Podcast 3: Robin Zucker

Podcast 3: A Unitarian Perspective

Rev. Robin Zucker, Unitarian Universalist minister, and past hospice chaplain shares her view of end-of-life choices and how to talk with someone facing death. With curiosity and empathy, she helps others uncover their thoughts and feelings about dying. A spiritual humanist, Robin is guided by deep values such as the intrinsic worth of each person. 26 minutes. Go back to list of podcasts.

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[Autotranscript; may contain errors]

[0:10] Dwight Hello, I’m Dwight Moore, the chair of Arizona End of Life Options. I have the pleasure today of speaking with Robin Zucker, who is a Unitarian Universalist minister in Flagstaff, Arizona. Robin has an extensive background on both coasts with hospice and a consistent Unitarian Universalist minister. Welcome, Robin, thank you very much for joining us. I appreciate the time and thought that you give to this topic of medical aid-in-dying. Tell us a little bit about your background so that listeners can get a sense of growing up and what that was like for you.

[0:54] Robin Right. Well, I’m currently a Unitarian Universalist minister. I’ve been ordained since 2000. But I was raised in a pretty classically modern Jewish home in Squirrel Hill in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, I was raised in a Jewish context was bas mitzvah confirmed, the family was very Jewish. And I grew up in a community that was almost exclusively Jewish at the time. So my life was very culturally consistent in a way that I didn’t even recognize till I went to college really.

[1:29] Dwight Yeah, I wanted to understand better what culturally consistent meant.

[1:33] Robin Well, you know, a lot of Jewish homes after World War II sort of, in this space between like, the Holocaust, and the safety of Israel, kind of there was sort of a both religious, cultural and political kind of identity that swirled together and although we were we weren’t Orthodox, like we didn’t keep a kosher kitchen or anything like that. So I’m, you know, I think of myself as a humanist, now a sort of spiritual humanist as a Unitarian Universalist. I think a lot of Jews when I was growing up, and also in America today are what I would call humanistic Jews. They, you know, they’re not observing it in orthodox way, but very culturally, very tribally Jewish. And that’s a definitely was my childhood and my upbringing, and still my core identity. It’s who I am. It’s like somebody saying they’re Swedish or German, or Haitian, it’s so deeply in the bone and in the blood.

[2:39] Dwight If you will, so I can understand better make some connections for me here about the link between Judaism and humanism.

[2:48] Robin It isn’t so much a link between Judaism and humanism, it’s the way you practice your beliefs. I think, a lot of Jews today, they’re not saying, oh, yeah, you know, I follow what’s in Leviticus, they say, I take my values and the values of Judaism and I bring them out into the world just the way, you know, to Kona law and repair the world, I’d say, as a UU I do the same thing is sort of the values based religion that I’m in now and that I serve as a minister and I take those values out in the world. They’re more practical and humanistic. You know, Unitarian Universalism is very here and now religion. And Judaism has a much stronger ties, of course, to theology in the past, it’s an ancient religion. But, you know, I’d say most of my friends who practice Judaism, I see how they take it, and they use it to do good things in a world and to me, that’s humanist.

[3:49] Dwight So the, the fundamental concept here is this set of values that you take to the world, you said, Can you give us some idea, a couple of those key values?

[4:00] Robin Well, the values that I adhere to now, you know, I look at the Unitarian Universalist or UU, for sure principles. They’re really at the heart, the core of every religion, when you strip away the doctrine, and you just really look at what they’re about. The inherent worth and dignity of individuals, equity, justice and compassion, the idea of free will and freedom of conscience and the ability to make decisions based on your values, and a very this worldly approach. There’s, pardon me no eschatology and Unitarian Universalism. There’s no sort of theology of what happens to you after you die, and that you’re supposed to behave a certain way to get a certain reward after you die. So there’s just this incredible embeddedness and how you take your values into your life as you’re living, not for some reward, not to be redeemed in an afterlife.

[4:58] Dwight So you’re gonna have to translate the word eschatology for our audience here.

[5:01] Robin Well, eschatology is a word that means philosophy of the afterlife. Well, lots of religions like of course Christianity has a very strong eschatology. Depending on the, you know the version of Christianity you’re practicing, it’s going to have different ideas. You know what the Latter Day Saints believe about the afterlife is different than what Presbyterians believe about the afterlife. I mean, I’ll let a Christian minister talk to you about that. But I mean, Mormons believe that we are eternally ourselves like we go on I would if I was a Mormon, I would be Robin Lanterman Zucker for all eternity, th married to a person I married for all eternity. Like that is not an eschatology that I’ve ever had. You know, and it’s certainly not one I have now. And it very much informs my feelings about this is where we need to put our attention.

