Elements of Character

Talking about character has come back into fashion lately. Most of us have several elements of good character. But all of us have some ways we can develop our character more. And being part of a congregation such as UUCC is an excellent way to do that, regardless of our individual religious or spiritual beliefs. This sermon will be informed by several books about character, including David Brooks’ recent bestseller, The Road to Character.

“Elements of Character”

Worship Service and Sermon for
the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of
Columbia, South Carolina
October 16, 2016
The Rev. Jennie Barrington, Interim Minister


Opening Words: [Dave Jolly, Veterinarian, as quoted in David Brooks’ The Road to Character, p. xv]

“The heart cannot be taught in a classroom intellectually, to students mechanically taking notes…  Good, wise hearts are obtained through lifetimes of diligent effort to dig deeply within and heal lifetimes of scars…  You can’t teach it or email it or tweet it. It has to be discovered within the depths of one’s own heart when a person is finally ready to go looking for it, not before.

The job of the wise person is to swallow the frustration and just go on setting an example of caring and digging and diligence in their own lives. What a wise person teaches is the smallest part of what they give. The totality of their life, of the way they go about it in the smallest details, is what gets transmitted.

Never forget that. The message is the person, perfected over lifetimes of effort that was set in motion by yet another wise person now hidden from the recipient by the dim mists of time. Life is much bigger than we think, cause and effect intertwined in a vast moral structure that keeps pushing us to do better, [to] become better, even when we dwell in the most painful confused darkness.”

Offering and Offertory Columbia Free Medical Clinic] [“Hymn for the Russian Earth,” performed by Animaterra Women’s Chorus]

First Reading: Erich Fromm’s View of Human Nature, from his, The Heart of Man: Its Genius for Good and Evil, pp. 173 – 178

“Our capacity to choose changes constantly with our practice of life.  The longer we continue to make the wrong decisions, the more our heart hardens; the more often we make the right decisions, the more our heart softens–  or better perhaps, comes alive. . . . Each step in life which increases my self-confidence, my integrity, my courage, my conviction also increases my capacity to choose the desirable alternative, until eventually it becomes more difficult for me to choose the undesirable rather than the desirable action.  On the other hand, each act of surrender and cowardice weakens me, opens the path for more acts of surrender, and eventually freedom is lost.  Between the extreme when I can no longer do a wrong act and the extreme when I have lost my freedom to right action, there are innumerable degrees of freedom of choice.  In the practice of life the degree of freedom to choose is different at any given moment.  If the degree of freedom to choose the good is great, it needs less effort to choose the good.  If [the degree of freedom to choose] is small, it takes a great effort, help from others, and favorable circumstances. . . . Most people fail in the art of living not because they are inherently bad or so without will that they cannot lead a better life; they fail because they do not wake up and see when they stand at a fork in the road and have to decide.  They are not aware when life asks them a question, and when they still have alternative answers.  Then with each step along the wrong road it becomes increasingly difficult for them to admit that they are on the wrong road, often only because they have to admit that they must go back to the first wrong turn, and must accept the fact that they have wasted energy and time.”

Unison Reading: #496, by the Rev. Harry Meserve

Second Reading: “Choose Something Like a Star,” by Robert Frost

Oh, Star [the fairest one in sight],

Oh, Star–  We grant your loftiness the right

to some obscurity of cloud—

It will not do to say of night

since dark is what brings out your light.


Some mystery becomes the proud.

But to be wholly taciturn in your reserve is not allowed.

Say something to us we can learn by heart,

and when alone, repeat.

Say something! And it says, “I burn.”


But say with what degree of heat—

Talk Fahrenheit, talk Centigrade.

Use language we can comprehend.

Tell us what elements you blend.

It gives us strangely little aid,

but does tell something in the end.


And steadfast as Keats’ Eremite,

not even stooping from its sphere,

it asks a little of us, here—

It asks of us a certain height

that when at times the mob is swayed

to carry praise or blame too far—[It asked that]

we may choose

something like a star

to stay our minds on, and be staid–

to stay our minds on, and be staid.


