We’ve been watching the miniseries “Angels in America.” It begins in 1985, in New York City. In 1985, in New York City, my summer job was in retail. One afternoon one of my work friends asked me to do him a favor: run across the street and pick up his prescriptions from the drugstore. I said sure, and then he handed me a paper bag stuffed with money. The prescriptions cost over $300, and it didn’t look like a lot of pills: maybe a week’s worth. His asking me to run that errand was the closest he ever came to saying “I have AIDS,” and I never asked him anything more than “How are you?”–And we all know the answer to that must be “Fine,” even when you’re dying. I went off to college and my friend went to the hospital and never came out. I never visited him. I think I was too young to believe that young, handsome, wonderful people die. And I was afraid. Not of catching his disease (I knew better than that), but of seeing him sick, of remembering him as sick, afterward.
There was a time I was afraid of dying people, the way you’re afraid to crawl out on a weak tree branch–because it’ll take you down with it when it falls. But it doesnâ€™t work like that. If anything, youâ€™re left hovering in midair.
I miss my friend. I miss all the moments I missed with him, beautiful or ugly.
My partner, Bill, and I have been together as a couple for almost ten years. We have known each other for almost fourteen. We have lived together for seven. Yet the local YMCA does not consider us a family–as we discovered when we went to sign up for membership. So we joined another local gym, one that does not insist on the magic word “married” to define a family. And it has a nicer pool.
Bill and I decided several years ago that we will enjoy our wedding more when all the couples we know who want to can marry. So we have decided not to legally marry until gay and lesbian couples can marry across the U.S. As a straight unmarried couple, we aren’t targets of homophobia, obviously, but we are getting educated about some of the many legal and social problems faced by gay couples in America.
Gym membership is annoying, but health insurance can be a matter of life and death. We are lucky in that I work for an organization that supports both LGBTQ rights and Bill and my standing as a family, but it’s difficult to find an insurance company with similar values. Apparently, sometimes you cannot even pay companies to be ethical. A good overview of the rights automatically granted married couples can be found at http://www.marriageequality.org. A couple can approximate some of these rights by compiling a stack of separate legal documents such as health proxies. But it’s rather inconvenient to carry around a stack of documents–a ring is much more portable. Because Bill and I are an opposite-sex couple, we could always lie and claim to be married–if one of us were in the hospital, for instance. Same-sex couples don’t have that loophole.
Because we have been lucky so far, what rankles are the small things: the phone company charges extra for two names in the phone book; the Peace Corps “cannot guarantee placement in the same country of couples who are not legally married” (that would be a very big thing if we were considering the Corps). Every time I have to choose between “married” and “single” on a check-off form I have to choose between two forms of fraud: legal or emotional. So now whenever I can I add a box for “partner” and check it.
Many municipalities, such as the City of St Louis, allow couples of any sex to register as domestic partners, and possibly get some rights from that, although such “rights” are by whim of the employer/company/school/etc. and can be taken away at any time–very reassuring when you are trying to plan as a family. There are usually strict criteria to determine if two people are a couple. Usually, you have to have been together for a certain amount of time, declare your commitment as a couple, use words such as “spouse” for each other, and show financial interdependence. At the very least. You can view the City of St. Louis form at
What I find curious about this is, if I were to wake up some morning in Vegas, with a wicked hangover, married to a Chippendales dancer whose name I didn’t know, we would instantly have over a thousand rights as a couple, and no one would dare question how long we had been together, if we had a true and deep commitment, if we owned a home, or whether we called each other “husband” and “wife” or “whatsyername.”
Making a lifetime commitment to another person is nothing to laugh about–it’s the most serious, difficult, and ethical thing we do in our lives. But it’s the feeling when the two of you are together that should be magical; not the word “married.” When I marry couples, I am not waving a magic wand over them–I’m helping them share with their community the reality of their relationship. How others can deny the reality of millions of gay and lesbian couples in America is beyond me.
These blogs are from the Society Leader – Kate Lovelady – and others in the lay leadership of our Society.
America shall introduce a pure religion. There will be a new church, founded on moral science; at first cold and naked, a babe in a manger again, the algebra and mathematics of ethical law, the church of those to come, without shawls or psaltery or sackbut; but it will have heaven and earth for its beams and rafters, science for symbol and illustration; it will fast enough gather beauty, music, picture, poetry.
— Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1838
The crying need was for a religious organization that should be above all else active in social, political, educational and moral reform. Thus the ethical movement had its genesis. Yet, mark you, it did not represent an attempt to find a substitute for religion in philanthropic activities and moral education. On the contrary, it started with the hope of finding a satisfying religion.
— Alfred W. Martin, Ethical Leader, 1913
Mysticism, but let us have no words,
Angels, but let us have no fantasies,
Churches, but let us have no creeds,
And yet let us believe.
— Conrad Aiken, from Time in the Rock
The religious life is the one in which there is a constant effort to link oneself, in joy and contribution, to the life-giving movements of one’s world.
— Harry Overstreet, The Mature Mind
There is a story about a renowned speaker who is asked to speak to a learned society. When they gathered for this speech, people were very eager and enthusiastic, waiting to hear what would be said. The speaker got up and began by saying, “I would like to see the hands of those who know what I am going to say.” Nobody raised their hand. He said, “Well, if there is not some sense in which the essence of what I am going to talk about is already inside you, there is no need for me to try to tell you about it.” And he sat down.
They decided to ask him back. I don’t know whether they were liking the brevity of the talk that he gave — but anyway they decided to ask him back. When he came back they were ready this time. He got up and said, “Before I begin I would like to know how many of you here know what I am going to say.” Everybody raised their hand. He responded, “Well, if you already know, there’s no need for me to say anything,” and sat down.
Persistent group that they were, they invited him back for a third time. This time they had talked with each other and they were prepared. So he got up again and started with that same question. “I would like to have you raise your hand if you know what I’m going to say and don’t raise your hand if you don’t know.” Well, they had arranged that half of them would raise their hand. They thought, “Now we’ve got him.” He looked around and he said, “Well, it looks like about half the group knows and about half do not. So those of you who know tell those of you who don’t.” And he sat back down. They did not invite him again.
It is my assumption that in choosing to talk about the distinctiveness of Ethical Culture, I am talking about something that many of you know something about the essence of — that it exists deep already within you. And at the same time it is my hope that this talk will clarity our identity.
I want to begin by going back to the opening reading from Alfred Martin saying that Ethical Culture is not a substitute for religion, but rather it is intended to be a means to a satisfying religion. I want to make it clear that by talking about the distinctiveness of Ethical Culture, I am not suggesting a superiority of Ethical Culture. People choose what is right for them. Nor is this a polemic against anybody else. Nor is it a talk of self-satisfaction about how great we are. I chose this topic because I think it is helpful for us to clarify who we are and to justify for ourselves why this Ethical Culture approach makes sense to us.
There are seven things I want to say that are for me the essence of Ethical Culture and its distinctiveness.
First of all Ethical Culture puts character above creed. It reverses the historic role of most religions, which have a creed and then put a deed to it. Our individual creeds, and even our joint common creeds, come out of moral experience. They have to do with how one best shapes character. They have to do with the essence first of all, with what we do, who we are, and then out of what seems to be for us the most reasonable, rational experienced approach. It’s true that it comes in some sense out of Judaism. And that’s not just an accident, because in Hebrew you have a great emphasis on verbs, on action. There are very few adjectives but lots of verbs in Hebrew. And in Judaism, one of the great words is the word davar, which is “word”. But “word” in Hebrew (davar) means: “It is spoken but it is as good as done.” There is no separation between a creed and a deed — between a word spoken and what that person is and does. So in that sense, there is a way in which Ethical Culture is indebted to Judaism, I think more than any other traditional religion. So first of all, character comes above creed.
Secondly, Ethical Culture says that ethics is primary. It gives supremacy to the issue of moral ends and behavior. It is not subordinated to any other end. There is nothing else of the same importance as ethics in the life, the talk, the community, and the work of Ethical Culture.
I’m going to give an example that occurred in the paper Friday. I do it not to be negative about another group, but to show a distinction. Here I’m specifically referring to Catholicism, which I have a great deal of respect for in three particular ways.
One, it has never claimed too little territory — and I mean that in a positive sense. It has never said, “Oh in those four areas, do whatever you want.” I may not always agree with the stance that’s pushed, but there is an understanding that there is no area of human life that Catholicism doesn’t think relates to who it is, what it is, and what it has to say.
Secondly, it is a much more diverse body than most religious groups with a great many people who are poor and middle class as a part of it. It is not a church in which its membership is among the rich only, or even the comfortable.
And third, in the forty some years that I’ve been involved in social actions, I have always found when I have gathered on some barricade, there are Catholic priests, nuns, and members, who will be on that barricade line for social justice as often or more so than any other group.
So I’m not by using this example in any way trying to reflect negatively. I’m trying to show by this example how the emphasis on moral ends should be primary.
There is an article in the paper on Friday about a young girl by the name of Haley Waldman. She’s an eight-year old girl from New Jersey, who suffers from the rare digestive disorder, in which she cannot eat wheat or anything that contains gluten. When she had her first holy communion, the wafer contained no wheat, and this communion was ruled invalid. She really, they said, didn’t have communion because she didn’t have wheat in the wafer. Now there’s something wrong when it gets to the point where the ingredients in something are more important than the motivation of or sensitivity toward a human being. In Ethical Culture we can also fail in these ways by how we function. But it is at least the assumption that in ethics, sensitivity and compassion are the way one should function and this behavior is primary.
Third, Ethical Culture is non-theistic. Not anti-theistic, not pro-theistic, it is non-theistic. It takes a neutral stance. It specializes in morality apart from theology, and leaves the theology to the individual person, and therefore is neutral on metaphysical ideas. Moral obligation has precedence — not any theology, not any doctrine — and the independence of morality comes from a rich belief in human possibilities and progress.
Fourth, Ethical Culture is based on a community of freedom and responsibility, free of all non-essential requirements and committed only to that morality that all accept. Now, conflicts in ideals exist among our members — and should — because we are unique human beings and in fact diversity should be encouraged. Alfred Martin, when he gave a talk in 1913, referred to this diversity of opinion as “a chaos of ethical convictions.” And if you’re in a discussion in the Ethical Society very long, where people aren’t intimidated in some way, you will soon find there are all kinds of varieties of opinions. If there are twelve in a room, there are probably at least thirteen ideas. So there is this diversity of thought and respect for differences, and there is a searching for common ground in spite of it.
I asked people who had gone to the summer school to share with me what they saw of the distinctiveness of Ethical Culture. Several of them responded. Ed Carty made a point of especially talking about this diversity of thought, this respect for differences, and the search for common ground. But he did so also with a recognition and a regret that sometimes there isn’t enough of that here — that sometimes there’s a kind of attitude that you ought to be a part of one political party, or one philosophy, and that sometimes we make an assumption that ethics has to do with a particular political viewpoint. It doesn’t.
Now I have my own opinions and I think there are issues about justice that I speak about and that others should as well, but a person can disagree with me politically with integrity and be a person of integrity. I expect them to do so honestly. I have to say sometimes I see that certainly wanting in the political realm, but I do believe that we need to honor the integrity of people who have a varying view from what the majority of our members might hold.
Fifth, Ethical Culture lays exceptional stress on moral education. This includes a recognition that we never finish the learning process, that learning is an imperative. It is the nature of who we ought to be as human beings, to be in the process of learning. We recognize we are always incomplete in our ideas. They need to be challenged. We can through dialogue actually change what we may think. This aids in ever expanding our knowledge. None of us has “arrived”.
Moral education includes the principle of “shared inquiry”. We’re all in the process of learning. We all have something to teach each other. Because of this respect for human beings, this affirming of human worth, everybody has something to add to that discussion, when it is done with respect and dignity. Moral education is a task ongoing for life.
Sixth, we are a living tradition. We emphasize ongoing experience, and where we differ from most religions, is that they will talk about tradition, reason, experience, and revelation as the four tenants or underlying basis for the beliefs they have. Ethical Culture puts the emphasis on reason, on tradition, on experience, on intuition. There is no assumption of a final or external revelation.
Julian Huxley put it this way:
The essential of all this is that religion is an activity which suffers change like all other human activities; that it may change for the better or the worse; that if it stands still and refuses to change, when other human activities are changing, then the standing still is itself a change for the worse; that as it grows, it cannot avoid coming into contact both with intellectual and with moral or ethical problems and that with the development of human experience and tradition religion becomes inevitably preoccupied with the intellectual comprehension of our relation to the universe, and with the attainment of coherent and unified moral life, as well as with its more original quest for emotional satisfaction in the sphere of the holy.
Alfred Martin wrote:
When Brunelleschi, the famous Florentine architect, successfully competed for the construction of the dome of the cathedral in Florence, he closed his series of specifications for the structure with the following significant suggestion, “When the dome shall have reached the height of fifty-seven feet, that is just before the dome was to be closed in, let the master builders then in charge of the work determine what the next step is to be.” For Brunelleschi said, “Practice teaches us what the next step to be taken shall be.”
So in constructing the dome for the cathedral of the moral life, Martin writes, experience is our teacher, practice in moral architecture our basis of decision as to how we shall implement and supplement the moral principles transmitted from the past. Thus there is this very real sense, he writes, in which practice precedes theory. To know the spiritual meaning of love, one must live the life of love. Only by doing the will does one know the doctrine. We of the Ethical movement take our stand with Brunelleschi. We believe that by striving to get into right relations with our fellow human beings, we will find just what these relations ought to be. By working toward an ideal of justice in social and in business life, we shall learn what the true ideal really is. By experiencing in the deeper contents of the moral life we shall approximate adequate statements of the moral ideal.
The seventh statement or idea of Ethical Culture that I think makes it distinctive is that while we are deeply concerned in participating in social causes, while we are devoted to betterment of the world in which we live, we understand we cannot simply be involved in betterment. We must seek the best, in our motivation as well as our actions. Internal improvement is necessary. There has to be some way in which the spirit behind all true morality continually is affecting us. There is a need for humility and for self-monitoring.
One of the things I’ve always felt like we should have in Ethical Culture, which almost every religion, traditional or otherwise has, is some role for recognizing and stating our failures, frailties and shortcomings. Now, I’m not suggesting we should have a prayer of confession each Sunday, but it seems to me it would behoove us to have some form to recognize the ways we fail, individually and as a community. Felix Adler talked about how we have not yet developed a group ethic. I still don’t think we have such an ethic to the level that we should.
Carl Romano wrote me a note filled with wonderful comments. He talked about Ethical Culture being a place with no rules, no sacraments, no guiding text. We are a place where our practice evolves. And then he makes a little parenthetical statement: “Ethical Culture may be as difficult to move in a new direction as a herd of cats, but change is part of the plan.” Carl talked about our similarity to other religions. We promote loving, certainly as Christ did, and compassion, certainly as Buddha did. We form and we cherish community. We promote values that transcend the material world. We promote values that transcend selfishness. We seek to promote the wellbeing of others.
Kathy Kammien mentioned one of the things she heard at summer school about our distinctiveness. “We don’t offer meaning, we provide a path to meaningfulness.” We each individually have to find a meaning, but we offer a process, a way towards meaning.
David Worden of the Dorset, England, Humanist Association had a very illuminating article on humanism in the Ethical Record, which is the monthly newsletter of the London South Ethical Society. It’s not actually a part of Ethical Culture at this point, but it’s been around longer than any of the societies, before Felix Adler in fact founded Ethical Culture, and continues ethical emphasis in its programming. But he listed some ideas that are central to humanism which I think are also central to us: personal autonomy for every person, the necessity of critical reasoning, morality seen as a human construction, the potential of growth to full potential for each person, a humanist spirituality that responds to and satisfies primal needs, and seeing life as having no purpose or meaning already set but rather we make it for ourselves. And to his, I added, the necessity of community life for becoming our best selves, which he did not include.
There are some propositions he made about humanism, four of them that I also want to make about Ethical Culture:
Ethics is bigger than Ethical Culture. We call this place “The Ethical Society.” It’s easy for people to misunderstand what we are saying by that. It can be read as “the people who gather here are the ethical people.” But that’s not what’s meant. It’s “The Society for Ethical Culture,” not “The Society of Ethical Culture.” We are a group seeking to be ethical and using ethics as a means to be our best selves. We have not arrived and ethics is bigger than Ethical Culture. There are lots of people who have been offended, and rightly so, if they’ve thought that we see ourselves as more ethical than the rest of them in some other religious tradition. That’s not what Ethical Culture is about.
Organized Ethical Culture is just the tip of the iceberg. The yearning for the good, the practice of the ethical is present in the world in many ways, and though we continue to remain a very, very small group, many of the things that Ethical Culture stood for, in its 125 years plus, have become reality. And in some sense, we’ve had influence way beyond our numbers, as people who have been part of the Society and the movement know.
Third, organized Ethical Societies are not doing very well. We are continuing as a movement to lose members, have fewer funds, and need to find ways of making ourselves better known.
And finally, organized Ethical Societies often are not doing very well because they are fragmented, although much less so in this Society. I’ve sensed none of the cliquish political groups at each other’s throats here as I have in some other places in the Ethical movement, and I think it speaks very highly of the St. Louis Society and of the community spirit that exists here.
One of the reasons we are not doing very well is because we lack clarity about who we are. We have seen ourselves as the “ethical people” over against realizing we are part of an ethical process that other people are too, and this particular community is the one that supports us and helps us in our ethical search and struggle.
It’s easy to get into jargon, no matter what religious group you are a part of. You can get into sayings or ideas that are uniquely your own, yet strange sounding to others. I’ll give you an example from the days when I was a Southern Baptist. There is a little boy who had been out playing in the garage and he had found a rat. Unknown to him the minister had come to call at their house and the mother was sitting in the living room talking to the minister. The little boy came running in, throwing open the door, not noticing the minister, and saying, “Mommy, there was a rat in the garage and I’ve got him in the corner and I took my baseball bat and I hit him and I hit him and I hit him.” Then he turned and saw the minister. He stopped abruptly and then, with his eyes lifted toward the heavens he piously spoke these words: “And then God called him home.” We all have our jargon and we have it in Ethical Culture too and wherever it exists it always gets in the way of our being our best selves.
I close with words of Felix Adler, the founder of Ethical Culture in his book, Our Part in this World.
What Ethical religion can particularly hope to give, is a firm sense of direction in all human effort toward fuller realization of the spiritual nature. It can help people to better estimate themselves and thereby help counteract the pain that derives from the sense of human insignificance in this wide universe, and from the confusion of standards in the relation to society. It can point to the supreme experience of seeing the divine light in the face of another person, and having the light reflected upon our own faces. For to touch the spiritual quick in the life of others and to have the experience of its effect upon our own life, this then, is the supreme experience. The conviction of spiritual community that can grow out of this experience is sufficient to bring people serene peace amid their battles and torments.
Ethical Culture is indeed not a substitute for religion. It offers a satisfying religion for those of us who adhere to it and seek to live by it.
I began thinking about rules when the House of Representatives in North Carolina, where I live, passed legislation allowing the posting of the Ten Commandments in public school classrooms. In addition to my concerns about the threat to American liberty posed by public schools advocating a particular religion, I began to think about what rules are important to me. This morning I will speak about rules for living, where they come from and how to get them.
I first spoke from this Platform in 1970. I was a member of the Sunday School graduating class. The words that I spoke are lost to posterity. However, I remember their substance. At that time I decried the lack of opportunities to engage in Ethical Social Action through the Society — but that is not my topic today. They say that you can’t go back. Heraclitus wrote:
No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he is not the same man.
Indeed I am not the same man that I was then. Like the river, I continue to flow and change, as we all do. In my middle years I have looked to my Ethical Culture religious roots and found an abundance of nourishment. Nourishment from reflection and exploring ideas. Nourishment from sharing with others. And nourishment from belonging to a caring community, openly exploring and striving to understand and help, in a modest way, to improve the human condition. My re-immersion in Ethical Culture has allowed me the luxury of exploring the great thoughts of others. I have found that this process changes me. Immanuel Kant said that two things filled his mind with awe and wonder: the starry heavens above and the moral law within. For many years I was inspired by “the starry heavens above”, looking toward Science and Reason for self-knowledge. I still do. More recently I have started to include Moral Philosophy in my search for wisdom and meaning.
What do I mean by Moral Philosophy? The word Moral sounds almost puritanical or prudish. It conjures up images of noble suffering and self-denial. It seems outdated. But it isn’t. Moral Philosophy is about ethics. It is about how we go about determining what is right. Well, how do we determine what is right? John Shelby Spong, who retired as the Episcopal Bishop of Newark, told us where not to look for ethical guidance in his book, Why Christianity Must Change or Die:
One cannot speak cogently to the ethical concerns of this generation by quoting two-thousand-to-four-thousand-year old authorities who claim to represent God’s final word on these subjects.
Since I happen to agree with Bishop Spong, I must ask: Where do my morals and ethics come from if I do not accept scripture as divine revelation?
Since I do not draw on external authority, instead, I look inside of myself, down into the depths of my humanity. I look deep inside and I ask myself: What do I truly value? What inspires me? What brings me happiness? What connects me to others, to nature, to the environment? What enhances my life and spirit? What is beautiful and good? What makes me who I am? This inward exercise produces an ethics based on the experience of humanness, on connections with others and experience with the world.
This ethics developed from within is pure — freely chosen, based on my own search for happiness, caring for others and promoting the common good. However, such an ethical system cannot be developed in isolation. I recognize that I am not an isolated individual. I am engaged in relationships that sustain me: relationships with my family, with communities, and the global community — relationships with nature and the earth. These relationships are critical to developing ethics. An internal ethics is without meaning unless it is acted upon in connection with others. It is in this interaction with others that ethics are tested, challenged, and improved. It is through this process of social interchange that moral progress is possible.
So what do I find when I look inside myself for my ethical foundations? Because I am looking within myself, is my ethics, at its core, based on “self-interest”? This is what Ayn Rand found when she looked for an ethical foundation. Her Objectivist Ethics starts and ends with self-interest. Self-interest determines what is right, moral and good. Competing self-interests determine what is right for society. Right, therefore, is determined by the ability to exercise power. It’s like the old joke about the Golden Rule — Whoever has the gold makes the rules. I cannot accept a philosophy that rejects altruism.
The ethics based on power and “might makes right” is a horror that I strive to oppose. History has demonstrated time and time again that power seduces and corrupts. It is one of our human failings to willingly exploit others. For me, an ethics based on self-interest is woefully inadequate. I must look to other foundations for my Moral Philosophy.
Tenzin Gyatso, the fourteenth Dalai Lama, uses the goal of happiness as the starting point for his ethical thought. When the Dalai Lama looked inward, he found an ethic based on happiness and compassion. He wrote in The Art of Happiness:
In generating compassion, you start by recognizing that you do not want suffering and that you have a right to have happiness. This can be verified or validated by your own experience. You then recognize that other people, just like yourself, also do not want to suffer and that they have the right to have happiness. So this becomes the basis of your beginning to generate compassion. We begin, then, with the basic premise that the purpose of our life is to seek happiness. It is a vision of happiness as a real objective, one that we can take positive steps toward achieving. And as we begin to identify factors that lead to a happier life, we will learn how the search for happiness offers benefits not only for the individual but for the individual’s family and for society at large as well.
The Dalai Lama touches on how an internal ethical search grows outward and extends to relations with others. In this way happiness naturally extends to encompass others, to develop an ethics based on compassion and empathy for others.
Felix Adler’s internal search found that human worth was of primary importance to developing ethics. Human worth and dignity formed his ethical foundation. He wrote in The Religion of Duty in 1908:
Every person has inherent worth and is unique. We affirm the dignity and worth of all human beings, however different their abilities and backgrounds. Worth is independent of the idea of value. Value is dependent on the contribution a person makes to society while worth exists independent of one’s contribution. From the idea of universal human worth flows the right of every person to food, shelter, clothing, health, safety, education, work, play, respect, and affection. Every person is unique and different, and the development of each person is related to nurturing their distinct qualities and talents.
This is how ethical values are developed from within and combined with the ethics of others into something greater. John Shelby Spong wrote on how a type of ethical objectivity could emerge from this process. He suggested that there is an objective wrongness in seeking to cause or increase pain in another life. This wrongness serves to place limits on the exercise of individual freedom. Other objective ethical values identified by Spong are the value of increasing knowledge and the wrongness of continuing to defend or continue to act on the basis of one’s ignorance. The essence of what he is saying is that we must look at the consequences of our actions to determine if they are right. The results of actions on all those affected are what is used to determine if an action is right or not. Such an approach is called utilitarianism or consequentialism. This approach makes sense to me.
Looking at the consequences requires me to find, as the Dalai Lama does, that I must consider the interests of others as well as myself. I must replace self-interest with universal interests. In accepting that ethical judgments must be made from a universal point of view, I am accepting that my own interests cannot, simply because they are my interests, count more than the interests of anyone else. I believe that to think ethically, I cannot refuse to take this step. To think ethically, I must put the interests of others in my ethical equation. Yet ethics is more than just an equation. It is not hard to consider situations where the balancing of interests can cause unacceptable violations of a particular person’s interests. For example, extreme violations of one individual to provide a small benefit to many may not be such a good idea.
I favor a modified version of consequentialism. The addition of foundational values can provide a framework in which to evaluate consequences and make ethical decisions. I choose to add Felix Adler’s concept of intrinsic human worth as the framework for my consequentionalist ethical model. This limits my willingness to violate one person’s worth to benefit others.
Consideration of the effects decisions and actions have on others is not always easy. Often, imperfect knowledge makes it impossible. So why do I bother to try and determine what is the right thing to do? Why make the effort to look beyond my own self-interest? For me, looking at questions of what is right is part of my religious practice. It is part of how I practice Ethical Culture. It is a necessary part of trying to live a life consistent with my values. Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living. This approach rings true with me. Inspired by Socrates, I struggle to examine my life and the rightness of my actions.
So what are the rules? Before proceeding further, I want to share two cautionary statements. Chuck Yeager, the first pilot to break the sound barrier, said that rules are made for people who aren’t willing to make their own. I encourage you all to make your own rules. Of course, you are free to adopt mine. Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, wrote:
There is a theory that states that if anyone discovers exactly what the universe is for and why it’s here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another theory which states that this has already happened.
Therefore, I will try not to be too comprehensive. Before I share my rules, I want to acquaint you with the Mars Colony Rules.
The North Carolina Society for Ethical Culture meets in a Community Arts Center which we rent on Sunday mornings. We hold our Platforms in a large atrium with beautiful art exhibits on the walls. Sometimes the art is truly beautiful and enhances the experience of our meetings. Other times the art is more bizarre and aesthetically challenging. Always, the art shines as an expression of the human creative spirit. One summer Sunday I came in to find that the exhibit on the walls was from a Mars Millennium Project Summer Camp for children. Included in the art and other displays on the walls were these proposed rules for the camp’s Martian Colony, developed by some of the children attending the camp:
RULES FOR OUR MARS COLONY
- Be nice to each other.
- Help people.
- Be nice to people.
Thou shalt not injure nor harm thy neighbors. — Jake
- Be honest to other people.
- Respect yourself and others.
- Be responsible for all your stuff.
- Care for others.
- No weapons.
- No hitting, punching or kicking.
- Be nice to other people.
- No smoking.
I chose these rules to illustrate that ethics and moral philosophy are not arcane knowledge found only in the realm of philosophers. Eight-year-olds have a knack for it, too. They have opinions about right behavior and are capable of evaluating their actions.
Now for some of my rules. I like the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Its sensible reciprocity is appealing. Yet it doesn’t seem to go far enough. The restatement of the Golden Rule in the Christian tradition goes one step further. I find “Love your neighbor as yourself” to be more pro-active. It starts to break down the barriers that separate us. Felix Adler’s restatement of the Golden Rule takes it one step further. His version is to act so as to elicit the best in others and thereby elicit the best in yourself. Adler’s version is pro-active. It requires us to cultivate the best that is in each other. It sees the best expression of our own personality is dependent on helping to develop others. It requires us to see others’ interests as equal to our own.
But the rule I really like the best is “: Everyone can play.” It goes even further. I first encountered a version of this rule when I heard Vivian Paley give a keynote address at a conference on “Moral Education in a Diverse Society”. Ms. Paley, a winner of a MacArthur “Genius” Award, spoke about her experience implementing a new rule, “You can’t say you can’t play”, at the University of Chicago Lab School. This rule had a profound affect on the school. This mandate of inclusion let everyone participate. Many of these children had never been included before.
It was a brilliant application of consequentialist ethics. The benefits to the self-esteem of those who were usually left out outweighed the limits imposed on the freedom of those who previously exercised the ability to exclude. Benefits also were experienced by these “excluders” as they came to realize that everyone has rights and feelings deserving of respect. Rather than saying, “You can’t say you can’t play”, I prefer a positive restatement of this principle, “Everyone can play.” “Everyone can play” has benefits in the school setting but I believe that it has broader implications.
- Everyone can play means that everyone should be heard.
- Everyone can play means that everyone has a right to participate and the right to what is needed to participate: food, shelter, education, employment, and political participation.
- Everyone can play means that we must take care of our environment so that there is a place to play for future generations.
My “everyone can play” rule has other, global implications. We live in the wealthiest nation on earth and we are not good at sharing. The United States is part of a global community. We share the benefits and the responsibilities that come with belonging to that community. The U.S. has 5% of the world’s population, yet we consume over 25% of the world’s resources. If the entire world consumed resources at the average consumption level of a citizen of the U.S., we would need four earths to support us all! When you take a hard look at it, we aren’t letting everyone play.
I believe that we have a moral obligation to open our circle so that others can play, too. This obligation means that we should use our wealth and resources for development, not destruction. Our foreign policy should help feed the world, not arm it. For this change to occur, first we must change ourselves, our society and our government. We must change ourselves by reducing our own consumption in order to share our bounty with others. We must change our society to recognize that continuing to consume more and more is morally unacceptable. We must change our government to one that promotes peace, education, and human rights abroad, not violence, suffering and narrow self-interest. We must change in order to make the ethic of human worth real. I ask you today to reflect on what I have said and consider making a commitment to change. Think about letting everyone play.
A fictional narrative exploring several key philosophical issues surrounding the morality of suicide
My name is Joshua. It is three o’clock on a pale and quiet Sunday afternoon in October. I have just attended the funeral of a childhood friend who had committed suicide because of a breakup with his longtime girlfriend. I had been out of touch with him for years, but this tragedy compelled me to join in sympathy with the mourners. I am heading home now, walking alone through the cemetery and into the neighboring park, and experiencing the strangest sense of displacement; I feel as though I’ve lost my equilibrium; I am even having difficulty feeling the ground beneath my footsteps. What could have led my old friend to such an act? How could it have been prevented? And how will his family deal with this tragedy? In the midst of these confused thoughts, I remember the words of the preacher at the funeral, who, despite taking all care to give comfort and hope to the bereaved, gave several brief but pointed words on the immorality of my friend’s suicide. I can recall them clearly. He said,
My brothers and sisters, even in the midst of this time of trial it is of the greatest importance to keep in mind that it is not for man to decide the time of life and death. These are the special province of the Lord above, the creator and sustainer of all things on Earth, and the author of all goodness. It belongs to God alone to pronounce sentence on these matters, for as the Lord says in Deuteronomy Chapter 32, verse 39, “I will kill and I will make to live.” We who remain in His service, while keeping hope that those who go astray will again live in Your sight in Heaven, must remember that self-destruction, even in times of greatest trial, is always a sin against the will of God and the community of the faithful. It is our privilege to have been given life by God, and it is our obligation to God to maintain that life, until He should call us back to Him.
Yes, I remember it very clearly. And I remember almost all of those who attended the funeral nodding at the preacher’s words. But I was not so inclined; for though my friend’s rash suicide is certainly a great tragedy, surely the issues surrounding the morality of suicide cannot be dealt with in such a summary fashion, by reference to an obscure passage in a holy book, or even by the common belief of society. I am but in college; and my formal study of philosophy is still in its beginning stages, but I have already learned enough to know that one cannot expect to achieve truth through an uncritical acceptance of societal beliefs, no matter how common or seemingly intuitive. Issues of this depth and importance require patient and critical reflection into the reasoning given for judgments about them, and as a student of philosophy, I see that this is my task now regarding the issue of suicide. And so I pause for a moment in my walk home; and I state the question to myself unambiguously: what is the moral status of intentionally taking one’s life?