[6:01] Dwight I think you’ve probably touched on this a bit when you talked about the key values of the Unitarian Universalist, but what are your current beliefs about the eschatology that you bring as a minister?

[6:14] Robin I have a sermon called “Taking it one World at a Time”, which is a quote from Henry David Thoreau, who was, you know, a noted transcendentalist and friends with Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of our most famous Unitarian ministers, lived in Concord, where I lived for over 20 years, very familiar with the landscape. And he was once asked, you know, what do you think happens to us after we die? And he said, “I’m taking it one world at a time.” And I think that absolutely captures the UU view of how we move through life, like, do I want to die? No. Do I have some idea about what happens to me after I die? Like, I’d like to think of it in a positive way. But I’m not thinking about going to sit at the right hand of a deity that I don’t even believe it.

[7:07] Dwight With that belief, Robin, Is there fear and trepidation about the next world?

[7:13] Robin I think we’re all sort of have some fear and trepidation about how we’re going to die. I can’t imagine there isn’t anyone who’s thinking, “I don’t want that to be a horrible experience.” But what happens after you die? I mean, someone once described it, I remember, in one of my theology classes in Divinity School, that we’re little droplets. And when we die, we go back to this big pool, or this sort of big puddle. It’s that puddle is like some universal, beautiful energy, you know, then a droplet goes out again, back into the human world. It isn’t me that goes out. It’s something that’s eternal within me, that has nothing to do with me personally, like this person that I am; Robin Lendermon Zucker. It’s, like a vehicle that’s carrying something greater than a personality through this life. And I’d like to think that eternal peace goes back to something eternal, but am I going to be reincarnated? God, I doubt it. I mean, why would I be? I think my legacy lives on in my two children and my grandchildren. I’m in them. My DNA is in them, my values are in them, my influences are in them.

[8:36] Dwight For each of us, this is probably a crude paraphrase, but each of us are part of a universal hole that’s much greater than any one of the parts. But each of our droplets are an important piece, an important part of that.

[8:51] Robin Yeah, that’s process theology, which was a modern, very modern innovation of people like Henry Nelson Lyman, and other people whose names kind of are…, sorry, it’s been a while. But that’s an actual area of thought and modern theology, process theology, this droplets merging.

[9:14] Dwight When you are ministering, consulting with parishioners who are at the end of life. Tell us a little bit about how you approach that.

[9:25] Robin It’s been interesting that even during a pandemic, I haven’t had much experience here in Arizona, dealing with people at the end of life, you would think that there would have been more of that, but when I was back east, I certainly had many people. And I was a hospice chaplain for a while. So I was actually embedded in an environment where every day I was talking to people about end of life and also my time doing my training at Mass General Hospital, talking to people of different religious backgrounds. So it was different in talking to UU’s exclusively as a minister, and talking to mostly Catholics at Mass General Hospital. And I think trying to meet people where they are and follow them through that conversation, not argue with them, not tell them they’re wrong, like when folks would say to me, and sometimes even UU’s would say this to me, because I think in times of great stress and peril and fear, we can revert back to beliefs that are pretty embedded in us from childhood, religious beliefs in particular. And so the idea, you know, “Why is God punishing me?”; I’ve been a good person kind of approach to dealing with dying was always something I had to very delicately deal with. Because I didn’t believe God was punishing them at all. I didn’t think God had anything to do with it. You know, we live in a fragile, finite and fallible containers, human beings. Now I joke that we all have an expiration date. We’re not as freshness dated as we get older. And it has saddened me that people carry religious beliefs that make them not believe that, like, it’s this sort of aversion almost to believing that you are finite, and that you are going to die, and how it really keeps you from living a full life. Just then you hit that wall. And it’s like, “How is this happening to me?” What’s happening to you, because you’re a human being. So counseling people at end of life, I want them to do as much life review as they want to do, to talk about their fear, if they have it, to talk about what’s been wonderful about their life. I don’t push them to reconcile with people. But if they want to, I encourage that; just walk through the valley with them.

[12:04] Dwight So it sounds like you really, what you’ve said is you really start with where they are at, rather than doxology or theology. Let me give you a case study here, a real one that happened to me when working with a medical aid in dying patient about a month ago, whose daughter said to him, “If you use this medication that you’re going to burn in hell for a lifetime. And I’ll have to pray for you every day.” And it really smacked him. It hit him hard to hear her say that. And he asked me how to think through this. So what would you do? How would you talk with that man in that situation?