Special Music: Mussorgsky’s “Promenade,” from Pictures at an Exhibition

The Morning Sermon:  “Elements of Character”

Talking about character seems to have come back into fashion lately. This may be especially the case because we are in a Presidential election season, with at least five Presidential candidates, as well as Vice Presidential candidates, and down-ballot candidates, plus all of the candidates from the Primaries, who we began talking about many months ago.  Some elements of those candidates’ character have been examined ad nauseam. But, when it comes to elements of character, it’s easy to talk about other people’s, isn’t it? What’s harder and more uncomfortable is to look at our own character development, which is the result of the choices we have made, the relationships we have cultivated, and the larger causes we have dedicated ourselves to. I think that all of us have some elements of good character. But none of us have all the elements, all the time, do we? Each of us has some ways we could work on becoming a bigger person, a less self-interested and less self-centered person. And being part of a religiously liberal congregation such as ours is an excellent way to do that.

What prompted me to preach about character this week is the new book by the New York Times columnist, David Brooks, called, The Road to Character. I have long respected Mr. Brooks’ writing and commentary. I do not agree with all of his views. But I can count on the way he presents them to be thoughtful, well-informed, and fair. I am not the only Unitarian Universalist who appreciates David Brooks’ writing. UUs all over the nation are currently reading his, The Road to Character, in their study and discussion groups, or on their own.  In his book, he examines why we have difficulty looking at, and working on developing, our character. He describes two conflicting sides of our nature as Adam I and Adam II. He is referencing the Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s reflections on the two accounts of creation in Genesis. In brief, Adam I’s priorities are external achievement, status, winning victories, and an impressive resume. “Adam II wants to have a serene inner character, a quiet but solid sense of right and wrong–  not only to do good, but to be good. Adam II wants to love intimately, to sacrifice self in the service of others, to live in obedience to some transcendent truth, to have a cohesive inner soul that honors creation and one’s own possibilities.” Mr. Brooks has concluded that if we do not intentionally work on developing our moral character, we become shallow and, ultimately, lead an unsatisfying life.

When interviewed about his book, Mr. Brooks says it is really about humility and empathy. And humility and empathy can be cultivated when we encounter suffering. When, in our lives, we experience suffering, we have the opportunity to respond to it in a way that is not solely self-centered and self-interested. Mr. Brooks uses the example of someone who has lost their child. He writes that that sort of personal pain can be redeemed “by turning it into something sacred, some act of sacrificial service that will put oneself in fraternity with the wider community and with eternal moral demands. Parents who have lost a child start foundations; their dead child touches the lives of people they never met. Suffering simultaneously reminds us of our finitude and pushes us to see life in the widest possible connections, which is where holiness dwells.” [p. 95]

Humility and empathy are cultivated when we put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, when we get out of the limited sphere of the relationships and experiences that are known to us and comfortable for us. As I was working on this worship service and sermon this week, I was surprised to find that what came to mind for me were images and examples from Russia. If you have not wanted to hear, in the news cycles lately, speculation about Russian leaders hacking into our leaders’ emails and attempting to interfere with our elections, then I understand your feeling that way, and I can relate. I have not felt especially inclined to hear details about those speculations either. It is true that the United States has political enemies and that Russian leaders are a threat to us at this time. Yet Russia is a country of people who, like us, have needs and troubles, and experience grief and loss, and hold longings and dreams in their hearts. This week could be an excellent time for us to remember that Russians are people too, people distinct from their political leaders who wish us harm. This week could be an excellent time for us to remember that, as the singer / songwriter, Sting, wrote, “The Russians love their children, too.”

So for our special music this morning, I chose a piece by Modest Mussorgsky, a Russian composer of opera and classical music in the mid to late 1800s. He came from a wealthy family and had an early interest in playing and composing music. The music that most influenced him was the songs of the Russian peasants, or serfs.

As I contemplated humility and empathy this week, Mussorgsky’s music came to me because it has been uniquely helpful in my times of processing the grief and other huge emotions of some losses that were irreversible. When I have listened to Mussorgsky’s work, “Pictures at an Exhibition,” it is as though I feel he is empathizing with me. I have looked into what Mussorgsky and his life were like. I found that the creator of such beautiful and compassionate music was deeply troubled. Mussorgsky experienced a constant roller coaster of emotions, from heightened joy and productivity, to emotional pain and inactivity, and back up and down again and again. In retrospect, we can now see that he suffered from bipolar disorder. No one knew back then what to do to be of long term help to someone with that type of mental health struggle, nor even what to call it. Learning that about Mussorgsky made me realize that, to live in this world, I don’t get one without the other. In my love and gratitude for the gifts Mussorgsky gave to the world, I must also acknowledge and accept his struggles. His unique masterpieces were born from his having listened to the songs of the working people of Russia, and imagined himself in their shoes, walking where they walked. Mussorgsky died far too young, at only forty-two years old, from an effort to numb his pain. Rimsky-Korsakov and others of his friends made sure that the beauty, joy, and compassion of his compositions continue to bless us to this day.

