If You Want Truth, Build Trust

Truth, Who Needs It? part 3

The social fabric is unraveling amid the disintegration of trust. A significant part of why this is happening is: no more common enemy. A group of people is defined by a shared enemy. The human survival strategy depends on ultrasociality, belongingness, group cohesion. The strategy evolved in a context of enemies. Violent conflict between hunter-gatherer tribes was a recurring fact of life, and it was one of the drivers of our ultrasociability: the tribe that was most cohesive, that could best cooperate together was better able to defeat the tribe that wasn’t. Tribes not so good at the seamless merging of minds for collective projects – including collective defense – got wiped out.

Ten millions years or so ago there were hundreds of hominid – great ape -- species. Now there are just five hominid species left: humans, chimps, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans. (Technically, there are eight because taxonomists now identify three different species of orangutan and two different species of gorilla.) And the other four aren't really holding their own -- without specific protections, they wouldn't last long. We already wiped out all those other hominid species. We wiped them out by outcompeting them – and we did that by winning the arms race for primate ultrasociability.

And always part of the way our belongingness and togetherness functioned was in identifying and working together against enemies.

The trust level of Americans for other Americans was never higher than in World War II. We loved our fellow Americans, were ready to die for each other, trusted our neighbors, and trusted our institutions. We had to – to fight against our common enemy. As the sense of a common enemy has slowly receded, and the Soviet Union collapsed, we gradually turned our belongingness and trust away from the nation as a whole and more toward groups within the nation that could identify other groups as enemies.

We have brains that are oriented toward threat – and when there is no obvious external threat, we start looking for the less obvious ones. So: political polarization results. The network of trust fragmented into smaller groupings. The finger is often pointed at social media, and I’d say, sure, social media helped facilitate the formations of new circles of trust that distrusted other circles. But it’s a process that was in motion anyway. The fundamentalist community, for instance, hasn't trusted the scientific community or the mainstream media since the Scopes trial in 1925 (see Michael Gerson's insightful analysis HERE).

Myself, I've never been big on patriotism. It feels weird to find myself bemoaning that shared national identity no longer binds us together in trust. It's true that I can be a misty romantic about American ideals, but I’m also keenly aware of how truly awful my country has been to indigenous people, to enslaved Africans and their descendants, to the Japanese we put in internment camps, and to immigrants.
I’ve always wanted to urge a loyalty that was not defined by an enemy, a loyalty not to a smaller group within America, but a loyalty to larger circles: all humans, all mammals, all vertebrates, all life, all things -- "mountains and rivers and the great wide earth; the sun and the moon and the stars." But in the absence of identifying more expansively, my fellow Americans, I would hope, at least wouldn't identify more narrowly. Yet that's what's happening.

I know I’m not alone. This is the Unitarian Universalist sensibility I was raised in. We aren’t alone, but we are in the minority.

Our role in the distressing catastrophe we see unfolding around us is, first, to see it clearly. It’s about trust, and the human need to trust – and how that so often and so easily is bound to a strategy of distrust -- that trusting this group goes with distrusting certain others.

Second, keep looking for ways to build connection, build bridges, build trust everywhere. Keep looking. (If you're in White Plains, one place to look is HERE. Across the nation, a place to look is HERE.)

And, third, is there anything we can do about those cognitive biases? Not so much. Not so much, but let us do what little can be done. Daniel Kahneman, at age 84, still holds an appointment at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. He’s been studying and writing about our cognitive biases for a long time. He is very pessimistic about any prospect for curing or much mitigating our cognitive biases.

We have a quick-thinking part of our brain that jumps to conclusions and makes a lot of mistakes, but we really need it. We couldn’t function if we used only the slow, careful analytic capacities of our brain. Our best bet is actually that bias I started off with: the tendency to spot errors in other people’s thought while oblivious to our own. We can use that against ourselves – or, rather, FOR ourselves. It means other people can spot our errors more readily than we can.

As Daniel Kahneman says, the most effective check is from the outside. These biases are part of our ultrasociability, and we can use our ultrasociability to counter them. Individually, we can’t train them out of ourselves, but groups can counter-act them.