Pausing to sit on a bench beside a pond in the park, I see an old woman painting on the other shore, and I am sharply reminded of the other reason this issue is of such importance to me. Only last week, my grandfather, himself an artist, and a very old man, asked my family for permission to end his life. Although at first shocked and dismayed — for I love my grandfather dearly — I have come, through the past several days, to accept that I must give careful thought to his situation; it is the least I can do for one whom I admire so much. And his situation is extraordinary. It is true that he is very old; but he is not dying of a terminal disease or undergoing intense physical suffering. He is not facing severe mental degeneration or dementia; he is not even in a state of profound sorrow. He is in full command of his faculties, and has given the thought of his own death careful and deliberate attention — he now feels that it is his time to pass on and he asks for his family’s permission — and my permission — to do so. But before I can come to consider this incredible request, the question, so strongly punctuated by today’s funeral, cries out to be answered: can this action of intentionally ending one’s life be moral, requiring understanding and acceptance, or is this unequivocally an action of selfishness and immorality, requiring blame? Although I have not yet come to the answers I seek, I feel strongly one thing. The account of my friend’s rash, despairing suicide, compared with my grandfather’s considered and even peaceful desire to be the author of his own death, means that this issue will most likely not be decided by black and white, absolute pronouncements, but must take into account the specific nature of the case in order to judge it correctly.
Having decided at last to undertake this inquiry, I must try to bring some order to it. The little study that I have done in medieval philosophy now comes to mind, and I remember that Thomas Aquinas gave three principal reasons why suicide should be judged as immoral:
(i) First, because it violates our moral obligation to God;
(ii) Second, because it violates our moral obligation to other people;
(iii) And lastly, because it violates our moral obligation to ourselves.
Our moral obligations to God, to others, and to ourselves. A condemnation of suicide would involve showing a violation of one or more of these obligations; and a defense of suicide would either have to show these obligations to be false, or to show cases in which one can maintain these obligations, and still intentionally end one’s life.
First then: the idea of suicide as a violation of our moral obligation to God. Once again the preacher’s words return to mind: “It belongs to God alone to pronounce sentence on life and death… self-destruction, even in times of greatest trial, is always a sin against the will of God.” What to make of this claim? Mulling over this, I reflect that it is very understandable that religious believers would feel themselves fully justified in giving a universal condemnation of suicide for that very reason; but conversely, it is just as understandable that I would find absolutely no force in such reasoning, for I do not believe that God exists. I was raised in the humanist tradition, but not dogmatically; I have come to this position on my own. Certainly my parents explained their humanistic and atheistic beliefs to me, but they always made it very clear that I was to judge the matter for myself when I felt ready. I have considered the matter thoroughly, and I have come to share their convictions. I believe that in all likelihood these ideas of gods and goddesses, and heaven, and hell, and supernatural realms of divine beings, and so forth — these ideas were created by us, by humans, when we were still in our intellectual infancy, to explain a world that we didn’t understand. And bolstered by time, tradition, and institutionalization, supernatural religion has become a powerful societal force, there is no doubt of that; but no amount of social power can give religious beliefs objective validity if they were at first the product of human ignorance trying to explain the unknown by positing the agency of supernatural persons. These matters are very deep, but I have considered them at great length, and so I do not feel that it is necessary at this moment to laboriously go over them once more.
I would hope not to be misunderstood; I have no animosity towards most religious believers; and I greatly appreciate the influence they have had — and still have — towards the establishment of a moral society; but if my perspective is correct, and the idea of a god is a fiction invented by humans — then it is all the more important to put my trust in what I do believe in, what I must believe in: the human species of which I am a member. Arguments for the immorality of suicide based on the moral will of God have no validity if God does not exist. But Aquinas’ second claim then arises all the more forcefully: what are my obligations to my fellow humans, and how do they reflect upon the morality of suicide? This question, I realize, is of the utmost importance for correctly judging the issue, and it promises also to be one of the most difficult.
Standing up from the park bench where I have been ruminating over these matters, I decide that it is time to broach the subject with an authority. Normally I would seek out my parents, but it is unlikely that they can discuss this issue now with the kind of objectivity that responsible philosophy requires. Instead I will seek out my mentor at the university, the professor of philosophy and Englishman, Dr. Nigel Brace.
I reach the university by four o’clock — I can hear the town’s church bells ringing the hour. I find Dr. Brace working in his study, preparing a lecture for his political philosophy course. He is just the person with whom to discuss this issue, being acutely interested in social affairs, and being himself a well-educated humanist. Sitting beside him, I apologize for the interruption, and, after talking briefly about my friend’s funeral — and receiving his sincere condolences — I proceed to ask for his help in my inquiry into the morality of suicide — without, however, mentioning my grandfather’s situation. Specifically, I tell him, I want to understand whether or not the presence of obligations to others — to family and to community — always makes suicide an immoral act, or whether there are extenuating circumstances that might provide suicide with a moral justification, even in the face of social obligations? Dr. Brace is at once keenly interested in this inquiry, and he launches into dialogue with me, as I had hoped.
“It seems to me,” he begins, “that we will not be able to answer this question without some notion of who or what it is that holds moral authority in society. For once we have a clear idea of the source of societal moral authority, we can hopefully discover some kind of standard by which to judge the issue.”
I agree with this immediately, for it seems to me very sensible. If we are going to discover the morality of suicide in relation to society, we will need to reference some kind of social moral authority to judge the issue. But I hasten to share my doubts with Dr. Brace as to the possibility of finding this social moral authority. Surely, I say, it would not have been difficult to do so in many of the past centuries, dominated as they were with the teachings of the Church. In past times, it seems as though it would have been a much simpler matter of discovering the Church’s stance on the issue, and allowing that to stand as the established social moral authority. And in fact this approach remains pervasive today. But if God does not exist, then the question of social moral authority immediately becomes much less clear. To my thinking, I continue, it seems that our greatest hope for societal progress now lies within a humanistic philosophy: one which accepts the fact that our species must rely solely upon itself for the progress it makes; and moreover, it seems that progress in humanistic social philosophy can only be made on the principle of the equal worth of each individual. But if this is accurate — if in fact we are to understand human society from a humanistic point of view, as a collection of individuals of equal worth — the problem becomes acute. What is the source of a common social moral authority? Without overarching commands from the divine, we are left to ourselves to create the society we want. And yet if we are to accept the principle of the equal worth of all individuals, then how can we find a common moral authority? For will we not descend into a relativism of the worst kind, with each individual deciding for themselves what they will accept as moral or immoral? And if this is the case, I say, it seems that we can never arrive at a source for a social moral authority, and consequently we will not be able to say anything concerning the moral status of suicide — and a hundred other issues — in relation to society, which is what we are seeking.
Dr. Brace ponders this for a moment, and then speaks. “You have touched, Joshua, upon a problem of great significance, and one that must be answered confidently if humanistic ethical culture is to flourish. But even in the midst of the relativism into which a humanistic approach to society seems to lead, I believe that we can discover the source of a moral authority which will not only provide us with a standard by which to judge social issues — including suicide — but also one which will allow the freedom of personal expression that we would expect from a society of autonomous, equal individuals.”
At last it seems that we have come to the heart of the matter, and I exhort him to continue. He takes a deep breath, and begins.
“In a humanistic ethical society, authority must be reached by free, rational agreement between autonomous individuals. Authority is not assumed to lie with any person or social group in particular; rather, authority is created, and created by the common agreement of the society’s responsible, autonomous members working within a framework of free, rational agreement. Free, rational agreement is the key, Joshua. For if this society is to be truly ethical, it must not be one in which force is ever used to impose one’s ideas of the good on others. There must be discussion, and there must be debate, and it must be free and rational, and supported at all times by the principle of the worth of each individual. Now it seems to me — and this is key — that there are certain minimum requirements that must be observed in order for such a society to exist. And these requirements, stated broadly, are, I believe, twofold. First, the requirement that individuals within the society act in accordance with the principle of self-respect; and second, the requirement that individuals within society act in accordance with the principle of mutual respect. Without these basic principles to serve as a foundation, an ethical culture of individuals creating authority by common agreement on issues cannot exist. But why are these two principles so fundamental? The possession of self-respect is required for individuals to realize that they are autonomous, free, and responsible for their own self-guidance. The practice of mutual respect is required by individuals in order for there to exist an atmosphere of free and humane dialogue on social matters. They are both necessary, for if there were only self-respect without mutual respect, there would be no basis for social responsibility; and if there were only mutual respect without self-respect, there would be no basis for personal responsibility, which is the backbone of an ethical culture founded on the inherent worth of each of its individuals. And truly, I might add, you cannot have g enuine respect for others without genuine respect for yourself. It is only when one possesses a genuine respect for oneself that one knows how to treat others with respect. Does this make sense to you, Joshua?”
I sit thinking about it for a short time, and although it certainly isn’t possible to give the issue the thorough consideration it demands, what he says seems to make sense. Basically, there are certain minimum requirements that have to be in place in order for an ethical culture of autonomous individuals to exist under common agreement. Its members must respect themselves as social legislators, and must respect the responsible legislations of others. But these principles seem so general, I ask Dr. Brace: how can they lead to the standard of social moral authority we’re seeking?
“But don’t you see, Joshua? I believe we’ve found the source of social moral authority in a humanistic society. All of the members of a humanistic ethical culture, in order for it to exist, must, without exception, adhere to those two basic precepts. Without them, it is impossible. And if we adhere to these two precepts, we now have a standard by which to judge the actions and decisions of people in our society. Now Joshua, you have taken my ethics course, so you should know the answer to my next question: when we judge other people for the morality of their actions, what do we concentrate on? What is it that we judge?”
Yes, I remember very well, I tell him. Usually, when we judge others for the morality of their actions, we are looking at their intentions and the effects of their actions — it is these that we describe as moral or immoral.
“Yes, that’s right.” he says. “Moral judgments on people concentrate on their intentions, and on the effects of their actions. If these are good, the people are considered good, and vice-versa.”
But I quickly note to Dr. Brace that we need the right moral standard to judge these things correctly.
“Yes, that’s right, and that’s what we’re looking for now,” he says. “And I would say that we’ve found, at least in outline, the correct social moral standard by which to judge things. Remember, a humanistic ethical culture cannot exist without its members adhering to the two basic principles of self-respect and mutual respect. And so we have found our social moral standards: in a humanistic society, those intentions and actions are moral which are in keeping with the principles of self-respect and mutual respect, and those intentions and actions are immoral which violate the principles of self-respect and mutual respect. I imagine it may sound a bit generalized, Joshua, but consider this: most of the actions which are taken as immoral by most people are condemned as immoral on this standard. It condemns theft, murder, adultery, cheating, torture, blackmail, intimidation, bribery, and so on and so forth, because these actions violate the mutual respect necessary to maintain a free society of autonomous individuals — and in so violating they are rightfully called immoral. And further, it condemns drug addiction, sloth, greed, hatefulness, uncontrolled indulgence, excessive vanity, and so on and so forth, because these violate the self-respect necessary to responsibly take part in a free society of autonomous individuals. The beauty of this approach is that, while giving us a social moral authority based on the minimum requirements for the very existence of an ethical culture, it allows for the widest range of personal expression within it, just as long as these basic precepts are observed. Doesn’t it seem to you, Joshua, that we have found, at least tentatively, a basis for a common social moral authority in a humanistic ethical society, and a standard by which to judge the social moral status of issues such as suicide?”
I have to take a breath myself and think about that for a moment. But I have to admit that at least on the surface, it sounds very sensible, and might serve as a strong basis from which to make social ethical judgments. However, I’m not so taken with his account that I think it completely unproblematic. My exposure to philosophy is limited, yes, but I’ve studied enough to know that broad ethical systems like the one he just gave to me often get into difficulties when one starts sifting through the details, and I tell him so.
“Oh yes, I certainly wouldn’t want to say that it is a perfect ethical system,” Dr. Brace quickly responds. “I doubt if such a thing exists in ethics. For as Aristotle said in the beginning of his masterful work, Nichomachean Ethics,
We must be content, in speaking of [ethical] subjects to indicate the truth roughly and in outline…[and] In the same spirit, therefore, should each type of statement be received; for it is the mark of an educated person to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits.
“You see, Aristotle was very wise to say this,” he continues, “for when we are seeking for general ethical standards — and that is precisely what we have been doing here — it is necessary to concentrate on actions and principles in general, and we necessarily look over many of the particulars of situations that plague us in everyday life. But we should consider ourselves fortunate if we can arrive at general principles which allow us to judge in a moral way with most particular situations. And I think that this is the benefit of the ethical standards we’ve discussed today.”
I continue to ponder what he has said, and I am just about to ask Dr. Brace some further questions, but it appears that we have run out of time. He must go to teach. And so he thanks me for seeking his counsel, apologizing that we did not get a chance to investigate how those principles apply to the issue of suicide, and he says that he hopes that his few words have given me some guidance and help. I assure him that he has helped me, and I promise to see him again.
Walking back home, I try to complete the work that we had begun I think about the social moral standards he had mentioned, and try to determine of their application to the question of the morality of ending one’s life. This, after all, is my main concern right now. What were the principles he used? “In a humanistic society, those intentions and actions are immoral which violate the principles of self-respect and mutual respect. Those intentions and actions are moral which are in keeping with the principles of self-respect and mutual respect.” I try to think of the most common kinds of suicide that occur in society. So many of them — probably most of them — are suicides of despair, like my childhood friend’s. Some great grief or melancholy descends upon them, and they eventually come to think that they cannot bear them, and so they end their lives in terrible anguish. Most of these suicides are violent and desperate, and seem to reflect such self-contempt in those who commit them, and for those who are affected by them. Surely these kinds of suicides do reflect a violation of self-respect, for no person possessing genuine self-respect would make self-destructive decisions while in the throes of emotional disorder. And surely these kinds of suicide are greatly in violation of mutual respect as well, for is it not the case that most suicides of despair are committed with no thought of its effects on those around them? This is especially the case when a suicide leads to the utter emotional bereavement of living friends and family members, or to the financial ruin of the suicide’s dependents. It seems quite clear that these kinds of suicide — which form the majority — violate the basic principles that underlie the possibility of ethical culture, and so can be condemned as immoral. People who would seek to commit these kinds of suicide should not be given respect for their autonomous decisions, but rather care, and treatment, and support, to allow them to return to a state in which they can make their de cisions responsibly. This much seems to resonate with the prevailing societal view of the issue.
But the question then becomes, are there cases of suicide which are moral by the social standards of humanistic ethical culture? By the rule given by Dr. Brace, these would include suicides committed for the sake of maintaining self-respect, in accordance with the demands of mutual respect. Are there any suicides like this? My first thought is of those suicides that are committed out of a desire to die with dignity. Admittedly these seem to be in the great minority of suicides, but perhaps for that very reason they deserve closer attention. It is easy to feel sympathy, I reflect, for those people who, facing the prospect of profound physical and mental degeneration, the loss of their powers, the loss of their ability to live meaningfully, should wish to end their lives with dignity before they are reduced to a state of degradation and monstrous pain. Indeed I have heard some say that it is a crime that our society would seek to have terminally ill humans hang on to the bitter end when, were it one of our pets, we would put the animal to sleep out of a desire to be humane. But the question remains: are such suicides moral in relation to the standards under consideration? It seems, firstly, that they are examples of acts done with the intention of maintaining self-respect; for it is precisely the desire to die in a dignified manner that propels these suicides. It seems that such people do not want to be reduced to the indignity and suffering of advanced physical and mental decay. Such people would seek to end their lives painlessly and mercifully, before they would be so reduced, out of respect for the human spirit. I remind myself that these kinds of suicide must be few in number, and that most people would probably not consider it an option — very well then, they are few in number, but no less deserving of respect if their autonomous decisions are made in accordance with the standards of social morality. But a question remains unanswered: even if it is granted that there are suicides genuinely committed for the sake of self-respect, do they violate mutual respect? Is it possible to seek suicide in a way keeping with mutual respect? It seems, I must admit, that one can, at least in theory. If the person seeking suicide makes the decision in an unselfish and responsible way, making sure that the act would not lead to irrevocable financial or emotional ruin in others, and with the knowledge and understanding — if not the acceptance — of those who would be most affected, it seems that the act can be in accordance with the principle of mutual respect. And in that case, the act can be considered moral in relation to society.
And my own grandfather, I realize with a feeling of shock, has done precisely that: in asking for his family’s permission to end his life — in making us a living part of his decision — he is honoring the mutual love and respect that binds us; he is fulfilling what he sees as his obligation to us. I am suddenly overwhelmed by this. I had been distancing myself from thoughts of my grandfather all week, and even today, forcing myself to remain objective. But it strikes me now with such clarity: the beauty of his action: the fact that he would honor us with this profound confidence.
It seems much clearer to me now that there can be cases of ending one’s life which are socially moral, in keeping with dignity and a sense of obligation to others, at least from the standpoint of humanistic ethical culture. And if this is correct, then how great of a failing is it for a society which claims to be based on the equal worth of its autonomous, responsible citizens, to deny this freedom?
But I have no energy for further objective inquiry. I am intellectually drained, and quickly becoming emotionally spent as well. Yet doubts about my grandfather’s desire to intentionally end his life keep nagging at me, and they won’t go away. Granted that his suicide is no violation of his obligation to God — if God does not exist — and granted that his suicide is no violation of his obligation to society — for our society should respect as moral those decisions made in accordance with self and mutual respect — is he not violating his obligation to himself? This was the third of Aquinas’ claims. My grandfather is not yet degenerating in any kind of advanced way, and he could doubtless live many more productive months, if not even perhaps years. Does he not have a moral obligation to continue to live the unspoiled life remaining to him, the life that so many people would pray to be given?
I have delayed long enough; I must speak with him. All the principles in the world cannot replace direct human contact. I must speak with him.
The sun is just beginning to set as I approach my grandfather’s house, where he lives alone. I find him sleeping in his recliner; and I hold for a moment, and do not wake him, so that I can look at his face, and the life that still flows through him. It saddens me so deeply to imagine that he might soon be gone, and I wish with powerful suddenness that he would end this talk of death, and stop dragging my parents and me through such upheaval. But I stop myself — I must remember at least to attempt to appreciate his situation, and the possibility that he might have a legitimate claim to ending his life. I am confused and I give a loud sigh — and my grandfather wakes up and smiles at me, and he says my name, and extends his arms that I might hug him. I embrace his frail form, and suddenly break down. He cries with me, and we comfort each other.
At last the emotion passes, and I speak with him. I tell him about my friend’s funeral, and my decision to think, as carefully as I could, about the morality of suicide. I tell him about my discussion with Dr. Brace, and about all of my reflections. I thank him for including me in his decision. And I ask him if we might talk about it. He is so infinitely gentle with me; he smiles and says that it is just the time for us to talk; and he suggests that we go to his observation deck up on the roof, that we might watch the sun set while we speak. And so we make our way upstairs, and I must help him, for his legs have grown thin and weak, and the steep stairs are beyond his power. We arrive at the observation deck, where in days past my grandfather painted so many of his beautiful works. To the west, the sky is a brilliant expanse of lightest blue fading into orange and crimson streaks at the horizon. I help him into his seat and take my own. At first we cannot talk for a long stretch, he is having such trouble recovering his breath after the climb. At last he has composed himself, and I begin to speak.
“Grandfather, I love you and I do not want to be separated from you. The thought of your death is so difficult to accept. I want you to know that I respect your decision, because I know that you would never make such a choice lightly. I’ve always admired your wisdom. And so I feel that I have to hear you out; that I have to understand why you want this. It’s just that — I could understand so much more easily if you were dying or in great pain. I could accept that so much more easily. But — but you — you have good life left within you; you still have control of your mind and body, and you could still paint so many beautiful things. Grandfather, don’t you feel an obligation to yourself to continue living while you still have good life to live?”
He bows his head forward in reflection, and then answers me in a soft voice. “Joshua, I love you. And I know that I haven’t always been wise, but you have always honored me with your love and respect; and this has been one of the greatest gifts of my life. I know that it must be so painful to discuss this with me, and yet, you are here, and we are discussing it; and for your own courage and wisdom I am so proud of you…” He trails off for a moment, seeming to collect his thoughts. In a moment he finds them, and taking a deep breath, looks directly at me as he continues: “Joshua, I have lived a long life. And I have lived a good life. I have had a wonderful family, and wonderful friends, and the good fortune to come into a bit of wisdom. I have tried to understand this world, and I have tried to contribute to our understanding of it in what small ways that I could. I have created artwork that has given simple pleasure to some few people, and I have taken great happiness in all of this. And what you say is true: I am not yet in the desperate throes of some terminal illness. And I still feel happiness, as I did when I saw you. But Joshua, my grandson, I am so weary, and I have declined. Where I used to blaze with life, it now but seeps from me. I fall asleep while watching the world that used to make me gasp in wonder. I am lonely, and often I’m tired, and I find myself listless and dull. And I am afraid of pain, Joshua. I fear that I will suffer an unexpected and painful death, alone and terrified. My heart is so heavy within me, grandson. And I feel that I am ready to die.”
I cannot hear my grandfather speak in this way without being again moved to emotion, and I put my face in my hands, and feel my tears flow, warm on my cheeks.
“My grandson, my beautiful Joshua, you mourn for me already, but what I want is that my death not be a cause for despair and misery! I want — I want to be able to embrace you, and all of our family, knowing that you will be comforted that my death was of my own peaceful choosing, and that it was painless. As the end of my life approaches — and it approaches, whether wished or not — I think that there is no greater gift that one could possibly possess than the freedom to end one’s life peacefully, in the most meaningful way possible. I want to accept death, Joshua, and find meaning in it; I do not want to claw away from it in some wretched fear of its inevitability. This is, to my mind, one of the greatest fruits of humanistic philosophy; this is one of greatest rewards of genuine and responsible self-determination. And I believe that Friedrich Nietzsche realized this when he wrote, speaking as the prophet Zarathustra,
Die at the right time! In your dying, your spirit and virtue should still glow like a sunset around the earth: else your dying has turned out badly.
“No, my grandson, I do not feel that I violate my obligation to myself. What I feel is that I would fulfill my obligation to myself by dying at the right time: with acceptance, and dignity, and perhaps even poetry. I don’t believe this is the path of every person. Some lack the freedom. Some lack the courage. But I believe that it is my path. Others will find it moral or immoral as their hearts tend, but I believe that it is my path — but I will not walk it without your blessing, grandson.”
A suspended silence descends upon us. My tears have stopped, but my hands still cover my face, and for a long time I stare into the blackness they cast over my eyes; and I do not think of anything, but instead I listen to my own breathing. When at last I uncover my face, I breathe deeply and feel a sense of peace — it hints of sadness, but it is peace. The last of the sun’s rays grace us, and in the dreamlike atmosphere of descending dusk, I see that my grandfather has fallen asleep.
My grandfather died only a week after that conversation — the victim of a heart attack. I had given him my acceptance, but my parents had not, and he had waited, and death had come unexpectedly. After all of this, I think back on my thoughts on the morality of suicide, and two things come to mind. First, it is true that we need some conception of a moral authority to help determine the moral status of suicide in relation to society, and Dr. Brace’s principles seem like a good place to start, especially for those committed to maintaining a humanistic ethical culture founded on equal respect for its responsible, autonomous members, and their decisions. But secondly, and at the same time, I realize that suicide is an intensely personal issue, and one that cannot be fully understood or decided by reference to a set of general ethical principles. For my own part, I feel fortunate that my grandfather helped me to appreciate the idea that intentionally ending one’s life cannot be unequivocally understood as a tragedy and act of immorality; rather it can be an act of dignity and meaning, one accepted responsibly, and peacefully. And I know that this is not the common feeling; and I would never seek to impose my personal acceptance of it on others; but I would hope that for their part, others might at least genuinely listen to my point of view, in an effort to increase their understanding, and to decide the issue for themselves responsibly.
I am working on an Ethics of Wealth. It is one of my primary passions. Money is the air we live and breathe in. People work for it, fight for it, scheme for it, dream about it, feel enormous stress about it. Work hours dominate our lives. Without an ethic of wealth, our ethic is woefully incomplete. My talk was originally titled Moral Reflections on Wealth. But the terrorist attack intervened, and I found I could not emotionally pick up where I left off in my preparations. Still, in these times of heightened nerves and questioning, there is perhaps more of a chance to glimpse a vision of something new. So, with this hope, I offer you these reflections on terrorism and wealth.
How close we have been to death these past weeks. How quickly a life can be snuffed out, thousands of lives.
But how close we have been to life in these past weeks as well — to the preciousness of living.
In our closeness to death we have experienced a deep commonality with each other. Minor differences vanished. Differences that we felt were major in our everyday lives became minor. In our closeness to death and heightened awareness of life, we knew everyone as our brother and sister. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson said that the terrorist attacks may have been God’s punishment for the sins committed by liberals, gays, feminists, and secular America. The spontaneous community in New York City in response to the attack put the lie to this. Liberals, gays, immigrants, secularists, rich, poor — all these distinctions became meaningless as New Yorkers gave blood, consoled victims’ families, and volunteered to dig in the burning rubble. Together, as compatriots, we wept and mourned the dead in candlelight vigils and interfaith services. We experienced the community that is generated when each one’s entire interest and focus coincides with the focus and interest of every other. This experience of community we should not forget.
But how were we to understand the terrorist attack? In the media from all over the world, we have heard three different explanations. One, the terrorists are insane. Case closed. Exterminate the infestation. Two, the terrorists represent a fundamentalist hatred of freedom, democracy, and religious pluralism. We have to rally ourselves to fight for liberty once again. Three, the terrorists are retaliating against our oppression against them. We have to clean up our own act. These three views are vitriolically at odds with one another. Yet there is a thread of connection among them that is crucial to grasp. Grasping it will give us a better chance of finding an ethical response.
One view is that the terrorist acts were the work of madmen, literally mad. Mamoun Fandy, scholar and author of Saudi Arabia and the Politics of Dissent, was interviewed on NPR this past week. He spent two years in Saudi Arabia, 1994-1996, interviewing dissident clerics and analyzing their sermons. Fundamentalism first emerged in Saudi Arabia in the 1970’s, but they were reformers, not terrorists. The Saudi government, like Egypt, used harsh measures to silence their voice, to keep it from influencing the general population, and to maintain a more open and secular society. Then the Saudi and the U.S. government gave the nod to support the holy war in Afghanistan against the Russian occupation. Here was a chance to openly fight for Islam. So the dissidents, including Osama bin Laden, went to fight the evil empire of Russia. They expected a rousing hero’s welcome when they returned to Saudi Arabia, but found a cool reception. The Gulf War was going on. Bin Laden went to the royal family and offered his Afghan men (the mujahadeen) to help fight against Saddam Hussein. The ruling family refused! Rebuffed and furious, bin Laden went to Sudan and started his jihad against Saudi Arabia and its global patron, the U.S. Bin Laden took this rebuff as proof that Saudi Arabia was no longer redeemable. His expectation of glory turned to hatred of those who had scorned him. In the meantime, he had acquired a taste for violence in Afghanistan. And he felt invincible, as though he had a special calling from God because of his victory against Russia. He could hardly wait to take on the remaining superpower, the United States, the leader of the capitalist system.
Mamoun Fandy recounts vividly that when interviewing bin Laden’s second-in-command and others, it was plain in their manner of conversation, look in their eye, and offhand remarks, that there is a “dance of death,” a “killing for air time,” not for Allah and the tribe, but to see themselves as global heroes. There’s a convergence between pop stardom and criminality. The movement acquired a logic of its own, unrelated to its original ideology. Their talk about Osama bin Laden was as if they were talking about Mick Jagger. They blur TV picture and reality. They exhibit a mental aberration with antiseptic talk about violence and blood and tactics in the game of destruction. The important thing is the image. Were they directing a movie in which the climactic scene would be the twin towers exploding and burning, or were they plotting to kill real people? It was one and the same. Fandy said, “I interviewed these people in pursuit of social science, but I came away asking myself, ‘Is it worth it?’, when the interviews make me feel so disturbed.”
In this view, the terrorist network is a disease, and the appropriate response is to go in and eradicate every cell of it, before it does more violence — and that will be the end of it. In this view, those who are full of this rabid hatred are out of touch with reality, and therefore we can totally discount anything they say about us.
Unfortunately, we cannot rest with this view. Hatred does not pop up out of nowhere. It arises from a large pool of anger. One of the most chilling reports I’ve read is by an Italian journalist, Elisabetta Burba, published in the Wall Street Journal. She was on vacation in Beirut, Lebanon.
Where were you on Sept. 11? I was at the National Museum with my husband. This tour of past splendor only magnified the shock I received later when I heard the news and saw the reactions all around me. Walking downtown, I realized that the offspring of this great civilization were celebrating a terrorist outrage. And I am not talking about destitute people. Those who were cheering belonged to the elite of the Paris of the Middle East: professionals wearing double-breasted suits, charming blond ladies, pretty teenagers in tailored jeans. Trying to find our bearings, my husband and I went into an American-style cafe in the Hamra district, near Rue Verdun, one of the most expensive shopping streets in the world. Here the cognitive dissonance was immediate, and direct. The cafe’s sophisticated clientele was celebrating, laughing, cheering, and making jokes, as waiters served hamburgers and Diet Pepsi. Nobody looked shocked, or moved. They were excited, very excited. An hour later, at a little market near the U.S. Embassy, a thrilled shop assistant showed us, using his hands, how the plane had crashed into the twin towers. He, too, was laughing. Once back at the house where we were staying, we started scanning the international channels. Soon came reports of Palestinians celebrating. The BBC reporter in Jerusalem said it was only a tiny minority. Astonished, we asked some moderate Arabs if that was the case. “Nonsense,” they said. “Ninety percent of the Arab world believes that Americans got what they deserved.”
Well, we know that the vast majority of Muslims condemn this terrorist attack. But in some places, a spontaneous cheer erupted, almost in spite of themselves, in spite of their own better sensibilities — like someone who professes to not like football but when his home team scores he notices himself cheering.
How many are there who are angry? There would be many more who are angry than the number who have succumbed to hate. There are reported to be 5,000 soldiers in bin Laden’s army. Let’s assume these 5,000 are all infected with rabid hatred. This kind of hatred is a far cry from anger. Anger is commonplace. Anger is an everyday experience. Hardly a day can pass, hardly an hour actually, without a flash or rill of anger. Anger is normal. It ranges from irritation over trivial matters to rage over important matters.
When anger at the same thing is repeated over and over again, it becomes chronic anger, resentment. And when chronic anger is fed and reinforced in certain ways, it can become hatred. Out of a million people who have chronic anger, how many will develop the condition of rabid hatred? An educated guess is that about one in 25,000 people with chronic anger will develop rabid hatred. (The real number might be 1 in a 1000, or 1 in 100,000; the point is to stretch our minds to working with large numbers like these.) To produce 5,000 terrorists in bin Laden’s network with rabid hatred toward the United States, there would then have to be 125 million people with chronic anger and resentment toward us. This would be 10% of the total adherents of Islam, and this strikes me as about right. If this 10% figure holds up, and we apply to the entire world’s population, there would be about 600 million people angry at us. At any rate, there are a lot of people who are angry at us, and we can’t simply write them off as insane. And for every 5,000 who have crossed the line to insane hatred, there are another 5,000 on the brink of crossing the line. Each time we kill a terrorist, we add to the anger of those on the brink. For every terrorist down, a new one or two or three will appear.
So much for the view that the terrorist network is simply an irrational disease we can kill off. We have to deal with a much more widespread anger. In the media I have found two basic answers to the question, Why are they angry at us? One answer is: They are angry at democracy and freedom. Serge Schmemann wrote in the NY Times: “The terrorists who organized and carried out the attack on Tuesday … issued no demands, no ultimatums. They did it solely out of grievance and hatred — hatred for the values cherished in the West as freedom, tolerance, prosperity, religious pluralism, and universal suffrage, but abhorred by religious fundamentalists (and not only Muslim fundamentalists) as licentiousness, corruption, greed, and apostasy. The attack in Manhattan was not only against a nation or government, but against a symbol — the twin towers of Sodom and Mammon.” (9/16/2001) George Bush adopted this same view in his war speech to the Joint Session of Congress September 20: “They hate our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.”
