rest of his life he continued to feel far away and out of touch. But Cecile, his daughter, enjoyed the quiet life right where she was. And even further, because she was isolated and protected from Europe, Cecile Auclair was able to grow a Canadian soul.

We need never be so out of touch as Euclide or Cecile, for the information explosion has arrived. But what is in here? Do not let data replace wisdom and personal conviction. Do not let a beeper substitute for the growing of a heart or mind or soul. 1His second emotional barrier is the valuing of empathy over responsibility. The third is valuing togetherness and good feelings over progress.