Definition: far-POTCH-ket (Yiddish): Something that is all fouled up, especially as a result of an attempt to fix it. [adjective]. Dr. Furrer preaching on how we sometimes make things worse by trying to improve them.
Sometimes, in our attempts to improve things, we just make matters worse…. It’s this idea that I want to talk about this morning.
Before beginning, let me say by way of introduction that Unitarian ministers are encouraged to be familiar with several “languages of faith;” we’re supposed to be able to talk about religious and philosophical and ethical issues from different perspectives: scientifically and humanistically, for sure, but also through lenses provided by various of the world religions, and other perspectives as well—naturalistic theism, the human potential movement, and, of course, Judaism and Christianity. I’m going to focus on a Jewish idea, today. But I’ll be using, mostly, the language of traditional Universalism. The Old Universalists were every bit as reason-centered as their Unitarian cousins, but they tended to be more Biblical….
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Definition: far-POTCH-ket (Yiddish): Something that is all fouled up, especially as a result of an attempt to fix it. [adjective]
An important linguistic category is the collection of terms used to describe all the ways things can go wrong. Two terms that come from the military describe machinery or systems that have gone seriously awry: fubar and snafu. Apocryphal lexicography has it that fubar is an acronym for “fouled up beyond all recovery” and snafu is an acronym for “situation normal—all fouled up.” It is probable, of course, that military men used a stronger word than “fouled.” But these are general terms. Technology requires precise terminology.
The Yiddish word farpotshket [far-Potch-ket, rhymes with “tar NOTCH set”] has a degree of specificity required by modern, complex technology: it refers to something that is all fouled up, especially through repeated, failed efforts to fix it. When something minor goes wrong with your car, for example, and your attempt to repair it turns the damage into something major, you can say that your car is farpotschket. In a political sense, the fall of Richard Nixon started out as a “third-rate burglary” that got all farpotschket when the White House attempted to cover it up. The word has a satisfying onomatopoetic ring to it: it sounds like what it’s describing: “That software was slightly buggy before your programmers tried to fix it, but now its royally farpotschket.”
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Sometimes, the more energy you put into trying to fix something, the worse it gets. Consider Uncle Remus’ story about Br’er Rabbit and the Tar Baby. In our country the phrase “tar baby” to refer to a problem that gets worse the more one struggles against it is a well-known metaphor. But it’s bigger than only American folklore: so ubiquitous is this pattern (things getting worse the more one struggles against them) that Joseph Campbell, in one of his comparative mythology books, noted over 140 cultural variations of the tar baby story. We’re all familiar with this dynamic.
Farpotschket is typically a technological metaphor. However, I want to look at it this morning in psychological and ecological terms; more like the tar baby.
The Fourth Century BCE Greek philosopher Plato has been called “the Father of Western Philosophy.” Alfred North Whitehead summed it up memorably when he wrote that 2500 years of Western philosophy “consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” Plato believed that we’re born perfect, but lose our internal connection to our Source, i.e., we lose our awareness of that connection—what the Hebrew prophet Elijah referred to as an inner ‘still, small voice’— we lose our natural ability to hear that voice as we grow older. Despite coming out of perfection [the Forms] into life, we’re corrupted, automatically, by culture. There is, however, a way back. For Plato, that way back was philosophy, which he understood as essentially a religious endeavor. Platonic philosophy differs from Christianity by virtue of its emphasis on knowledge. For Plato, pride is pride of intellect; sin is ignorance; salvation is recollection.
Plato is not the only person who has held that returning or coming back to our natural, unschooled mind is the first step in religious growth or the maturation of soul.
- Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki: Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind
- Physician Andrew Weil, M.D.: The Natural Mind
- Child development author Joseph Chilton Pierce: Magical Child
- Neopagan author and self-described witch Starhawk: The Spiral Dance — intuitive knowledge of our inner link with the goddess
- Roman Catholic philosopher and social critic Ivan Illich: Deschooling Society
All these religious leaders and scholars agree on one basic principle: as human beings we are born naturally perfect, but we keep messing things up. And sometimes the more we try, like Br’er Rabbit, the more fouled up we (and everything around us) gets. And yet, for some reason, we “try.” We feel alienated, at a loss, or somehow “imperfect.” And, thinking somehow we can defy gravity, we struggle to “pull ourselves up by our spiritual bootstraps.” This is a long-time Unitarian goal: self-improvement. It runs deep in our UU movement. And it runs deep throughout Western and American history. Even today. Consider: the “New Age” religious movements EST and Scientology, both organized to generate millions by luring would-be self-improvement adepts with promises to “get it” and to become “clear.”