The other basic answer says that they are angry at us because we have attacked them, oppressed them, and impoverished them, all to increase our own wealth and power. Robert Fisk wrote in The Nation shortly after the attack: “This is not really the war of democracy versus terror that the world will be asked to believe in the coming days. It is also about US missiles smashing into Palestinian homes and US helicopters firing missiles into a Lebanese ambulance in 1996 and American shells crashing into a village called Qana and about a Lebanese militia — paid and uniformed by America’s Israeli ally — hacking and raping and murdering their way through refugee camps.”
Seumas Milne wrote in The Guardian in London: “Since George Bush’s father inaugurated his new world order a decade ago, the US, supported by its British ally, bestrides the world like a colossus. Unconstrained by any superpower rival or system of global governance, the US giant has rewritten the global financial and trading system in its own interest; ripped up a string of treaties it finds inconvenient; sent troops to every corner of the globe; bombed Afghanistan, Sudan, Yugoslavia and Iraq without troubling the United Nations; maintained a string of murderous embargoes against recalcitrant regimes; and recklessly thrown its weight behind Israel’s 34-year illegal military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza as the Palestinian intifada rages…. It is this record of unabashed national egotism and arrogance that drives anti-Americanism among swaths of the world’s population, for whom there is little democracy in the current distribution of global wealth and power.”
Well before the attack, Harvard professor Samuel Huntington said that in the eyes of most of the world the US is seen as “THE rogue superpower,” considered “THE single greatest threat to their societies.” [quoted by Doug Morris in CounterPunch, 9/20/2001]
Not easy to take. Our ethical response is to engage in an honest self-examination and a taking of responsibility for what our country does abroad. Beyond this, the point that I want to make is that there is an important connection between the two explanations of why they are angry at us. Is it because they are religious fundamentalists? Or is because they feel oppressed by our wealth and power? My claim is this: religious fundamentalism is always itself a response to feeling oppressed by wealth and power. Fundamentalism is always prone to arise among people who feel left out of the good life. The two answers reduce finally to the same: People are angry because they feel oppressed by us, feel that there is an oppressive inequality of wealth and power. When people feel systematically cut off from material prosperity and personal dignity, they can air their grievance, they can deny their own feelings, they can look for ways to distract themselves from their feelings. Or, one of the most ingenious things they can do, and a certain number will use this strategy, is to invert their feeling into its opposite and proclaim triumphantly, “I didn’t want those things anyway because those things are bad. I repudiate those things, and I cling to my new faith in a God who condemns those things and who will reward me in the end.” This is a psychological, self-protective mechanism. Twist the feeling of non-self-worth into its opposite. Fundamentalism is not belief in God. Fundamentalism is a use of the belief in God to overcome feelings of indignity stemming from inequity of wealth, rights, and power.
So here are the two expressions of the world’s anger at us. The direct expression: “We have grievances against you; we want our fair share of prosperity, of political rights, and of personal dignity.” The indirect expression: “We do not want any of the things you value; we repudiate them; we will fight to keep from becoming contaminated by them.” The two expressions share the same source: Inequality of wealth, rights, and sense of dignity. A solution to this broad inequality would by the same stroke address the anger of those who state their grievances and remove the material condition upon which fundamentalism grows.
Karen Armstrong, in her scholarly study of the fundamentalist movements in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, The Battle For God (2000), writes: “One of the most startling developments of the late 20th century has been the emergence within every major religious tradition of a militant piety popularly known as ‘fundamentalism.’ Its manifestations are sometimes shocking [and violent]…. But even the most peaceful and law-abiding are perplexing, because they seem so adamantly opposed to many of the most positive values of modern society. Fundamentalists have no time for democracy, pluralism, religious toleration, peacekeeping, free speech, or the separation of church and state…. In the middle years of the twentieth century, it was generally taken for granted that secularism was an irreversible trend and that faith would never again play a major part in world events…. But in the late 1970’s, fundamentalists began to rebel against this secularist hegemony and started to wrest religion out of its marginal position and back to center stage.” [pp. xi-xii]
Why the late 1970’s? This date leaped out at me because of another writer, an economist, who wrote that 1970 was the watershed year in American economic history. It was the year that the U.S. government instituted policies that reversed the equalizing prosperity of the 50’s and 60’s and began the long journey toward steep inequalities of wealth in our country today. The same general pattern prevailed throughout the world, with rising multinational companies gaining greater influence over government policies. For example, Karen Armstrong writes of Egypt: “[In 1973] Sadat announced a new policy designed to bring Egypt into the capitalist world market. He called it ‘Open Door’… Open Door benefited a small percentage of the rising bourgeoisie, and a few Egyptians made a great deal of money. But the vast majority suffered. The ostentatious consumerism of the elite aroused intense disgust and discontent.” [pp. 288-289] Into this environment of inequality came a new religious fundamentalism, the Sunni, and in 1981 Sadat was assassinated by one of them. To Sadat’s funeral came no Arab leaders, and no crowds lined the streets.
It would take a long treatise to validate my claim that fundamentalism arises from conditions of felt inequality. But inequality has other pernicious effects as well. James Galbraith sums up his book, Created Unequal (1998), this way: “Since 1970 the pay gap between good and bad jobs in America has grown. It is now so wide that it threatens, as it did in the Great Depression, the social stability of the country. It has come to undermine our sense of ourselves as a nation of equals…. A high degree of inequality causes the comfortable to disavow the needy. It increases the psychological distance separating these groups, making it easier to imagine that defects of character or differences of culture, rather than an unpleasant turn in the larger schemes of economic history, lie behind the separation. High inequality has in this way caused our dreadful political condition. It has caused the bitter and unending struggle over the transfer state, the ugly battles over welfare, affirmative action, healthcare, Social Security, and the even more ugly preoccupation in some circles with the alleged relationship between race, intelligence and earnings. The ‘end of welfare as we know it’, to take just one example, became possible only as rising inequality insured that those who ended welfare did not know it, that they were detached from the life experiences of those on the receiving end.” [article in The Nation 9/7/98, p. 24]
These evils stem from the inequality itself. It largely doesn’t matter if the poorest in a country are actually well off; if there is a large gap between them and the richest, it poisons the possibility of community. But what caused the rise in inequality? Most Americans would say that inequality is just one of the costs of having our wonderful free-market system of capitalism. But here is a crucial point. There is no such thing as capitalism. There are only sets of agreements about trade that are in operation at any given time, and these vary widely, even if all are called capitalism. What caused the sharp rise in inequality since 1970 was particular economic policies that were put into place at that time. We can reverse the trend by influencing our legislators to adopt those policies which have proven to build toward more equality of wealth.
To greatly abbreviate Galbraith’s recommendations, he says that liberals are not wrong to agitate for progressive taxation and for generous public assistance programs, including Social Security. But in the long run this kind of redistribution is insufficient. As society grows increasingly unequal and increasingly unfriendly, the compensating transfers from the rich to the poor become odious and intolerable to everyone. Instead, we need to primarily focus on policies that promote patterns of wage equality, reducing the amount of redistribution needed to a minor percentage of economic activity. To do this, we need two things: (1) A return to policies of sustained full employment, which was given up in 1970, and (2) instead of trying to control inflation with high interest rates, as the Fed has done since 1970, establish low and stable interest rates. Galbraith has much more to say, but if you remember these two points, you will have the core of his program to restore greater equality among us.
Finally, I want to take Galbraith one step further, and add a note of ethics. I want to talk about community in its down-to-earth sense of people in a network of relationships resting on a foundation of friendly regard ranging from genuine interest to full caring. I’m talking about the kind of community we want the Ethical Society to be, and the kind of community we have in mind when we strive to create ethical culture.
There’s an ingredient of community that has been missed, probably because no one has wanted to say it. Community can flourish only when there is an underpinning of basic wealth equality among all the members of the community. I propose this as a fundamental ethical principle. Here’s what’s at stake.
Human beings seek community. Since community can flourish only when there is an underpinning of basic wealth equality among all the members of the community, human beings therefore seek to congregate with people who are closer rather than farther from themselves in terms of material prosperity.
Research has shown clearly that the happiness of people and of whole classes of people is not dependent on absolute wealth or poverty, but is dependent on relative wealth or poverty. A basic happiness, a basic contentment, a basic dignity of life, can be had in the direst of circumstances, barring starvation. But a basic sense of dignity is difficult to maintain when there is broad inequality among the members of your community. What the rich call jealousy on the part of the have-nots is most of the time just a simple recognition on the part of the poor of the strain in human community that offends the moral conscience.
A humanly significant, mutually sharing conversation cannot be engaged in by two people with widely divergent lifestyles based on wealth. I know about these things because I was a waiter for many years, surviving just above the poverty line, and on the one hand had to carry on conversations with customers of great wealth, and on the other hand be cordial with dishwashers who lived below the poverty line. If I find it very interesting to talk about the details of bus schedules, the different bus drivers, the particular people who get on and off at distinct bus stops, the kinks in the system of transfers, tips for mastering the whole process of getting to where you want to go, and you have zero experience of this world and no prospect of experiencing it, these details of which I speak will be meaningless to you, and there will be no conveyance of human regard between the two of us. Meanwhile, the details that get your attention are stock portfolios, interest rates, insider tips, or on the other hand, ways to save money on luxury cars, etc., I may listen with politeness, but no authentic interest. There’s a strain between us. An extra emotional reaction interferes with the simple communitarian exchange. I know about these things because I have one daughter who is much richer than I am, and one daughter who is much poorer than I am. If I’m the wealthier of the two of us, I will feel something about the discrepancy in wealth between us. I might feel sorry — sorry that you’re not about as well off as me — and this sentiment will entrain others that interfere with the simple exchange of human interest. I will feel triggered to ask myself, “Should I do something to offset the discrepancy? Should I give this person something? Money? Advice?”
Or I may not feel sorry. I may feel contempt — contempt that this person has not planned hard enough or worked hard enough to bring himself up to the level of wealth I enjoy.
Or I may feel neither sorry nor contempt, but a numbness. A self-induced numbness or a studied indifference in order to not feel sadness or contempt. Or I may feel angry, because being with you makes me start to feel sad or contemptuous or numb.
If I am the poorer of the two, I will likely feel sorry that we seem unable to share stories with each other. Some emotion will address the discrepancy. Awkwardness is the feeling of being out of joint with each other in our sharing of our stories. My feelings may run from self-contempt for being poor and being ignorant of the details of your stories, to anger at you for flaunting your lifestyle.
In our culture, individuality is prized over community. Community is always sought, but always as subsidiary to individuality. What happens when someone rises from the ranks of the poor to the ranks of the rich? Does he take his newly acquired fortune and subdivide it equally among all members of the personal community to which he belonged before he became rich? That would be putting community first, keeping it intact by arranging an equal material substrate for all involved. But that is not what happens. The newly rich person keeps his wealth — or most of it — securely attached to himself as an individual or to his marriage unit, a concession to community, and he finds himself a new community — a new community of people whose wealth per person is roughly equivalent to his own.
For these simple common sense reasons, a basic equality of wealth is necessary for community. Since community is a moral imperative, basic equality of wealth is a moral imperative. There’s a thought to consider. Objections about the impracticality of such a proposal or the dogma that self-interest and desire for ever-increasing personal wealth is what drives the energy of capitalism toward creative innovation, will have to answered. I am utterly confident that such objections can be answered, and answered easily, once we get the right angle on them, because my faith is that what is ethically mandatory is practically possible. In some future year, the federal government will have a new cabinet-level office: the Department of Ethical Economic Design, or D.E.E.D., the Department of Deed for short. Centuries from now, if we make it that far, we’ll still be calling it capitalism, but what a different set of policies and regulations and agreements and priorities will be in place!
“So Andy, what’s your religion?”
“Well, I’m an Ethical Humanist.”
“An ethical what?”
The setting is a hotel porch in Kansas City at about 11:30 at night, and I’m on a school band trip with my friends. Now, I have a theory that at a certain time in the night the teenage brain somehow switches from the typical day-to-day machine to an intellectual, philosophical machine. When it does this, then it creates the best discussion questions in the world. It has just reached this time for myself and my friends.
An example of these conversation starters is, “Is the entire universe really finite or infinite?” The one put forth tonight was not very intellectual or deep for most, but for me it usually becomes a full hour discussion.
Around the porch, we learned that out of the four of us, we had two Christians, one Jewish person, and one Ethical “what?” Since I got this response that I receive more times than I care to count. I began to go into my usual Ethical Humanism 101 for my friends. Even after an in-depth explanation of my belief in the goodness of man, and the Ethical Society’s statement of purpose, I still got looks of disbelief and questioning. I decided to give up on my quest of explanation. A couple of minutes later, the conversation ended and we went on to things like calling other rooms and getting into stupid arguments, ya’know, important teenage stuff like that. This particular conversation has probably become a phantom of memory to my friends, but to me it became another in a long line of misunderstood religious conversations.
I am here today to tell you about what it is like to belong to youth society and the Ethical Society. First of all, I want to reassure you that I’m not here to tell you a tale about religious misrepresentation, but to share some of my experiences and to give my perspective of the responsibility of young Ethical members.
First, my experiences: the following encounters have occurred over the past two years. Ironically enough, this was about the same time that I was becoming more aware of my religious standpoints and views. I think that the same thing was happening with my peers, hence that heated response I received every time I tried to explain the entire notion of my religion. I believe they viewed it as a threat to their thinking, when in fact it was not. So, my example. I’m in seventh grade. Today my Unified Studies class has some high school visitors and is doing a reach-out program with the middle school. In this program we were asked to write down some people who we admired; included in my list was Felix Adler. After being asked who he was, I explained as much as I knew about him and a little about Ethical Humanism.
At the time I didn’t know much beyond the fact that he was the founder of the Ethical movement, and therefore admired him. The rest of that day came very uneventful. But the next came action-packed. Towards the end of Unified Studies, we were given some free time to work on our homework. In this time, the kid sitting behind me, who we will call Thomas, pulled out a bible and started reading me a passage. After about a minute of Corinthians, I asked him what he was doing and he calmly responded with, “Trying to convert you.” I then said “No thanks, but thanks for the gesture.” He continued to read. At this point, he and I both knew that he was past trying to convert me and moved on to trying to anger me. I continued to work quietly while he continued to read. About five minutes later, the bell rang, and I left. From this experience, I took away two things. One, the understanding that along with belonging to a religion like Ethical Humanism sometimes comes explaining and misunderstanding, the second thing that I took away from this experience was my finished homework. Side note–Thomas came to class the next day without his homework. After that year, I never saw Thomas again, and thankfully so.
My other experience was not as drawn out, but managed to hold more power than my first. It took place at a school dance. I was having a great night with my friends, and one person managed to ruin it, for about five minutes. It was right after the end of a song, and a girl came up to me with another one of her friends. The girl asked me, “Is that him?” The other girl, who happened to be in my Unified Class the previous year, responded with “Yep”. The first girl then called me an atheist, and told me to get out. Since I was having too good of a time I didn’t even honor her with a response, I simply turned around and I left her to believe whatever she wanted to believe. This further supports the idea of my peers feeling threatened by me. Luckily, that was in the past, and I have not had an encounter like that since. I have found that most of my friends have decided on their religious beliefs, and have matured, these both contributing to a more calmed and respected response to my religion. I now have more valued and in-depth discussions with my friends instead of negative ones. I have also found that the weekly discussions that I have with the Youth Group help me better understand my Ethical friends and their viewpoints.
Next, I want to tell you about my thoughts on faith. It may seem like I’m downplaying other religions. But I really feel that religion or faith is one of the most important things in life. It gives one hope and emotional strength. In his book, William J. Bennett considered faith to be one of his top ten virtues, and I agree. Another thing that I felt was important was to give you my idea of responsibility that I and others should have. I have spoken to people who do not reveal their affiliation with the Ethical Society because they feel that whomever they reveal that to would not understand and therefore treat them differently. I have also spoken with one of my other friends who is an agnostic. He feels afraid to reveal his beliefs to certain teachers who have different religious beliefs, because of what they will think of him later. I feel that it is mine and hopefully other’s responsibility to make life so that people can openly associate themselves with certain religious beliefs and not have to fear the effects of it. This is my hope and wish.
In conclusion, I want to reiterate my feeling that faith is phenomenal and every human needs it, whether they find it in a rabbit’s toe or God. I also send the message to the young Ethical Humanists in the crowd, to be proud of what you belong to, for it is more special than you will ever know. And I end with a quote from Immanuel Kant:
Two things fill my mind with ever increasing wonder and awe . . . the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.
Perhaps the two most fundamental questions that humans face are: “Why are things the way they are?” and “How should we behave.” Traditional religions answer the first question with creation stories. Think of the Biblical Genesis:
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said let there be light….
Or from the Hindu Satapatha Brahmana:
Verily, in the beginning, this universe was water, nothing but a sea of water. The waters desired, “How can we be reproduced?” They toiled and performed fervid devotions: when they were becoming heated, a golden egg was produced…. In a year’s time… Prajapati [the first being] was produced from the egg. Desirous of offspring he went on singing praises and toiling. He laid the power of reproduction into his own self. By the breath of his mouth he created the gods…
These creation narratives do more than just respond to the question of why things are the way they are. The stories also serve as a basis for guiding behavior: they attempt to explain where good and evil come from and what actions are correct — in other words “How should we behave.” Think of the Judeo-Christian story of original sin in the Garden of Eden. That sin is supposed to explain why this life is full of toil and suffering. Only by faith and obedience can we be forgiven and enter heaven after death.
The Hindu scripture has a simpler explanation of evil. After Prajapati created the gods by his breath, he created the demons by his flatulence.
From our modern perspective, we recognize that the creation stories told by traditional religions are myths: narratives invented to explain what was otherwise unexplainable. The fact that the narratives are invented implies a more important problem: Each story is different, a narrative of creation and history of one particular group of people. Each group sees themselves as the focus of creation, the “chosen” ones. And we know what that can — and often does — lead to: intolerance, persecution, war. The God of one group of people will smite the infidels, the enemies of that group. Here is just one recent example, from the New York Times, Nov. 22, 2000:
“In the name of the holy Torah, we are warning you, Arafat…,” said Israeli Rabbi Elnekave, “dare not touch… anyone among us… [or] we will pray to our Creator that He take you away.”
The scientific story provides an alternative explanation for why things are as they are. It has two advantages over the religious creation myths: It is true and it is universal. I should qualify the first of these: science does not give us Truth with a capital T. It is a self-correcting process that gets closer and closer to a true description of reality, but never actually arrives at some ultimate, absolute Truth. Yet even its relative truth is certainly universal: The scientific story of the origins of the universe, the earth, life, consciousness is the same for all of us.
Before telling this scientific story, let me start with a brief guide to our universe. We live on a planet that is 25,000 miles in circumference. That is so big that few of us make the journey in a lifetime. Yet our nearest neighbor, the moon is about 10 times further. Going to the moon gave us some perspective. Views of the Earth from space have, I believe, changed forever the way we view ourselves.
The sun is about 400 times further away than the moon. In fact it is so far that it takes light, moving at the incredible speed of 186,000 miles/second, about 8 minutes to get to us from the sun. The sun is just an ordinary middle-aged star, but it is important to us because we are close to it. The nearest star other than the sun is Proxima Centauri, about 24 trillion miles away. It takes light 4 years to get to us from Proxima Centauri — in other words, we say Proxima Centauri is 4 light years away. Let me give you some sense of how big that distance is: A trip to Proxima Centauri at the speed of the Apollo rocket (25,000 MPH) would take 100,000 years — about as long as our species, Homo Sapiens, has existed. Or another way: if you stood on Proxima Centauri and looked at the Earth, it would appear the same size as a penny viewed from 100,000 miles away.
About 100 billion stars like our sun or Proxima Centauri make up our galaxy, the Milky Way, which is about 70,000 light years across. The nearest other galaxy to ours is Andromeda, about 2.5 million light years away. Since Andromeda is 2.5 million light years away, we see Andromeda as it was 2.5 million years ago — when our ancestors were still coming down from the trees and developing the ability to walk upright. We believe Andromeda looks very much like our own galaxy. Galaxies themselves are grouped in huge clusters. We are part of the so-called Virgo cluster, whose center, a large concentration of galaxies, is about 60 million light years away.
The light we see now from galaxies 8 to 10 billion light years distant, left them well before our own sun or Earth had formed. All told there are may be 100 billion galaxies like this in the “observable universe.” We are clearly a very small part of the whole scheme of things.
Distant galaxies, like the ones we just saw, are moving away from us and from each other. We know this from the Doppler effect on their light — the same effect that makes the sound of a speeding ambulance siren decrease in pitch as it passes us. In fact, the further a galaxy is from us, the faster away it’s moving. This is the so-called “expansion of the universe.” Now imagine that someone took a movie of the expansion. If you ran the movie backwards, you would see the galaxies coming closer and closer together. In fact, the current speeds imply that at some time in the distant past — about 14 billion years ago — the galaxies were all in the same place at the same time. Indeed, they would have been crammed so closely together that they wouldn’t have been galaxies at all, just a very dense concentration of matter and energy. And it would have been incredibly hot; because when matter is compressed it heats up. (Think of how warm a bicycle pump gets when you use it to compress air into a bicycle tire.) The hot, dense concentration of matter and energy exploded in what we call the Big Bang, the start of our universe.
So, “In the beginning was the Big Bang.” Well, not quite. At some very early point, the universe would have been too dense and too hot for our current understanding of the laws of physics to be applicable. We cannot say what happened before that time. As I mentioned before, science can’t give us ultimate answers to questions — only relative ones. There is always a “what caused that?” that can come before.
So a better start is “Shortly after the beginning, there existed a state of matter and energy that we understand, and whose future evolution we can explain.” How much understanding you want determines how early you are willing to go. I like to start at about 10-32 (decimal point followed by 31 zeroes and a 1) seconds after the beginning. Our current observable universe was at that time about the size of a beach ball, and the temperature was 3×1026 (3 followed by 26 O’s) degrees Celsius. It was much too hot for normal matter to exist: everything was broken into its tiniest components. (This is the same effect that makes the molecules of liquid water separate and make up a gas (steam) when the temperature gets high enough.) Quarks, the constituents of protons and neutrons, moved around freely — not bound together at all. Indeed, protons, neutrons, atomic nuclei, and atoms would not exist at that time. Aside from esoteric particles that need not concern us here, there were just quarks, electrons, and radiation — electromagnetic waves of all frequencies, including what we call “light.”
At that early time, the universe was expanding at an enormous rate. And as it expanded, it cooled. A hundred thousandth of a second later, it was already 100 times the current earth-sun distance in size, and would have cooled to a temperature of a mere 10 trillion degrees. It was then cool enough that protons and neutrons could form out of the quarks. A little while later, 3 minutes after the Big Bang, it cooled enough for protons and neutrons to join together. About 1/7 of the protons joined with neutrons to make helium nuclei, which are combinations of 2 protons and 2 neutrons. But, interestingly, no larger nucleus than helium — nothing with more than 2 protons and 2 neutrons — was made at this time: no carbon, no oxygen, no iron. This is because the expansion of the universe soon separated the protons and neutrons and helium nuclei enough to isolate them and prevent further joining together.
The next important event occurred about 300,000 years after the Big Bang. At that time, it was cool enough — about 5000 degrees — for normal, neutral atoms to form for the first time. These were atoms of hydrogen, which has one electron orbiting a single proton, and helium, which has 2 electrons orbiting its nucleus. A neutral atom is a combination of negatively charged electrons and an equally positive nuclei; it has no net electric charge. Since light and other electromagnetic waves interact with electric charges, they have only a tiny probability of interacting with neutral atoms. Thus most of the light that existed at that time just continued moving in straight lines from then to now, without hitting anything. The glow from the hot matter that existed previously is thus still present today. All that has happened in the meantime is the electromagnetic waves have been cooled — reduced in frequency — by the expansion of the universe. The white-hot glow 300,000 years after the Big Bang cooled first to red hot, and then cooled below the visible range. So an imaginary observer at that time would see the glow disappear, and the universe cloaked in blackness. Today the glow still exists as microwave radiation, well below the visible range. It was discovered in 1964 by researchers at Bell Laboratories trying to study microwave emission in our galaxy. They found a glow coming equally from all directions. At first they attributed it to some problem with their antenna — perhaps the pigeon droppings on it — but when it persisted after they cleaned the antenna, they began to think it was real. Today we are sure that the so-called Cosmic Microwave Background exists. Indeed, some of the static seen on a TV tuned to an unused channel is due to that microwave radiation left over from the Big Bang. The Cosmic Microwave Background has now been measured very accurately and is an invaluable source of information about our universe at the young age of 300,000 years.
After the glow became invisible, the universe was dark for a long time. In the dark, gravity did its long, slow, silent work, pulling clumps of matter together. About a billion years later, scattered points of light started to appear — these were the first stars, gradually winking on like city lights at dusk. Gravity had produced enough heat in the compressed clumps of matter to reignite the nuclear ovens.
Inside big stars, the small nuclei made earlier were pushed close enough together to make heavier nuclei — first carbon, then oxygen, neon, magnesium, silicon, sulfur, upwards toward iron, that most stable of all nuclei. The biggest stars burned the fastest, going through the whole chain up to iron in as little as 25 or 50 million years. Such stars would then explode in an enormous dying gasp — a supernova explosion — blowing the newly made elements back out into space.
The heavier elements, made in stars and blown out into space by supernova explosions, then mixed with the hydrogen and helium already there, and some of that gas and dust condensed by gravitational attraction into new stars. The larger new stars would explode once again, repeating the cycle many times. After about 8 billion years of such element cooking, about 4.5 billion years ago, a moderate sized, run-of-the mill star condensed in our neighborhood. This was our sun. As a moderate sized star, it has a relatively long lifetime — about 10 billion years — so it is not quite middle aged yet. From left-over gas and dust condensed several planets, including our Earth. The atoms that make up our Earth — carbon, oxygen, silicon, sulfur, iron — are those that were formed inside stars. So our Earth is in fact made of stardust — and so are we.
The birthright of the Earth also includes relatively small amounts of heavy, radioactive elements such as uranium, made in the supernova explosions themselves. Decay of these elements heats the Earth, keeping it on a slow boil. Where the hot rock reaches the sea floor are so called “hydrothermal vents.” Although it is by no means proven, current theory says that life began about 4 billion years ago at one of these hydrothermal vents. The high temperature and pressure and the presence of facilitators — catalysts — like iron and sulfur produced complex molecules out of the available carbon, oxygen, phosphorus, nitrogen and hydrogen. Those molecules included nucleic acids as well as pyruvate, a fatty substance that would have joined to form soap-bubble-like enclosures. At some point, the nucleic acids in one of these enclosures combined to make chain-like molecules, called RNA, that could facilitate the copying of molecules like themselves. That was the beginning of life.
Once life existed, the immensely powerful forces of mutation and natural selection would come into play. Inaccurate copying — either through flaws in the copying mechanism or through environmental insults — would necessarily occur, producing new versions of RNA. Most of these variations would be worse than the original and be unsuccessful in copying themselves in turn. But once in a while the new version would be better at copying itself and would proliferate at the expense of the original.
After some time, the more efficient modern version of life evolved, with DNA taking the role of the “blueprint,” while proteins became the facilitators of chemical reactions like copying and metabolism. About 2.4 billions years ago modern photosynthesis evolved, producing free oxygen in the atmosphere for the first time, making possible life on land and setting the stage for the evolution of modern animals and plants. The production of oxygen was obviously crucial to our evolution, but it should be kept in mind that it was an environmental disaster for many of the pre-existing creatures for whom free oxygen was a poison.
During the course of evolution, the surface of the Earth has been continually changing. Kept “on the boil” by radioactive elements deep in its interior, the Earth bubbled and cracked — and still does today. Pieces of the Earth’s crust slide around like the surface of a thick bubbling pot of soup. That is “continental drift.” It is slow by human measure — St. Louis, as part of the North American continental plate, is moving westward at about the rate a fingernail grows. Yet continental drift, coupled with the effects of volcanoes and the impact of meteors, has been continually rearranging old environments and creating new ones — leading to the incredible variety of life on Earth.
The first multi-cellular organisms appeared a mere 600 million years ago. The division of labor that multi-cellularity made possible led to a proliferation of new life forms. Within 50 million years the first predatory weapons — jaws and teeth — appeared, and in response, the defensive weapons of shells and spines. This was the start of the “arms race” between predator and prey that has continued up the present. Twenty million years later, the first representative of the phylum chordata, of which we are a member, shows up in the fossil record. This creature was very similar to Amphioxus. It had a notochord, the stiffening rod that a hundred million years later would become the backbone of vertebrates, and a tiny nerve chord, which later evolved into a spinal chord, and ultimately, a brain. Indeed the brain has proved the most powerful weapon in that arms race between predator and prey, making possible rapid, coordinated movements, and, in more recent times, strategy and planning.
The most important division of labor brought on by multi-cellularity was the division between the “soma” (the body) and the “germ line” (the cells) that make eggs and sperm. The germ line takes on the responsibility of reproduction itself, while the soma does everything else that life does: breathing, moving, finding and eating food, thinking, finding a mate, raising young. This division of labor makes possible the enormous variety and adaptability that we see in multi-cellular animals, but it also comes at an enormous cost: death. One-celled creatures like bacteria or amoebae do not die, except by accident. They just keep growing and dividing — in principle forever. But once the soma lost its direct reproductive function, there was no longer an evolutionary requirement that it live forever. The “immortality” function has been taken over by the germ line alone — our genes live forever through our children. That is all evolution pushes for, after all — that genes be passed on to offspring. Our bodies and our consciousness are indeed just short-term visitors to the universe.
As Ursula Goodenough likes to say, “Death is the price we pay for having a brain.” Looked at this way, it’s a bargain. Most would agree that life in what doctors call a “persistent vegetative state” is not worth living. And none of us would trade places with an immortal bacterium.
OK. That, in brief, is the scientific story of why things are as they are. Can this guide to our universe also be a guide to our actions, an answer to the question of how we should behave? Robert Wright, in his book The Moral Animal, discusses the evolution of altruism in our species. Initially altruism was directed only at relatives: our kin share many of the same genes with us, so by helping our relatives we help our own genes. This kin-directed altruism is what drives the apparently selfless behavior of social insects like bees. Later, altruism extended to members of the same group or tribe, even if they were not directly related. This so-called “reciprocal altruism” is based on a “tit for tat” mechanism — “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine.” Since reciprocal altruism would leave both people better off, it had an evolutionary advantage. According to Robert Wright, our feeling of gratitude when someone does us a good turn is merely evolution’s way of enforcing reciprocal altruism, making sure we repay a favor with a favor. But there is also a stick with this carrot: We have a feeling of righteous indignation, leading to a desire for revenge, when people transgress against us. This “Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” heritage is deeply ingrained in us. It finds expression, for example, in our punitive criminal justice system.
In the end, I don’t think one can base a morality on reciprocal altruism. Reciprocal altruism is really just enlightened self-interest, but driven by emotions created by evolution, rather than reason. Morality should be something more than that — we believe that truly moral actions are done for their own sake, not for what they will buy us. Indeed, I don’t think you can logically deduce ethics from science at all. Attempting to do so would make us guilty of what philosopher G. E. Moore called the “Naturalistic Fallacy” — trying to deduce what should happen from what does happen. But I do think that the scientific narrative can be a starting point from which we can develop a true Morality.
For one thing the scientific story is universal, unlike the proliferation of creation stories that come from traditional religions. As Loyal Rue says in his book, Everybody’s Story, “the photo [of the earth] from space has taught us one thing for sure: there is only one story.” If we’re all in the same boat, then perhaps we can see each other as spiritual sisters and brothers and treat each other with true altruism. In fact, we humans differ in less than 1% of our genes. When we realize that we really are sisters and brothers in this genetic sense, maybe our kin-directed altruism can be put in service of all humanity. It is believed that the word “religion” comes from the Latin root, “religare,” meaning to bind together. A religion grounded in the scientific story could truly bind us all together.
And finally, science shows us the incredible beauty of the universe. Some might say that rational, scientific understanding of the mechanisms of the universe diminishes our spiritual connection to it. I think the reverse is true: science gives us a front row seat from which to observe and appreciate the majesty and mystery of the universe. The resulting awe and wonder are reasons enough to feel a gratitude to nature for our existence. And as we know, gratitude is nature’s way of getting us to repay a favor. So let us repay it by treating all of creation with respect and love.