The other example of empathy, having to do with Russia, that came to mind this week is the young Unitarian Universalist girl named Samantha Smith. Born in 1972, in Manchester, Maine, she was ten years old during the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. She heard people around her talking about the post-nuclear war movie, The Day After, and saw the November 22, 1982 issue of Time magazine with Yuri Andropov’s picture on the cover. She asked her mother, “If people are so afraid of him, why doesn’t someone write a letter asking whether he wants to have a war or not?” Her mother replied, “Why don’t you [write to him]?” So Samantha Smith wrote the following letter, which became famous around the world:

“Dear Mr. Andropov,

My name is Samantha Smith. I am ten years old. Congratulations on your new job. I have been worrying about Russia and the United States getting into a nuclear war. Are you going to vote to have a war or not? If you aren’t please tell me how you are going to help to not have a war. This question you do not have to answer, but I would like to know why you want to conquer the world or at least our country. God made the world for us to live together in peace and not to fight.


Samantha Smith”

In his reply to Samantha Smith, Yuri Andropov wrote:

Dear Samantha,

I received your letter, which is like many others that have reached me recently from your country and from other countries around the world.

It seems to me – I can tell by your letter – that you are a courageous and honest girl, resembling Becky, the friend of Tom Sawyer in the famous book of your compatriot Mark Twain. This book is well known and loved in our country by all boys and girls.

You write that you are anxious about whether there will be a nuclear war between our two countries. And you ask are we doing anything so that war will not break out.

Your question is the most important of those that every thinking man can pose. I will reply to you seriously and honestly.

Yes, Samantha, we in the Soviet Union are trying to do everything so that there will not be war on Earth. This is what every Soviet man wants. This is what the great founder of our state, Vladimir Lenin, taught us.

Soviet people well know what a terrible thing war is. Forty-two years ago, Nazi Germany, which strove for supremacy over the whole world, attacked our country, burned and destroyed many thousands of our towns and villages, killed millions of Soviet men, women and children.

In that war, which ended with our victory, we were in alliance with the United States: together we fought for the liberation of many people from the Nazi invaders. I hope that you know about this from your history lessons in school. And today we want very much to live in peace, to trade and cooperate with all our neighbors on this earth — with those far away and those nearby. And certainly with such a great country as the United States of America.

In America and in our country there are nuclear weapons — terrible weapons that can kill millions of people in an instant. But we do not want them to be ever used. That’s precisely why the Soviet Union solemnly declared throughout the entire world that never — never — will it use nuclear weapons first against any country. In general we propose to discontinue further production of them and to proceed to the abolition of all the stockpiles on Earth.

It seems to me that this is a sufficient answer to your second question: ‘Why do you want to wage war against the whole world or at least the United States?’ We want nothing of the kind. No one in our country–neither workers, peasants, writers nor doctors, neither grown-ups nor children, nor members of the government–want either a big or ‘little’ war.

We want peace — there is something that we are occupied with: growing wheat, building and inventing, writing books and flying into space. We want peace for ourselves and for all peoples of the planet. For our children and for you, Samantha.

I invite you, if your parents will let you, to come to our country, the best time being this summer. You will find out about our country, meet with your contemporaries, visit an international children’s camp – Artek – on the sea. And see for yourself: in the Soviet Union, everyone is for peace and friendship among peoples.

Thank you for your letter. I wish you all the best in your young life.

  1. Andropov


Samantha Smith was interviewed by all of the major media. And she did go to Russia, with her parents, for two weeks as Andropov’s guest. She visited Moscow and Leningrad, and went to the camp, Artek, with Russian children, where she swam, talked with them, learned Russian songs and dances, and made many friends. She wrote a book about her experiences and gave press conferences. She is remembered for having said that she was amazed by the friendliness of the people of Russia and, “The Russians are just like us.” The anxiety of potential wars is all around us these days. But I take heart at the words and deeds and character of that brave and visionary little girl.

David Brooks’ book is full of other examples of people who, by engaging with emotionally painful circumstances, developed their inner moral character. Each is deserving of their own sermon. He includes labor activist Frances Perkins, President Dwight Eisenhower, and Civil Rights pioneers A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin. And he tells us of the life and work of the great champion of the poor, Dorothy Day, who founded the Catholic Worker Movement.

