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[Chalice] Life Lived Between Idiocy and Lunacy [Chalice]
A Short Talk for the First Sunday of our Church Year

Presented September 2, 2001, by Rev. Dr. Rob Manning

Traveling. We are talking about traveling this morning and where we've been this summer. And it is so important to travel, to get beyond the boundaries of where you usually live. I was lucky to travel this summer, to Oregon, to the UUA General Assembly in Cleveland, and of then of course to the beautiful Finger Lakes Area of New York. But as important as traveling is, the nature of the traveler is still very important, too. Not all travelers are the same, and what you get out of traveling does depend to a considerable extent on who you are and who you are trying to be. Even an idiot travels, or you could travel a lot and yet remain an idiot.

Take, for example, this famous traveler, Rebecca West. She traveled with her husband throughout the various regions of Yugoslavia, and out of her travels she produced her extraordinary book, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. The book is extraordinary not only because of the extraordinary time and extraordinary place, not only because of her extraordinary travels, but because she was an extraordinary traveler, an extraordinary person traveling.

So this extraordinary woman recounts this time in her life when she has had surgery and is laid up in the hospital. It's 1934. She is listening to the radio and she hears that the King of Yugoslavia has been assassinated. Familiar with the events that catapulted Europe into the catastrophe of the war of 1914, she immediately begins to reflect on the disastrous consequences that may follow from this assassination this time. She tells the nurse that a terrible thing has happened, that the king of Yugoslavia has been killed, and the nurse says: "Oh dear, did you know him?" When the nurse learns that Rebecca West doesn't know this king personally, she asks: "then why do you think it's so terrible?" And this reminds this extraordinary woman of etymology. The word "idiot" derives from a Greek word meaning "private person." Idiocy, or being an idiot, may be thought of as being too immersed in one's self, in one's own life, in one's own world. Being an idiot may be thought of as being closed in and too forgetful of all that is going on in the world outside you, outside the daily concerns of your own life.

I've been very sensitive about that word "idiot" ever since high school. I don't know why, but the word "idiot" became my little brother's term of endearment for me. Every time I came home from high school my little brother would make a point of saying, "Hello, idiot." I don't know why he called me that. Maybe he was trying to tell me something. Maybe he was trying to tell me that if you think of the term idiot in the way Rebecca West does, it's really not that easy to avoid being an idiot.

If I told you all the times I felt like an idiot, like a private person closed off from the bigger, more important events of the world, this would be a long talk, not a short one. Let me cite only two examples. First, I don't know what it is about QU-maybe this is a danger for all small schools-but for some reason it is expected when you are a QU faculty member that you will come to think and believe that Quincy University is the very center of the world. And you must act accordingly. You must go to many meetings and all of your conversations, even when you are not at meetings, must somehow come around to the topic of the axis mundi, Quincy University. No matter what else happens-a war may start in the world out there in the world somewhere, there may be a really close election drawn out for weeks, the Republicans may steal the White House-and yet the focus of your concerns should always be QUINCY UNIVERSITY. Just once in the middle of a committee meeting I would like to say: I think all of these meetings and all of our attention to all of these matters at QU, it's all just making idiots out of all of us.

The most painful example of my own idiocy relates to the war in Bosnia and in Kosovo and the genocide in Rwanda. Looking back on those years, I know I didn't pay enough attention to world events at that time. I had too many classes to teach, too many papers to grade, too much of my own world, my own life; too much idiocy. This is very embarrassing. I'm supposed to be a Holocaust scholar. I'm a member of the Association for the Philosophic Study of the Holocaust and Genocide, and I guess there was just too much going on in my own life and too many things to do to pay much attention to even what I am trained to and supposed to pay attention to and to think about. Maybe my little brother was right. Maybe I am an idiot.

But the point is that it is difficult not to be one. Who feels like they are in touch as much as they think they want to be or should be with important goings on in the world out there? While I was at Cornell I stayed with a wonderful older couple who were Unitarians. On their refrigerator was a map of Kosovo. She explained that when she heard stories of bombing on NPR she liked to know exactly where it was. She was trying to be more than a private person. At Cornell, I was attending a seminar with other professors, mostly political scientists, discussing events in the various countries that have formed in eastern and central Europe in the decade since the collapse of communism. If you asked me why I wanted to do it or what I got out of it, could I explain it any better than to say to you: "Well, I was just trying to make myself less of an idiot."

Now we are trying to work out our impressions of the General Assembly of the UUA in Cleveland this past June. What impressed me most about being at General Assembly was not just the realization of our association with the national organization and with so many other UU churches out there beyond Quincy with similar problems, issues and concerns. What impressed me most was how involved the national organization was on a great variety of issues. I came away thinking in a new way about how great it was to be a Unitarian. It's great to be a Unitarian not only because of our church, our own community, not only because this is definitely-as we all know-the best, most interesting and most fun church to belong to here in our town. It's also great to be a Unitarian because of the wider world of the UUA. The UUA is very active on the national and international level on a variety of important issues. The UUA has experts, lobbyists, and advisors, policy makers on a great variety of social, spiritual, political, and economic issues. If you want to know what is going on with election reform in Florida or any other state, if you want to know about death penalty statutes in various states, if you want to know about Mary Daly (the radical feminist theologian) and her recent work, if you want to know about environmental policy, the affects of NAFTA, what's up at the UN, how the UN Conference on Race is going, if you want to know and you want to add your input, the UUA can hook us up to knowledge and activism on so many things. I came away from the GA this summer thinking that the whole national organization exists not only to link us up with other churches, but to link us up actively with what is going on and with what is important in this country and internationally. The UUA exists to help us not be private persons or a private community, to not be idiots.

We come together as a community, and I hope you feel as glad about that as I do. I hope you feel that we are a community, and that we together make up this place and make the Quincy area a better and richer and more fun place for each other. But a community, just like a person, can be private, and closed off, perhaps too busy to be paying enough attention to the world out there. A community can be an egoism of many; there can be a community of idiocy. We don't want to be, but as busy as we are, as many things as we all have to do in our own lives and in our communal life together, it's just not that easy not being an idiot. If this is worthy goal for us as individuals and as a community, strengthening our ties with the wider world of the UUA can help us.

©2001 Rev. Dr. Rob Manning

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Manning, Robert J. S. 2001. Life Lived Between Idiocy and Lunacy, (accessed July 7, 2020).

The Quincy Unitarian Church Home Page.
The list of Selected Sermons.
More Sermons from the Rev. Dr. Rob Manning.