Well, here we are on a Sunday morning. Other people in the city are attending church or temple. We come here. What is that we’re doing when we do what we do here on a Sunday morning? At the New York Society this morning, people can read a declaration inscribed right on the wall behind the speaker: “Where people meet to seek the highest is holy ground.” What we do here on Sunday morning has something to do with that.
In general, our Movement has four broad components. If any one is missing, we’re not hitting on all four cylinders. We jerk and sputter along. We need all four. One is our emphasis on moral action. “Deed before creed.” That’s right, “put up or shut up.” A second cylinder is Community — friendship and mutual encouragement. A third cylinder is our scientific approach to moral knowledge — Think something is right, test it, revise what you thought, test again, get confirmation from others. The fourth cylinder is: Feeling. Whoa! How’d that one sneak in? Feeling? It’s as though we’re a little embarrassed by feeling. Hasn’t science put feeling in its place — subsidiary to mind? Isn’t feeling the thing that gets us into trouble? Isn’t feeling the demon that leads us into accepting irrational beliefs, out of fear or desperation? Well, yes and no. Feeling out of touch with thought, out of balance with life, can lead to massive delusion, just as thought out of touch with feeling can do the same. But the fact is, I believe, that a certain Feeling is the fourth essential cylinder of our Movement. One way it might be described is a feeling of awe toward the moral core of reality.
So why do we gather together on a Sunday morning? Cylinder # 1 is moral action. Is our Sunday gathering like a committee meeting where we gain new information and plan strategies for moral action? Yes, partly. But members of our Ethical Action committee know that they still need to hold their own meeting anyway. Cylinder # 2 is community. Certainly our gathering today is a form of communalizing, yet is less interactive than community-building in the usual sense. Cylinder # 3 is moral science. Here too, we will often find examination of some moral issue and the various evidences that have come to light, but of course this is just the tip of the iceberg. Cylinder # 4 is the feeling of awe. I would like to suggest to you that our Sunday meeting, while supporting all four cylinders, most particularly aims to give fuel and spark to the fourth cylinder, the feeling of moral awe.
Where people meet to seek the highest is holy ground. Adler wrote, looking back, that the “impulse that led originally to the formation of Ethical Societies sprang from the profound feeling that the life of man needs to be consecrated” and that the old ways of consecrating human life were no longer working. “The Holiness conception,” Adler wrote, “had been my starting point. I never gave it up.”
Where people meet to seek the highest is holy ground.
Well, here we are, meeting.
Here we are to seek the highest.
If ever there were holy ground, this is it.
If ever people can draw upon the spiritual heft of one another’s presence, it is now, here.
If ever spirituality means anything more than a wisp of a wish, it is here, now, among us.
What is spirituality? This!
Our shared feeling, our shared thought, our shared intention and will, our shared attention and focus in this moment, is spiritual, is holy, is sustenance for our deeper lives.
Whatever words and concepts we find to describe this experience, they will always capture only fragments of the experience, and we must always return to the experience itself to recall what we mean when we say the words, “holy ground.”
What is it about this experience that is different from our ordinary experience? Is it not that in the intention to seek and open up to the highest, we drop the evaluations of ourselves that we routinely carry with us: “I’m a worker, and that has such-and-such a value to myself, to my family, and to my society,” “I’m a humorist, I’m a realist, I’m a thinker, I’m a helper, I’m a community-leader, and what I am is of such-and-such a value” — we drop all these evaluations, and we regard ourselves fresh, as having an infinite core value, not relative to anything else, an Intrinsic Worth that can be relaxed into, because it does not have to be defended.
And at the same time we do this for ourselves, we do the same for all those present with us seeking the highest. Our usual evaluations can dart around in our heads like a thousand barracuda just under the surface. We clear the water. We clear the air. In the safety of our intentional gathering, we open our minds and our hearts to the core of those around us, and we acknowledge their core value, not relative to anything else, and we relax and rejoice.
Adler wrote these wonderful words:
We can love only that which is lovable. If we could see holiness, beauty concealed within our fellow-beings, we should be drawn towards them by the most powerful attraction, willingly living in their life, and permitting them to live in ours. We should then love all men, for we should see in all what is unspeakably lovable…. We must somehow learn to regard the empirical traits, odious, harmful or merely commonplace and vulgar as they may be, as the mask, the screen interposed between our eyes and the real self of others. We must acquire the faculty of second sight, of seeing the lovable self as the true self.
What do we do then on a Sunday morning? Number one, we draw ourselves up to a higher intention — our intention to seek the highest. Number two, we drop our usual defenses; we relax into the feeling of a shared intention; we impute the same intention of seeking the highest to all those present with us. Beautiful music serves as an analogy and a lead-in. As we relax into the music, we assume — or perhaps we feel — that everyone else is relaxing into the music as well — and our musical experience deepens. So too, our shared intention to seek the highest. Third, we allow ourselves to shift into an alternate mode of perception, one in which we see ourselves and each other present as lovable selves.
Does this simple practice, this essential component of ours, make us a religion? What do you think? Are we a religion? The answer we give is important, because it affects the attitude we adopt toward the billions of people in the religions of the world, and the attitude we convey to people who may be interested in joining us.
Adler himself used the term “religion” according to the common meaning of the day. Religion meant a set of beliefs about ultimate reality and about how that connected with our moral striving in life. Religion was a certain set of beliefs. Adler personally had such a set of beliefs, which he developed over many years. But Ethical Culture has never asked members to accept any particular set of beliefs as creed. Thus Adler could say, “Ethical Culture is not my religion; Ethical Religion is my religion.” That is, he called his own set of ultimate beliefs his Ethical Religion, but you did not have to accept his religion — that is, his set of beliefs about ultimate reality — to belong to Ethical Culture.
All this was based on the narrow meaning of religion as a set of beliefs. But our understanding of the nature of religion has deepened and broadened in a century of sociological and anthropological study. For people today, “religion” means much more than a set of beliefs about ultimate reality. Religion has a tone of importance and exaltation that grabs the whole person, in feeling, thought, will, imagination, and aspiration. If we say to someone, Ethical Culture is not a religion, that means something entirely different today than it did a century ago. What it would say to the modern listener is that Ethical Culture is not a wholehearted endeavor, not something in which to find total felt meaning. If Adler were speaking today, I believe that he would say, “Ethical Culture is my religion; and based on the fundamental affirmations of Ethical Culture, I have also gone on to develop my own metaphysical set of beliefs about ultimate reality, which you are welcome to accept, develop, reject, or ignore.”
I am going to turn now to a scholar of religion, Huston Smith, whose text on the religions of the world is regarded as the leading resource for encompassing the major religions in one volume. He reveals, as though from the inside, the spirit of Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and what he calls the Primal Religions, by which he means the native traditions of Australia, Africa, ocean islands, and the Americas. Huston Smith’s great work, The World’s Religions, was first published in 1958. Very recently however, he wrote a foreword to another book, and he used the opportunity to distill his 50 years of study and immersion in the various religions down to a concise statement about the nature of religion, and it is fascinating. He doesn’t give the usual insider’s answer that religion is the worship of God. Yet he does not give the usual outsider’s answer either, that religion is a cultural phenomenon by which people hypnotize themselves into enjoyable trance states and anxiety-relieving belief systems.
Rather, his answer is wholly original and perceptive. Here is what he actually says:
Whether revelation issues from God or from the deepest unconscious of spiritual geniuses, …its signature is invariably power. The periodic explosions… of this power in history are what created the world’s great religions, and by extension, the civilizations they have bodied forth. Its dynamite is its news of another world.
The radical socialists among us hate this kind of statement, and I have to honor their reaction, because they teach us that we should aim for a world in which economic structures serve rather than subvert ethical values. In the radical view, all religions are propaganda. That is, people with power promote those religious ideas which justify their power and increase it. But this observation can be completely true without denying that there may be something more in the religion than those aspects that the ruling class can turn to their advantage. This more can even be the essential part of religion.
And so I get back to Huston Smith: The periodic incursions of revelation in history are what created the world’s great religions. Its dynamite is its news of another world.
News of another world. This, Smith says, is what a religion is. Proclamation of this news is what all the major religions have done, is the thing that religions do that give them their power and their massive success. Why should news of another world be such dynamite? Imagine you grew up in a cave, and the cave was the only world you ever knew. Yes, you experienced some pleasure and saw a bit of dim light — you painted on the cave walls — but pain and darkness ruled your life. Then one day someone bursts into your world with news that there is another world! And that it is full of pleasure and light. And that there is a way to get to it. If you can trust this messenger, the news is dynamite. You take time to observe this person, his or her mannerisms, sincerity, sanity, the degree of openness and love that is present. If everything you see confirms that this person is normal, indeed is even more sane and more loving than normal, indeed that there seems to be a radiance of personality, then the excitement of the news becomes dynamite, a cultural explosion. It is news, and it is good news.
But if this is what religion is, don’t we have to say, We’re not one? News of another world? I don’t think so! More like news of no other world! This is it, buddy. Live with it. Wake up and smell the coffee. Stop and smell the roses.
Well, actually we don’t go so far as to say there are no other worlds; we just say, ” Other world or not, the key is deed in this one.” But we definitely do not bring news of another world. Not only are we not a religion by this standard, but if the one thing that religions do that attract millions into their fold is to bring news of another world, the implication is clear: we are going to remain small, hardly a blip on the radar screen of world religions.
But wait! We’ve jumped in too fast. We assumed we knew what Huston Smith meant by “news of another world.” Let’s go back to his words.
Whether revelation issues from God or from the deepest unconscious of spiritual geniuses, its signature is invariably power. The periodic explosions of this power in history are what created the world’s great religions, and by extension, the civilizations they have bodied forth. Its dynamite is its news of another world. Revelation [in these religions] invariably tells us of a separate (though not removed) order of existence.
“A separate (though not removed) order of existence.” The powerful religions bring convincing news of a separate order of existence, yet not one disconnected from this one. The trouble comes in when people start trying to picture this, or try to communicate it in pictures. Almost always the image that comes to dominate the feeling and thinking in these religions is that the other world is “above” this one. We connect to it by rising up in thought or feeling or desire. Our world is below, and that one is above. The irresistible pull of this image sees to it that we bring in ideas of hierarchy and one-way authority, top-down. We seem to have a built-in bias for thinking of up as better. After all, in our evolutionary history, we stood up. We looked down on the lower animals. And right now, my neocortex sits on top of the older parts of my brain that handle such “lower” functions as feelings, or sexuality. The Good News of another world, fresh and dizzying in the moment it’s originally proclaimed, gets fast translated into our habitual categories of “up = better”, and therefore the other world must be up, in comparison with which this world is dirty, lowly. The Good News becomes: how to escape from this one. Yes, our ordinary world is rescued from being a place of hell, but it does not become a place to celebrate. But what if a messenger brought us news of a different world, and the further news that this different world is simply a different dimension of our world, news of another way of taking the very world we are in? What if the good news that all of the powerful religions have been trying to proclaim is an ability to shift to an alternate perception of reality, and that this shift is better described as lateral, sidewise, rather than a shift up? Prayer would no longer be “I lift up my heart to Thee, O Lord,” but “I shift my heart and see.”
A digression. An example of shift from another field. Physicist Victor Stenger has been one of those who have cautioned against too-easy translations of quantum puzzles into spiritual cosmologies. For example, one of his books is titled, Not By Design! But in his new book, Symmetry, Simplicity, and Multiple Universes, he argues that at its deepest level, reality is literally timeless. Not at the level of ordinary experience — unfortunately no time-travel for us — but at the underlying level of reality, there is no time. If that doesn’t take your breath away, I don’t know what could! In the molecule of air sitting on my finger, the subatomic particles and energies inside it are timeless. So with every speck of my body — go deep enough and we pass out of time. Time and the timeless. Food for thought. Food for feeling. Just an example of what might be meant when we talk about making the mental shift from our ordinary reality to the same reality in different light, coextensive with it.
I believe that Adler was bringing radical news of another world, that is, of another dimension of this world. From the outset, we have had a positive feeling toward this world, our positive feeling that this world is worth living in and fighting for. At the same time that we’ve focused on this world, we’ve been groping toward a way to express our intuition of the moral character of reality. If your sense of the moral character of reality is a heavy and burdensome one, then you are not experiencing the news we’ve been trying to proclaim. You are probably thinking hierarchically, with the moral standards somehow floating above you, implying your own unworthiness.
In Adler’s day, the feeling was that the old religions would soon wither away. Many people had heard the good news of the freedom to think. It was to them good news that religions had been debunked, and that no-longer-meaningful superstitions and rituals could be left behind. This news predated Ethical Culture. Ethical Culture simply appealed to the large group of people who felt free of religious superstition, and it called them to ethics. It was like a Good News – Bad News scenario. The good news of the day was liberation from oppressive and institutional religion. The bad news, brought by Ethical Culture, was that “Liberated and exhilarated as you now are, you still must behave ethically!” Well, bad news has never won many followers. It’s a wonder the messenger wasn’t killed! It doesn’t help us or anyone if we go around proclaiming bad news, especially when the news that we really have discovered is great good news.
The good news that we have to proclaim is this: Extra! Extra! Read all about it! There is another world. We’re not doomed to this world of pain and bleak evaluations of yourself and others. The other world is available to you right now, for all it takes is a shift in awareness. When you make this shift, you experience yourself as a member of a glorious, wonderful, perfect, divine world! In this world you have intrinsic, unique Worth. Sometimes you experience it spontaneously. But there is a path to experiencing this world intentionally and habitually. It is to act always in your life in that same way you would act if you were fully experiencing this world, as though each other person you meet has unconditional Worth. This is the path. Through it you will come to experience the worthwhileness of all that is, and your life will be worthwhile, joyous, and fulfilling.
As we began our program today, you made a shift in order to appreciate the music. Despite the fact of bad things going on in the world outside, we shifted to a different mode of experience. Further, we left our usual evaluations at the door, in order to be able to shift into an affirmation of our Worth and the Worth of everyone gathered here with us. We made not a shift up, to heaven or to floating spirits. We just shifted in place, as though to see and hear from a different angle. As we become skillful in the ability to enter into this experience, it begins to color our ordinary lives. It becomes easier to act as though other people have intrinsic worth. We have to pretend less and less. As our Sunday morning program ends, and we shift back into ordinary experience, we find our ordinary experience slightly different than before. There’s more energy. There’s less anxiety. There’s more resolve to grapple with any problems we face. We have great good news to share. Worth is the heart of religion. Our Worthship service is our crucial weekly reminder of the call to our lovable selves. We come together with an intention to seek the highest, and the ground on which we stand shifts, becomes transformed into holy ground.
Felix Adler died in 1933. Two years earlier, he spoke these words on the Occasion of the 55th Anniversary of the Founding of the Ethical Movement:
In this solemn moment, at the end of 55 years, my mind goes back to a certain May evening in 1876, when I saw before me an assembly of men and women who had summoned me to state publicly the nature of the proposed Ethical Movement…. That evening the Society was founded. Of those who were present, the charter members of the Society, I am, to the best of my knowledge, today the sole survivor. I am as it were the memory of the Society. With deep gratitude I think of those who first asked me to lead them along a new path, and who followed so devotedly. They have all passed away, and others, thousands by this time, who succeeded them, have passed — a great procession! I greet them in meditative hours. Their faces are not mournful. Their extended arms point forward. They were interested in the future — in something great to be. And they put their trust, not in a person but in an idea. From the first they resented the imputation that this could be a merely personal movement; they believed rather that it was destined to acquire a universal significance.
We let our big male cat outside sometimes. Once or twice a year, he catches a bird and brings it in the house and displays it proudly in the middle of the kitchen floor. I coo approvingly, while my wife is aghast. She imagines the bird’s pain. I imagine the cat’s satisfaction, and wonder at nature’s ways.
My daughter has two daughters. She has learned some of the modern, stricter styles of childraising from her conservative church. She occasionally resorts to the belt or threat of the belt. Once I brought this up with her. I told her what I was learning from studies of how children grow up to be ethical, and that threatening with a belt did not bode well. She said, Dad, I hear what you’re saying, but I’m raising my kids my own way….Period. In my caring for my daughter, embedded in a long history, I want her to have the full space needed to raise her kids in her way. I care for my granddaughters too, and their future capacity to live out of desire and hope rather than out of fear. I hold both of these cares together. I have to stretch my inner caring space in order to do so.
You’re home during the day. You hear a dog barking. You look outside. There are no prowlers, just the dog barking. You know this dog, and he’s gotten to know you a bit. His bark sounds plaintive to you. He’s tied up on a 15-foot leash in your neighbor’s back yard. Your neighbors are gone all day. You feel a tug at your heart. You should do something.
You’ve gotten to know the owners of the dog too. They moved in about a year ago. It’s taken them a while to warm up to you. They’re a young family with skin colors that make them stand out from the dominant white culture they live in. Your neighborhood is 70% white. This new family no doubt has personal reasons of its own for being cautious in dealing with their new white neighbors. You could foolishly, ineptly, say or do something that would mean one thing to you but another thing to them, something that would seal a barrier of distrust. Gradually, relations have become more cordial. Crazy things happen. Once, a thief, in broad daylight, walked into their garage and took off riding one of the kid’s bikes. Mom started running after him, yelling at the top of her voice. Another neighbor in a car saw what was happening and chased the thief in her car. The thief dropped the bike and took off running to escape. That incident caused some ripe neighborly conversation for a while. Their kids have gotten to know your kids and have played outside with them recently. For the very first time, Mom came into your house a couple of weeks ago, as you shared stories about furnaces and cats. You’re coming to regard this family as good neighbors, and as good people.
Now what should you do about the tied-up dog? Is this an ethical issue? When I put myself in your place, and look inside myself, I do not detect any whiff of an Ethical Principle demanding to be upheld. I’m only aware of my feelings for the dog. I have a sense that he is not happy, frustrated in his natural urges, and I feel an urge in myself to do something. Countering these feelings are the feelings about the neighbors and the impulse to continue nurturing the relationship and not accidentally ambushing it.
Caring is not free of conflicts. When we care, we develop our capacity for caring, for giving full vent to the caring even when different cares are creating cognitive dissonance or tearing our heart apart. You could learn to stop hearing the barking, and so stop caring in that way. Or you can honor the feeling you have, and put your mind to work, checking for possible cultural biases in the way you’re reacting to the barking, searching for a creative solution to what to do, or reconciling yourself to living with your own inner conflict.
Is this an ethical issue? To me, it is. It’s about caring. Every day there are opportunities to expand and strengthen our caring capacity, or to diminish and weaken our caring. Yet for thousands of years, this is not what philosophers and moralists and religious teachers have meant by ethics. Ethics has meant the establishment of supreme rules of moral behavior, and the judging of behavior as either in accord with these rules or not. And what makes a man or woman good or bad? If they regularly act in accord with ethical rules, then we say they are
good, moral people. What an external, abstract, impersonal way of apprehending the worth of people! Yet this is the traditional approach.
Oh, caring was always somewhere in the neighborhood. Generosity, charity, lovingkindness, gratitude were all regarded as virtuous qualities. But the real thrust of ethics always seemed to deal with how we treated people for whom we didn’t care. Did we still treat them fairly, respectfully, without favoritism, ethically? Traditional ethics meant judging people by supreme moral principles.
Well, if ethics meant supreme rules of behavior, where did these supreme rules come from? For some, they came from God. For others, they came from the need for social order and control. For others, they didn’t come from anywhere; they just are.
Let’s look at these three. You tell your little boy to stop biting his baby sister. He says Why. You say, Because it’s wrong. He says Why. You repeat this exchange several times. Finally, you say, with a booming voice, Because God says so! Your little boy finally gets it, apparently. Actually he probably shuts up because of your booming voice or tone of exasperation. Now there’s a real psychological advantage to this approach. The little boy gets a sense of hugeness and power attaching to this word God; he can picture God in any way that his mind is currently capable of picturing, and he can invest enormous feeling into the picture, putting everything he can imagine that God must be if his parents defer to it and if God is so everywhere and so concerned about everything that a little boy’s biting his little sister counts for so much.
Let’s try another approach. You tell your little boy to stop biting his baby sister. He says Why. You say, Because it’s wrong. He says Why. After several rounds of this, you get to your booming voice proclamation, Because I say so! He finally gets it and shuts up. This approach too has power. In fact, that’s what it has — power. It asserts power and teaches power. When you are the butt of exercises of power, the most usual thing is to begin to want to reverse the roles and have the power yourself. This is the origin of real-politick. Machiavelli becomes your patron saint. This approach to ethical principles, all boiling down to self-interest, generates a lot of passion in its followers too, glorifying the joys of conquest, victory, one-upmanship, superiority, and having more than others. You don’t need a supernatural religion to promote these values — just social structures that give them loose rein, and cultural mores that glamorize them.
These two approaches — the approach of “God Says So!” and the approach of “I Say So!” — result in two large worlds of people at odds with each other, or two large social forces at odds with each other: the vast world of religious devotion to supreme moral values invested with personal meaning, and the vast world of secular politics and economics where hard-boiled realities of self-interest, power, and expediency hold sway. Of course, these two get mixed up and contaminated with each other in many interesting ways throughout history.
But let’s look at the third approach that has also been tried. Your little girl bites your baby boy. You say Stop. She says Why. You say Because it’s wrong. She asks why and why again, and you boomingly proclaim, Because it’s just wrong! She stops asking why, stops biting her baby brother for the moment, but what’s going on inside? Probably not much. Perhaps a little puzzlement, but most likely nothing more that a realization that it’s time to stop asking why and move on to something else. Without any concrete image to attach to this abstract notion of Wrongness, it probably just evanesces into thin air. The approach of calling in God as source of right and wrong invests ethics with vast cosmic significance, personalized according to the young one’s imaginative abilities. The approach of simply asserting one’s own authoritative power as parent invests the notion of right and wrong with the power-hunger of the oppressed. The third approach of asserting the intrinsic values of right and wrong in themselves generally fails to take much root at all. The exceptions, people who heroically attain a passion about pure ethical values, prove the rule by being exceptions. There have been philosophers and moralists who have valiantly labored to give ethics its own footing and source of passion, from Plato and Aristotle to John Stuart Mill, Immanuel Kant, and our own founder Felix Adler, but so far without great effect. The world still moves jerkily along on its two muscular legs of supernatural passion and secular self-interest.
Just when it seemed as though it would ever be this way, necessarily so, along comes something actually new in the world. At least this was my reaction when I read Nel Noddings book, Caring, published in 1984. I shook my head in wonder, and thought, “This is completely new. It’s the insight that’s been missing. We may yet be able to develop a full, rich, passionate human ethics!” The full title of Nel Noddings book is Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education. Do not let the phrase “a feminine approach” put you off. This work could not have been written without the powerful intellectual ferment provided by the feminist movement of this century. It is what allowed her to think differently, and to dare to put forward something altogether untraditional, altogether new. But by “feminine” she does not mean off-limits to men. She means, rather, in her words, “feminine in the deep classical sense — rooted in receptivity, relatedness, and responsiveness.” “Feminine,” she writes, “does not imply either that logic is to be discarded or that logic is alien to women. It represents an alternative to present views, one that begins with the…longing for goodness and not with moral reasoning.” (p.2)
An ethics that starts with the longing for goodness. Feel the difference in that starting point. It leads to a new answer to the question, “Where do supreme moral principles come from?”
They come, Noddings says, from the human experience of caring. In fact, moral principles are not supreme after all. Caring is supreme. Moral principles that can be articulated as rules are derivative from the imperative to care. The rules and their exceptions must be always firmly rooted in a conscious caring, else they are not ethical at all, just expressions of fanciful supernatural beliefs or rationalizations of self-interest.
What we’re doing here is demystifying ethics. In doing so, we find that we are humanizing it. We start with natural caring. That’s a given. I mean really given. Not given like some assumption in a system of metaphysics. Not given as like an axiom at the start of a mathematical proof. Natural caring is given to us, concretely, as we enter the world, experientially. Yet it’s not an absolute either. Sometimes the gift is not there. A baby is unwanted. Or the mother has lost the capacity to care. Sometimes a new human being must be heroic in order to attain to ethical caring. Sometimes, without the original gift, ethical caring is never achieved. But we start with where we actually start. We don’t just pop into the universe as an individual atom of being. We are born into a relationship with the woman who gives birth to us, a relationship that pre-existed our birth. This relation is constitutive of who we are. And most times, the gift is there: the relationship is one of natural caring.
From the outset, this caring is inclusive and reciprocal. We have to learn how to exclude, through traumas and vicissitudes of living, where the injury is not tended to by one-caring and the pain absorbed back into inclusive caring. What we are given is natural inclusive caring.
Now this new human baby is not passive. It responds with appreciation of care, and with care itself, and it evaluates. It looks the gift horse in the mouth. The new one recognizes in bones and sinew and gut, before brain has a chance to translate anything into thought or to get distracted, that this is the highest good, this is what life is all about at its best, this is the meaning of the good life. Not a life without pains, but a life in which the pains and the crying and screaming and thrashing about are held in a context of caring. Noddings puts it this way: “The relation of natural caring [is] the human condition that we, consciously or unconsciously, perceive as ‘good.’” Wow! This is the line that most made my head spin, made me giddy with revelation. The relation of natural caring is the condition that we, consciously or unconsciously, perceive as good. It is the summum bonum, to borrow a phrase from medieval philosophers, the supreme good. The supreme human good must contain both joy and purpose, and that is what caring does. Joy, notes Noddings, is precisely “the special affect that arises out of the receptivity of caring.” (p. 132) As for purpose, Noddings brings to our awareness that “In caring… there is aroused in us the feeling ‘I must do something.’” (p. 14) This is the obligation side of caring. But this is not an externally imposed or externally arriving obligation; it is self-generated. It comes from me and is part of me.
Next comes the recognition that life is not always like this. A seed of desire arises that says, Life should be like this. This seed develops into what Nel Noddings calls our “ethical ideal.” The ethical ideal is a picture of myself as a being embedded in the joy and work of inclusive caring relationships, both as one-caring and as one cared-for. Perhaps this internal picture, this ethical ideal, is what religions have meant by “conscience.” Maybe it’s what Freud meant by “superego.” But neither of these ring true to one who cares. My ethical ideal is a combination of my affirmation of the caring relationship as the ultimate human good, my longing to restore, maintain, and enhance such caring, and my intention to care even when not easy. Nel Noddings writes:
It is this ethical ideal…that guides us as we strive to meet the other morally. Everything depends upon the nature and strength of this ideal, for we shall not have absolute principles to guide us… Since we are dependent upon the strength and sensitivity of the ethical ideal — both our own and that of others — we must nurture that ideal in all of our educational encounters… We are dependent on each other even in the quest for personal goodness. How good I can be is partly a function of how you — the other — receive and respond to me. Whatever virtue I exercise is completed, fulfilled, in you. The primary aim of all education must be nurturance of the ethical ideal. [pp. 5-6]
Our circle of caring grows more complex, as we discover there are more people in the world than mom and me. Our mind stretches to universal principles that express the inclusiveness we felt from the beginning. But these principles must ever be fueled by actual caring. When severed from the source of ethics, universal principles become excuses for uncaring acts, or mere pretenses for one’s behavior.
How does one behave ethically? Isn’t this the practical question that newcomers to our Movement bring to us? Isn’t this the question that long-time members still want an answer to? How does one behave ethically? Not by consulting a book of rules of moral conduct. Not by subscribing to some universal principle and then trying to figure out how to apply it to the current one-of-a-kind situation we’re actually facing. Not by imagining a father-figure or king or judge in the sky looking down on us, perhaps sending us signs or clues about what to do, and then judging whether we act ethically or not. No. How do we behave ethically? We behave ethically by behaving caringly. Noddings’ caring ethics gives content to Ethical Culture’s abstract principle to elicit the best in the other and thereby in oneself. The content of ethics is caring, in all its magnificent manifestations and transformations. Ethics is in us. Ethics is our caring, both in the joy of caring and the work of caring, the joy and work that together lead to our deepest and broadest fulfillment.
We tell the truth not because of any abstract principles but because we care about the people to whom we are talking. Or sometimes we do not tell the truth, or the whole truth, because we care about the people to whom we are talking. Or we tell the truth because we care for our own ethical ideal of inclusive relation. The motivation is the same — caring. We do not kill because we care about the people whom we would kill. Or we kill because we care about people who will be killed if we don’t. We care too for ourselves, without whom we would not be part of any caring. These carings do not necessarily provide simple answers. What if I care more about my group than about yours? Caring has to remain always rooted in the real, and the real is more real when close at hand, concrete, brimming with specific memories and perceptions. If I care more for my family and close friends, does that mean that it is ethical to treat others with less care, less respect, or even with contempt? No, but it does mean that we have to rethink and revitalize our concepts of universal respect and fairness. We devise general rules as guides. But they are guides only, not absolutes. In any real concrete situation, in the real practice of living, what should be done ethically can only be worked out through an upsurge of the caring attitude. This does not make things easy. Or efficient. Or neat and clean. Not practical in those senses. Only practical in the sense of being absolutely real. There’s a lot of work to be done in our ethical understanding, now that we know where to start.
In a wonderful book called Ethical People and How They Get To Be That Way, by Arthur Dobrin, Leader of the Ethical Society in Long Island, published in 1998, Arthur cites empirical research that shows that the kind of discipline of children that assists their growing up to be ethical people is the discipline that presents empathic reasons for the parent’s demands. For example, you want Johnny to share the toys, and you say ‘Sharing makes other children happy.’ Such a statement, Arthur says, is more likely to be accepted and internalized by the child than a statement that appears to be a reason but really isn’t, such as ‘It’s good to share.’” (p. 78) In other words, empathic reasons build on the natural caring relationship that the child already knows about and values.
Your little boy bites his baby sister. You say Don’t do that. He says Why. You say, “Because it hurts her, and it hurts me to see her hurt. And it makes me smile to see you smile.” With this answer, if there has been a nurturing of the caring relationships in the family all along, the little boy doesn’t need to ask Why again. You’ve reached an ultimate, and he knows it’s an ultimate from his own experience.
Felix Adler, founder of the Ethical Culture movement, wrote in one of his later essays:
The first idea animating the Ethical Movement is the idea of moral progress in the ascertaining of new moral knowledge, as well as better moral behavior. Matthew Arnold said in effect: “We have the moral knowledge we need; all that is necessary is that we apply the principles we already possess.” The very opposite is the main contention of this movement of ours. We do not possess the moral knowledge which we need — far from it. [pamphlet publ. in May, 1945, The Meaning of an Ethical Society.]
In this spirit, I think we now have the opportunity to begin to open up the wondrous and complex human dimensions of ethical living. We can move from reliance upon a supreme ethical principle, to reliance upon a supreme ethical attitude. The caring attitude. When I care, I am open to the reality of the other, and the other can sense whether I am authentic or not. It’s not so much that “I” have empathy as that I allow empathy to have me. I experience his or her life as though it were my own, and experience an urge to do something, as though it were my own life that was in peril, or my own life that had an opportunity of joy, if the moment be seized. There is natural caring, in which we are simply always ready to be open to the other’s experience, as mother with infant, and infant with Mom. And then there is developed ethical caring, in which we stretch, strengthen, and inform our caring capacity. Here is the concrete palpable meaning of our principle of treating everyone as having intrinsic worth. To treat another human being as having intrinsic worth is precisely to regard him or her as being worthy of being experienced by you from their inside. No contempt, no disdain. I could be you, and I would be no less worthy of being cared for and no less worthy or entitled to care. The ultimate good for humankind is in our hands.
There’s an idea that has been a lifesaver for me. Without it I would have gone off the deep end of life. It has to do with that tension in life between wanting to achieve something, and on the other hand just wanting to enjoy the delight and joy of being. Somehow I got stuck on one of those sides.
Isn’t there a similar tension in our own movement? You know, Felix Adler, our founder, was a great one, a leader, in facing up to sorrows and pains, suffering, of life. But did he sufficiently build in a bridge for us back to just the joy of being?
I believe that Ethical Culture does give us a way to fully express both sides of the tension: living with purpose, and surrender to joy. For Adler was a romantic as well as a sober moralist. Horace Bridges even described him as “mystic and man of action.” His name, “Adler,” in German means “eagle,” and when Felix went off to Germany to study for a Ph.D., his fellow doctoral students called him “Der Amerikanische Adler” — the American Eagle! A premonition for someone who founded a movement on the 100th anniversary of the American Revolution. The name is also fitting in another way. The eagle soars on two wings, and there are two sides to Adler’s founding intuition — his romantic side and his purposeful side — his experience that somehow life is a perfect joy, and his equally strong experience that life is a matter of supreme moral striving. These two sides are the two wings we all need to soar.
