It was supposed to be a service devoted to the idea of "social activism". When I heard the people talk on the subject, however, what I heard was not too much more than a statement about ego gratification from the individuals involved. The folk singer talked about how he used music to promote the "good". The retired nurse talked about her "second career". The therapist talked about how to avoid "burnout". And the young woman Muslim talked about how it is to be a visible Muslim in the public eye.
No one talked about working to fix the world's problems.
Afterwards, the congregation formed a circle and people spoke of their reactions. Mostly all I heard was people's excuses for doing so little to get involved in the world. The visiting speakers mostly spent their time trying to make these people feel good about themselves. At one point the folk-singer said that "anyone who signs a petition is an activist".
When the microphone came to me and people asked for my reaction, I simply said "I have nothing to say" and passed it on.
What else could I do? If I had said what I really thought it would have created a riot. I could have said that it is absurd the these upper-middle class people with good jobs, vacations and fine educations didn't have time to be more involved in their communities. That all the privileges that these people have been given only make sense if they are used to help others. Or that they have so devalued the concept of "citizenship" and "personal responsibility" that they are reduced to the level of being not much more than irresponsible children.
It occurred to me, however, that the visiting activists, the discussion circle afterwards, and the church itself had absolutely nothing to do with making the world a better place. Instead, it was about forging the emotional chain that is essential to building a strong congregation. Indeed, even though I felt repulsed by the whole experience, everyone else remarked about how much they enjoyed the service. And why wouldn't they? It had turned into an exercise of relieving the guilt that many of these people feel for living in a world that is palpably going to pot without their having made any significant sacrifice in their own lives in order to solve its problems.
All of this comes down to the way people confuse their feelings with the world around them. At its simplest level, people indulge in the so-called "pathetic fallacy" and act towards inanimate objects as if they were sentient beings. For example, I had a neighbour who used to get so angry with his appliances when they didn't work that he would throw them out and smash them on the driveway. Other people swear at their car when it won't start, and so on.
What is at work is the idea that human consciousness exists in a stew of emotions---both within our own minds and when interacting with others. Indeed, emotional cuing is an essential form of communication. I first became aware of this fact while watching a very cheesy, Jerry Bruckheimer television show titled "JAG". This show pushes the stereotypes of American conservatism (the gruff, yet fair authority figure; brash and daring military hero; the brilliant, yet nerdy young support figure; the supportive, nurturing woman; etc.) It also uses very blatant musical cues to manipulate the emotional reaction of viewers. In particular, a trumpet solo is used repeatedly in all the episodes as a mechanism to alert viewers when some sort of patriotic appeal is being made by one of the characters so they can react appropriately.
One might think that using such creaky devices wouldn't work on a cynical, educated viewer like myself. But in actual fact, I respond just the same as the cheesiest worshipper of Ronald Reagan. The difference is that after the fact my conscious mind "kicks in", analyses what has just happened, and makes sure that I don't do anything foolish based on these emotional cues. But that is because of my own particular "kung fu" of trying to understand my mind through contemplation and meditation. The people in the Unitarian Congregation---who after all are not Daoists---do not do this sort of thing. As a result, they simply fly wherever their emotions take them.
The Old Masters who wrote the Dao De Jing understood this issue. That is why they say in Chapter Five:
Heaven and Earth are not humane;
They regard the ten thousand things as straw dogs.
The Sage is not humane;
He regards the common people as straw dogs.
The point is that everything that exists is totally indifferent to our feelings. There is no loving God up in the sky who cares about how we feel. Our sense of outrage against injustice, our sense of guilt over our many weaknesses, our love for the people in our life---none of that has any more value in life than the rage a person may feel when their computer crashes in the middle of writing an essay or when their car won't start on a cold morning. And all the good feelings that people felt towards each other in that Unitarian service will have zero impact on global warming, the war in Afghanistan or any other important issue facing our nation.
And as someone who aspires to being a sage, I have to learn to have zero concern for the feelings of those people. Something I am still far from achieving.