Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
― Walt Whitman, in Song of Myself
Have you ever written something, which was then seen by others, and later really, really wished you could un-send, un-post, un-publish or otherwise un-write it?
I have considered this question a lot over the years—especially during election and confirmation seasons when public officials are asked to defend positions they took in their graduate school writing, but also when I hear stories about ministers who lost jobs because of emails sent to unintended recipients, or when I remember my own sermon anecdote that was deeply hurtful to someone I love.
It’s on my mind this week as the works of Dr. Seuss are in the news. I wonder what Ted Geisel would say about those six books if he were alive now. Would he double down and defend them? Would he—as I hope—acknowledge his past self’s limited worldview and apologize for his ignorance and racism? Would he at least try to make amends? Of course we have no way of knowing.
Poet Sheenagh Pugh still lives with her regret over something she wrote—a different sort of regret than what I imagine Ted “Dr. Seuss” Geisel might feel. Years ago, Pugh penned the poem “Sometimes”, which became very popular. I didn’t previously know this poem, but in a UU ministers’ Facebook discussion back in December, a colleague suggested that it would be a good source of fodder for New Year’s ministerial columns. So, I looked it up. In my search for a little more information about the poet, I found her website and ended up on a page titled “The dreaded Sometimes”. Turns out, the poet hates this poem—her own poem.
“This is in hope of saving us all some email enquiries,” she writes. Then there’s a “Policy on reproduction of ‘Sometimes’” which includes a bulleted list of blanket permissions and restrictions. The list ends like this:
“If you do quote or reproduce it, I would rather you left my name off. I really do hate it that much. … If you want to quote it at your friend’s funeral, I am not so hard-hearted as to refuse, I just don’t want my name mentioned.
I’m doing this because the poem just doesn’t represent the kind of poet I want to be. I know many people like it but it exists on many other sites so I am not depriving them of anything, and I’d rather they didn’t email asking me to change my mind about it, because I can’t.”
The poem, in my amateur opinion, is not terrible. I can see why its sentiment is popular with many readers. But for the poet herself, “the poem just doesn’t represent the kind of poet I want to be”.
I admire Pugh’s ability to articulate that—to say, essentially, I’ve evolved in my writing, my self-understanding, my worldview. I’ve grown from who I was then, and my standards are higher now. I want not to be held to a lower, less mature standard of myself. I am a complex and layered being who has abundantly more to offer.
All of us are complex creatures, and the whole of each of us is not contained in a single poem, or book, or action. And so, I am grateful for the ways that we in our congregational relationships strive to affirm and promote the 3rd principle of Unitarian Universalism—accepting one another and encouraging spiritual growth—honoring the multitudes within each of us.
Gail M Thompson
It seems to take enormous courage for a public figure allow themselves to be seen learning. I have always felt sad that such people are expected to have all knowledge and answers at their beck and call by so many of us. When we UUs say we encourage spiritual growth or the finding of one’s own truth, aren’t we saying it is alright to learn, grow, and change?