For many years I tried to fly on one wing, the wing of Purpose. Now you can do that for a long time, and many of us do, especially if hoisted up by a string of successes. My most recent success at the time was being awarded a full NDEA fellowship toward a Ph.D. in philosophy. But the trouble with all-purpose flying is that failures are inevitable, and even small ones can deflate all the air you need to fly. I met with some failures of not turning in final papers on time. So I quit. I quit graduate school. I went from the refined world of abstract intellectualizing to the concrete world of working in a restaurant and dealing with the hungers and thirsts of real live people. Unfortunately, the solution to over-purpose is not sabotage of purpose, is not under purpose. As the years rolled by, I found myself becoming lonelier, more depressed, more at odds with my own inner self, which from an early age had said, “There’s some mission I want you to accomplish.” I reached a low point one night about 3 am, in the morning — nothing good was on television. It was quiet and dark in my apartment. I basically gave up trying to analyze what was wrong. And it was as if I heard a voice saying to me, “Read some philosophy.” It wasn’t me, speaking — but of course it was me, in some way. Well, I had already given away most of my philosophy books by that time. Thought I’d never have need for them again. But on my bookshelf there was still one book remaining, by the American philosopher William Hocking, professor at Harvard and Yale for many years. It was called The Meaning of God in Human Experience. I wasn’t so sure about God, but I did believe in human experience. So I started reading the book, and it was like reading a novel. It was like Shakespeare to me. I read it night after night after night, hardly any sleep, until about 2/3 of the way through that book, I remember, standing up, jumping up, and exclaiming to the world–I knew everyone was listening—My God, he has actually done it! He has accomplished what Descartes was trying to do! –That was my philosophical self commenting, but what I meant was that Hocking had managed to take me through his portrayals of human experience to a place where I sensed — I didn’t just think as a logical conclusion — I sensed the reality of the world as something that stretched far beyond my own isolated ego, and I was a real person in that world and that world was great and wonderful, and I was a part of it, even if I never amounted to anything, and that was a liberating experience. Just a few years later, I found the Ethical Society, and sensed that it could support and advance this liberating experience.
Now Ethical Culture has an idea that we call Intrinsic Worth. And latent inside this are some amazing ways of thinking about reality. It carries a whole new outlook about religion itself, about the deepest impulse to experience life to the full, both on the achievement path, and on the path of just wanting to enjoy life. You know, sometimes you have to stop to smell the roses. And other times you have to wake up and smell the coffee.
What is this Intrinsic Worth? A while back, my wife, Kathleen, called me at work. She had the Monday blues. Not because she was back at her 9 to 5 job, but because she wasn’t at a job. Still unemployed. She was feeling low and blurted out, “I’m worthless!” I wouldn’t have honored her frustration if I had argued with her and pointed out all her considerable talents. Sometimes, despite being the guy in the relationship, I say the right thing, and I said to her, “You have intrinsic worth.” She paused and then said, “Yes, I have intrinsic worth.” Just like that, she shifted her entire attitude. In the very next moment she started talking about our cat Moon, who had been there all along, but not noticed in all his majesty. What happened was a shift in the way of thinking. It’s much like the shift from a serious to a humorous frame of mind. You lighten up, loosen up, chill out, relax, reconnect.
Intrinsic Worth — a shift in attitude. I observed some of the inner dynamics of this shift last January, when I watched the Super Bowl. I loved it. (The St. Louis Rams won, you know.) When the game ended, a TV interviewer went to the sidelines to get the victory reaction of one of the wives. She gushed that the Rams owed their victory to their religious faith in God and Jesus. She added, “He really kept us in suspense. God is so dramatic, isn’t He?”
I must admit, I cringed. What about the Tennessee Titans, the team that lost the Super Bowl? Did God make them lose? Are they out of favor with God? Are they just a bunch of Ethical Culturists? I don’t think so. And what if the Rams had lost? Ah, there’s the question. Would a loss have dented their religious faith?
Of course not! They would have said that it wasn’t their time, or that God wanted them to learn some lesson. Thus there’s an inconsistency. God is to be praised for helping the Rams win, but not to be cursed for helping the Titans lose.
We could just stop here and chalk this up as another case of human irrationality. But if we did, we would miss something vital. There’s something that makes their religious faith a living support of their passion for life. It gives them the confidence and the assured capacity to be able to shift between two different ways of experiencing reality — the same two wings we have begun to talk about: Purpose, and the Joy of Living.
You normally cannot be in both of these modes of experiencing at the same time. Abraham Lincoln once said to an aide, holding up a cup of liquid, “If this is coffee, bring me tea….But if this is tea, bring me coffee!” Being the one thing excludes being the other.
The one attitude is that of simple acceptance of whatever is as perfectly all right, as marvelous, as having Intrinsic Worth, no matter how bad it might seem to us in our limited perspective. This is the attitude that the Tennessee Titans needed to shift to after they lost the Super Bowl. There is a health-promoting time to make the shift. The time to not make the shift is in the middle of the game. We could call this the sense-of-humor frame of mind, because of the way it takes the anguish out of the need to succeed, but actually humor is just one variation of this mode of experiencing. A philosophical name to call it is Intrinsic Worth. A broader name to call it is simply Acceptance, and this has the advantage of being a common-language term that can resonate with people’s experience. Acceptance can range in mood from simple resignation to philosophical stoicism to humor to a joyous ecstasy. We need to be able to shift into Acceptance at appropriate times, and we also need to develop our capacity to experience higher forms of it.
The other attitude is that of Non-Acceptance: non-acceptance of things as they are, the attitude of setting goals and engaging in efforts to achieve those goals, the attitude of striving to perform with excellence — that is, in ways that are better than other ways. I just call this Purpose. Here, too, there is a broad range of emotions, from frustration and defeatedness to self-confidence to the experience of what is called Flow, when all one’s efforts synchronize into one focus, to finally triumphal exultation in achievement. Just as with Acceptance, full human development involves not only being able to shift into Purpose mode when appropriate but also to become more and more skillful in the various ways of being purposeful.
Acceptance. Purpose. Acceptance. Purpose. Sometimes you’ve got to stop and smell the roses. Other times you’ve got to wake up and smell the coffee.
Now the genius of the Judeo-Christian faith — and here we get back to it — what gives it its positive hold on people and its staying-power, is that it provides strong support for full development of both of these attitudes. When you’re in Purpose, you can call on God and the saints and angels to help you achieve your goals. This ability to connect your personal intentions and energies with those of the universe lends great strength to your focus and your determination. Then, when it’s time to switch to the mode of Acceptance, your faith in God allows you to more easily let go, to shift more readily to that state wherein you can catch a glimmer of the exquisite worth of being, just exactly as it is, independent of all your achievements or failures.
These two attitudes are as different from each other as night and day. How can they be related to each other? How can they coexist alternately in the same person? How can they do anything but cancel each other out?
A brief example from physics can help us here. It turns out that at the tiniest levels of physical reality, something very strange is going on. What we find are quanta. These are bizarre little devils. Sometimes they’re one thing; sometimes they’re just the opposite. They can be particles, or they can be waves, but not both at the same time. Particles are, well, particles — just what any well-behaved bit of matter ought to be: distinct bits, localized (that is, in only one place at a time), separate from other particles. Waves are non-localized and spread out, blending and merging with other waves, connected and connecting beyond any clear boundaries. How can the same thing, whatever it is, these quanta, manifest in two different ways, each of which is incompatible with the other? We don’t know. Physicists have not figured that one out yet. But it’s reality.
We humans also live in a world of double aspect, and we alternate between two utterly different kinds of states. Some of us get stuck in one mode or the other, and never get back. Others get stuck in low-grade forms of one or both modes of experience. It’s also easy, too easy, to imagine that these two modes of experience refer to two different worlds: Heaven and Earth, or a world of spirit and a world of body, or soul and body, and that the two are alien to each other, so that you need to cast your lot with one or the other. Adler ended up using the terms “ideal” and “real” and while these are fine to a philosopher who has penetrated to Adler’s unique meanings for them, they don’t help the average intelligent person, because they inevitably sound like a total separation. So the next insight for us to gain, after first getting clear on the two fundamental modes of experiencing, Purpose and Acceptance, is to discern that there is a secret connection between the two.
What is the Christian or Hindu or Muslim doing when he calls upon God to help him win a contest, or get a job, or save his marriage, or cure his disease? The cry to God is from someone who is in the mode of Purpose, the mode of wanting things to be different, and fearing that it can’t be different or won’t be different. The cry to God is actually a cry from within the purpose orientation to that other state of self in which everything can be experienced as already all-good. It’s as if each of these orientations carries seeds of the other within itself, as though in the end they cannot be utterly incompatible with each other, since, after all, they are alternating states of the selfsame self.
Let’s look at a simple everyday example — waking and sleeping. Even though there are fuzzy lines in between, when you’re awake, you’re awake, and when you’re asleep, you’re asleep. This is a biological form of the shift between Purpose and Acceptance. A couple of months ago, my wife and I had a disagreement that left us considerably upset. You know the old saying, Never go to bed angry? Well, we did. We “slept on it.” In the morning, Kathleen’s mind was so clear that she was able to tell me precisely the ways in which I was wrong. But I had slept on it, too! My mind had clarified to the degree that when I heard what she had to say, I could recognize instantly that she was right. And I was glad. So now, whenever I have a problem, I’ll have Kathleen sleep on it! These kinds of little transmissions happen all the time in our lives, if we let them, ask for them, remove obstacles to them — gifts from the Acceptance frame of mind to our lives of Purpose.
Beauty and art and music are other examples of getting into Acceptance/Joy. Sometimes a sunset can catch you in just such a way that it takes your breath away, and for a moment you forget your cares, or return to your cares with better care, or better purpose. Humor is another important way in which we shift into Acceptance mode. In fact, have you noticed that one of the hallmarks of members of Ethical Culture is a good solid sense of humor? This is no accident. Humor is something to be taken seriously! How is that people with a lively sense of humor get attracted to something with such a serious name as “Ethical Culture,” a movement whose founder wrote a book called The Religion of Duty? What makes humor a leading quality for members of something so serious? Because humor is one of the genuine forms of shift to an attitude of affirming Intrinsic Worth. Yes, Ethical Culture affirms serious ethical living, but it also affirms, as a primary intuition, Intrinsic Worth. When we shift to the Acceptance/Joy wing, the Intrinsic Worth wing, and we are in touch with the cosmic humor, the joy of being, we include within that the joy of human being. We do not have ethics because human beings are bad. We believe in Original Worth, not Original Sin. We have ethics because, and here is the great breakthrough of Adler, because when you give full scope to both wings of experience, when you allow each to penetrate the other, ethics is what appears. Ethics — that is, thoughts and sensibilities about what ought to be done — precipitates out of that mysterious point of creative exchange where Purpose and Joy come together.
Adler the Eagle talked about ethics, but you know what? He didn’t talk much about codes of conduct. He never came up with his own list of 2, 10, or 20 commandments. He talked about ethical energy! He was pointing us in the direction of the source of the creation of codes of conduct.
There is power in the Ethical Culture insight. It is the same power that religions of the world tap into. You know, we talk about the common ground of ethics. But our common ground is not a lowest common denominator. It is not formed by listing all the rules of conduct of all religions of the world, keeping those that are unanimous, and calling that our list of ethical principles. No, our claim to have discovered the common ground of religions is much deeper. It’s our claim to have found what the genuine religious impulse is, and to have cleared away the rocks and the debris. The common ground is the hallowing of the experience of the goodness of being, and the call to enter into that experience so deeply and so receptively that it echoes back into our other mode of experience, where we purposefully deal with the challenges and frustrations of living.
Algernon Black, renowned in our Movement as a great pragmatist, great anti-theorist, great social activist, wrote with total conviction: “The Ethical Movement is a religious movement.” I would like to find a word different from “religion,” because of its association with sectarianism and anti-science, but I haven’t yet. We may have to take the offensive and claim the word “religion” as more proper to us than anyone else! Algernon Black wrote that we “endeavor to meet the needs which have given rise to religions in the past.” Whatever then meets those needs most truly is most truly religion, whether it bears any resemblance to the old religions or not!
As Ethical Culturists, we are to hallow the experience of the goodness of being. The more powerfully we can experience life on the wing of Acceptance/Joy, the more we find that we have renewed energy and sharper insights about what ought to be done when we shift back to the wing of Purpose.
So when life puts us in a tight spot, painful, dark, on the brink of failure, or despairing at injustice in the world, Ethical Culture tells us to make a shift to the other wing, the other mode of experiencing. How do we do that?
Actually, it’s not complicated. We do it by remembering to do it. And we increase our ability to remember to do it by practicing. This is why religion of old has always been associated with dancing and music and words of beauty and incantations and community and overall an atmosphere — an atmosphere that people sometimes refer to as “otherworldly.” But the religious atmosphere is not really or properly otherworldly; it’s other-than-purpose. We create times and spaces for shifting into the Acceptance/Joy mode, both for its own sake, and to practice for the times it won’t be so easy.
For we do get stuck in that purposeful striving. We get tunnel vision and tunnel feelings. That is when we need to draw on our faith. That’s why it’s called faith. Faith, Ethical Culture has discovered, is not belief in something based on someone else’s authority. Faith is believing that you can shift to your other wing. When you’re stuck, when you’re in pain and suffering, it may be hard — seemingly impossible — for you to imagine that you ever had a laugh in your life — forget about imagining that you could experience joy even now. But that is your faith — that the worth of being is real and it is within your capability to experience, not denying pain, but including it and somehow transmuting it, somehow integrating it into a larger meaning and a larger truth.
One way of putting this is that you reach the ability to make a shift by your whole self. No part of you gets left behind; no part in pain gets repressed or denied. When you have had a time of hell in the Purpose mode, when you are in pain, suffering, anguish at the suffering or cruelties of others, and none of this pain has relented, and you shift anyway, that is when the shift deserves the name “religious” — the Religious Response. Religion at its best is the institutionalized cultivation of this response. All of our lesser, easier shifts into Acceptance — through sleeping or humor or beauty — become ways of practicing for the big one.
The movie Life Is Beautiful, powerfully portrays this heroic shift. In the first half of the movie, the hero, Guido, has a gift of making life seem magically wonderful for all those near to him. But circumstances were good. In the second half, circumstances changed. He and his family found themselves in the hell of a Nazi concentration camp. What did Guido do? He still found ways to give his family windows of access to the Acceptance/Joy mode. In Purpose mode, look for ways to survive, to escape. But also cultivate your ability to shift your frame of reference, to see things with a wry eye, to shift into the mode of Intrinsic Worth.
In real life, horrible things happen. In the news in St. Louis, a woman stopped by a store to pick up a quick sandwich. She left the motor running. Her 6-yr-old son was in the back seat, in his seat belt. Just as she was returning, a carjacker jumped in her car and took off. She was close enough to open the back door and start pulling on her son. But he got tangled in the seatbelt and couldn’t get free. He was dragged for miles to his death. A tragedy and horror of this extreme degree cannot be made fun of. It is here, and in such cases, that one must have the capacity to go beyond the humor version of the Acceptance mode, all the way to the full religious response. When Hinduism or Christianity or Islam or other faith helps someone to do this, we should be glad. Through lenses however distorted, they are coming deeply into contact with Intrinsic Worth.
Sleep lies at one end of the spectrum of experiences of Acceptance. At the other end would be the experience of a disciplined, conscious, intense communing with being, and a consequent reception of some message or of some mission to accomplish in the world, just as happens with us sometimes in sleep. This, it is fair for us to surmise, was the experience of Moses when he went up the mountain. He went up to be away from the crowd, away from the stresses of leadership in his highly developed Purpose mode. He went into the alternate state — Acceptance, Joy, Wave, whatever it may best be called, the Worth-Perfection of Being. He came down with a message that changed a people. All such messages will be tainted with quirks of personality and biases of culture, but that does not mean that no creative exchange takes place between the two modes. And we can expect that the more developed, intense, and conscious the two modes, the more the spark of transmission between them may approach the power of lightning.
Ethical Culture brings to us the primacy of Intrinsic Worth! It calls us, urges us, to cherish and develop the Acceptance wing, both for its own sake and for the sake of the other wing of Purpose. Then ethical living will creatively flow.
Let me introduce you to a very special person — a very special poet. Let me introduce you to Sam Walter Foss. He was born June 19, 1858, and he died February 26, 1911, at age 52. Most of his collections of verse were published in the 1890’s. So Foss was in a situation similar to ours, in the transition from one century to another. We think of our century as a time of massive wars and of technological creation. We face the new century hoping we can do better next time around.
But the nineteenth century was also a time of wars around the globe and especially of the American Civil War, which took the lives of tens of thousands of American men. One of Foss’s books was entitled Songs of war and Peace, published in 1899. However, he too urged the theme of optimism. The last newspaper column he wrote, while in hospital awaiting an operation that would fail to save his life, was on “Optimism.” A boisterous faith in humanity characterized his poetry, even though he had a sharp eye for human foibles and failings.
The first Foss poem I met was a poem read at the memorial of Clayton Chism, who was a member here at the Ethical Society. It was his favorite and is the poem by Foss most frequently included in anthologies of poetry. You can find it in One Hundred and One Famous Poems, edited by Roy Cook. It is called, “The House by the Side of the Road.” This is how it goes:
THE HOUSE BY THE SIDE OF THE ROAD
He was a friend to man, and he lived
In a house by the side of the road — Homer
There are hermit souls that live withdrawn
In the place of their self-content;
There are souls like stars, that dwell apart,
In a fellowless firmament;
There are pioneer souls that blaze their paths
Where highways never ran —
But let me live by the side of the road
And be a friend to man.
Let me live in a house by the side of the road,
Where the race of men go by —
The men who are good and the men who are bad,
As good and as bad as I.
I would not sit in the scorner’s seat,
Or hurl the cynic’s ban —
Let me live in a house by the side of the road
And be a friend to man.
I see from my house by the side of the road,
By the side of the highway of life,
The men who press with the ardor of hope,
The men who are faint with the strife.
But I turn not away from their smiles nor their tears,
Both parts of an infinite plan —
Let me live in a house by the side of the road
And be a friend to man.
I know there are brook-gladdened meadows ahead
And mountains of wearisome height;
That the road passes on through the long afternoon
And stretches away to the night.
But still I rejoice when the travelers rejoice,
And weep with the strangers that moan,
Nor live in my house by the side of the road
Like a man who dwells alone.
Let me live in my house by the side of the road —
It’s here the race of men go by.
They are good, they are bad, they are weak, they are strong,
Wise, foolish — so am I;
Then why should I sit in the scorner’s seat,
Or hurl the cynic’s ban?
Let me live in my house by the side of the road
And be a friend to man.
Why do I speak of Foss as a minor poet? Judging poetry can be very subjective, but there is clear evidence that the literary experts are not taken with Foss. I searched my own collection of reference works. There was no “Foss” in:
- Merriam-Webster’s Encyclopedia of Literature
- Cambridge Biographical Dictionary
- Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia
- Foerster’s American Poetry and Prose
- Standard Book of British and American Verse
- Oxford Book of American Verse
- Louis Untermeyer doesn’t include him in Modern American Poetry
- and he’s definitely not in the Mentor Book of Major American Poets
With the help of a librarian, Mary Johnson (a friend of mine in Alton), I did find him in two places: American Authors 1600-1900 rather patronizingly calls him a “verse writer,” but the Dictionary of American Biography honors him as “poet, journalist, humorist, and librarian.”
Foss was a country boy from New Hampshire, worked on his father’s farm, went to school in the winter, lost his mother at age four, graduated from Brown University in 1882, then got into writing as publisher, editor, and journalist. He was the librarian of the Somerville Public Library in Massachusetts from 1898 till his death in 1911. He married a minister’s daughter and they had a daughter and a son. The son died in World Was I on the fields of France. He attended College Avenue Methodist Church in Somerville, Massachusetts, which is a church still in existence and active.
Methodist though he was, he could have been versifying Ethical Culture philosophy. This is Foss’s idea of “The True Bible.”
THE TRUE BIBLE
What is the world’s true Bible — ‘tis the highest thought of man,
The thought distilled through ages since the dawn of thought began.
And each age adds a word thereto, some psalm or promise sweet —
And the canon is unfinished and forever incomplete.
O’er the chapters that are written, long and lovingly we pore —
But the best is yet unwritten, for we grow from more to more.
Let us heed the voice within us and its messages rehearse;
Let us build the growing Bible — for we too must write a verse.
What is the purport of the scheme toward which all time is gone?
What is the great aeonian goal? The joy of going on.
And are there any souls so strong, such feet with swiftness shod,
That they shall reach it, reach some bourne, the ultimate of god?
There is no bourne, no ultimate. The very farthest star
But rims a sea of other stars that stretches just as far.
There’s no beginning and no end: As in the ages gone,
The greatest joy of joys shall be — the joy of going on.
He liked to poke fun at sanctimonious ritual, and here is one of his humorous verses, called “An Informal Prayer,” or “The Prayer of Cyrus Brown.” Throughout the poem he quotes from different religious characters.
AN INFORMAL PRAYER — THE PRAYER OF CYRUS BROWN
“The proper way for a man to pray”
said Deacon Lemuel Keyes,
“and the only proper attitude
is down upon his knees.”
“Nay, I should say the way to pray,”
said Reverend Dr. Wise
“is standing straight with outstrecthed arms
and rapt and upturned eyes.”
“Oh, no, no, no.” said Elder Snow
“Such posture is too proud
A man should pray with eyes fast closed
and head contritely bowed.”
“It seems to me his hands should be
astutely clasped in front.
With both thumbs a pointing toward the ground.”
Said Reverend Hunt.
“Las’ year I fell in Hodgkins well
head first,” said Cyrus Brown,
“With both my heels a-stikin’ up,
my head a-p’inting down,
An’ I made a prayer right there an’ then;
Best prayer I ever said;
The prayingest prayer I ever prayed,
A-standin on my head.”
And Foss noted the anger that religious debate can bring out. This is a poem called “Odium Theologicum,” which is a familiar word for the hatred produced by theology.
They met and they talked where the crossroads meet,
Four men from the four winds come,
And they talked of the horse, for they loved the theme,
And never a man was dumb.
The man from the North loved the strength of the horse,
And the man from the East his pace,
And the man from the South loved the speed of the horse,
And the man from the West his grace.
So these four men from the four winds come,
Each paused a space in his course
And smiled in the face of his fellow man
And lovingly talked of the horse.
Then each man parted and went his way
As their different courses ran;
And each man journeyed with peace in his heart
And loving his fellow man.
They met the next year where the crossroads meet,
Four men from the four winds come:
And it chanced as they met that they talked of God,
And never a man was dumb.
One imagined God in the shape of a man.
A spirit did one insist.
One said that nature itself was God.
One said that he didn’t exist.
They lashed each other with tongues that stung,
That smote as with a rod;
Each glared in the face of his fellow man,
And wrathfully talked of God.
Then each man parted and went his way,
As their different courses ran;
And each man journeyed with wrath in his heart,
And hating his fellow man.
The title of his last book of poems, published in 1907, and republished in 1911, with eight additional poems, expresses what Foss was all about. He called it, Songs of the Average Man. (Remember he’s speaking long before the feminist revolution, so when he says “man,” he does intend “man and woman.” And also, as poets know, “man” is a much easier word to rhyme with than “human”.) But for Foss an “average man” was an extraordinary person, for each of us, in his view, is special.
Here is his poem, “The Man From The Crowd.”
THE MAN FROM THE CROWD
Men seem as alike as the leaves on the trees,
As alike as the bees in a swarming of bees;
And we look at the millions that make up the state
All equally little and equally great,
And the pride of our courage is cowed.
Then Fate calls for a man who is larger than men —
There’s a surge in the crowd — there’s a movement — and then
There arises a man that is larger than men —
And the man comes up from the crowd.
The chasers of trifles run hither and yon,
And the little small days of small things go on,
And the world seems no better at sunset than dawn,
And the race still increases its plentiful spawn.
And the voice of our wailing is loud.
Then the Great Deed calls out for the Great Men to come,
And the Crowd, unbelieving, sits sullen and dumb —
But the Great Deed is done, for the Great Man is come —
Aye, the man comes up from the crowd.
There’s a dead hum of voices, all say the same thing,
And our forefathers’ songs are the songs that we sing,
And the deeds by our fathers and grandfathers done
Are done by the son of the son of the son,
And our heads in contrition are bowed.
Lo, a call for a man who shall make all things new
Goes down through the throng! See! he rises in view!
Make room for the men who shall make all things new! —
For the man who comes up from the crowd.
And where is the man who comes up from the throng
Who does the new deed and who sings the new song,
And makes the old world as a world that is new?
And who is the man? It is you! It is you!
And our praise is exultant and proud.
We are waiting for you there — for you are the man!
Come up from the jostle as soon as you can;
Come up from the crowd there, for you are the man —
The man who comes up from the crowd.
From some lines in that poem, we see that Foss didn’t like the dead hand of the past to hold the present to ransom. The other most quoted poem by Foss, after “The House by the Side of the Road,” is a humorous satire that bears on that theme of letting precedent overrule the present. (It is a poem that has recently seen revival among motivational speakers.)
It’s called “The Calf-Path” and this is how it goes.
One day, through the primeval wood,
A calf walked home, as good calves should;
But made a trail all bent askew,
A crooked trail as all calves do.
Since then two hundred years have fled,
And, I infer, the calf is dead.
But still he left behind his trail,
And thereby hangs my moral tale.
The trail was taken up next day
By a lone dog that passed that way;
And then a wise bell-wether sheep
Pursued the trail o’er vale and steep,
And drew the flock behind him, too,
As good bell-wethers always do.
And from that day, o’er hill and glade,
Through those old woods a path was made;
And many men wound in and out,
And dodged, and turned, and bent about
And uttered words of righteous wrath
Because ‘twas such a crooked path.
But still they followed — do not laugh —
The first migrations of that calf,
And through this winding wood-way stalked,
Because he wobbled when he walked.
This forest path became a lane,
That bent, and turned, and turned again;
This crooked lane became a road,
Where many a poor horse with his load
Toiled on beneath the burning sun,
And traveled some three miles in one.
And thus a century and a half
They trod the footsteps of that calf.
The years passed on in swiftness fleet,
The road became a village street,
And this, before men were aware,
A city’s crowded thoroughfare;
And soon the central street was this
Of a renowned metropolis;
And men two centuries and a half
Trod in the footsteps of that calf.
Each day a hundred thousand rout
Followed the zigzag calf about;
And o’er his crooked journey went
The traffic of a continent.
A hundred thousand men were led
By one calf near three centuries dead.
They followed still his crooked way,
And lost one hundred years a day;
For thus such reverence is lent
To well-established precedent.
A moral lesson this might teach,
Were I ordained and called to preach;
For men are prone to go it blind
Along the calf-paths of the mind,
And work away from sun to sun
To do what other men have done.
They follow in the beaten track,
And out and in, and forth and back,
And still their devious course pursue,
To keep the path that others do.
But how the wise old wood-gods laugh,
Who saw the first primeval calf!
Ah! many things this tale might teach —
But I am not ordained to preach.
Foss’s works are unfortunately all out of print. But somebody put me on to Barnes and Noble website on the Internet. You pick “out of print” and you bring up Sam Walter Foss. Through that source I have gradually collected all his five volumes of poems, all neatly bound and from the 1890’s and this last one from the first decade of this century.
I could keep you here an hour or two sharing Foss’s delightful characterizations and caricatures of people. He tells of the young woman who discoursed endlessly and in scholarly fashion about philosophers while doing crochet. Her lover can’t get a word in and eventually goes out and shoots himself. The poem ends: “Unshocked / She talked and talked and talked and talked.”
He pictures an old blind man who fiddles and sings, and people form a ring around him and there is “laughter choked with teardrops” for the listeners know that “every life’s a blind man’s tune that’s played on broken strings.”
He tells of a little girl talking with his father and she says, “Daddy, did God make me?”
“Yes, of course,” Daddy says, “God made you.”
And then she looks up at her rather plain haggard old father and says, “And Daddy, did God make you?”
“Oh yes,” says the father, “God made everybody.”
So then the little girl looks in the mirror and sees how pretty she looks and she looks up at rather plain Daddy and says, “Daddy, I think God is improving at his trade.”
He was hard on his own profession of journalism for its muck-raking: “Run we through our printing press / Myriad miles of nastiness,” he wrote in a poem called, “The New Journalism.” But in the poem “The Press,” he saw the importance of the newspaper that (as he put it) “writes our history while we are waiting.”
I’ll close with two poems. One, called “The Coming Century,” shows Foss’s remarkable imagination, as he sees us drawing energy from the core of the earth (where volcanoes get theirs) and power from the wind (we’ve done a bit of that), building with solidified air (I’m not sure we know how to do that), and flying back and forth over the Atlantic. Remember as you hear this, that he was writing within a few years of the Wright Brothers’ first lift-off in flight, when many other distinguished people were saying that there was no future in air travel. He also had a faith in psychic energy, that we haven’t been able to tap yet.
This is how “The Coming Century” goes:
THE COMING CENTURY
If the century gone, as the wise ones attest,
Exceeds all the centuries before it,
Then the century coming will better its best
And tower immeasurably o’er it.
And, if miracles now are coming to pass
Right here in your and my time,
Why, miracles then will be thicker than grass
And as common as flies are in fly time.
We will send down our pipes to the Earth’s burning core
Where the smithy of Vulcan is quaking,
And the fires that make the volcanoes outpour
We will use for our johnny-cake baking.
And then we will bridle and harness the tide
And make the pulse beat of the ocean
Provide the propulsion when Baby shall ride
And keep his small carriage in motion.
We will hitch the East wind to the crank of our churn
And make us a butter to “brag on”;
By projecting a psychical impulse we’ll turn
The wheels of a furniture wagon.
We’ll make yellow squashes from nice yellow dirt
Scooped up from our pastures and beaches;
On Sahara some chemical compound we’ll squirt,
And the sand will evolve into peaches.
And a hundred strong men by concentring their will
Ride straight to one point, like a plummet,
Will turn upside down a respectable hill
And spin it around on its summit.
Our buildings we’ll build of solidified air
‘Way up from the sill to the skylight,
With trimmings of brownstone surpassingly fair
Of solidified air of the twilight.
We will fly through the air from New York to the Rhine,
Through Germany, Lower and Upper,
Stop off, if we like, in Geneva to dine
And come back to New York for our supper.
If we don’t wish to fly we will throw our own thought,
Yes, each throw his thought to his sweetheart,
By a kind of a mental telepathy shot,
A method by which heart can meet heart.
We shall learn of the beings who people the stars
And add to the cosmical mirth, then,
By telling new jokes to the people of Mars
And hear then laugh back on the earth, then.
Ah, many trans-cosmic debates shall be whirled,
And long be the parleys between us;
One end of the dialogues fixed in this world,
And the other located in Venus.
Finally, his poem, “The Trumpets.” Foss went into hospital after grappling with some indeterminate illness for two years in the Christmas of 1910, where he wrote his article on “Optimism” and where he wrote his final poem, just before the operation. The operation did not save him and he died on February 26, 1911. So this is his swan song.
I have shared Foss with you because, first off, I found him so fascinating myself; secondly I was so concerned that this poet who has so much to say has been so neglected and none of his work reprinted, other than one or two poems in anthologies; and because I believe that the optimism that he shared is an optimism needed during this transition for us. Lionel Tiger, in his book, Optimism, The Biology of Hope, tells us that optimism is a survival mechanism of the human race. You have to have faith — faith in your future — personally and nationally.
And so I give you Foss and his final poem, “The Trumpets.”
[This was Mr. Foss’s last poem, and was written just before Christmas, 1910, when he thought he might have to submit to an operation. The end came February 26, 1911.]
The trumpets were calling me over the hill,
And I was a boy and knew nothing of men;
But they filled all the vale with their clangorous trill,
And flooded the gloom of the glen.
“The trumpets,” I cried, “Lo, they call from afar,
They are mingled with music of bugle and drum;
The trumpets, the trumpets are calling to war,
The trumpets are calling — I come.”
