Dear Robert Fulghum,
You don’t know me, but I’m a big fan. You’re a Unitarian Universalist minister, like me, and years ago I had the chance to meet you at one of the annual business meetings of our Association, held in June. I was walking down a wide hallway, and the crowd I was in was like a stream rushing forward and it opened up for a slender moment and I caught a glimpse of your white hair, your round glasses, your impeccable seersucker suit–about 10 yards away. “Is that Robert Fulghum?” I whispered to my nearest colleague, and they said “Yes,” but then the crowd closed up again and I was jostled forward and I lost sight of you.
And that was that.
I’ve heard such interesting stories, though. That you carry around a French horn case instead of a briefcase. That at motels, you sometimes register yourself as “representing” Mother Earth or “representing” the Cutting Edge of Reality. That if a Seventh Day Adventist comes to the door, you whip out your stopwatch and say, “O.K., but I get equal time.”
You were the minister of Edmonds Unitarian Church in Seattle for 19 years, from 1966 until 1985, and you presided at hundreds of weddings and funerals—you saw a lot of life and a lot of death. Once, while distributing someone’s remains from 2,000 feet over Bellingham Bay, Wash., in a Cessna, the sacred ashes accidentally flew back into your face. Later, you asked, “How do you brush off those ashes? Do you go like this [polite dusting gestures] or like this [frantic pawing]??”
These days, as a bestselling author of eight books—17 million copies in print, published in 27 languages in 103 countries—I’ve heard that a person has to be careful when asking you for your autograph. The story is told of a time in a Seattle restaurant, during lunch, when several people came up and asked for it. One man said the autograph was for his wife, Susan. ”Hi Susan!” you wrote. ”Met your husband at this porno movie house. Nice man!”
Robert, you just don’t take yourself too seriously. I like that.
You are like drinking the wine of life.
You once described All I Really Wanted to Know I Learned in Kindergarten as a highly condensed version of a 300-page credo statement written many years earlier while you were a seminarian—and I have been one of those too. As all seminarians do, you enter into the vineyard of Unitarian Universalist history and tradition and for three or four years you basically pick grapes off the living vine, you gather to yourself the heroes of the faith: Faustus Socinus and John Murray and William Ellery Channing and Margaret Fuller and Theodore Parker and Olympia Brown and Ralph Waldo Emerson and so many more. You gather all these beautiful grapes because you want to make more of the wine of Unitarian Universalist faith and so you crush them with your hands and you stomp them with your feet and you filter out the dross and you bottle the juice and you let the magic happen through your thinking and feeling and living.
That’s how the wine of your faith happened, which we now taste whenever we read your books or hear you speak.
It is so sweet. Wine of Unitarian Universalist faith, Robert Fulghum-style.
Why this is important is suggested by a fascinating fact: how your books easily bridge traditional publishing categories. They can be found in the “self-help” section, next to Brene Brown or Stephen Covey. But they can also be found in the “inspirational” section, alongside the Dalai Lama, or Don Miguel Ruiz, or Rabbi Harold Kushner (of Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People fame). You can find them in Christian bookstores and in New Age bookstores and even at Target.
It’s because your faith message is profound. It can speak volumes to many. And because I believe this, today I want to be an evangelist of your essential message. I especially want people to see the radicalism within it, that would most assuredly shake people up if only it was spelled out more explicitly.
Maybe I lost the chance to meet you in person.
But perhaps through this letter I can connect with you in a deeper way.
So, here are three convictions:
1. The world is sacred Mystery.
2. The sources of truth are many.
and 3. Spirituality is a life-long journey in which we never stop learning.
These three convictions I believe are at the core of your writings—and they are also at the core of the Unitarian Universalist faith you and I together share in…..
Start with the world as sacred Mystery. Millions of people have believed otherwise. They have affirmed a sharp dualism of sacred vs. profane, filled with God vs. empty of God, inherent worth vs. inherent evil or just inherent nothing.
Ralph Waldo Emerson spoke of this in his “Divinity School Address” from back in 1838, which you would have thoroughly absorbed in your studies at seminary. Here’s what Emerson said: “Jesus spoke of miracles; for he felt that [every person’s] life was a miracle, and all that [a person] doth, and he knew that this daily miracle shines, as the character ascends. But the word Miracle, as pronounced by Christian churches, gives a false impression; it is Monster. It is not one with the blowing clover and the falling rain.”
