The Work of Lifetimes

Jan 24, 2021

By Reverend Rebecca Bryan

Part One: The Work of Lifetimes

“Whose pain is it?”

I was lying in Shavasana, or corpse pose, at the end of yoga class when the veil between the conscious and unconscious lifted and I was gifted with an epiphany that liberated me. I had been struggling for months with guilt, anxiety, and confusion about my choices with my career and motherhood. I knew I was blessed to have choices, and yet they were still difficult.

At the tender age of twenty-seven, I was choosing a “both-and” approach to motherhood and my career, working part time and having significant time at home with my baby. It sounded great, and I expected it to feel great, but it didn’t.  Instead, it felt like the weight of the world was on me as I struggled to overcome these feelings of guilt. I kept asking myself, “What is wrong with you that you want to work and don’t want to be home with your new baby all the time?”

And then in that yoga class, I was set free. The realization came to me by means of a thought …. Whose pain is this?

As soon as the thought came, I knew it was my mother’s pain I was carrying, not mine. I’m guessing my mother, as a divorced woman, felt guilty about working, even though she didn’t have a choice. Knowing the pain that she lived in for all of her life, it was also clear to me that she never forgave herself, for that, and many other things. Her guilt and unresolved pain were passed on to me, as legitimately as my genes.

“The deep connection between personal liberation and social transformation is increasingly clear,”[1] write the authors of Radical Dharma, Talking Race, Love, and Liberation. It is difficult, if not impossible, to work for justice for other people in life affirming, creative, and collaborative ways, guided by love, if we live imprisoned in resentment, trauma, or other states of unforgiveness. We can do the work of social justice without also engaging in personal healing, but often it then comes from places of obligation, ego, or vengeance.

Living with unresolved personal burdens and pain results in anxiety, depression, and unhealthy anger among other things, as well as a decreased ability to trust, connect, and stay embodied. When we approach societal change from those places, we are not bringing our whole, integrated, healed selves, and therefore we run the risk of causing further harm, or burning out.

The authors of Radical Dharma recognize this when they talk about the success of the current movement for the liberation of Black lives and how it “must be articulated by and inextricably linked to an embodied personal liberation.”[2]

We witnessed the same need in response to the Holocaust, so poignantly displayed by Holocaust survivor and forgiveness advocate Eva Kor, may she rest in peace. On the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz in 1995, she stood in the presence of Dr. Munch who had operated the gas chambers, and after he read his statement of truth about these crimes, she forgave him. “As I did that,” she said, “I felt a burden of pain was lifted from me. I was no longer in the grip of hate; I was finally free.”[3]

This forgiveness and personal liberation however—and this is so important—did not happen in a vacuum. Kor also worked tirelessly for justice and reparations for harms done to herself and others, including suing Bayer Pharmaceutical Company for their participation in the human experiments at the camps. This resulted in the establishment of a $5 Billion Foundation for Remembrance, Responsibility and Future.

We forgive people, not acts. Jasmine Syedullah writes about the need for both personal and societal transformation. Referring to our work in societal change, she writes, “…We have to balance that with the work of overthrowing the oppressive system operation internally that actually keeps us enslaved.”[4] Then we can engage in the work of social justice from a place of principled love, able to hold the complexities of demanding societal transformation and living with joy, despite it all.

This is not a linear process. We don’t attend to our own healing and then engage with the world; it happens simultaneously. However, if we are to stop transmitting our own pain, we must engage in personal healing as we engage with the world.

And yet if we remain siloed or stuck only in our own personal healing, we live unliberated in other ways. Life is about more than our own pain and our own healing.

As we heal and are liberated from our pain, we cannot help but want that for others. It is that frame of reference in which we use our agency and help make God, or love, visible in the form of justice or collective liberation. 

I invite us all to sit with these thoughts now, as we allow the music that we are about to hear to enter our hearts.

Part Two: The Work of Lifetimes

What is the role of the church, and specifically our church, in issues of personal and societal liberation? I look to Martin Luther King, Jr. for the answer. In his last book published in 1967 before his assassination, King wrote:

Among the forces of white liberalism the church has a special obligation. It is the voice of moral and spiritual authority on earth…It has too often blessed a status quo that needed to be blasted and reassured a social order that needed to be reformed. [5]

This is the pressing challenge confronting the white liberal. When evil men plot, good men must plan. When evil men burn and bomb, good men must build and bind. When evil men conspire to preserve an unjust status quo, good men must unite to bring about the birth of a society undergirded by justice. Nothing can be more detrimental to the health of America at this time than for liberals to sink into a state of apathy and indifference…[6]

King is clear in his call to white liberal churches and its members: We must tell the truth, of our complicity, our failings, and our weaknesses; not to brand our foreheads “sinner,” but to set ourselves and those we have failed free, in this case Black people.

We witnessed the beginning of this here last Sunday when Frank Cousins told his father’s story, and then we heard more stories during coffee hour after the service. There has been talk on our FRS UU Members and Friends Facebook page of our engaging with the work of compiling the history of Black people in this area and in our church.

Truth telling is essential for healing and reparations. Ibram Kendi said, “The heartbeat of racism is denial, and the heartbeat of antiracism is confession.” Truth telling isn’t the end of the work, but it is an essential beginning.[7]

Rev. Karlene told us eighteen months ago this was the place to begin. “Learn your own stories and let them be known,” she said.

We can do this work with conviction and love, channeling our anger to fuel our commitment to and energy for the work. Personal and societal restorative work will alchemize our anger and fear and transform it into creativity, imagination, and healing so that we do not transmit the pain of this generation or the past on to our children and grandchildren.

The church’s role is to support and nurture personal healing and engage in the work of societal justice. We have committed to both of these things in our values, mission, and ends. To care for one another. To steward history. To partner with others working for justice.

This is real work, and it is hard work. It is messy, imperfect, and challenging, as much as it is freeing, joyful, and meaningful. It will not be completed this year or next or in our lifetimes. It is the work of lifetimes. What more important work is there?

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Williams, Rev. angel Kyodo, Owens, Lama Rod and Syedullah, Jasmine, Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, and Liberation, North Atlantic Books, Berkley, CA. 2016. Pg. 39.

[2] Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, and Liberation, Editor’s note.


[4] Williams, Rev. angel Kyodo, Owens, Lama Rod and Syedullah, Jasmine, Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, and Liberation, North Atlantic Books, Berkley, CA. 2016. Pg. 54.

[5] Where do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? Pgs. 101-102

[6] Ibid. pg. 94.



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