The trumpets were calling me over the Range,
And I was a youth and was strong for the strife;
And I was full fain for the new and the strange,
And mad for the tumult of life.
And I heard the loud trumpets that blew for the fray,
In the spell of their magic and madness was dumb;
And I said, “I will follow by night and by day,
The trumpets are calling — I come.”
The trumpets were calling and I was a man,
And had faced the stern world and grown strong;
And the trumpets mere calling far off, and I ran
Toward the blare of their mystical song.
And they led me o’er mountains, ‘neath alien skies,
All else but their music was dumb;
And I ran till I fell, and slept but to rise,
Lo, the trumpets are calling — I come.
The trumpets are calling, I’ve come to the sea,
But far out in the moon-lighted glow,
I still hear the trumpets, they’re calling to me,
The trumpets are calling — I go.
And lo, a strange boatman is here with his bark,
And he takes me and rows away, silent and dumb;
But my trumpets! my trumpets! they peal through the dark,
The trumpets are calling — I come.
This talk is part of a series, interestingly enough. Three years ago I spoke about Albert Einstein, as one of my ethical heroes. What has evolved is an ethical heroes series, and last year I did Albert Schweitzer, and this year we have Bertrand Russell. So I find it so interesting to go back into these folk’s lives and find out not only what they think about life and their achievements in terms of their world view. How do they view the ethical dimension of life and how that view speaks to us as Ethical Society members?
Recently my friends Lynn and Todd came into town Thursday to teach relationship building on Saturday, Todd said to me, “Do you know that Bertrand Russell is in Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people of this century?” So I went to the magazine to see a summary of Bertrand Russell in two paragraphs — and I’m going to read that to you.
In more than 50 books, penned over 74 years, Bertrand Russell set the terms of the debate in logic and philosophy in the first part of this century — most notably with Principia Mathematica, written with philosopher Albert North Whitehead.
He also married four times, lost three elections to Parliament, founded a school and led the movement for nuclear disarmament. He was twice jailed and dismissed from three jobs for his pacifism and unconventional views on sex. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950 and died two decades later at 97, a humane rationalist to the last.
So with that kind of framework, I’m going to spend a little more time than two paragraphs talking about Bertrand Russell. Russell’s personal life, as for all of us, shaped and influenced who he was not only as a thinker, but as a feeler, as a father, and as a husband. He was orphaned at an early age and raised by his grandparents, who were quite strict and Victorian. This of course was sensible because at this time England was held in the sway of Victorianism.
He spent a very lonely childhood with governesses and nurses — little contact with children his own age — and at the age of eleven began studying Euclid and he called this “one of the greatest moments of my life, as dazzling as my first love.” From that moment until he was thirty-eight years old, and finished Principia Mathematica, mathematics became his chief interest and source of happiness. As an adolescent he says his interest was divided between, math, religion, and sex. He studied languages and literature and philosophy and in one of the most profound paragraphs of his autobiography, he says he became an atheist at the age of fifteen, and abandoned the God concept. “I found to my surprise that I was quite glad to be done with the subject.”
He went to Cambridge and says that upon entering it he was a shy prig but by the fourth year he had become a gay and flippant student. He learned the virtue of intellectual honesty and absolute freedom to speculate about anything and everything. He finished his fellowship in 1897 and wrote the Foundations of Geometry and in 1901 wrote yet another book on mathematics, but continued to stay with his wife and supported her suffragette causes, even though he had very mixed feelings about her at this point.
Russell’s humor was always present in whatever he did. He had many colleagues, including Whitehead at his professorship school. Russell’s friend Hardy, who was professor of mathematics at Cambridge, once told him that if he could find a proof that Russell would die in five minutes time, he would naturally be very sorry to lose him, but the sorrow would be quite worthwhile for the pleasure of the proof. Russell, wise in the way of mathematics professors, observed, “I entirely sympathized with him and was not at all offended.
The period from 1910 to 1914 was a time of deep transition for Russell. He says, “I felt as sharply separated from the people of England as Faust’s life before and after he met Mephistopheles.” The great war shook him out of his prejudices and made him think afresh on the fundamental questions of life. Back in Cambridge, living with high emotional tension, he could not emotionally face the disaster the war would bring to his people. He was appalled that 90% of the population were excited and energized about the war and he said, “It caused me to review my own thoughts about human nature.”
However, love of England was his strongest emotion. He was tortured by wanting to be a patriot but abhorred the violence of war. Ostracized for his pacifist views, he wrote in 1915, Why Men Fight, and it was a huge success. His pacifism, however, causes him to lose his job, and he’s sent to jail for writing anti-war articles. He writes in prison that he actually enjoyed the experience. It was a holiday from responsibility and therefore it was delightful.
He emerged from that experience, no longer just an academic, deciding that he needed to write a broad range of books. He became less rigid and less prudish, remarried, and his first child was born in 1921. He and his wife decide to found their own school, to school their own children and he found his ambition to write books revived.
In 1938 he became a professor at UCLA and CCNY, and completed his History of Western Philosophy, which he cites as the major source of his income. Russell was to struggle throughout his life with financial trouble — especially during the first half of his life.
He would often travel between England and America and in a poignant section called “Christmas at Sea,” written in 1931, he says:
I am learning much about growing old. Thirty-five years ago I was lately married, childless, very happy, and beginning to taste the joys of success. Family appeared to me as an external power hampering to freedom: the world, to me, was a world of individual adventure. I wanted to think my own thoughts, find my own friends. … I felt strong enough to stand alone. … Now, I realize, [this is just due to my vitality and youth.]
Time, they say, makes a man mellow. I do not believe it. Time makes a man afraid, and fear makes him conciliatory, and being conciliatory he endeavours to appear to others what they will think mellow. And with fear comes the need of affection, of some human warmth to keep away the chill of the cold universe. When I speak of fear, I do not mean merely or mainly personal fear: the fear of death or decrepitude or penury. … I am thinking of a more metaphysical fear. I am thinking of a fear that enters the soul through experience of the major evils to which life is subject: the treachery of friends, the death of those whom we love, the discovery of the cruelty that lurks in average human nature.
During the thirty-five years since my last Christmas on the Atlantic, experience of these major evils has changed the character of my unconscious attitude to life. To stand alone may still be possible as a moral effort, but is no longer pleasant as an adventure. I want the companionship of my children, the warmth of the family fire-side, the support of historic continuity, and the membership of a great nation. These are ordinary human joys, which most middle-aged persons enjoy at Christmas. There is nothing about them to distinguish the philosopher from other men; on the contrary, their very ordinariness makes them the more effective in mitigating the sense of sombre solitude.
And so Christmas at sea, which was once a pleasant adventure, has become painful. It seems to symbolize the loneliness of the man who chooses to stand alone, using his own judgment rather than the judgment of the herd. A mood of melancholy is, in these circumstances, inevitable, and should not be shirked.
But there is something also to be said on the other side. Domestic joys, like all the softer pleasures, may sap the will and destroy courage. The indoor warmth of the traditional Christmas is good, but so is the South wind, and the sun rising out of the sea, and the freedom of the watery horizon. The beauty of these things is undiminished by human folly and wickedness, and remains to give strength to the faltering idealism of middle age.
He goes back to Cambridge to teach, comes home, and fame and fortune and his career flourishes. But he is always beset by money problems that still pile up even as his income increases, and social ostracism for his radical views. Russell says that traditional religion is the source of much evil and he viewed it with scorn and concern for its negative effect. Needless to say, he is attacked for these views and had to defend his position. He talks about fear in religion, yet again another theme in his writing.
Religion is based, I think, primarily and mainly on fear. It is partly the terror of the unknown, and partly the wish to feel that you have a kind of elder brother who will stand by you in all your troubles and disputes. Fear is the basis of the whole thing — fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death. Fear is the parent of cruelty, and therefore it is no wonder if cruelty and religion go hand in hand.
When asked about evidence for an all-powerful and loving God in 1947, Russell became sarcastic.
There is a rather repulsive smugness and self-complacency in the argument that man is so splendid as to be evidence of infinite wisdom and infinite power in his creator. Those who use this kind of reasoning always try to concentrate our attention on the few saints and sages; they try to make us forget the Neros and Atillas and Hitlers. … And even what is best in us is apt to lead to disaster. Religions that teach brotherly love have been used as an excuse for persecution, and our profoundest scientific insight is made into a means of mass destruction.
I can imagine a sardonic demon producing us for his amusement, but I cannot attribute to a being who is wise, beneficent, and omnipotent, the terrible weight of cruelty, suffering, and ironic degradation of what is best: that has marred the history of man in an increasing measure as he has become more master of his fate.
His humor shows up in the area of religion too. “How would you describe Hell, Lord Russell?” “Hell is a place where the police are German, the motorists French, and the cooks English.”
And then someone said to him, “Lord Russell, have you missed anything by not being religious?”
I don’t feel I’ve missed anything through not believing in religion. I think, on the contrary, that the religious people have missed a very great deal. They’ve missed the kind of pride that stands upright and looks at the world, and says, “Well, you can kill me, but anyway, here I am. I stand firm.” And they miss that. And I think that’s a very valuable thing that a person should have.
I shouldn’t like at all to go through life in sort of a creepy-crawly way, full of terror, and being bolstered up all the time as if I were a fainting lady being kept from sprawling on the ground … because no human being whom I can respect needs the consolation of things that are untrue. He can face the truth.
What about death then? How would you view death if you don’t have a religious context for it?
I believe that when I die I shall rot, and nothing of my ego will survive. I am not young and I love life. But I should scorn to shiver with terror at the thought of annihilation. Happiness is nonetheless true happiness because it must come to an end, nor do thought and love lose their value because they are not everlasting. Many a man has borne himself proudly on the scaffold; surely the same pride should teach us to think truly about man’s place in the world. Even if the open windows of science at first make us shiver after the cosy indoor warmth of traditional humanizing myths, in the end the fresh air brings vigor, and the great spaces have a spender of their own.
Still being attacked for his pagan views and his failure to subscribe to the traditional religions, Bertrand Russell in protest, wrote his own ten commandments. He called them a “Liberal Decalogue.” And he said, “Perhaps the essence of the liberal outlook could be summed up in a new decalogue, not intended to replace the old one but only to supplement it. The Ten Commandments that as a future I should wish to promulgate, might be set forth as follows:”
A Liberal Decalogue
1. Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.
2. Do not think it worth while to proceed by concealing evidence, for the evidence is sure to come to light.
3. Never try to discourage thinking for you are sure to succeed.
4. When you meet with opposition, even if it should be from your husband or your children, endeavor to overcome it by argument and not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.
5. Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.
6. Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for if you do the opinions will suppress you.
7. Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.
8. Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent than in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.
9. Be scrupulously truthful, even if the truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it.
10. Do not feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fool’s paradise, for only a fool will think that is happiness.
These are taken from a New York Times article called “The Best Answer to Fanaticism — Liberalism,” in 1951.
Then I thought, well, if Russell was so anti-religious, how does he view humanism? It would be interesting to know his point of view about that.
Those who attempt to make a religion of humanism, which recognizes nothing greater than man, do not satisfy my emotions. And yet I am unable to believe that, in the world as known, there is anything I can value outside human beings. … Not the starry heavens, but their effects on human percipients, have excellence; to admire the universe for its size is slavish and absurd; impersonal non-human truth appears to be an delusion. And so my intellect goes with the humanists, though my emotions violently rebel.
Then Russell was asked to comment on human beings, on human nature, and character values. How does he view those kind of things?
I don’t know human nature is supposed to be. But your nature is infinitely malleable, and that is what people don’t realize. If you compare a domestic dog with a wild wolf you will see what training can do. The domestic dog is a nice comfortable creature, barks occasionally, and he may bite the postman, but on the whole, he’s all right; whereas the wolf is quite a different thing. You can do exactly the same thing with human beings. Human beings, according to how they’re treated, will turn out totally different, and I think the idea you can’t change human nature is silly.
What traits then would an ideal character have?
Four characteristics seem to me jointly to form the basis of an ideal character: vitality, courage, sensitiveness, and intelligence. I do not suggest that this list is complete, but I think it carries us a good way. Moreover, I firmly believe that by proper physical, emotional, and intellectual care of the young, these qualities could all be made very common.
But then, since you are a rationalist, Mr. Russell, how can love and rationality be reconciled?
I regard love as one of the most important things in human life, and I regard any system as bad which interferes unnecessarily with its free development. Love, when the word is properly used, does not denote any and every relationship between the sexes, but only one involving considerable emotion, and a relation which is psychological as well as physical. It may reach any degree of intensity. Such emotions as are expressed in “Tristan and Isolde” and in accordance with the experience of countless men and women. The power of giving artistic expression to the emotion of love is rare, but the emotion itself, at least in Europe, is not.
The three main extra-rational activities in modern life are religion, war, and love; all of these are extra-rational, but love is not anti-rational, that is say, a reasonable man may reasonably rejoice in its existence.
Now, as you know, Russell was a pacifist. It was a major thrust of his life. He founded the Bertrand Russell Foundation, for the purpose of promoting world peace. And it is important to him that we look at war’s destruction and find it unacceptable. He says about peace:
Our own planet, in which philosophers are apt to take a parochial and excessive interest, was once too hot to support life, and will in time become too cold. After ages during which the earth produced harmless trilobites and butterflies, evolution progressed to the point at which it has generated Neros, Genghis Khans, and Hitlers. This, however, I believe is a passing nightmare; in time the earth will become again incapable of supporting life, and peace will return.
After the founding and formation of Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation, Russell received a letter from U Thant, who was Secretary General of the United Nations. He said:
It is good to know that it is proposed to start a Foundation in the name of Lord Russell, to expand and continue his efforts in the cause of peace. Lord Russell was one of the first to perceive the folly and danger of unlimited accumulation of nuclear armaments.
When we look at Russell’s life and what he strived for, what we see is a degree of excellence which he endeavored and strived for and accomplished in so many fields — whether it was philosophy or mathematics or world peace or looking at the structure of religion and what it can mean to us as human beings. So he’s always looking at what is excellent, and he says:
It would be necessary to the creation of [a society of excellence] to secure three conditions: first, a more even distribution of the produce of labor; second, security against large-scale wars; and third, a population which was stationary or very nearly so.
Until these conditions are secured, industrialism will continue to be used feverishly, to increase the wealth of the richest individuals, the territory of the greatest empires, and the population of the most populous nations, no one of which is of the slightest benefit to mankind. These three considerations have inspired what I have written and said [in terms of how to strive for excellence in our society.]
But then what would you hope to see the world achieve? What is your ideal for it?
I think I should put first, security against extreme disaster such as threatened by modern war. I should put second, the abolition of abject poverty throughout the world. Third, as a result of security and economic well-being, a general growth of tolerance and kindly feeling. Fourth, the greatest possible opportunity for personal initiative in ways not harmful to the community.
All these things are possible, and all would come about if men chose. In the meantime, the human race lives in a welter of organized hatreds and threats of mutual extermination. I cannot but think that sooner or later people will grow tired of this very uncomfortable way of living.
He said one of the Nobel Prizes was for his book Marriage and Morals, interestingly enough — it even surprised him — in 1950. What is the essence of a good marriage? It only took Russell four wives to come to this conclusion.
The essence of a good marriage is respect for each other’s personality combined with a deep intimacy, physical, mental, and spiritual, which makes a serious love between man and woman the most fructifying of all human experiences.
Russell’s fame continued to grow and he lectured around the world. He was constantly pursued for interviews as he grew older. At one point in China, he had a serious illness and he refused to grant interviews. A resentful press decided to carry the news in Japan that he had died. Russell appealed to them but they refused to retract the story. On his way home he stopped in Japan and the press again sought to interview him. He had his secretary hand out a printed announcement to the reporters that said, “Since Mr. Russell is dead, he cannot be interviewed.”
In his harvest years — his senior years — he was asked, “What has given you the greatest personal pleasure?”
That’s rather a difficult question, isn’t it? Passionate private relations perhaps would come first of all. I get immense pleasure from natural beauty. And intellectual pleasure, understanding something that has been puzzling, and the moment comes when you understand it, that is a very delightful moment.
Russell’s relevance today I think is quite obvious. He challenges us to face and destroy all false beliefs and illusions, that keep us from being free in thought and action and capable of self-responsibility. He challenges us to think about war, to stop nuclear proliferation, and create a safe, peaceful world. He begins his autobiography with a foreword, which I think really sums Russell up.
Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, the unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind. These passions, like great winds, have blown me hither and thither, in a wayward course, over a deep ocean of anguish, reaching to the very verge of despair.
I have sought love, first, because it brings ecstasy — ecstasy so great that I would often have sacrificed all the rest of life for a few hours of this joy.
I have sought it, next, because it relieves loneliness — that terrible loneliness in which one shivering consciousness looks over the rim of the world into the cold unfathomable lifeless abyss.
I have sought it, finally, because in the union of love I have seen, in a mystic miniature, the prefiguring vision of the heaven that saints and poets have imagined. This is what I sought, and though it may seem too good for human life, this is what — at last — I have found.
With equal passion I have sought knowledge. I have wished to understand the hearts of men. I have wished to know why the stars shine. And I try to apprehend the Pythagorean power by which number holds sway above the flux. A little of this, but not much, I have achieved.
Love and knowledge, so far as they were possible, led upward toward the heavens. But always pity brought me back to earth. Echoes of cries of pain reverberate in my heart. Children in famine, victims tortured by oppressors, helpless old people a hated burden to their sons, and the whole world of loneliness, poverty, and pain make a mockery of what human life should be. I long to alleviate the evil, but I cannot, and I too suffer.
This has been my life. I have found it worth living, and would gladly live it again if the chance were offered me.
I think Marx was premature. Not Marx as a thinker. He accomplished about as much as one person possibly can. He penetrated to the underside of capitalism. But revolution was premature. The idea that Marx had said it all, and, therefore, that massive action could proceed, was premature. The world is still recoiling from that.
In contrast, our Ethical Culture movement has been cautious and slow to fix its seal of approval on any concrete economic plan. This has been perhaps the better part of wisdom and valor. But it is in our tradition to take an ethical stance toward economic realities, and toward the system as a whole. My effort today is to contribute to this tradition, and to our ethical stance.
The first song we heard speaks about revolution. The next song takes us back to verse from the Old Testament, as a historical document, to remind us that human suffering at the hands of other humans goes way back, antedating even capitalism.
Only in the last 30 years or so have anthropologists, building on all the prior work of excavation, dating, measuring brain sizes, and categorizing artifacts, been able to start drawing conclusions about the quality of life of our distant ancestors. Homo sapiens, our species, emerged about 300,000 years ago. These ancestors of ours, people like us, used to have to work for their survival a total of 2 to 3 hours a day. The rest of their time was spent inculture, that is, in relating to other people, in storytelling and listening, in music and song, in carving and painting, in drumming, physical movement, and dance. Today we hardly have time to squeeze in a movie. Fathers are routinely castigated for being absent from their families. Both parents work — 40, 60, 80 hours a week, counting work at home. Two months ago my daughter called to make anappointment with me to have lunch for my birthday. She called a monthahead of time!
Our ancestors lived qualitatively better lives.
How did we get into this fix? Broadly speaking, it’s a story of changes in ownership. To understand capitalism, we have to know the story of ownership. This is a big part of the story of the human race.
In the beginning, the world belonged to everyone, and everyone belonged to the world. It was a culture of universal ownership. If you took something from the land, you had to use it to promote life. If you killed an animal, you had to carry out a ritual of compensation. These things taken had not beenyours to simply do with as you wished, arbitrarily. This culture of ownership lasted, amonghomo sapiens, about 300,000 years. Then came the crucial shift. It was probably inevitable. Population growth and overcrowding in the most bountiful areas led tocompetition among bands of people. The earth seemed less bountiful and mothering. Other peoples seemed less like kin.Security of food became more urgent than leisureliness of life, and agriculture and settling in one place was begrudgingly adopted. Ownership became a matter of Us versus Them, and Us versus It. Universal ownership shrank to common ownership. Among ourselves, we hold things in common, butwe no longer belong to earth and nature. We own bits of it.Our tribe owns this land and these animals, and your tribedoesn’t. Our religions rewrite our myths to tell us we have dominion over the earth and the right to war against peoples with other gods. So we will go to war with you andtake your land and your animals, and claim them as our own.
The next big shift in ownership was to centralized ownership. It was a natural progression. If the tribe owned everything in common, it was convenient to localize the ownership in a person who symbolically represented the tribe — an elder or shaman or chief. In time, the tribe’s ownership became invested in the person who actuallycontrolled the tribe — the warrior-king. The pharaoh. The monarch. The quality of life of the people then became determined not only by the long hours of back-breaking agricultural labor to survive, but also by whether their ruler was benevolent or tyrannical. This centralized ownership, or ruler-ownership, became the dominant pattern all over the world. It’s the King’s land, the King’s highway. You use them by his leave. It’s the King’s harvest. You get what’s left over. The golden rule prevails. He who rules owns the gold.
Then in Western Europe, in Medieval times, there began another shift. Up to now, ownership primarily referred to land — and to the buildings, crops, animals, and peopleon that land. Buttrade was growing more important. It was increasingly possible to accumulate wealth without land. For example, a tent and a wagon and a horse to travel to a fair in a foreign land might be all you needed to accumulate gold or other valuables. Certainly a sailing ship. All of these things acquired a new name: capital. Capital is simply anything except human labor itself that helps in producing a good or service. The traders, who used capital but not land, wanted free and clear title to their profit, but there was little law to back them up. Law was all tied up with land ownership.
Meanwhile, the landed aristocracy was going through its own struggle to change the law. The Magna Carta was a sign of the times. In the year 1215, King John of England was forced by a group of barons under him to sign a document that, in effect, handed over some of his ultimate ownership to them. From now on, ultimate say over some properties would belong to the barons, not to the king. Ownership became distributed, but it was still “ruler ownership.” There were simply more rulers per land than one king. I call it “distributed-rule ownership,” or “multi-ruler ownership.”
The nobles, to justify their claims to this ownership, generally used universal language, language that meant thatany man could have ultimate ownership of property or capital, and to the produce, or profit, from that capital. This was the kind of legal language that traders needed. Within a few centuries, a new culture of ownership had arisen. Priests and poets of the new culture called it individual ownership or private property, but it truth it was still ownership by the few. You no longer had to be a noble, lord, or aristocrat to have a share of the king’s former ownership. You could be a merchant, a businessman. But the identical shape of ownership continued, with the few owning all the land and capital, and the many struggling to survive, whether as serfs, as conscripted soldiers, or increasingly as paid laborers. One-ruler ownership had become multi-ruler ownership. Capitalism is a multi-ruler system of economic ownership. I like to call it “multiplicitous monarchy.”
The next major development in the story of ownership was that some social philosophers saw through the myth of individual ownership. They saw the underlying power relations. And they thought that the antidote was to take ownership from the controlling elite and give it to the state, which would manage the capital and labor of the country in the name of the people and for the people. This was state ownership. The one all-out experiment along these lines, the U.S.S.R., failed — whether for intrinsic or extrinsic, relevant or irrelevant reasons. With the breakup of the Soviet Union, the world is undergoing another major shift in ownership — from state-ownership to private ownership.
Jeff Gates writes in a recent issue of The Humanist, “We live in the midst of the most dramatic shift in ownership in history.” [July-August 1998, p.9] Ninety-five different nations are in the throes of shifting from state ownership to private ownership. Yet, just like the kings of old, they are not transferring ownership from the state to the people, in equal shares, even though the ideology was that they were holding ownership for the people. Instead, they are basically selling industries to the highest bidder — i.e., to those already high up in ownership holdings. We are strengthening and consolidating the multi-ruler system of ownership. In politics, we have a government in every nation. In economics, we have a king on every corner, and the rest of us working for them.
Ten years ago, only 1 billion people lived in capitalist or market economies. Today,five billion people do so. The President of the World Bank, Jim Wolfensohn, points out that more than 3 billion of them live on less than two dollars a day. He warns that if we do not achieveinclusion of all people in this global ownership shift, we are heading toward a world of extremes. In his 1997 book,The Challenge of Inclusion, he writes:
One does not have to spend long in Bosnia or Gaza or the Lakes District of Africa to know that without economic hope we will not have peace. Without equity we will not have stability. Without a better sense of social justice, our cities will not be safe…Without inclusion, too many of us will be condemned to live separate, armed, and frightened lives.
The world is being turned over to capitalism, a multi-ruler system of ownership. End of the story of ownership, so far.
Ownership is a matter of values, and a matter of agreements, and a matter of enforcements. I want to share with you a personal experience with ownership. When I was 19 years old, I joined a monastery. I took the 3 vows that every monk must take: the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. These vows are deemed to besacrifices that one must make for the sake of the religious life. Chastity means giving up sex. Obedience means giving up personal freedom. And poverty means giving upownership. But let me tell you what the vow of poverty really meant, in practical terms. It meant that I would never have to worry about money again for the rest of my life! It was a blessing in disguise. Similarly, the vow of obedience meant that I would never have to worry about finding a job again. Job and career — all that would be assigned to me by people in my religious community who knew me probably better than I knew myself, who could give me a life-work well-suited to bringing out my best. Another blessing in disguise. As for the third vow, chastity — well, I’ll admit, thatdid have some bite.
I lived there for two years. In that idyllic world, no one’s worth was determined by their income. And no one’s income was determined by market forces measuring some narrow aspect of their contribution to the community. Instead, each person was granted intrinsic worth. We worked the same number of hours as each other, prayed and played the same number of hours, took meals together and slept at the same time. This equalitarian infrastructure — equal hours of work, and equality of intrinsic worth — enabled each of us to be completely individual. There was no lack of motivation to be innovative or creative, to push one’s own boundaries toward higher levels of excellence. It wasn’t paradise; there were plenty of interpersonal conflicts, plenty of power plays. Money is not the root ofall evil. But neither is money the root of all motivation to be innovative or to take risks. People don’t need the lure of money to want to do well in the eyes of each other, or to risk failure in the hope of seeing some cherished conception of theirs get born into the real world.
Five years later, my life had radically changed. I was the unmarried father of two children, about halfway through a Ph.D. program, and working in restaurants to help support my daughters. Their mother scratched out a meagre subsistence for herself and her children through her confused and intimidated dependence on the welfare system. Inthis world I was keenly aware that a person’s worth was proportional to his income or wealth. It was an affront to me that my daughters should be regarded as having inferior worth because of their near-poverty status.
I have worked in many restaurants, and one common refrain I hear among waiters is “At least we put in an honest day’s work.” There’s pride in that statement. It means, “I may have a low-status job, but I am proud that I work hard for my money.” There’s an intuitive sense of working as hard as any human being ought to work, or maybe harder, so that we have done our share, or more than our share, of the work that needs to be done. Maybe it’s working so closely with people and food that brings up this intuition in waiters. Maybe it’s some remnant from our ancestors’ culture of universal ownership. It’s archetypal: we go get food, you eat.
An honest day’s work — what would that be? A narrow answer is that it is doing the amount of work agreed to in your contract. But that is an artificially defined meaning, at least partially colored by unequal power relations. We want to know what is fair, universally speaking. So let’s look at the earth as a whole. There are 6 billion people on earth, and let’s say there are 2 billion who are of working age and health. How much total work would need to be done each day by those 2 billion people in order to provide a good life for everyone on the planet? If we take that amount of work and divide it by 2 billion people, wouldn’t that give us an honest day’s work for each person?
Some analysts of the future predict that in 50 years machines by themselves, with zero workforce, will have the capacity to produce all the goods and services we need for an affluent lifestyle for all!
Sometimes, though, I have the feeling that our economic system is this huge apparatus that is designed toprevent affluence for all in order to keep itself going. For if machines were producing everything, and workers were superfluous, how would workers get the money they need to buy the things the machines produced? And if there was no one to buy the products, why would the owners keep the production lines running? If we simply made everyone contentedly affluent, the system would crash.
Why? Because our system as currently structured is fueled by competition. It’s not every man against the other. But it is every king and his fiefdom (owner and his company) against every other. A company can go out of business for being too generous with its employees. This sentence practically says it all. A company can go out of business for being too generous with its employees.
Suppose we have two companies producing basically the same product. One of these companies, Nice Guys Inc., decides to give a $1 an hour raise to its 2000 hourly wage employees. That’s over 4 million a year. Where’s this extra money going to come from? If Nice Guys raises the price of its product, consumers will switch to the competitor, Self-Interest, Inc. Soon, Nice Guys is going out of business. Another way to cover the raise is to lower the pay of its top executives. So you cut your CEO’s pay from 3 million to 2 million a year, making it easy for Self-Interest Inc. to pick him up for the bargain price of only 2 _ million. Assuming that your CEO was really the most talented person you had for the job, you’re left with less talented people running your business, and performance declines. You might be lucky and your executives-in-waiting turn out to be just as talented as the ones you lost,and share your ideals of having a higher paid workforce, thus resisting offers from outside companies trying to lure them away. But don’t count on it.
Nice Guys could also cover the raise with the money reserved for depreciation costs. Trouble is: equipment starts to wear down or become outdated, and product quality declines.
Finally, another way for Nice Guys to cover this raise is for the workers to be so appreciative that their work improves, the product improves, market share grows, and the increased income covers the raise.
Can this happen? Sometimes itdoes happen. Unfortunately, it’s usually only a short-term effect. People become habituated to their new pay; their work effort falls back to a more natural rhythm, market shares equalize, and Nice Guys has to reduce the hourly wage back to where it started. And it could be worse. Nice Guys could become excited by its initial increase in market share and decide to increase production, hire more workers, or start construction on a new plant. Then when productivity returns to normal, it finds itself overextended, and it may simply collapse or be eaten up in a hostile takeover.
To sum all this up: Companiesmust treat employees competitively. To compete, to survive, they must increase productivity, and they must pay workers as little as possible. What is “as little as possible?” Companies learn that they’re paying their workers too little when they quit, when they’d rather not work at all than work for that wage. When does this happen? When what you pay is not enough for them and their families to simplysurvive. Why work if the amount earned is not enough to survive on anyway? Workers will endurehorrendous conditions if they can thereby eke out an existence, if no better means of existence are at hand.
So the force that determines what a company pays its lowest-paid workers is competition and company survival. It has nothing to do with any humane or ethical considerations. It has nothing to do with any feelings of empathy an owner might have. It has nothing to do with any intrinsic worth on the part of the laborers. It’s solely set by survival. How much does it take to barely survive? That’s the amount you’ll get.
What if you have so many workers that you need some people to manage them? Can you just ask a few of them to manage the others, at the same pay? No, because it takes more hours to manage than to simply work. Your bottom-level laborers are already living at the edge of survival, and most of them are probably scrambling to make a few extra bucks on the side, when not on the job. A worker who becomes a manager and works longer hours loses some of his opportunity to make extra bucks on the side, so he has to be compensated. Managers, then, are paid more than the workers they manage, but, on the whole, are equally living at the point of survival.
When do you get above this survival mode? Generally, never. Each time you move to a higher income level, you raise the bar of survival. Only now it’s not a matter of physical survival. It’s a matter of survival aswho youare. Each higher level of income requires you tobe in a different way. You may have to start wearing suits and ties. You may have to wear suits and ties that are in fashion. You may have to wearnew suits and ties every year, or every season. You may have to buy insurance, then all kinds of insurance, then lots of all kinds of insurance. You may have to go to school — literally or figuratively — to learn proper etiquette for you level of survival. You have to live in the right kind of neighborhood and send your kids to the right kind of schools for your level. Otherwise, you do not survive as who and what you are. It’s a matter of survival, for most people, all the way up.
Where’s the joy in all of this!
An anxiety of slipping back to an inferior level haunts us. Capitalism, in a static analysis, is the system of multi-ruler ownership. But in a dynamic analysis, capitalism is the system of economic production based on stringing people out on the edge of survival.
Exceptions abound. A given company, or a whole industry in a given land, can sometimes hold off the requirement to pay workers as little as possible. Workers can start to feel secure, hopeful, prosperous, worthwhile — as when the Big 3 American auto-makers monopolized the market. But an underlying relentless pressure erodes away this good fortune. Workers in other nations become competitors for jobs. Labor unions become weaker. Conditions change. The edge of survival returns.
This means adrenalin stays at higher levels in our bodies than they were biologically designed for. It means operating by fear, operating by anxiety, operating by inhibition and restriction. Depression, not a natural phenomenon, occurs in some 20% of our population. On the edge of survival as who we are, we live under the constant threat of self-worthlessness.
