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Experience and complex truths

Great essayists ask questions about the reliability of truths they wring from experience.
By Christopher L. Walton
Fall 2013 8.15.13

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Christopher L. Walton (Nancy Pierce)

Christopher L. Walton, editor of UU World. (Nancy Pierce)

Contributing editor Kimberly French describes herself as an animal lover in our cover story. But, she writes, “When a desperate woodchuck was slashing its long incisors and claws into my frail, elderly dog, I pinned it with a pitchfork then smashed its head with a sledgehammer—the most violent act I have committed.”

Her essay explores the contradictions in her own relationships with animals—with pets she dotes on, pests she eradicates, and livestock she raises for food. And it models two Unitarian Universalist commitments. One is a profound affirmation of the interdependence of all life, which challenges human arrogance. The second is dedication to a “free and responsible search for truth and meaning” that turns its skepticism not just on conventional wisdom but on oneself, too.

I admire personal essayists who describe the complexity of their own experience and who ask questions about the reliability and usefulness of the truths they wring from it. They refuse easy answers, but keep searching. I admire great personal essayists because they invite me into a richer exploration of my own experiences, assumptions, and ideas. I have often thought that the personal essay is the literary genre most like the liberal religious life: curious, open, skeptical, eager to understand, empirical rather than dogmatic. The truth is unvarnished, particular, and therefore resonant. I’ll confess: I didn’t think of myself as an “animal person,” but Kimberly’s essay invited me to see that I am, too.

Many thanks to the several thousand of you who have responded to our readership survey. If you have not yet taken our short survey about the magazine and its print and online future, please do it today. Visit uuworld.org/survey to add your voice. [The survey is now closed.] We will be tabulating responses and evaluating the results later this fall, and I look forward to sharing what we learn.

With this issue, we say a grateful farewell to our production specialist, the Rev. Christian Schmidt, who has been called to be the minister of First Parish in Malden, Massachusetts. Happily, Christian is continuing as a freelance writer of news and our Unitarian Universalists in the Media blog, which collects news stories and other media references to Unitarian Univer­salists each week. We are pleased to welcome Tina Gleason, who brings exceptional print and online design skills, as our new production specialist.

Congratulations to our UU Parenting blogger, Michelle Richards, who was recognized during the General Assembly’s Service of the Living Tradition for achieving Credentialed Religious Educator status, Masters Level, with the UUA.

And congratulations to the Rev. Heather Christensen, our Interdependent Web blogger and an essayist in this issue (“Playing with Fire”), who gave birth to her first child as we were going to press. Guest bloggers will take her place while she and her partner Liesl Fitzenrider are caring for their newborn, Willa Rain.

This article appeared in the Fall 2013 issue of UU World (page 3).

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