That’s Emerson. That’s the key passage. Remember? Emerson here is sharply critical of the conservative Christian view that sees Jesus as uniquely God and the sacred as something miraculous which, by definition, has to break into our world from the outside and jar the natural course of events. Accordingly, Jesus taught that he was just a man–only a man–but a man who was God-inspired. It is a potential that can come true for us all, if our character is truly and sufficiently good. Both nature and human nature, Emerson was saying, are full of the miraculous right here and now, and we would know this if we could learn how to see. But we don’t see. We don’t see what’s right before our eyes. And so we come up with the “monstrous” kind of miracles that are, in truth, impossibilities: like virgin births, or the parting of the Red Sea, or one and only one being ever in the history of humankind who is simultaneously an omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent god…
“That is always best which gives me to myself,” Emerson says. “That which shows God in me, fortifies me. That which shows God out of me, makes me a wart and a wen.” (Robert, did you have to check the dictionary to learn that a painful cyst on one’s face is what a “wen” is, like I had to?)
Everything that Emerson said here: it paved the way for you, who said almost 200 years later, in language that is far more accessible: “Be aware of wonder.” “Remember the little seed in the plastic cup? The roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why. We are like that.”
“And then remember,” you say, “that book about Dick and Jane and the first word you learned, the biggest word of all: LOOK! Everything you need to know is there somewhere.”
“Most of what I really need to know about how to live, and what to do, and how to be, I learned in kindergarten.”
I love the connection you are drawing here. The biggest word of all is LOOK because the world is sacred Mystery with sacred endless depths and therefore there is something to look at and something to find. You can learn all the essentials in kindergarten because all the essentials are there already; it is as sacred a site as the peak of the highest holy mountain.
But if Emerson is wrong, and the world as a whole is indeed empty of God and needs to be filled up by some miracle that comes crashing in from beyond nature and human nature, then why LOOK? What is there to look at? The last place a person ought to go looking for wisdom is a kindergarten—far better for them to go to some chosen guru with a chosen set of scriptures that purports to contain all the God wisdom that ever was, ever is, and ever will be.
Ugh. This anti-Emerson line of belief does indeed make of us all warts and wens.
Miracle does indeed become monster.
I guess what I’m saying is that only certain beliefs keep the monster away and support life-giving wonder. Only certain beliefs make it reasonable to want to remember the little seed in the plastic cup and to say of this miraculous thing, “We are like that.”
And here is the next belief that is at the bottom of your faith as I see it, Robert: That the sources of truth are many.
This is so very different from saying, There is one and only one source, which millions of people do say.
But not Unitarian Universalists. Not you. And not Emerson. Here’s how Emerson lays it out, and again, we are drawing from his “Divinity School Address” where he describes the “capital secret” of the minister’s profession: “namely, to convert life into truth.” This is yet another key passage that every Unitarian Universalist seminarian meets up with. Emerson goes on to say: “The true preacher can be known by this, that he deals out to the people his life, — life passed through the fire of thought. But of the bad preacher, it could not be told from his sermon, what age of the world he fell in; whether he had a father or a child; whether he was a freeholder or a pauper; whether he was a citizen or a countryman; or any other fact of his biography.”
This is what got pounded into my head in seminary, and the same thing went for you; and it is, in fact, something all of us need to be engaged in, preacher or not. For, as you once said, “I think we have a lot better, richer lives that we often think we do. It’s just a matter of saying, ‘Did you ever notice this?’ and if you did notice this then you wouldn’t feel your life was so poverty stricken.”
Anyone can be just like a bad preacher if we don’t LOOK at the experiences coming into our lives and mine them for the truth and wisdom that’s there. All we need is eyes to see and ears to hear.
The true preacher and the true Unitarian Universalist can be known by this, that they pass the raw materials of their lives through the fire of thought.
I believe this is exactly why, when we read your books, that we see you extracting philosophy from such subjects as the shoe repairman who leaves cookies in the shoes he can’t fix, or the unattractive person who becomes beautiful when he dances, or the boy in a wheelchair who wants to rake leaves.
Maybe it’s also why you sometimes hop into your car, set the odometer at 100 miles, and just drive. When you reach 100 miles, you stop the car, step out, and talk to anyone you encounter. Because you have faith that whatever happens, God is in it and there are depths of meaning to discern and it’s going to become one of the many sources of truth and meaning in your life.
I wonder how my congregation in Cleveland would respond if I recommended this to them as a viable spiritual practice. Hmm…..