The threat takes its toll. Depression. Weariness. Anger. Sadness. Poor physical vitality. Escape by way of drugs or artificial excitement. Escape by way of passive entertainment. Or finally, escape by buying into the win-lose mentality of capitalism and playing it as a game.
To sum up so far: Capitalism, as we currently have it, is a system of ownership by a few, each of whom is like a monarch in his own domain. This system is now spreading like wildfire all over the world. Dynamically speaking, the system requires its lowest-paid workers to be paid at bare subsistence levels, while it induces a psychological mentality of anxious survival even at higher levels of pay. We are close to being able to produce affluence for every person in the world, but the system does not allow it. Qualitatively, our lives are far from what human lives ought to be, potentially and ethically.
What is to be done?
The first thing to do is to staunch the flow of blood. That is, find ways to alleviate the worst effects of capitalism — the worst inequalities, the worst drudgeries, the most dehumanizing conditions of work. A study of the 1998 book by economist James Kenneth Galbraith,Created Unequal, could help us here. He argues powerfully that the increased inequality in our own country in the past 20 years, and the loss of community that follows inequality, has been caused by a change in national policy. We need to return to a national goal of full employment, aided by low interest rates, instead of using high interest rates to fight inflation and protect the wealthy.
The second thing to do is to realize that multi-ruler ownership is not necessarily the final chapter in the story of ownership. Pathways to a more humane system of ownership have already been developed by some pragmatic thinkers, and have already been implemented by some lawmakers and some companies. Here the 1998 book by Jeff Gates,The Ownership Solution: Toward a Shared Capitalism for the 21st Century, is worth study. The idea here is to achievedemocratic ownership — that is, ownership by every person of some capital. The saying goes, that capitalism has been good at creating capital, but not good at creating capitalists. Ninety-eight per cent of us living in capitalism aren’t capitalists — that is, owners of capital. The next step in the story of ownership could be democratic ownership. ESOP’s, or Employee Stock Ownership Programs, are one excellent way to help this along.
Third, we can begin to develop an ethical attitude about our economic systems and set a national and worldwide goal, such as: Democratically ordered economies based on ethical values elaborated by elected representatives in a non-corrupt electoral system.
Fourth, we can be more keenly aware of how overpopulation is a root cause of the culture of competition that drives our current systems, and more vigorously push for programs to stop human population growth.
Fifth, we can begin to develop ethical principles of fairness. For example, fairness can be regarded as the outward expression and manifestation of the inner principle of intrinsic worth. For example, each person’suniqueness is of equal worth to every other person’s uniqueness. Having a particular skill is no reason to have a higher share of desirable goods and services than anyone else. Having a particular skill is a blessing in itself; and its exercise and development is something to be grateful for. Skills are for exercising, not for elevating oneself over others. Leadership is needed in any group endeavor, but leadership is a set of skills that are to be regarded as any skills — as talents to be exercised, not to be used for self-promotion. Conversely, leaders should be chosen on the basis of their skills, not appointed or forced by virtue of ownership position.
Sixth, after full debate and discussion, we can begin to assert more specific ethical economic guidelines. Perhaps they would sound something like the following:
- There should be aworldwide minimum wage, one that puts peopleabove bare-survival level.
- There should be a worldwide maximum income.
- There should be a worldwide maximum workweek — probably starting at 35 hours per week and eventually going down to as few as technologically possible, perhaps 10 hours per week.
- There should be a worldwide minimum individual ownership share. And a worldwide maximum ownership share.
- Ownership share should be at least partly a function of proximity and use. E.g., people who live in a house on a street, walk on the street, pick up paper in the street, drive on the street, and look at the street, should own the street more than people who only drive on the street. Another application of this would be for those people who live in areas of greatest environmental impact by the activities of a company should own the greatest percentage of that company and have most power in decisions about what the company does and how it does it.
Other ideas for practical action will present themselves as we commit ourselves to the goal of understanding, influencing, and then transforming our economic system to a more fully humane one. Thank you.
This spring I found myself in a classroom at St. Louis University. I was invited by a professor of social work who wanted his graduate students to have a broader religious perspective (than Catholicism) when working with clients.
I explained the Ethical Society with my usual fervor and enthusiasm. I stated what we are: humanists dedicated to ethical living. We teach character values and comparative religion to our children. We consider social action–building a better world–central to our making ethical living real. We honor the worth and dignity of every individual.
A young man raised his hand after I spoke and said: “This is so good to hear. My mom used to drive me by the Ethical Society every day on my way to school and she would say: ‘See that building down there; it’s a place for wayward heathens and pagans and that spire there is a witch’s hat!'”
I reacted in my usual calm, cool way: smiled and said I appreciated his comments, that the spire was actually there to inspire people to seek the highest ideals in their lives, that our founder, Felix Adler said, “Where all come to seek the highest is holy ground.” However, inwardly I felt like someone had shot an arrow into my heart. If this young man had thought that way, then many others don’t understand or appreciate us.
In the past we have been called “black devil secular humanists,” “heathens,” “faithless,” “godless,” “a religious cult,” and “intellectual elitists.” No wonder it is so hard for us to claim and take a stand for our humanistic, ethical identity.
I’ve seen us try: Sometimes some of us are difficult and negative and scornful. “Traditional religion makes people into sheep–followers with no brains.” We are thinkers and certainly not followers. Or, we say, “We are godless atheists and we’re proud of it.”
Sometimes we are unsure: “Well, it means one thing to one person and another thing to another. Since we don’t have a creed or dogma then everyone thinks differently.”
Sometimes we’re desperate: “Well, you’ll just have to come some Sunday–it’s hard to explain.”
Sometimes we’re wise and careful: One member here carries our Statement of Purpose in her purse and pulls it out to explain us.
I want us to move forward in claiming our Ethical Society identity and heritage clearly and with pride and certainty. I think it’s difficult for us because it is so precious and vital to us–often claimed with pain and with the misunderstanding of our loved ones.
But I also think we claimed “an outside the mainstream of society” place for ourselves when we joined and we don’t see how strongly we “fit” into the arenas of society that so desperately need our participation and our values.
We, to this day, offer the “middle ground” that speaks for an ethical evaluation of all decisions and behaviors as to their relevance to personal good and the greater good for all. But it’s more personal than that. By claiming our ethical identity we affirm who we are. We declare our own worthiness and our right to dignity and respect. When we truly experience our own worth–our life potential for joy and service expands tenfold! Our view of those around us comes from the prism of self-worth we own within.
No greater gift in life than to experience: I am OK–regardless of what my boss says, my spouse says, my children say. I am OK–regardless of my lack of money, my divorce, life’s unfairness, my job changes, my illness, my age.
Seneca the Stoic said, “If you see a man who is unterrified in the midst of danger, happy in adversity, peaceful amid the storms of life, who looks down at men from a higher plane, and views the gods on a footing of equality, will not a feeling of reverence steal over you?” That’s the kind of human being we strive to be and experience in our lives.
Therefore we must vigorously claim our humanistic heritage because it is so relevant and critical to our troubled times today and to affirming our own self-worth.
In a St. Louis Post-Dispatch article, “Humanists a Beacon” by William Edelen, he says:
Perhaps the most ludicrous and asinine charge made by those ranting against “humanists” is that they are “godless.” A list of brilliant humanists, who were also deeply religious and spiritual people in the most profound sense, would be endless: Plato, Aristotle, Erasmus, Montaigne, Sir Thomas More, Paracelsus, and one of the greatest thinkers of the 15th century, Nicholas Cusanus, Sir Francis Bacon, Goethe, Albert Schweitzer and practically all of our major founding fathers, from Thomas Jefferson to Abraham Lincoln.
The motivation of the humanistic movement in the 4th century was to produce a fully cultivated human being. Educational programs were upgraded and refined. The inner needs of the religious life combined with a classical education became the ideal.
It was the cultivation of manners that one needed to become a fully civilized human being. Would to God that we could revive this humanistic concept, of what it means to be a fully developed person.
Humanists, schooled in the humanities and other liberal arts, combining the needs of the spiritual life with a classical education–whether theist, deist. Christian, Buddhist, Taoist or Hebrew–could very well be the bright hope of this nation.
We can take pride in our humanist heritage. Today, could we not use an emphasis on “developing a fully cultivated human being–one with manners?” As Ethical Society members, we practice what we believe in our daily actions. Ethical relationship challenges abound on a daily basis for each of us.
The story is told of Winston Churchill, who faced a most difficult diplomatic challenge. When attending a dinner, his distraught hostess came to him and said she had observed one of the guests pocketing one of her best salt and pepper sets. She asked if he could think of some way to get her property back without causing an unpleasant scene. Shortly he went to the other end of the great dining table and pocketed the other set of shakers and sidled up to the thief. He opened his pocket just wide enough for the chap to see the shakers inside, and whispered, “I think they’ve seen us, we’d better put them back.”
Churchill created a humble partnership with the hostess and the thief that quietly without embarrassment achieved the right action and result. Yes, ethical challenges do abound!
Ethical life challenges can only be met by the use of reason and reverence. As humanists and Ethical Culturists, we use reason as our primary resource for evaluating and acting on the world around us. Knowledge brings us wisdom while recognizing the paramount importance of good, ethical living with reverence for all living creatures. This combination, when reason and reverence meet, will produce the most powerful human beings in the world as it has in the past.
Felix Adler, our founder, understood this. I often envision a young man is hunched over a desk in a study in Heidelburg, Germany: It is 1875. Books surround him, Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, Plato, the Bible, and Emerson, to just name a few. All of a sudden, what he has been searching for comes together in his mind.
All religions have a thread of profound truth in them. However, their major flaw lies in their insistence on being the one truth! Therefore religion must be based on the search for truth based on reason (as outlined by Kant in his writings) and in tandem with that, reverence for life and all living things through honoring their worth. Moral codes of conduct for ethical living based on rational thought would ride side by side with a profound respect, deep joy, and appreciation for the eccentricities, flaws, and complexities of human beings.
Traditional Western religions have been based on God and his laws. What abut a religion based on faith in human worth? The next step in religious history would be a religion based on human “good” or worth and grounded in humanistic and philosophical perspective, centered in “right living” today as a reward in and of itself, filled with reverence for one’s self and others.
Achieving such a “religion of the future” would not be easy because our founder, Felix Adler, realized that one wouldn’t be using old parameters of religion so it would be built philosophically and structurally from the ground up.
He drew from Ralph Waldo Emerson, who called “for a new church based on moral science and moral faith.” He drew from Immanuel Kant, who stressed the centrality of ethics and practical reason that could be separated from theology. He drew from his Jewish heritage with its emphasis on social action and reform. He drew from humanist writers down through the ages.
He recognized that by founding this Ethical Culture movement and the first Ethical Society, he would be making some daring life choices. He took an unknown career path rather than retain his mainstream Jewish faith, thereby choosing to be an “outsider” rather than an “insider.” He became a creator of his faith and his life, rather than a follower. He chose the hard way–an uphill path of unfamiliarity and uncertainty.
He was constantly asked: “What is an Ethical Society?” “Are you folks heretics, intellectual elitists, rebels?” “Why make it hard on yourself?” “Why not hedge your bets and have a heaven for eternal reward, and comfort?”
And to this day we humanists, we Ethical Society members are asked these questions! Over one hundred years later–in these dark and turbulent times–we, as Adler did, can be lights for ethical living. We must come out of the dark and claim our identity or die.
Putting Ethical culture and the Ethical Society on the religious map of New York City, spreading it across America and around the world, was Adler’s dream and he did it! Over 100 years later it is our turn. Being as clear as Adler was about who we are–our unique identity–being proud of it and sharing it with others is our mandate. For forces in our society today demand that you and I step forward and claim our place in history.
For I an deeply concerned about trends in our society that are strongly counter to the well-being of all free thinkers and those concerned with the character of our national heroes and leaders.
We are surrounded by ethical/moral dilemmas constantly as this whole judicial/congressional process, our President and congress are mired in moral, mortal combat. I don’t condone Clinton’s actions with Monica Lewinsky but I think the issues are much broader than a philandering president, with regard to privacy and the right to a fair judicial process.
Our Ethical Society is the place where we can speak and act to end the destructive trends in our culture today. We say here that our faith is in honoring the worth and dignity of all, yet our country has strong groups that would deny this basic human right. The religious right attacks gays, women’s rights and other people and issues that do not fit their narrow worldviews. Yet they are ever more powerful in promoting religious views in Congress, blurring the lines between church and state.
Other destructive trends are the ever-increasing influence of materialism and consumerism that tends to obscure what is truly important in life for Americans. We have a shallow culture when appearance and wealth determines success in a human being!
These trends promote an ever-diminishing emphasis on character values, the true strength of and foundation for a successful human being. You ask kids today what constitutes success and they use a very different yardstick–money, athletic ability, career status, to just name a few.
We need heroes like baseball’s Mark McGwire, who captured our attention for his home run hitting prowess, but in his actions around his achievements he role modeled: love of family for his son, sharing of honors for his fellow athlete, forgiveness for his ex-wife by bringing her and her husband to the big game, and honoring the past by saluting Roger Maris’ family.
Outside Busch Stadium there’s a sign that says, “Superheroes are put on pedestals, but real heroes bring us up with them.” We need heroes of good character in every part of our society.
So an Ethical Society community does its work and has as its mission to give another view of life that is character-centered while demonstrating a strong faith in the power of community. Here we support each other in handling life’s unfairness and unreasonableness, its crazy tragedies and hurts.
Here we hold a faith that in community we can build a better world–one free of pollution, hunger, and violence. Today we will hear of “Domestic Violence Awareness Month” and what we can do to support this worthy cause. We must act to build a better world for all on our planet. I’m proud of our Society. I urge us to take an even stronger stand against the trends in our society that encroach on basic human rights and distort what constitutes a good human being.
We cannot be complacent in these times. We must take a stand for our unique identity as humanist beacons of light and reach out to like-minded groups, then spread the word to our families, friends, co-workers and those we meet in daily living. Be able to say with pride and confidence, “Yes, I do belong to the Ethical Society,” and “I want you to come see if it is for you.” Only then can we affirm ourselves as Ethical Culturists.
Why is this so? Because when I claim deep down inside of me–its central principle–to honor the worth and dignity of everyone including myself, I know and experience my rights and my place in this world as a person to be respected, honored and loved. And by the most difficult person of all–myself.
1. Cultural Relativity is a method that directs anthropologists to suspend judgment while investigating the beliefs and practices of peoples in other cultures. The assumption being, that base-line knowledge, as well as understanding, comes from assessing the other in light of her own environment and historical logic.
2. Cultural Relativism is the practice of this method.
I was raised in a small Mormon town in northeastern Utah. Ever since I started college, in far off southern Utah, and befriended a kid from Chicago, I have been a culturally challenged person. My formative adult years, from 17 to 50, were spent reconciling successive onslaughts of unavoidable oppositions in my life. At 17, how was I, a devout, and therefore celibate, Mormon youth, to sustain a friendship with an Irish Catholic Chicagoan, the only “foreigner” and the chief sexual activist on campus. How could I relate to Irish Chicago vs. the mass of Mormon youth, without choosing sides but also without loosing my own identity to the middle?
At 21, a missionary leader in Brazil, how could I reconcile the competitive sales strategy used to gain converts, with the radical communism I had been taught was the true order of God? Twenty-three years old, reading anthropological archaeology and studying Book of Mormon archaeology at BYU, was a fact-supported synthesis possible? One year later, 24, and a new graduate student majoring in archaeology with a bioanthropology minor at Indiana, I encountered the urgent business of emerging whole through the creation-evolution labyrinth. In that hall of smoke, genes, and mirrors, I devoted at least half-time my first year of graduate school coming to grips with the Mormon teaching on race. Each discovery doubled back on others, culture being the amazing marbled layer cake that it is.
The reconciliation of opposites was not always possible. From 17 until now, many choices were made. Despite good will, some conflicts cannot be ignored. Eventually, an anthropologist encounters the limitations of the open-mindedness of cultural relativism and begins to wonder how it really works.
In 1983 I read my first monastic literature, Thomas Merton’s Mystics and Zen Masters, a fascinating cross-cultural examination of contemplative mystical practices, where people work at the interface (reconciliation) between God (ultimate reality) and human. In 1984 I visited a Trappist monastery and met my first monk face to face. In 1990 I began looking for a monastery for ethnographic field work. By 1992 all requests had, politely, failed. In May I booked a flight to Utah to visit my octogenarian mother. I was aware of a Trappist monastery in Huntsville, possibly the quintessential Latter Day Saint town in late 20th century Mormon cosmology. I called the Abbot, explained my purpose and requested a conference.
In January, 1993, I entered Holy Trinity Abbey and did not leave the property for 30 days, the duration of an observership, the time when a would-be monk tries the community on for size, just as cloister life tests him for all to see.
The abbot assigned me to feed pregnant cows with one of the brothers and gave me a place in the choir beside a lean old rosy-cheeked brother who appeared taller than I, though he is actually a little shorter. The cow feeding brother took me, a total stranger with no pretense of becoming a monk, reluctantly, from obedience to the abbot. But I had been raised feeding cows and performing every kind of ranch job. A self-described introvert and loner, he started talking with me the first morning, as we brushed the snow from the pole fence, crawled into the stockyard, and set to work feeding bales of hay to hungry cows. We talked and laughed and shared many things non-stop for two weeks. After that the abbot granted me a fairly free reign in the enclosure, and my feeding companion prevailed on me to quit feeding cows, an all-day job in winter, so I could get acquainted with the other men, for the sake of my research. I consented, reluctantly, and he returned to silence. When I returned that spring he took me to visit the hermitage, where he goes overnight for recollection each month. When elections were held, in 1995, to choose a new abbot, he asked if I would feed cows so he could participate without them having to go hungry. As with the hermitage visit, he had secured the abbot’s consent before asking. Since then, we’ve spoken once or twice, though I have spent more than 100 days in the abbey.
On the same day that I started feeding cows, I took my place in choir. The brother who remains to this day my choir mate, greeted me with a toothy, glad smile — no obedience to the abbot required with this guy. He was glad to have me. He guided me gracefully, and in silence, as a Trappist can do, through the dozens of liturgical books, leaflets, and single sheets of paper required to participate in their daily, bi-weekly, and annual liturgical cycles.
One day after Sext, the middle prayer among the seven that make-up the daily Office of the Hours, I turned to him and whispered, “Will you teach me lectio divina?” Lectio, as monastics call it, is a kind of text-based contemplative prayer.
The next morning at 11:00 we met in the small chapel at the rear of the church. I was empty-handed, not wanting to scare him off with mixed messages about my intent to learn lectio. He carried a book by the late Karl Rahner, a Jesuit theologian who taught at the University of Innsbruck. On a piece of scrap paper he had written the word ANTHROPOLOGY vertically, in capital letters. In single words he had broken it down into its classical definition. But he had also written such words as GOD, CHRIST, EUCHARIST, and MAN. He intended to teach me the meaning of anthropology. I felt amused and amazed at the same time, and decided I would remain open.
Our formal meetings generally lasted exactly one hour. Occasional unplanned encounters, in the building where Monastery Fresh Eggs were inspected and packaged for commercial distribution, or in the tailor shop, for he worked both jobs, our discussions ran longer. Sometimes, on warm days when it was not too hot, we went for walks or met on the shaded lawn in front of the church. At rare times other lay people or a junior monk were with us. Our talks were intense, varied, but unswerving in their purpose, which was to come to a mutual understanding of the meaning of Anthropology and of Benedictine Christianity .
Slowly we became fast friends, as our discourse ranged across theology, scripture, the writings of the sitting Pope, life stories, but never a word of gossip, and the ever increasing vulnerability of mutual self-disclosure. There were regular disagreements over seemingly superficial but truly serious matters. He chided and cajoled me to forget about these prepared questions. “Get to the meat of the matter, brother!” Sometimes I got the Benedictine treatment, little notes left in my choir stall with sparely written fraternal corrections, intended to twist my thinking. I reminded him, a good Trappist imitation, firmly, unbending, that I too am under a vow of obedience to my university which had funded the research and to my professional, which held me to fairly standard research methods. Doggedly, but enjoying the hell out of each other, we persisted. I read the Pope’s “Encyclical on Evangelization,” snippets from Rahner, and a little of von Balthazar’s theology of anthropology. He talked about Catholics, Protestants, Buddhists, Muslims, Mormons, Atheists, Men, Women, universal discourse, mutual respect, the nature of man, the love of Christ, the fertility of self-sacrifice, immanence, transcendence, his monastic approach to sexuality, about brotherhood, sisterhood, and humanhood. I talked with him about anthropology; its assumptions, methods, and discoveries, ranging from paleoanthropology to humanistic anthropology. With a growing history together, we can now tap into our shared discourse at an infinite number of jump-off points.
At the end of December, 1996, I took two students with me to the monastery, one to do research on power and the other on health and aging. I asked my choir mate to help out, which he did with characteristic grace. Toward the end of their stay he pulled us into a side office in the Guest House, and once again we set to work, the two young people like the proverbial privileged flies on the wall. He had come across an article written by one of the Church’s envoys to an international women’s conference in Scandinavia, in which she spoke with clarity and urgency about the need for a non-judgmental, cross-cultural discourse on the pressing humanitarian and communication issues of our time. He, in his inimitable style, set the article inside a story that contextualized it by establishing mutually understood coordinates that cut through a large potential hubris, pointing excitedly at paragraphs and phrases in the text, which I read as I talked.
Five to ten minutes into the discussion, I don’t know, it was not tape recorded, he said, and I paraphrase, “Don’t you see brother. This is anthropology. It is all about seeing Christ in the Other.” The concept, “cultural relativism,” appeared in my mind, and I spoke the words out loud, “Cultural Relativism.” I started talking, explaining the concept of cultural relativity as also the practice of cultural relativism and seeing Christ in the other meant the same thing, in our discourse. When I had finished talking and stopped for his response, he bent before me, a modest, intentional Mother Theresa of Calcutta bow, and said, “Wow. ” It was in the first days of January, 1997, he was approaching his 80th birthday and me my 50th. We tried to talk a little, but we were eager to get away from each other. I needed time, and space to process, and for taking notes, a powerful tool for maintaining balance in the field. For the field is a place where cosmologies clash, mingle, separate, recombine, and synthesize — perilous stuff for a social scientist.
This past late December into January I returned and took up the question of the meaning of seeing Christ in the other with 6 more monks. I was familiar with the term and knew quite a bit about its practice, but had never addressed it systematically. Before even tentatively suggesting that I might be on the verge of extracting convergent concepts and practices from the murky waters of anthropology and religion, I wanted to make sure that I knew where my ducks were located on a scattergram. I asked each monk the question: What meaning does the phrase, “seeing Christ in the other,” have for you? Later questions, except for routine ones to verify its place in Benedictine monasticism, were adapted to their responses, to allow me to find out what the phrase means both conceptually and as a practice.
Five of the six monks said that it did have meaning to them, though each described it quite individually. The sixth monk said that he prefers the usage, “Christian Charity,” over “seeing Christ in the other,” though he acknowledged that the two are overlapping approaches to the same thing.
One of the five monks roots the concept in scripture and in very carefully defined and codified terms. His understanding is highly intellectualized and somewhat legal and his application designed to make communication possible. His is, in social science terms, a good case of applied theory. On a scale where the intellectual understanding and practice occupy the right and mystical and spiritualized occupy the left, I would rate him quite far to the right.
The second monk integrates Old and New Testament scripture with psychological theory in his interpretation and practice. He is very Old Testament law-like in an almost zero tolerance for intolerance approach to the issue. Christ leaves no alternative but to see Christ in the other, regardless of the objective evidence available to condemn the person, as we, left to our own nature would do. In real life this monk must apply the concept well, because he is a well-used confessor for many lay people, men and women alike, and is used for the same purpose by some of the monks. He is not as far right as the first monk.
The third monk used Mother Theresa as his model to explain the phrase and its meaning, and the Rule of St. Benedict to establish its precedent as a monastic imperative. He provided examples from daily monastic life to explain how the concept, when applied as a method, enables people who live in an enclosure, a delicately balanced form of community life, to make sense out of, and otherwise mediate, conflictual situations and issues. Of the 25 men in the community, he meets the vagaries of his life with greatest equanimity, if I can be judge. I rate him as having a well-developed synthesis of the spiritual, intellectual, and applied use of the concept, though I position him just a little to the intellectualized right on a sliding scale.
The fourth monk approaches it in a radical, almost pacifistic way. He uses the term “docile,” to describe the attitude and the requirements for action that a monk must take in avoiding judgment so as to meet people where they are. This way, he can serve others without condemnation, even when faced with someone whose attitudes and behaviors are in grave violation of his own sense of goodness. In leadership roles he is able to take stands, sometimes with determined commitment in the face of stiff opposition, with but rare appearance of emotional discomfort. He is a stalwart of the community, with a reputation for contemplative silence and evenness. I rate him a little past midway between the center and the spiritualized left.
The fifth monk is my choir mate, and I’ve already described him. He is described by the other men as a mystic. He is intellectual without intellectualizing. He seems, perhaps to keep himself above the fray and connects best with the bigger picture, not the small. He is called to see the Divine, the Image of God in the Other. When this happens, we become a sacrament to each other; we have the potential of becoming Eucharist to each other. He is far left on the spiritualized side of the scale.
The sixth monk, who is wary of using the phrase “seeing Christ in the other,” prefers the usage, “Christian Charity,” because he thinks it is too much of a practical stretch to see Christ in the other when you know what is going on. Nonetheless, a monk, as with any Christian, is under edict not to judge when it comes to a person’s salvation or any of the existential and eschatological issues related to it. This is a hard-nosed man who wears leadership well, though not without interior and interpersonal conflict. He is fearless in calling men to task, and until last summer I mistook his frank, often blunt, assessments as blanket condemnations of those who crossed him. In August of 1997, however, I had occasion to travel by automobile with him for 6 days, and from that intense interaction I learned that he has a remarkable and highly developed ability to harshly criticize specific behaviors without it spilling over to a judgment of motives, value, or a man’s contribution. He is the hardest one to position, and so I would tentatively place him dead center on the scale. He appears unspiritualized and unintellectualized equally, yet he applies the concept, by a different name, with a remarkable clarity. I am sure the ones he crosses do not immediately see it that way.
All six monks agree on one thing: a monk and a Christian must develop a discipline, call it a method, that sustains an openness in relations with other individuals and groups. This is rooted in the theory that judging the human value of others, no matter how different or strange, is beyond the ability of any human to assess. Judgment is God’s, and people condemn themselves and their endeavors when they do not learn to successfully apply this. As a theory, with predictive value, they are convinced of the tangible and spiritual benefits of the approach. There is, however, no expectation of agreement, no assumption that all beliefs and behaviors are of equal value, and there is the need to act and judge in temporal matters affecting community responsibilities and individual human rights. The applied concept of seeing Christ in the other, is a theoretical construct that predictably makes for the broadest possible inclusion of humankind within one single conceptual community. In practical matters it enables inclusion, whenever this is possible, but enables separation, when this is necessary, without condemnation at the level of a person’s human identity, value, or even the logic of their position. It is possible to misapply seeing Christ in the other, by taking it too literally, as if because a person always has value it follows that what he does always has value. This creates the same conundrum that Paul Schmidt identified in assessing the behavior of Nazis, in his 1955 selective critique and exoneration of cultural relativism, reprinted in Manners and Kaplan, 1968.
Cultural relativity, it seems to me, accomplishes much the same thing, with the same pitfalls. Cultural relativism and Benedictine Christianity may seem strange bedfellows, but the convergence seems clear. Even the benefits and variety of ways in applying the two seem to describe ourselves. If, anything, however, I wonder if anthropologists are not more prone, being a newer discipline than monasticism, to apply the concept uncritically and in the process to dehumanize the people we want to understand, humanize, and elevate. One of the monks [described] St. Bernard, the greatest Cistercian, for me. He said that the hagiography of the Saint made him superhuman and, thus, unreal and unhuman. It was, he said, Bernard’s humanity that made him great. To ignore his humanity, in all its smelly parts, is to dehumanize and, in the end, to make him uncredible.
Relativity, like Christ in the other, is the indispensable methodology of anthropology, we may agree. But it is also a core predictive theory. By applying it, we have learned seemingly unlearnable things about other people. When we apply it critically, and deeply, as many anthropologists do, and as some monks endeavor to do with their own concept, we may discover that we are talking the same language as other people, at some deep cultural level.
Is this a real convergence? If yes, are there others that converge with cultural relativism? If there are, what are they? Are they common across cultures? If so, how do they vary, and how are they symbolically expressed and nuanced? If they are not common, what does this mean? Of course, in my eagerness to understand monks and to find common ground for discourse and relationship, I may have missed the mark completely, in which case I want to know, so I seek your feedback.
I invite you on a trip with me this morning, as I share some of my memories, and the teachings of others, on borders crossed. Not so much a linear progression or a well developed political analysis, this is more of a meditation, and I hope some of it resonates with you, and I hope other parts push you a little, across borders where you haven’t been.
1. The First Border
The first border I crossed was one that everyone crosses, from womb to world, from being protected from the world to setting about discovering it, from being a part of someone else to being on my own. It was the coldest November night at the end of a tumultuous decade. The taxi couldn’t make it down the hill to our house because of the ice, so my mother was pushed up the hill with me inside. I came into the world in the middle of the night at Western General Hospital in Edinburgh, Scotland. Though I remember nothing of this time, it was a difficult one for my family. My mother contracted tuberculosis, and my father fell into depression. Without moorings, we moved from Scotland, to Holland, to the States, finally setting in Iowa City, where my memories begin.
In his recent novelThe Last Song of Manuel Sendero, the Chilean writer Ariel Dorfmari describes a fantastic proposition. During the reign of the Dragon Pinchot there is a great revolt-a rebellion of the unborn. For six weeks, they hold to their rebellion and refuse to come out into the world, refuse to be born into a world of injustice. One never comes out, and he tells his grandfather, Manuel, to pass on his words to the Caballero: “TelI him, Grandfather, don’t be afraid, when we can come out into the peaceful night… without five men knocking at our door… when nobody will be born without a heart, Grandfather, [when] it’s guaranteed that you’re born with a double heart so that injustice will hurt us so much we’ll have to do away with it once and for all… tell him, Grandfather, proclaim it even if nobody listens to you… even if they call you an idealist and a romantic and a socialist and an anarchist and a stubborn dreamer, it’s worth it just to say it… it’s worth it to be faithful to the joy that conception brings, it’s worth it to love history the way other people have loved a woman or a man… Tell him he doesn’t exist, that he has all the power and none of the love, tell him we’re being born all the time.” In the end, despite the disapperances and injustice in Chile under Pinochet, Dorfman says that it’s better to be engaged in the world for all its pain. It’s better to try and change things, to create something new, to feel and to live deeply, It’s better to have a heart and be wounded than to become numb, and that being born, having the hope to bring life into this world, is in itself a political act.
2. Selective Borders
My mother came to the United States in the mid 1950s to work for a year as an au pair. Her father warned that if she left Holland, she would never come back. She said she’d be there just for a year. When the year was up, she bqan to take classes. She ended up going to nursing school, and then met my father, had a few children, and never did get back to Holland. It took the next generation to return. My sister, who is a cellist, is now a Dutch citizen and lives in Holland. My father came to the United States to do his medical residency. As a doctor, it was easier for him to get in the country than for many immigrants. When it came time for him to apply for a green card, he was given a choice. Either he could apply from outside the United States, in which case he couldn’t come in for 2 years, or he could apply from inside the US, in which case he would have been drafted right away to serve in Vietnam, because he is a psychiatrist and they needed psychiatrists. My parents disagreed with the war, and they left the country, which is why I was born in Scotland. Two years later, they were granted permanent residency and returned to settle. Though my parents did their share of hard work, they came to this country knowing English. They didn’t have to support family back home. They could have had good lives in their home countries, but the opportunity to come here presented itself and they took it.