We Unitarian Universalists say we are tolerant and inclusive of all the great religious traditions of the world.  But we are perhaps the least open to looking at Catholicism.  However, Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement are examples of putting one’s faith into actions that improve the quality of people’s lives that all Catholics and Christians can be proud of, and that all people of faith can admire.  Dorothy Day was in San Francisco during the earthquake of 1906.  She and her husband survived, but with far less money and property than they had had before, and her husband lost his job. They had to move to a tenement flat in Chicago’s South Side.  Their hardship evoked in her empathy for people who feel the shame of having failed to keep a job or a home.  And so Dorothy Day’s Catholic Christian faith moved her to create the Catholic Worker Movement. It provided, especially during the great economic Depression in the United States, food, clothes, and shelter for people who were out of work, poor, or homeless.  It did so with compassion and respect for each human being.  What I recall most about the Catholic Worker Movement was that its assistance to “hobos” was given with the understanding that not everyone is able to immediately get and keep a job and a home.  Some people’s personal challenges and tragedies are legion.  Dorothy Day believed they deserved respectful help and kindness, too. There are still Catholic Worker houses today, serving the needs of people who are poor, hungry, or homeless. [There are several in North Carolina.] Dorothy Day also founded the liberal newspaper, “The Catholic Worker.” Through it, and personally, she spoke out for woman’s rights, and against poverty, war, and nuclear weapons. She was arrested and put in jail many times for her acts of civil disobedience.  In fact, “The Catholic Worker” is probably the newspaper with the highest number of editors who have been jailed for acts of conscience. Above all, her faith moved her to treat people lovingly, and to organize others to do the same.  And her work gave her a tremendous sense of reward and joy.  She wrote:

“True love is delicate and kind, full of gentle perception and understanding, full of beauty and grace, full of joy unutterable. There should be some flavor of this in all our love for others. We are all one. We are one flesh in the Mystical Body as man and woman are said to be one flesh in marriage. With such a love one would see all things new; we would begin to see people as they really are, as God sees them.”  And she also said, “You will know your vocation by the joy that it brings you. You will know. You will know when it’s right.”

Character is developed when we put ourselves in the shoes of people we think we have nothing in common with, people who we think we will vehemently disagree with on principles. Inasmuch as that is true, these are times that call us not to write off whole groups an “enemies” based on an overarching label they are categorized under. It is very difficult not to do so in an Election season that is so anxious, conflicted, and emotionally painful. It is very difficult not to do so when so much of what we hear through the media is superficial soundbites and overgeneralizations. But these are times that call us to remember that, within any overarching label  –even political affiliations, religious designations, and supporters of candidates we would never vote for–  there are individual people–  people with whom we share common fears, sadness, and needs; people with whom we could find common interests, causes, and joy. If I have one longing in this maddening Election season above all others, it is that we all stop separating people into so many different, and conflicting, categories. Too many times, the news has sounded as though groups like men, women, African Americans, fill-in-the-blank-supporters, Millennials, Hispanics, North Carolinians, and residents of Ohio, only care about similar people in that group. We, the people of the United States, know better than that, and we are better than that. These are times that call us to remind the world of all of the empathy Americans are extending across the categories that divide us.

I’ll close this morning with these words of Dorothy Day, which could be thought of as a prayer:

“What we would like to do is change the world–make it a little simpler for people to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves as God intended them to do. And, by fighting for better conditions, by crying out unceasingly for the rights of the workers, the poor, of the destitute–the rights of the worthy and the “unworthy poor,” in other words–we can, to a certain extent, change the world; we can work for the oasis, the little cell of joy and peace in a harried world. We can throw our pebble in the pond and be confident that its ever widening circle will reach around the world. We repeat, there is nothing we can do but love, and, dear God, please enlarge our hearts to love each other, to love our neighbor, [and] to love our enemy as our friend.”

**Closing Hymn #93 To Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love

**Benediction: by Dave Jolly, Veterinarian

“Never forget [this]. The message is the person, perfected over lifetimes of effort that was set in motion by yet another wise person now hidden from the recipient by the dim mists of time. Life is much bigger than we think, cause and effect intertwined in a vast moral structure that keeps pushing us to do better, [a vast moral structure that keeps pushing us to] become better, even when we dwell in the most painful confused darkness.”