And now there is a third and final belief to look at, Robert, which is fundamental to your Unitarian Universalist faith and ours: that Spirituality is a life-long journey in which we never stop learning. Here again, millions think otherwise. They think God is like a rage-a-holic Incredible Hulk type that has no patience at all for people’s humanity. No room given for questions and doubts, no room given for trial-and-error, no room given for the natural process of learning that a person must go through to develop authenticity and integrity of character. No room given, in this universe. So people must get in line. People must affirm things that may make no sense or contradict what they best know. The Incredible Hulk God just wants people to get with the program, immediately, no questions, no resistance, just instant obedience. And if people don’t: DIVINE RAGE. DIVINE WRATH. People’s souls thrown into eternal, endless hell.
This is just not who we are.
We Unitarian Universalists don’t live in this kind of punishing universe.
Here’s something you once said that comes immediately to mind:
“The first time I went tango dancing I was too intimidated to get out on the floor. I remembered another time I had stayed on the sidelines, when the dancing began after a village wedding on the Greek island of Crete. The fancy footwork confused me. ‘Don’t make a fool of yourself,’ I thought. ‘Just watch.’ Reading my mind, an older woman dropped out of the dance, sat down beside me, and said, ‘If you join the dancing, you will feel foolish. If you do not, you will also feel foolish. So, why not dance?’ And, she said she had a secret for me. She whispered, ‘If you do not dance, we will know you are a fool. But if you dance, we will think well of you for trying.’”
The way to richness in life is risky. Sometimes we must disappoint others in order to come alive ourselves; sometimes we must do the thing that scares us to death. We just don’t want to make fools of ourselves. Yet, life leads us again and again to the sort of tango dance you spoke of. Because life wants abundance for us. Life wants to be felt and known fully. God–the Unitarian Universalist God who is decidedly not like the Incredible Hulk–wants us to LOOK and gives us room to do that and has endless patience and endless love for us.
This is the universe we live in. Not an evil one, but a complex one, a confusing one, one that can hurt us terribly, one that can feel like the depths of winter—but never forget the invincible summer that lies within our hearts.
With what we have, we must do the best we can.
Part of “the best we can do” is to stop trying so hard. You, Robert, say, “Think of what a better world it would be if we all, the whole world, had cookies and milk about 3 o’clock every afternoon and then lay down with our blankets for a nap.”
Another part of “the best we can do” is to be kind. “Share everything. Play fair. Don’t hit people. Put things back where you found them. Clean up your own mess. Don’t take things that aren’t yours. Say you are sorry when you hurt somebody. Wash your hands before you eat. Flush.” “No matter how old you are, when you go out in the world, it is best to hold hands and stick together.”
All I Really Wanted to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. You really did. Me too.
And, I wonder how many people know the story of how your publishing phenomenon came to be….
It started with bi-weekly church columns, mostly written between 1960 and 1984. They were mimeographed and sent by church members to out-of-town friends and relatives. In 1984, Republican Senator Daniel J. Evans got a hold of a copy and had it read into the Congressional Record. The Kansas City Times printed “Kindergarten” in November 1985. It was picked up by the radio commentator Paul Harvey, the Rev. Robert Schuller, former Representative Barbara Jordan and the singer-activist Pete Seeger. Dear Abby and Reader’s Digest published abridged versions.
Then, one day in 1987, a Connecticut kindergarten teacher tucked “Kindergarten” into the children’s knapsacks to take home. One mother it reached also happened to be a New York literary agent. Patricia Van der Leun, and she tracked you down with a not inconsiderable amount of effort. Your response? “I’ve been writing this stuff for 20 years—how many boxes do you want?”
Van der Leun sold “Kindergarten” to Villard Books for $60,000 and within three weeks it was on The New York Times best-seller list.
But here’s the particular part of the story that is not well known, and people need to know. You put it like this: “I was sort of shutting down my life. It was like being at a poker game at 11:30 at night and I’m about ready to go home. And all of a sudden I get four aces, and I figure God’s on my side, so I can’t go home. And now it’s about 3:30 in the morning and I’m still at the table, and the cards are still coming up and I’d be a fool not to take this as far as it goes.”
That’s your story. It blows my mind. I need to remember it in moments when I feel like I’ve seen it all and there’s no more surprises for me out there. People need to remember it when they think they have their lives all figured out and life holds no more possibilities for them.
How can anyone feel so certain about how their life is going, and what is yet possible or impossible?
The world will prove them wrong.
This world is a sacred Mystery.
This world is full of sources of truth.
The spiritual journey goes on and on and never stops.
So LOOK and LOOK and keep on LOOKING.
Dear Robert, I am sorry we missed meeting face-to-face, all those years ago at a General Assembly, but I am grateful to have met you in the spirit, through your writings, and through our shared Unitarian Universalist faith.
Which is our sweet UU faith, the sweetest-tasting wine that is ours.
I am gratefully yours,