That’s a spiritual message: we need each other. We are better together. In community, we come into our wholeness. Our emotional wholeness, and spiritual wholeness, and even our cognitive wholeness is in relationship.

The simple fact of being in a group gives you other perspectives that check your own. Beyond the automatic advantages, groups working together can train themselves in some specific techniques that research has found improve their effectiveness. Creating and following checklists of factors to make sure not to skip over. Optimism bias can be countered by something called a “premortem.” Require members of the group “to imagine that a project has gone very, very badly and write a sentence or two describing how that happened.”

Individually, by yourself, you will never do this. You just won’t. But a group that has this as part of their process, will do it, and it helps. And writing it out forces the quick, intuitive brain to step back and let the slow, plodding, careful brain work things through. When we do it together, it’s one way to help build trust.

Build trust.

If you want more truth, work to build trust.


The final tale of Robert Aitken's Zen Master Raven is this:
Raven took his perch on the Assembly Oak and addressed a special meeting of the Tallspruce community, saying, "It's time for me to be moving on."
Porcupine asked, "Where will you be going?"
Raven said, "Where cedar roots stand bare in the creek."
A hush fell over the circle. Grouse could be heard sniffling. At last Porcupine asked, "Do you have any last words for us?"
Raven said, "Trust."
* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of "Truth, Who Needs It?"
See also
Part 1: Hooray for Cognitive Bias
Part 2: When Truth Stopped Mattering


When Truth Stopped Mattering

Truth, Who Needs It? part 2

Human brains collaborate so well that we lose track of where our understanding ends and others begins. We divide cognitive labor so smoothly and seamlessly that there’s often no sharp boundary between one person’s ideas and those of other members of the group. We think we know more than we do because we treat knowledge in the minds of others as if it were our own. This borderlessness is crucial to the way we make progress. In developing new technologies, incomplete understanding is empowering.

In the course of collaboration, we reason with one another – we make arguments, drawing on agreed-upon evidence and linking (interpreting) that evidence to a conclusion. We do this in order to persuade, and the value of persuasion is in generating agreement. For a species whose survival strategy depends on ultrasociality, agreement is what matters, not truth. The group needs to share a basic representation of things so that, on the one hand, members feel bonded together, and, on the other hand, cognitive labor can be effectively divided based on a shared grounding. It’s not a bug, it’s a feature. It’s what allows us to collaborate so extensively, to join together into something larger than we can be separately – something much smarter and much more creative.

So that’s the celebration. Yay for us! Cognitive biases and all, there’s a lot to love about being who we are.

The current situation, though, is distressing. Our relationship to truth has always been a relationship of convenience, but in recent years some things have shifted. In the 2012 presidential election, journalists were reporting that candidates running for office were lying in a new way. They’ve always fudged a bit, but, as journalist Kevin Drum wrote in 2012:
“It’s not worse than past attacks, but it is different. In the past, you felt that maybe campaigns were at least a little bit embarrassed about this kind of thing. They’d blame it on someone else. They’d try to produce some lame defense. They’d haul out some fake white paper to give themselves cover. They’d do something. [But now we’re seeing campaigns that] just [don’t] seem to care. If it works, they use it. It’s like the campaign is being run by cyborgs.” (Mother Jones, 2012 Aug 29)
Another journalist in 2012, David Roberts, described a campaign as
“not contesting the truth value of its assertions so much as contesting whether truth value itself is relevant....Political campaigns have always lied and stretched the truth, but when caught in a lie, would typically defend themselves (claim it was actually true), retract, or at the very least stop repeating the lie. Either way, the presumption was that truth-telling had some moral force; one ought to tell the truth, even if that commandment was often honored in the breach. What’s creepy about [what we’re now seeing is campaigns that] don’t do any of those things. They don’t deny, they don’t stop, they just don’t care at all. What they’ve realized is that, given today’s hyper-polarization and fragmented media, there’s no practical risk to lying. It doesn’t hurt them, in terms of getting votes, so why shouldn’t they do it?” (Grist, 2012 August)
That was 2012. Then came the 2016 elections. And the two years since then. Of course this is distressing. Our world has turned crazy. We can’t blame politicians for doing what gets them elected – if they didn’t, they wouldn’t be our politicians. It’s the fact that so many of our neighbors keep voting for politicians who so flagrantly and so utterly unconcernedly lie. Used to be a politician got defensive when accused of saying something false. Now they don’t even care to get defensive. They just carry on confidently repeating the falsehood. Our country – this land that we love – re-elects them. No wonder we are disoriented and distressed and feel lost.