The earliest American Unitarians were almost exclusively 4th or 5th generation Puritans. More cosmopolitan than their ancestors though they definitely were, their theology retained an emphasis on willful self-improvement, as evidenced by William Ellery Channing’s call to grow in self-culture. I’ve spoken about this before: choosing one’s better nature, choosing to grow spiritually, to become more sensitive and aware. And while it’s a good impulse it’s an impulse that can get out of balance. (When the impulse to stay trim leads to anorexia, it’s out of balance.) Our tradition, actually, offers balance, for while the early American Unitarians all descended from Puritans, early Universalists did not. They descended, mostly, from later immigrants, many of them former Baptists or Methodists. Moreover, like Plato (and unlike Br’er Rabbit) the Universalists accepted human nature as they found it. Quoting Saint Paul [Romans 5:18], our early Universalist forebears were clear: As all fell in Adam, all are saved in Christ. The gig is up. The sacrifice has been made. We are saved exactly the way we are. Stop worrying so much about it. Quit trying so hard!
There is a tendency to try to earn our way to salvation by being good, rather than simply accepting ourselves as whole, and loved by the Creator the way we are. One doesn’t have to be a theist to get what I’m trying to say; just dispense with the theistic language if you prefer and put it the whole matter in intra-psychic terms: liberating oneself from an unmerciful Superego; accepting oneself as okay in spite of negative programming and self-doubt to the contrary. The downfall in recent years of two mega-churchmen, Colorado Springs’s Ted Haggard and Atlanta’s Bishop Eddie Long, are contemporary examples of a person stuck to a tar baby trying to fix what ain’t broken. Like the Puritans, Ted Haggard and Eddie Long were sensitive enough to see the reality of good and evil; but they were unable to accept their human lot as both. Instead, they tried to make themselves only good: which meant they had to suppress the supposedly “bad” longings they both had for physical intimacy with men. The trouble is, suppression is like a tar baby: repeatedly push your true nature away and you get stuck; keep at it and before long you’ll be covered with tar. Whatever we suppress again and again eventually becomes repressed, walled off, unconscious, and dangerous, especially to oneself. One tries harder and harder to push it down and to push it away—by projecting it onto others. But repressing one’s true nature can only work for so long; indeed, the repression/projection cycle almost invariably ends up another as another case of “the harder they come, the harder they fall.” Just ask the Reverend Haggard or Bishop Eddie Long.
“There is nothing dirty in Nature,” wrote the Italian movie Director Lina Wertmüller. It’s the repression/projection dynamic that creates the whole concept of pornography in the first place by causing us to dump our natural instincts and hide them; repressing them until we create tawdry red light districts, prostitutes, tasteless porno, and the whole sordid mess.
“There is nothing dirty in nature.” I remember attending an off-Broadway production of Lansford Wilson’s play Burn This. This was in New York City back in the late ‘80s, at the height of the AIDS pandemic. It’s a drama about four friends of a young gay dancer struggling to cope with his untimely death. At the turning point of the whole play the critical line is uttered: “Tell the truth! There’s nothing you can imagine that hasn’t been felt by everyone!” I believe that. It’s our repression that makes it “dirty.” Another memory: this one from twenty-five years ago when conservative Republicans including the late United States Senator Jesse Helms made a traveling exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe photographs a focus of their indignant tirades in the so-called “culture war” over federal funding of the National Endowment for the Arts. At the height of the controversy, a show at the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center was closed by local right-wing activists, its fate put into the hands eight unsophisticated Ohio jurors. Hyper-Puritan Jesse Helms, like many of his counterparts today, considered Mapplethorpe’s work to be dirty—and he railed against it. The jurors did not, one of whom was quoted in the newspaper saying, “I didn’t think the photos were Michelangelo. But they were impressive. They weren’t really offensive either. Besides, once you start dictating what’s allowed in the art museum, the next thing you know, they’ll be in the library, then inside my house.” In other words, give Senator Helms his ilk their way and the next thing you know, it’ll be all farpotschket.