[12:50] Robin I think empathy is underrated, just empathizing with people’s experience. Because you know, you can get so into your head and say, Well, I don’t agree with that. And here’s why that’s wrong. But I think if you start with the empathy of, “I’m really sorry you had to hear that from your daughter. I imagine that was difficult. Imagine that makes this experience even harder for you.” So I would start with that.

[13:17] Dwight And my guess is that would open up a great deal for him at that point.

[13:21] Robin Well, it would create a connection between us because I wouldn’t be either agreeing or arguing, I wouldn’t sort of get into the weeds. But then I would ask, “Do you believe those things?” And then if he said no, I would say, “Okay, well tell me what you do believe about this situation. And using medical aid and dying. I want to hear your perspective. Let’s put your daughter aside for a moment. And just hear how you feel. Does it affect you because you think it’s true? Or does it affect you because it creates dissention with you and someone you love,” like, I take an approach of being curious. And if he asked me what I thought happens after you die, I would tell him what I told you. But I think we get into, either agreeing or arguing with things way too quickly when people are in distress.

[14:18] Dwight Why do you think that happens?

[14:21] Robin Because we’re educated and we’re smart. And we’re also triggered. I think when we hear things that really conflict with what we believe, I wouldn’t have a knee jerk reaction to somebody saying that to me, but I would hope I would not start off with, “That’s complete nonsense and BS and a load of rubbish.” And I would start with, “You sound like you’re in distress”.

[14:48] Dwight Now, when you were in Boston, you said Massachusetts General. Obviously many of those patients were Catholic or probably many of those patients were Catholic.

[14:59] Robin 90%, yeah.

[15:00] Dwight 90%? Did you take the same approach, that empathic approach that you describe, Robin, or was there something different than that culture?

[15:08] Robin I have a sermon I wrote on the 23rd Psalm, because I was doing my clinical pastoral education, which is this really 11 week, really intensive. But we would be put on call every 10 days and we would sleep in the hospital. And then we, you know, our buzzer would go off and we’d go wherever we needed to go. And I remember this one night, my buzzer went off, and I went to this woman’s room. She was on one of the medical floors. And she was an older woman, she had very bad arthritis, like crippling, and I came in and the first thing she said to me was, “You seem nice, but I really wanted a priest, dear.” Like one of these old Irish ladies that were just so dear, all over Boston, you know. My landlady was one at one point. And I said, “Well, I’m on call and I’m happy to stay, and you know, chat with you for a while and see if I can be helpful” and she asked me to say a novena and I was like, oh my God, I really have to learn how to say a novena at this point. How do I not know how to do that at this point? Three weeks. So it’s like, note to self go get one of those cards that has a St. Jude’s novena or whatever. But I said, “But we could say the 23rd Psalm. I know that we could do that together.” And she said, “I’ve always loved that. Thank you, dear.” So we did that, and it created connection. So that’s why I was there for training because I had to combat all this desire to tell people, “No, you aren’t dying of COPD, because God hates you. You’re dying of COPD, because you smoke four packs of cigarettes a day.” It’s like, “Do not say it, do not say it, do not say it.” Like, find in you like, something else. And so the training was so helpful. And I would often say to people of all different religions, “How can God be a comfort?” If they were someone who believed in God, which a lot of them were, “How can God be a comfort to you now? How do you envision God walking with you through this experience? This hospital is full of good people. I wish that being a good person was something that made us immune to dying.” I mean, these weren’t all my ideas. I mean, we would brainstorm together as intern chaplains, like, “What do you say to that? And how do you respond to this stuff?

[17:42] Dwight You’re looking in, if I’m listening correctly, to points of connection with these patients, who may have a very different theological set of beliefs and experiences, but what are they experiencing? And how can you empathize with them? I have, another question for you Robin, about this. You’re probably aware that some Christians believe that medical aid in dying is a sin. So how would you respond to that? Let’s say it’s a family member of a patient who is thinking about taking medication with the medical aid in dying program, as one of the choices. And the family member has concerns about it. How would you respond to her or him?

