Are There Limits to Love?
Rev. Nancy Palmer Jones
First Unitarian Church of San Jose
San Jose, California
December 14, 2008
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We gather here to sing now together this, our heart's own song. We each have a heart's song that we're here to find and nurture; and we also have a heart's song that we share: which is our open invitation to join this circle of kinship, and the recognition that "as we give we gain." In this circle of kinship, and friendship, and community, we do "love more than one." It's not a romantic, intimate kind love- but it's still loving more than one person at a time.
Why then is polyamory so mysterious, and so challenging, to some of us? Some people get confused about what polyamory is. So let's remind ourselves of what it's not: polyamory is not the same as polygamy, which is one man marrying several women, nor is it polyandry, which is one woman marrying several men. These practices have ancient roots- just look at the Hebrew Scriptures - and each is still practiced in some cultures today, but a lot of times they have involved arranged or coerced marriages and an imbalance of power, and that's not polyamory.
For some of us, the discomfort about polyamory may simply lie in its unfamiliarity. If we don't have friends or family in polyamorous relationships - if we don't know and love and respect people who are sharing a "serious, intimate, romantic, stable, affectionate bond" with more than one person at the same time - another definition for polyamory - then the idea may be too abstract, too new, too different from our own lives for us to be able to take it in. Is polyamory a relationship choice, or an identity - or both? we may wonder, and does the answer to that question change how we think about it? Are some of us born to love more than one person at a time, while others of us realize that our life's work lies in learning to love just one, whether that "one" be our own self or another person?
On the other hand, we may be uncomfortable with the idea of polyamory because we think we're all too "familiar" with it. If we have ever experienced a breach of trust or infidelity in one of our own relationships - or if we tried out "open relationships," say in the 1970s in our youth, and we discovered that they didn't work for us at all then it may be hard for our hurting hearts to believe that a triad or a quartet of people, or even a branching tree of loving connections, can maintain what is called "responsible non-monogamy" - relationships based on human love and intentionality, grounded in mutual consent and surviving on compassion, commitment, and a daunting level of consciousness - which is, by the way, a pretty good definition of any healthy love relationship. If we have struggled to find or create such a healthy relationship with even one person, then it may be hard to see the healthfulness in others' multipartnered relationships. And believe me, I'm not saying here that all polyamorous people achieve healthy relationships; polyamorous relationships are not all a matrix, a "dancing family," like Marge Piercy's, or a beautiful call to be a better partner, a better communicator, like Erika's. We're all human here, and polyamorous relationships, in practice, are surely as complicated and fallible as monogamous ones are. So perhaps the real question is: How can we learn from each other what it means to love?I need to mention the other reasons that Unitarian Universalists, as a denomination, have been shy about promoting Polyamory Awareness. Many of us, including UUA President Bill Sinkford himself, worry that such promotion would work against our current struggle to gain equal marriage rights for same-sex (or same-gender) couples. We're afraid that asking for recognition that multiple partners can make a just and stable marriage is too nuanced, too unfamiliar, and just strategically too tough when some folks still can't recognize the long-standing just and stable marriages of same-sex couples. Is it OK to work for justice one step at a time? And there's another worry among some Unitarian Universalists: often when others hear of our extravagant welcome, including for polyamorous people, that welcome gets translated into the myth that if you are a Unitarian Universalist, you can do or say or believe anything. And that's a lie. Words, deeds, even beliefs that can be harmful to others, that deny a person's humanity or dignity, or that destroy the worth of other parts of our interdependent web are not accepted here. If we harbor such destructive habits, we are here to recover from them - to be helped to heal and grow in community, with love. But polyamory itself, by its definition, is not "anything goes." So, do these fears I've just mentioned mean that our poly folks should remain silent?
No. Rather, such fears call for us to grow more knowledgeable, more compassionate, to be braver learners and better teachers. Erika has brought brochures from Unitarian Universalists for Polyamory Awareness; I hope you'll pick some up during the Gift Faire following worship. And in 2004, my colleague the Rev. Mark Belletini preached a sermon titled "Polyamory: The End of the World??" You can find it on the Internet by entering his name and the word polyamory into your search engine.
Now let's return for just a moment to our story of Else-Marie and Her Seven Little Daddies: How true it feels that the little girl is at first afraid of being different and then she discovers that where love is, she has nothing to fear. And I love the questions the story leaves us with, like: How did the mom in the story meet her seven husbands? Did the husbands always travel in a pack, like the seven dwarves from the fairy tale, and she fell in love with them as a group? Or did she just remarkably keep meeting these talented, fascinating shorter men, and with each one, they all just seemed so right for each other? What stories would each of these eight people tell about the moment they knew they were in love and wanted to make a life together? And let's face it: how do they handle the decision-making, and does the mom have just a little bit of unearned privilege and power simply because of her size?
There is such beauty in our human variety. Is that the big Truth we are finding on this quest? And yet, it is possible that all this rich complexity and variety leaves some of us feeling a kind of vertigo. If so, all we need to do is step back for a moment and ground ourselves in what is right for each of us. What is your identity, what are your personal truths? Can they be named and claimed?
And then, grounded in our own honesty and integrity, let us set forth once again on this grand adventure, asking the questions that are our sacrament: Are there limits to love? Can love branch outward in an ever-widening web, or does it need a "container"? What kinds of loving relationships make each of us feel comfortable, secure, appreciated, respected, and "seen"? How can we learn from each other what it means to love? Dark of winter, soft and still - this is a wonderful time for pondering our truths. May this dark of winter truly "ease our weary eyes, that we may see more clearly."
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