This same “tar baby” dynamic applies equally well, it seems to me, to our ecological crisis. On a certain level, it sometimes seems as though the more we try to remedy things, the worse it all gets.
- Modern inoculation procedures cure diseases, but can deplete the gene pool and lead to overpopulation;
- Automobiles make getting around easier, but have led to excess CO2 ;
- Local officials build a breakwater that redirects the surf down the coast, ruining earlier development.
- The list goes on and on.
My main point this morning: in nature, as in life, the problem is often one of doing too much; to find our way anew, we often have to “quit trying,” as in the Chinese notion of we-wei (to not push). Perhaps the closest idea in Western religious language is that of accepting grace. Typically, our efforts towards self-improvement only help “so-far,” ending in disillusionment with the insight that no perfect virtue, no complete obedience, no fully adequate service exists. Perfect righteousness and consistent goodness is unattainable. This leads to despair; despair that either leads to defeat or to a third realm of the spirit, an advance into grace and a kind of release to a new, higher, kind of irresponsibility. Or to put it simply: to faith. To the understanding that we should certainly strive for to be good and to make the world better, but that we are not responsible for the imperfections of the world, or for our own. Do your best. Keep your eyes on the prize. And then…let it go.
But here’s the thing: almost invariably, we’ve got to go through despair to an acceptance of this deep, primordial love: the love (i.e., creativity) at the heart of creation, which can then lead to compassion for others…and for ourselves.
Many people have written and spoken about the all-too-human, ‘oft repeated pattern I’m talking about…a pattern that many of us, I am sure, are familiar with:
trying to fix everything, or maybe trying to run everything… until
it’s all farpotschket
leading to despair
leading to a breakthrough of insight, and with it a new, healthier perspective.
- Consider the descriptions by various recording artists of their process of artistic self-discovery (e.g., “I Forgot That Love Existed” by Van Morrison; “Help” by John Lennon)
- How about the slogans so comforting to many people in 12-step recovery: mantras such as “You are not the General Manager of the Universe,” “Let Go Let God,” and “Easy Does It”?
From slogans to song lyrics to literature: each a variation on Platonic self-inquiry; that is: each a different example of the re-collection and cleansing of one’s soul.
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None of my remarks this morning are to suggest that trying to grow spiritually, or trying to improve conditions around us, or that rational decision-making and problem-solving have no place; but only to know when to stop and to give it, and yourself, a rest… before things get all farpotshket. Especially in the realm of our inner, personal work. For this is the great principle of Universalism: we’re okay the way we are; we’re “saved,” if you will, just the way we are…with all our foibles and troubles and frustrations. Universalists celebrate that fact. As must we!
I was touched, during 2018, to read the tributes posted in connection with the death of my stepbrother, Arnold C. Saunders IV. Arnie, as we all called him, had been exposed to rubella in utero. Despite lifelong disabilities, his family—and mostly his two sons and my stepsister and brother-in-law—always kept him close and well loved. The Online homages, one after another, affirmed his sweet nature, his dependability, and his ever-present kindness. He was no superstar—for thirty-five years he worked as the Night Manager at the Waterville, Maine Holiday Inn—but he was, surely, a hero. A poem posted on Arnie’s obituary website echoes the point I’ve been making about the essence of Universalism: that human nature is good the way it is… and to trust it and allow it to be. To accept ourselves—our moods, our concerns, and the struggles we go through—all of which are part of life and all of which are okay.
“The Guest House” by Rumi
This being human is a guesthouse.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
Grace—the love of God and the love of others reaching out to us—is at every hand, if we just loosen up and accept it. Many of our attempts to make ourselves—not to mention the world—better, only make it more farpotschket. If, on your way through life you can learn to pass certain tar babies by, more power to you. Like Rumi, you’ve allowed yourself—your soul—to become a guesthouse. If you can’t always do that, and find yourself from time to time sticky with tar, be careful you don’t make matters worse until its totally farpotschket and you have to go back into that old briar patch for another round of despair… followed by new insight followed by… striving, followed by despair, followed insight again…
the cycle of life
Namaste. Salaam. Amen.
 1 Kings 19: 11-12
 Wright, Lawrence. “The Apostate” Feb. 14 & 21, 2011 New Yorker magazine. pp. 84-111.