[18:28] Robin I would want to hear more. I mean, I just think curiosity is so underrated. Like, “Tell me where those beliefs come from. Why do you believe that? Is their fear…” I would try to get into the emotions. I mean, if they were really strong, like an evangelical Christian, I think it would really be hard to like, pierce, that adherence to that. So I want to make a general statement that because my perspective is spiritual humanism, as a UU, I’m baffled as to how we’re allowed to make so many decisions about how we live in our society, and we’re not allowed to decide how we die. It’s baffling to me really, like people can drink and smoke themselves to death, but they can’t decide how they die. They can make all sorts of choices in their human life, like, how is the end of life different? So I’m, I’m sort of, I keep hitting that wall, and it’s because of these eschatologies that are so embedded in our traditional religions. You know, the Abrahamic religions, in particular Judaism, Christianity and Islam. There’s an eschatology that is implanted in the belief system. So if you’re a believer, you’re going to have trouble with this. Even if you’re an Evangelical Christian who drinks or smokes themselves to death, you’re going to have this eschatology and worry about it. Because if you’ve been raised to believe that something’s a sin, you’ve been raised to believe something’s a sin. Does that make sense?

[20:17] Dwight Makes a lot of sense. And your core, if I’m again listening correctly is to go back to fundamental concepts of empathy is to listen to the story that you’re being told, to be nonjudgmental, in fact, to embrace somebody’s escha… the word we’re using is eschatology, but basically their beliefs about what’s going to happen next to them in the next world, rather than judge or adjudicate or point fingers. It’s “Tell me about that.” It’s to affirm, it’s to embrace. Am I hearing that correctly?

[20:51] Robin I think the idea is not just what happens to us after we die that’s a roadblock, but the idea that something is God’s willl. You know, it’s God’s will how you die. It’s God’s will to decide when you die. Unitarian Universalists believe in a loving, benevolent God. It was one of the ways they broke from traditional Christianity, which believed in a more wrathful, punishing God, particularly the Calvinist beliefs. So there were like two strains that came together, you know, the Calvinist beliefs about original sin. Unitarians didn’t believe that. The idea that people were damned or saved before they were even born, Universalist didn’t believe that. So there’s embedded in our belief system, the idea that God is loving, if we’re going to bend towards an image of God, like William Ellery Channing wrote about in something called “Likeness to God”, that would be bending towards something loving, something benevolent, something forgiving something that wasn’t focused on sin, right? So that’s important for you to know that’s where I come from, I don’t believe God would want us to die in a painful, awful way, if there was another way for us to die. I don’t believe that. So I think I would also ask, “Are you interested in hearing my perspective on this?” And they might say yes, and they might say no, but I would ask. My younger self, you know, when I started Divinity School in 1995, I think I was more…, I know I was more brash, I’m not sure I would have asked, “Do you want to hear my perspective?” I just would have fire-hosed it out there. You know, “I don’t believe that blah blah blah blah blah”, well, you know, maybe someone wants to hear that. But I want to KNOW that they want to hear it. It might not be comforting to them, to hear that I believe so differently than them. It might blow up something about their belief in God, or it might be exactly what they need to hear, which is, I believe in a loving God, who wants you to have a gentle, easy passage into whatever is next. Or whatever you believe is next. I do not believe there’s a fiery place in hell for people who make this decision. So I would certainly say that.

[23:27] Dwight That’s a magnificent summary, I think, of where you come from here in the very difficult end of life choices. I want to wrap this up a little bit. Any of the thoughts that you have about the discussion of, you obviously are aware of here in Arizona, we do not have a medical aid and dying bill in place, we are working hard to try to pass that. Any other thoughts about that issue?

[23:50] Robin I do think it’s important to create a coalition of people from different faith backgrounds, to go before the legislature and express that. I mean, if you look at the websites of like, Death with Dignity and Compassion and Choices, you see now a coalition of different religious backgrounds, some that you would never expect to be supporting medical aid and dying. I mean, I’ll go back to my perspective, that if we’re allowed to make all these decisions, for better or ill about how we live our life, we should be allowed to decide how it ends. And, you know, I’m glad that more and more states are passing medical aid in dying bills, because people deserve that right. Nobody should die a difficult death. I mean, hospice has made an enormous difference in the way people die. And I don’t even like to think about what life was like before hospice, but having been a hospice chaplain, I see pretty close to medical aid and dying happening already in hospice. settings. I mean, the titrating up of morphine, the palliative care measures, so people peacefully die, not gasping for breath. You know, I certainly hope that I’m living in a state when this time comes for me, that enables me to make that decision with my family. And I feel sad for people whose families make a decision like that difficult so that they can’t be united in such an incredibly important moment in somebody’s existence.

[25:39] Dwight Robin, thank you very much for this here, your curiosity about people, your empathy, your willingness to start with where somebody is stuck, is magnificent to listen to, and I’m sure that you’re good at that. Thank you very much for participating.

[25:59] Robin You are welcome. I’ve really enjoyed our conversation. It’s really been rich and valuable for me too.