“Crisis of identity, anxieties born of expulsion, ghosts that haunt and accuse: exile sows doubts and raises issues not necessarily faced by those who live far away by choice. The outcast cannot return to his country or to one he had taken as his own. When you’re washed up on foreign shores, your soul is bared to the storms and you lose your habitual frames of reference and shelter. The distance is greater when there is no alternative,” writes Uruguayan novelist Eduardo Galeano, describing political exile. For the economic refugee, it’s a different situation yet. Desperate to provide for his family back home, he comes to the United States illegally, toils in our fields and meatpacking plants, sews in our sweatshops, serves us in our restaurants, and is constantly held hostage to the fear of deportation. He will never be able to call this place home. He is not wanted, except to do our dirty work. For some Central American and Caribbean countries, one of their main sources of foreign exchange is the money sent home by family members working in the United States. Why was the statue of liberty there to greet my parents, but not these? And do we have any responsibility when we have helped create some of the conditions which push people out of their countries? Supporting death squads in Central America and Haiti, prescribing neoliberal economic policies through the World Bank and NF which have widened the gap between rich and poor, presiding over a staggering transfer of resources from the South to the North through debt? What role does our country’s foreign policy play in pushing migration?
3. New Borders
In the spring of 1947, my father was part of one of the largest migrations in recent history, what he calls “the most tragic moment in the history of India.” From the age of 3, he had lived in Karachi. One of his best fiends, Ibrahim, was a Muslim. But when he was 11 years old, he boarded a freighter with his family and headed into the Arabian Sea to Jamnagar. His father stayed back to close out the business. They worried for him, since he always dressed in the simple cloth of a Hindu. My father was one of the lucky ones. Going by ship, they managed to avoid the murder, rape and torture which greeted migrants from both sides traveling by land. At least 600,000 people were massacred. Although Gandhi had pleaded for a united India, my father saw partition as inevitable and as the natural outgrowth of the British policy of divide and rule. And yet my father says that despite hatred and mistrust between Hindus and Muslims, between India and Pakistan, Indians must recognize that some of the goriest periods of Indian history were tider Muslim leadership, I grew up hearing stories about Akbar, the great Moghul emperor, and the way in which his wisest servant Birbal would trick and advise him.
In 1944, over seventeen days of conversations, Mohandas Gandhi pleaded with the president of the Muslim League, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, against the partition of India. At one point, Gandhi said: “You can cut me in two if you wish, but don’t cut India in two.” His pleas were in vain. Days before his assassination, he asked at his daily prayer meeting for each Hindu and Sikh in the audience to bring along at least one Muslim to prayers thereafter. He read from the Koran, and announced that his next journey on behalf of peace would be to Pakistan. Fifty years later it was Muslims in the Bosnian government who would argue that Sarajevo should remain an undivided city, a city for all faiths and ethnic groups, that Bosnia – Hercogovina shouldn’t be divided into ethnic Serb, Croat and Muslim enclaves. Now Ibrahim Rugova’s calls for a nonviolent solution to oppression of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo are being drowned out by militants from both sides. Must ethnic borders become national borders? Can we find a way to maintain our identity and rights within a nation of many cultures? While people should have the right to self-determination, wouldn’t we prefer to find ways build healthy multicultural nations?
4. Breaching Borders
I grew up when the nuclear age had already begun to mature and people were used to living with the bomb. Still, when the movie “The Day After” came out, every school child’s fears were raised. I was certainly more afraid of nuclear bombs than I was afraid of Russians. It didn’t matter where the bomb would come from, it could come as easily from a crazy leader or an accidental launch or a response from a US attack. The Russians weren’t the problem, I thought, the bomb makers were. In college I studied Russian, and spent the spring of 1990 in Moscow, in the late days of perestroika. It confirmed my feeling that the Russians were not our enemies, though they had managed to create a language that felt as difficult to learn as cracking a code. Even so, trust was difficult to build.
I witnessed relationships between Americans and Russians fall apart when the American accused the Russian of using them to get to the US, or of being part of the KGB. Trust is not easy to build, especially when there are inequities between the sides. I knew it was important if there were to be peace between Russia and the US to be able to understand Russians. There were many things about the Soviet system that I would never understand. On one early evening, suddenly we heard fireworks. They had already celebrated May Day and Victory in Europe Day. We wondered that they could possibly be celebrating now. We learned finally that it was National Border Guard Day. It also, by coincidence, happened to be the third anniversary of the date when German Mathias Rust piloted his Cessna into Red Square, managing to escape detection from the Soviet military, Perhaps the Border Guards had been so busy celebrating, that they didn’t notice this breach of their border.
Governments create borders of fear between their nation and so-called enemy nations. During the Cold War, it seems that many more Americans bought the US propaganda about Russia than Russians buying Soviet propaganda about us. Russians knew their press wasn’t free. They knew their government didn’t have their interests in mind, and they didn’t trust what was told to them. While many Americans opposed Red Scare tactics, a larger percentage bought it, because they believed that we live in the freest nation on earth. The late Martha Gellhorn, a journalist who covered wars from the Spanish Civil War to the wars in the 80s in Central America, writes: “After a lifetime of war-watching, I see war as an endemic human disease, and governments are the carriers, Only governments prepare, declare and prosecute wars. There is no record of hordes of citizens, on their own, mobbing the seat of government to clamor for war. They must be infected with hate and fear before they catch war fever. They have to be taught they are endangered by an enemy, and that the vital interests of the state are threatened. The vital interests of the state, which are always about power, have nothing to do with the vital interests of the citizens, which are private and simple and are always about a better life for themselves and their children. You do not kill for such interests, you work for them.”
5. Crossed by the Border
A few years ago, I visited a friend in Tijuana. He worked in Tijuana for about six years at the YMCA, where they operated a Home for Migrant Youth and were part of a coalition monitoring rights along the border. He took me to the Mexican side of the border at night. An eerie quiet hung over the area. Hot search lights shined upon the small Tijuana River. He explained that what we couldn’t see was the command center of the Border Patrol where they used infrared technology to search for people crossing illegally and where they took people they found and sometimes interrogated and beat them. What I could see were a few vendors who were there to sell the last meals in Mexico to people trying to cross.
Roberto Martinez, the director of the U.S. Mexico Border Program for the American Friends Service Committee in San Diego describes his life in struggle as a Chicano. He says, “My great, great grandparents came from Texas and they lived there before the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed. In other words like we say a lot ‘we didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us.’ They broke the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo right from day one. Lands were taken away, people were chased into Mexico. As settlers swept across the country they took away land, took over mines, took over everything. We basically ended up, our people, my great grandparents, more like indentured servants working for people on the land that they used to own.” While NAFTA makes it easier for capital and merchandise to cross the border, the militarization of the border is making it more difficult for people to cross. For the first time since 1848, when the war with Mexico ended, we now have U.S. troops face to face with Mexican troops on the border. The INS has conducted exercises for its “enhanced border control plan” in the event that the Mexican economy completely collapses. Practiced in the desert with advice from the Pentagon, they rehearse for rounding up immigrants into temporary collection points of fenced-in corrals and identify prisons, county jails and military bases where they could detain and question immigrants who refuse to return immediately. Free trade, free markets, and fenced-in people.
6. An Illegal Border Crossing
This past December, I traveled to Iraq with a group called Voices in the Wilderness. I spoke about this trip at the Adult Forum here in February. I traveled there in direct violation of US laws, which requires State Department approval for US citizens traveling to Iraq. While there, our group delivered $40,000 worth of medicine to a children’s hospital in Baghdad, in direct violation of the economic blockade of the country, which requires licenses for the distribution of essential food and medicine and which prevents Iraq from buying and selling except in the very controlled framework of the Food for Oil Deal. I went because I wanted to see for myself what the conditions were under the sanctions and be able to report on those conditions back in the US. I also went to try and be a good will emissary from the United States, to be able to say to Iraqis who were suffering, that I stood with them and not with my government, or their government, that I didn’t think it was right for the innocent people to be put in the middle of this situation, Like I had found in Russia, the Iraqis immediately understood this. They themselves said, time after time, that they had no problem with the American people, that they saw us as brothers and sisters, that it was the US government’s policy, though, that was killing them.
And I saw the sorts of people our policies were killing: Alla Hammad, a three year old with leukemia, was hooked up to a monitor which would continually emit high pitched beeps. The doctor said she could die at any moment. Radiation therapy, available in Iraq before the Gulf War, has now ceased because of sanctions. Three year old Hattan Karim was suffering from kwashiorkor, acute malnutrition, which had been unknown in Iraq for decades before sandions. Ali was a 45 day old newborn with pneumonia, the smallest child I’ve ever seen. His mother was strikingly beautiful and I sat with her and looked at her tiny baby, which she would rotate into a defective incubator every once in awhile. Five month old Sara Karem, weighed less than half of normal body weight. Her father had glaucoma, for which there was no treatment available. Mustafa Azawi, a young boy with leukemia, clutched his finger, which was black from gangrene. They didn’t even have the facilities to amputate his finger to stop the spread of the gangrene because they didn’t have enough sutures, anesthesia, blood and IV bags, and other instruments to conduct regular surgery. And in this in a country which had the most sophisticated public health care system in the Arab world before 1990. As I talk about these children I saw six months ago, I wonder how many of them are still alive.
One of the first things we did after crossing the border back into Jordan, was to call the US Embassy in Amman to request a meeting. The Jesuit priest in our group made the phone call. They said that they were short staffed because it was around New Year’s and they wouldn’t be able to meet with us. So Simon told them briefly of our concerns about what we had seen, of the lack of food and medical care, and the disrepair of the infrastructure, caused by the sanctions. He then said that we were aware that our trip was in direct violation of a travel ban and the sanctions, and he asked the man to write down our names. He carefully spelled out the names of the five of us and said: “Write them down and say that we violated the sanctions, because when the Day of Judgment comes, our names will be written in the book.”
For me, crossing borders is at the heart of what peace work is, going to the other side to meet the enemy face to face. Sometimes that enemy is another nation, sometimes just an individual, or it could be people of a particular race, ethnicity or religion. Most of the time, I think, we realize that the biggest enemies are fear and prejudice. Crossing these boundaries forces us to confront these fears and then, hopefully, set about the more productive work of defining where true differences or inequities lie and trying to right them.
It was only two months after I was in Iraq that papers were carrying the Pentagon’s plans for bombing. And now I had been there and I bad met people who might have been killed or maimed in such a bombing. I had seen results of the previous war, the Amiriyah Shelter which was hit by two precision guided missiles on February 12, 1991, killing hundreds of civilians, I talked to Um Reyda, who lost 9 family members in that bombing. I saw the health effects of bombed sewage and water treatment facilities and of Depleted Uranium, What interests could I have that would be served by more of this? Many people will call me naive, but what did one war, pinprick bombings and sanctions accomplish? Democracy in Kuwait? A free Kurdistan? A stable Middle East? To be sure, UNSCOM has had success in ridding Iraq of some of its weapons of mass destruction, but without a
corresponding attempt to demilitarize the region, this is a fleeting victory-unless we plan to keep starving the Iraqis for the foreseeable future.
The structural reasons that have caused instability have not been addressed. For instance, one of Iraq’s aims in both fighting the 8 year war against Iran and invading Kuwait was to get unimpeded access to the Persian Gulf. Four days after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, US Ambassador Thomas Pickering asked the Jordanian ambassador to pass on a message to the Iraqi government: “We acknowledge your need for an opening to the Gulf, and the issue of access to the islands (Warba and Bubiyyl) is one that we could look on favorably.” The issue has yet to be resolved.
7. The Borders of Identity
I’ve been arrested on several occasions (mostly for things I’m proud of), and automatically, the police officer marks W under race. They ask me to check over the information, and I say, I’m not white. What are you, they ask? I’m half Asian and half European. We don’t have a category for that. You have to be one or the other. Can I be Other? Nope, we don’t have an Other category either. So the conversation goes back and forth. Why don’t you have a category for Other? Why can’t you mark both White and Asian? Am I supposed to choose between my mother and father? Eventually, they choose one or the other, and the charges get dropped in less time than it takes to figure out what my race is. Several years ago, I went to the Michigan Women’s Music Festival, a week long gathering out in the woods of women only. I found myself in this discussion group of biracial women, talking about our experiences. There were some similarities, there were some nice people there, but for the most part we had very different experiences, and I didn’t feel like I connected automatically with them because they were biracial women. And I thought, I don’t need to segregate myself like this. How much better to find people I have common values and common interests with.
There is an enormous need for people to categorize themselves and others. For those who fall between the cracks, this is difficult, whether it be biracial people, bisexual, androgynous or transgendered people. Many people, especially those who have been oppressed on the basis of their race, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, base much of their identity on their “otherness.” This is understandable for people’s whose lives have been about struggle. But it is the people in the crack who can hopefully crack open the conventional notions of race, gender and sexuality that, as Maria Root points out “have been constructed in the eye of the beholder of power.” She further writes: “There are different ways of experiencing, negotiating, and reconstructing the border between races [which] have implications for thinking about borders in similarly co-constructed dualities of masculine versus feminine and heterosexual versus homosexual identities… Many of us bring with us multiple perspectives, multiple loyalties, and an optimism that we can transcend race in our discussions of similarities and differences… Whereas Du Bois insightfully forecast that the problem of the 20th century would be the color line, my hope is that the boundaries among and between races will be the new frontier for changing the direction and structure of race relations as we begin the new millennium.” Struggles based on separatism or a biological essentialism just reproduce the structures which gave rise to oppression. We must look for allies among every category of people, and we must not assume that just because someone has the same skin color or reproductive organs as ourselves, that they are committed to overcoming oppression and prejudice.
8. Borders at Home: The City and The County
When I first moved to St. Louis, my mother told me not go into Forest Park alone. Ever. All through my first year of college, I obeyed her, and then summer came and I felt like exploring, and there was the park, big and beautiful, full of people running and playing sports, the peaceful lakes to sit by, museum treasures to explore. And I did. Next I was told not to go north of Delmar. It was actually written in a student handbook, that one should not look for apartments north of Delmar in the hp. But that’s where the cheapest apartments were, so I moved there, and lived for six years in the neighborhood, helping to start a neighborhood organization and community gardens. I loved living in the Loop, Then about two years ago, I started organizing a housing cooperative. We came up with a name, a vision statement, a development plan, we incorporated, looked at other models and began searching for a building. We finally found one of a suitable size and price for sale in the Fox Park Neighborhood, near Jefferson and Russell. All excited, I talked to a friend of mine who warned that he had lived in that neighborhood for a month, and then he and his wife moved because they felt it was too dangerous. We bought the building, and the empty lot next door for a garden, and have been living there while we rehab it. Slowly we are getting to know some of the neighbors. I was talking to the woman across the street, who confessed that she can’t remember my name because everyone refers to me as “Friendly Jane.” She asked what exactly we were doing and I explained briefly the idea of the coop, to live in community with others, to share meals, and she said: “You probably don’t even see me as Black, do you? I’ve lived here for 17 years and I ain’t seen nothin’ like it.”
While going to Iraq may be difficult for most St. Louisans, going into the city is not. For me, it’s become a moral imperative to live in the city. We live in an increasingly divided region, divided by race and class! The disparities are striking, In St. Charles County, the fastest growing county in the metro region, 98.2% of the residents are white. 72% own their own homes, 75% earn over $25,000 a year. In St. Louis City, one of the fastest declining population centers in the US, 51% of the residents are white, 38% own their own home, and only 40% earn over $25,000 a year. Over half of young people in St. Louis City grow up in poverty. As the population spreads out, providing services to city residents becomes more of an issue. Bus fares are about to go up, and many city residents rely on buses to get them from their homes to new jobs in the county. The infant mortality rate has seen a sharp rise since Regional Hospital closed. As suburban style housing takes up more and more land, older city brick homes go to waste. In a striking turn about, there are areas in the city which are more spacious and quieter than in the county since they’ve been abandoned. As we become more segregated by race and class, we lose perspective. We have trouble really envisioning what people’s lives are like. We live in different realities that become harder to bridge. Over the past two months, I’ve lived without a car in the inner city and that has changed my perspective about as much as traveling to Iraq did. I’ve started to realizing the great amount of planning that comes with relying on public transportation, the restrictions on freedom, the difficulty shopping. And yet, I’ve also enjoyed the camaraderie that comes with riding the bus and Metrolink. If more car owners would ride the bus, we could get rid of some of the transportation problems this city faces.
When people talk about racism or classism, they usually seem to be talking about overt cases of bigotry, of racial slurs and racist jokes, denial of jobs or promotion to ethnic minorities. But racism and classism in this city is not primarily perpetuated by out and out bigots. They are perpetuated by people like you and me. People who move to the county because they want their children to go to a better public school, People who want to live in a neighborhood where they’ll feel safe, and they think they’ll find that in the county. These aren‘t bad things, of course, they are everybody’s concerns. But when 300,000 people who have the means all leave the city in 25 years, the result is a huge redistribution of resources, a pulling out of investment, a reduction of services, an increase in poverty, a defunding of schools. It’s going to take a huge migration back into the city, a huge crossing of the border between suburb and city, in order to turn things around. The city can continue to offer its tax breaks to companies, to build stadiums for sports teams, but this won’t keep investment where it matters. It is going to take people investing in residential neighborhoods, maintaining their property, getting involved in their neighborhood associations, and living in racially and economically diverse areas, for things to really change. Otherwise that border between city and county will loom larger than the border between the US and Canada and be much harder to cross.
9. Psychological Borders
The border I keep bumping up against is fear. I was told not to go to Russia because I’ll have nothing to eat. I was told that the best that could happen to me by going to Iraq was spending 10 years in prison–the worst, death, of course. I’ve been told I’ll get raped or attacked by living in the city and by walking at night. I’ve been told that the omnipotent IRS will give me no peace by resisting to pay war taxes. These fears are not totally without basis, though I think the likelihood of getting killed in a car accident probably tops all the others, and nobody’s telling me not to drive. Fear is a method of social control. Eduardo Galeano, in his address to the hundreds of artists who stood against the Chilean dictatorship, says: “We say no to fear. No to the fear of speaking, of doing, of being. Visible colonialism forbids us to speak, to do, to be. Invisible colonialism, more efficient, convinces us that one cannot speak, cannot do, cannot be. Fear disguises itself as realism: to prevent realism from becoming unreal, or so claim the ideologists of impotence, morals must be immoral… To say no to the suicidal egotism of the powerful, who have converted the world into a vast barracks, we are saying yes to human solidarity, which gives us a universal sense and confirms the power of a brotherhood that is stronger than all borders and their guardians.”
As I’ve worked to confront these fears, I realize that what I fear more is being on the wrong side, of contributing to injustice and war. What I fear more is living a boring, humdrum life, empty of meaning and purpose. What I fear is getting too comfortable and too complacent. I hope that life will keep pushing me on into unexpected territories.
And so, as this meditation comes to a close, I’ll argue for borders which are easily crossed, borders of shifting sands, and changing names, borders that are difficult to define, borders that can hold in some kind of identity and culture and yet not exclude, as in the desert. Michael Ondaatje, a novelist of Dutch descent who grew up in Sri Lanka, writes: “The desert could not be claimed or owned-it was a piece of cloth carried by the winds, never held down by stones, and given a hundred shifting names long before Canterbury existed, long before battles and treaties quilted Europe and the East. Its caravans, those strange rambling feasts and cultures, left nothing behind, not an ember…. I was walking not in a place where no one had walked before but in a place where there were sudden, brief populations over the centuries–a fourteenth century army, a Tebu caravan, the Senussi raiders of 1915. And in between these times–nothing was there. When no rain fell the acacias withered, the wadis dried out… until water suddenly reappeared fifty or a hundred years later.” And a new oasis sprung up around it.
Imagine the day you turn 45 — or have turned 45 for some of us — as the infancy of a new life. Sounds odd but a woman 50 today and free o cancer and heart disease can expect to see her ninety-second birthday. Forty or fifty more years can stretch out ahead for many of us.
Aging then, has become a longer, more fluid process in the nineties, but our hearts and minds have not caught up with our dramatic life expectancy! Society has a life plan to the mid sixties, but what about beyond? Where’s the plan for those years? I need to know more!
For a long time, I have wanted to come to an understanding about aging. No one ever explained to me how this most basic process of life would occur! Aging was not real for me until my mid thirties when I looked in the mirror and saw my first wrinkle. I thought I certainly was seeing things, for aging happened to everyone else — not me.
I remember a slight sense of panic and a rush of denial. A wave of rationalization came next — maybe I just needed more sleep or a better moisturizer. I’m too young for this to occur! So what that everybody grows older — there must be a way out of this one!
Well, twenty years later I haven’t found one. In fact, I have had to deal with ever increasing signs of aging and I have bravely tried to cope with “each new wrinkle.” — if you will pardon the pun — of the aging process. Indeed, aging signs have been part and parcel of my past two decades, and they usually come to you and to me with no notice, don’t they?
ll of the sudden without warning, you can’t read the small print in the phone books, your clothes mysteriously don’t fit, and certain peculiar aches and pains occur out of the blue! Some days my mind jumps out of bed while my bones and rest of my body think it over. And then friends, relatives, and members die and the facts of aging really face you down. You notice you read the obituaries more often!
Some days I find myself studying the obituary page with more than passing interest, as if the ages of the deceased carry a clue to my destiny. No wonder I laughed out loud when I saw the New Yorker cartoon showing a man reading the obituary page on which the headlines over the death notices say: “Two Years Younger Than You.” “Twelve Years Older Than You.” “Exactly Your Age.” “Five Years Your Senior.” “Your Age on the Dot.”
Many have written about aging and the passing of time. Ecclesiastes says: “There is a time to be born and a time to die.” Plutarch said: “Be ruled by time, the wisest counselor of all.” Benjamin Franklin warned: “Dost thou love life? Then do not squander time.” Dylan Thomas wrote: “Do not go gently into the night!”
Some write with humor. Eda LeShan — “It’s better to be over the hill than under it!” Gypsy Rose Lee — “I have everything I had ten years ago, only it’s a bit lower.”
Some write with humor. Judith Viorst says in one of her poems:
It’s hard to be devil-may care
When there are pleats in your derriere.
It’s hard to surrender to sin
While trying to hold your stomach in.
Then there are the jokes about aging:
“You know you’re getting older when the person you sleep with refers to your water bed as the Dead Sea.”
“Middle age is when you finally get it all together and you can’t remember when you put it.”
Trite sayings about aging abound:
“You’re not getting older — you’re getting better.” I say,
“Better at what?” “Better than whom?”
“Fifty isn’t old — for a tree! Very funny.”
Some say we must see ourselves aging gracefully. Clearly an oxymoron — just try getting out of bed on a cold day! I must confess — I am aging disgracefully — at times complaining, moaning — noting each new wrinkle and gravity drop.
I remember reading the feminist literature in past times where they said: “Welcome aging — and there’s power and nobility in being the older female. We should view ourselves like fine wines, better with age.” Amen to that I said — just so it isn’t me! What a great idea for other women.
But inevitably we do age and new concerns develop. The truth is aging is at times quite difficult for us! We gain weight, wrinkles and potbellies, while we lose hair, body flexibility, endurance, energy and teeth! And time — well in the supreme irony of life — time seems to speed up while we are slowing down. We say, where did the time go?
Yes, aging gracefully as a concept, seems amusing and outrageous at times, but we are growing older and with any luck we can, with many of the current medical advances, overcome some of our physical issues. But what about our mental changes? For those of us who do not consider ourselves beautiful or handsome, and relied and counted on how smart we are — what towering intellects — what academic achievers we can say about ourselves! It’s a great leveler when the mind starts to slip like everything else, as mine did. Last week, I found myself standing in my walk-in clothes closet with my cordless phone in my hand with not a clue as to why I was there! Yet these moments — although exasperating — don’t reflect the real good health and mental strength that I truly have in my fifties and those around me in their sixties, seventies, eighties, and nineties.
Yet I know I am aging far better than past generations — yet I wonder why. It’s hard for my generation, which is aging so well, to celebrate its achievements regarding age. We are, in fact, the healthiest, fittest, longest-lived people in history. We’re an astonishing experiment in species-wide self-improvement, a phenomenal mammal whose life span has nearly tripled in the blink of an evolutionary eye.
Let me explain: according to the National Institute on Aging, in 1900 the average American was dead by age forty-nine; fifty was considered old age, and only one person in ten survived to sixty-five, which was thought of then as extreme old age. But today, if you’re fifty, you can expect to live an additional thirty-three years (incidentally, thirty-three was just about the whole human life span in 1400), and if you’re sixty right now, chances are you have a quarter of a century left. Think how astounding this is. In less than a hundred years, the average life expectancy has increased by well over 50 percent. What’s more, in today’s world the longevity prognosis for older people is even better than it is for babies. In other words, the longer you live, the longer you will live. The average infant born in 1995 has a life expectancy of seventy-five, but those of us who have made it to middle age — and who manage to avoid addictive substances and random gunfire — will more than likely survive well beyond that!
Yet we don’t celebrate and appreciate the great age we live in. We fight age, and as a society we do not respect or revere it. Internalized attitudes about youth being better and old worse are rooted deep in our psyche and our society’s persona. Standards of beauty and attractiveness reign, that either directly or indirectly scorn or reflect the “aging with grace and dignity” ideal.
Where do these attitudes come from? When we were young, we internalized dreadful ideas about old people. As a kid — let’s face it — fifty was old. My own Mom and Dad, Grandma and Grandpa were viewed by me as old by their middle years, and these ideas, I believe, are still our mental measuring stick for our own aging. Thus we don’t think well of the age group we’re in now as we pass into the fifties and beyond.
Psychologist Ellen Laugh says that when she constructed consciousness raising experiences to improve the physical and mental capacities of elderly people, the greatest obstacle she had to overcome “were the premature cognitive commitments about old age that people make in their youth!”
In Letty Pogrebin’s book: “We live in a society that places high premiums, on beauty and often reduces every woman to her appearance and men to being physically strong.”
Studies confirm this: Rutgers University psychologist Jeannette Haveland’s study of adolescent girls found: “being attractive at the top of average female’s concerns from age ten on.”
The Oregon Research Institute study of youths found “girls as young as twelve to be in a serious state of depression because of their negative body image.” This is why bulimia and anorexia are illnesses connected to this belief.
Tandem to that has been the growth of the “youth” culture, and beauty as ideal has lead to a boom in the cosmetics industry, with such products as age defying cream. Men too have joined the pursuit of youth. Men account for 28% of facial plastic surgery done in this country.
Arthur Marwich, a British professor and expert on beauty, claims physical attractiveness is more important today in terms of how a person feels successful than any time since the Renaissance.
For women it’s a lifelong psychological problem because the desire to be beautiful runs deep in the psyche; also because it is rooted in the tender praise of our parents who placed value on pretty girls, and irrigated by male admiration, we can become buried beneath the top soil of our society’s beauty propagandists.
We struggle with authenticity and artificiality as our bodies age. We ask ourselves these questions: Do I have worth if I am not attractive? What price would I pay to stay young? Plastic surgery? Where do I draw the line and accept my body the way it is?
Facing aging means — letting go of high beauty and handsomeness standards that define who we think we are — our success as human beings. We need to relax and deal with the basic challenges of aging!
Each stage of aging is difficult and unique. Each stage of aging for all of us has different challenges and possibilities:
- Childhood — Our challenge is to master physical world and begin formal education, “deal with being too little or young.”
- Adolescence — Our challenge relates to body changes, intellectual pursuits, autonomy from parents, continuing education, and social skills.
- Twenties — Our challenge lies in career preparation and success, mate finding, and family founding.
- Thirties — Our challenge is to create a solid base for family, career, and financial success.
- Forties — Our challenge lies in dealing with signs of aging showing up, more body changes, children leaving home.
- Then what I call the harvest years arrive.
- Fifties and sixties — Mid century mark hits us, we may have dependent parents. We are not climbing the hill of life; we are on top or heading over. Retirement, medical issues surface as we approach these years.
- Seventies on — Many of us are financially secure. Yet we worry, do we have enough for retirement? We may still be taking care of dependent parents. The fifties on provide the master test for creatively engaging aging.
The fact is no plan has been prescribed by society for these years other than retirement However, each stage of life asks us to rise to its challenges! At each stage, attitude is everything! At each stage, we have common laws of living that can help us!
Experts in gerontology make a clear distinction between passive aging and successful aging. To engage in successful aging you have to make a career choice at each stage. Your job is to revive and maintain your life energy as you age. People who have a positive outlook about the future and marshal their energy to engage that future, live longer. We need new ambitions, interests, and passions. The decision to renew ourselves from the sixties on, requires a real investment of faith, risk, and physical discipline.
Here’s a good story about attitude: Two women turn seventy years old. One “knows” that her life is coming to an end and starts winding up her affairs. The other decides to take up mountain climbing. For the next twenty-five years, she devotes herself to this new adventure in mastery. Now in her nineties, Hulda Crooks has become the oldest woman to ascend Mount Fuji. It’s not the events of our lives that shape us, but our beliefs as to what these events mean.
When Eric Ericson and his wife Joan were in their eighties, they co-authored a book, Vital Involvement in Old Age. They said:
“The life cycle does more than extend itself into the next generation. It curves back on the life of an individual allowing … a re-experiencing of earlier stages in a new form. Like climbing a mountain, it’s finding something vital and important for you to write on the blank slate of your life.”
We need a new ambition or purpose that we grasp passionately! For Jimmy Carter it was being ready to drop everything and offer his skills as a political wise man to mediate world conflicts. For many grandparents it is caring for and supporting their grandchildren, some financially support and see them through college or others take them into their homes to raise. For others it’s climbing mountains, running marathons, working on a Ph.D., or painting — volunteer work that makes a difference. Finding your passion is imperative as we age. Society has no script — we must write it!
At eighty-eight, William Fulbright, founder of Fulbright scholarships and former chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, wore a button — “Aged to Perfection.” I would say aging to perfection for as the years fly by, the world presents us with a rich cornucopia of events, interests, and opportunities. Are we going to say, “We’re too old for that,” or are we going to create our own Mount Fuji experience?
Thus we see ourselves “as a work in progress!” With that attitude I see many wonderful things to do and be: caring about loved ones and oneself, deep friendships, and meaningful work; appreciating solitude, nature, and reading and writing — all ways to experience life intensely.
Aging gracefully appeals to me and with luck and strong intuition we can grow smarter and stronger and more creative in the process of life as we are engaging aging. My experiences can benefit others as they age.
- The challenge for us is to maintain control, confidence, and a sense of humor in the face of creeping or galloping body and mental changes! Face each day anew, using all the modern technology we know about aging such as vitamins, exercise, stress management, and other means to support our aging well.
- Maintaining a strong sense of dignity and self-worth in the face of the “youth culture” orientation of our culture is essential.
- Experiencing a sense of hope and joy and acceptance in the face of mortality and death. Developing the ability to see it as yet another part of life’s process.
Although death is inevitable, the way we age is not!
First, by maintaining the discipline of daily mental exercise. Maintaining the spiritual discipline of forgiving and forgetting others and enriching the lives of those around you. Maintaining physical discipline — getting those bones moving even when we don’t want to is essential.
Second, by cherishing where we’ve been — both in terms of the good and the bad experiences of life. We can let go of the bitterness and anger that can age us quickly.
Third, viewing life with no regrets, for our life history can’t be altered. Strive to live in the present and accept our physical limitations. (No Boston Marathon for me!) Value what we have and keep ourselves open to learning and new experiences. Our river of life will flow joyously and we will cherish the future with all its uncertainties for its sweet unfolding of life events.
Fourth, by being part of an Ethical Society Community where shared experiences of aging with others can help us and where the deeper values of life such as “honoring the worth and dignity of each individual” (no matter what their age) are cherished and experienced. Aging alone is tragic — aging in community is revitalizing.
Now I reap the harvest of my years before. Grandchildren — springing up like flowers — number seven on the way. A loving marriage and a beautiful home and work that is deeply satisfying and gives me the opportunity to creatively engage aging.
Yes! Living well can be the best revenge.
As we pass through the fifties, sixties, seventies and on:
- Let self-denial up till now become self-indulgence as we travel on down the path of life.
- Let us pursue our chosen delights and relish special moments.
- Let us have new experiences that enrich the mind, such as travel, new interests and hobbies, or service to others.
Willa Cather, the writer, saw the task of every life to be to fashion an existence that would free the expressive self, so that we focus on marking our moments instead of focusing on time running out. The present never ages. Each moment is unique and filled with possibilities. Each moment is an opportunity to love or be loved. Life purposes then seem clear: To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth!
If every day then is an awakening of love and self, we never grow old — we just keep growing!