Notes on the First Principle

Notes on the First Principle

“We affirm and promote … the inherent worth and dignity of all persons.” — the First Principle of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA)

Credo in Latin means literally “I believe.” So it may be a bit ironic that five sessions of UUCC’s “Quest for Adults” Religious Education class, in which we worked to develop our own individual “credo statements,” have given me more questions to sort out than answers.

I’ve been keeping a journal daily for years so self-examination is not novel for me, and like most people my age, I’d worked out a self-image of what you might call the Pretty Good Person, the sort of person who thinks of himself as generally kind to his family and friends and socially conscious as well – the sort of person who believes that on balance he leaves the world a better place,

This foundation got shaken for me early on when I was paired in an exercise with Robin Slaw, the Director of Religious Education,  and asked  to lay out a few of my beliefs. One bedrock for me is that I am responsible for my own life, meaning no excuses, no point in blaming anybody else for anything, a state of mind I’ve always seen as a virtue.

Robin’s response surprised me. “How American and individualistic you sound,” she said. “Of course, in Europe there’s a different, more communitarian tradition.”

She was right, but I’d never thought of it quite that way.  As I pondered this idea over the ensuing months, I realized that my self-conception as a self-reliant individual – not as a member of a group – is one of the perquisites of having been born a white hetero-cis-gender male in post World War II America.

As I thought further about group identity, I realized that I am a member of quite a few groups, and yet also an individual. Both my individual and group identities are valid, but each provides only a partial picture. Metaphor may be the best way to consider this: perhaps group and individual identities are different lenses through which to look at a person.

A second epiphany came with the class exercise in which we were given more than 30 slips of paper, each with a worthy personal value on it, and asked to line them up in order of what we value the most. My top five values were Love, Empathy, Compassion, Kindness, and Humility. One might see them as vintage First Principle values. These choices surprised me a little. But within a day or so, I found myself thinking of how often I’ve failed to actually live those values in the life I lead. I realized two conflicts in particular:

First, on a subconscious level, I go through the world in the shape of a public persona, geared to winning social approval. This is not a great sin. From what I’ve read of human psychology, this seeking of approval seems to be to an innate human characteristic. But what startled me is how unaware I was of this trait in myself.

The second revelation was how judgmental I am. Again, an innate human trait, though I like to think of myself as more of a non-judger than most. Yet I realized I am constantly making judgments about other human beings. Am I attracted or repelled by a person when we meet? On a river cruise while encountering a hundred strangers, why do I shy away from that gregarious guy with the Southern accent and the bourbon in his hand? An instant classification and evaluation system is running in my brain all the time.

Both these habits of mine are in direct conflict with my professed values. I kept turning over in my head Rev. Paige Getty’s one-sentence credo: “My perspective is not the perspective.” Yes, agreed, but how do you get beyond the self and actually practice that?

These questions are far from resolved for me. In considering them, though, I thought of Soren Kierkegaard’s description of the human condition. For Kierkegaard the finite self of everyday life in the world and the infinite self of possibility, choice, and the capacity for change are always in a state of tension. This is what the philosopher calls the “either-or” dilemma of humanity. You must choose, but either choice will lead you to a state of dissatisfaction. Not exactly a reassuring thought. But now that I know Kierkegaard has been there before me, I feel a little less unmoored in facing the dilemma of living up to the person I’d like to be.

The last credo revelation for me came with the class’s exercise of drawing God as you’ve conceived of that concept at four stages of your life, winding up with the present. All I could come up with for God nowadays was an image put forth by a seventh-century monk we know as the Venerable Bede.

We human beings, wrote Bede, are like a sparrow that has flown into a king’s banquet hall through an open door on a dark winter’s night. The bird flits through the room where there’s a blazing fire and some folks gathered over food and drink. The sparrow’s flight lasts only a few seconds before it darts out another door into the dark night again. That’s the best summation I know for the meaning of human life. No sign of traditional notions of God in that. All we have is an instinctive connection to the light and the warmth and the few fellow beings we stumble across in our brief time on earth.


  1. Dori

    This is lovely, George! I do think we are raised in the U.S. to value rugged individuality and “pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps,” with the presumption that each of us must stand alone, and we are solely responsible for our own actions and choices. During my graduate program in what is now called Human Ecology, I learned that we humans–of whatever culture–are soundly embedded in SYSTEMS that determine our opportunities, challenges, and choices. Schools. Families. Churches. Very, very few of us are not influenced profoundly by those systems, and this is exactly why I was so shocked and stunned to visit an exhibit at AVAM about race, and learn that the Black Panthers were formed–in 1966–to confront violence toward people of color in police work. I realized that if this had been going on for all of my life, it had certainly been going on MUCH longer than that, and that the SYSTEM was set up (as all systems are) to benefit those in power and constrain the choices and opportunities of those who are not. We are all interconnected. None of us is an island.

  2. Tammy Spengler

    Thank you, George for your insights, honesty, and humility. I am so grateful to have been in the kings banquet hall at the same time as you (at least for part of your journey).) The light and warmth from those trying to understand and connect to each other is truly sacred.

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