Some beliefs are easy to change. I might feel sure the Phillies won the '79 World Series, but you say it was the Pirates. We look it up. You were right, I was wrong, I change my belief. Easy. It's even easier if my wrong belief was, in some sense, "close" to true. If I can say, "Oh, it was the next year, 1980, that the Phillies won it," or "I knew it was one of those Pennsylvania teams," then my prior conviction is more easily reconciled to, and more willing to accept, conflicting information.

Other beliefs are harder to change. If a weak belief doesn’t square with new information, I throw out the belief. But if a strong belief doesn’t square with new information, I throw out the information.

The strong beliefs -- the ones that are hard to change -- are the ones that become a part of our group identity. Belonging is such a powerful need for us. The need drives us to collaborate and engage together in fantastically complicated joint projects. The same need can make disregard evidence to maintain group solidarity and identity.

Consider the raw-milk movement.Some folks are saying raw milk is good for you. If this catches on, it could eliminate the public health gains of more than a century of pasteurization. The CDC says raw milk is one of the world’s most dangerous food products. By and large the general public is open to facts on this.

In contrast, for some of the anti-vaccine people, or the climate-change deniers, group loyalty has become a big factor. They are identified with “their people,” and that’s who they trust -- not the carefully examined data, which they discount. Their position on the issue has become integral to their identity.

Now, the two examples I just mentioned -- the anti-vaccine and the climate-change-denial positions – are generally not popular positions among UUs. But we have to keep reminding ourselves: we all do this. We all have some beliefs that are at the center of our sense of who we are. None of us is going to be open to evidence that challenges those beliefs.

The question of truth is the question of trust. Who will you trust? Do you find the New York Times and Washington Post are generally fairly reliable with occasional mistakes and a few blind spots, or, instead, are you more trusting of Fox News? Tell me who you trust, and I've got a pretty good idea of what you think is true.

If you have trust in some source that occasionally counteracts the direction of your confirmation bias, then there's a chance your views might evolve. Without trust in any source that might challenge our prejudices, we dismiss evidence that doesn't confirm them. Our era seems to be "post-truth" because the power of trust -- i.e., the general willingness to trust some source that occasionally disconfirms our prejudices -- has diminished.

Truth is determined by trust, and trust is determined by belongingness – not intelligence, not rationality.

When trust weakens, our norms weaken. Norms are grounded on trust. David Roberts wrote:
“One effect of the radicalization of the right over the last few decades has been the discovery of just how much our politics is held together by norms rather than rules. There’s no rule you can’t filibuster every bill in the Senate by default; there’s no rule you can’t interrupt a president’s State of the Union; there’s no rule you can’t hold the routine debt-ceiling vote hostage. It simply wasn’t done. But if you shrug off the norm and do it anyway, there’s nothing to stop you.” (Grist)
Norms are a product of and expression of trust, of belongingness together. The norms about what was and wasn’t done held because our legislators trusted one another. They might disagree on this or that policy proposal, but they had a sense of belongingness with one another. There were some problems with that belongingness: it was entwined with the legislators' shared value gap, valuing whites over people of color, men over women, the wealthy over the low-income. As problematic as the belongingness among members of the US congress has been, we may still mourn that their ability to have a basic trust and respect for each other has passed away.

* * *
This is part 2 of 3 of "Truth, Who Needs It?"
See also
Part 1: Hooray for Cognitive Bias!
Part 3: If You Want Truth, Build Trust


Hooray for Cognitive Bias!

Truth. Who Needs It? part 1

from Ben Yagoda, "The Cognitive Biases Tricking Your Brain," Atlantic Magazine, 2018 Sep
Wikipedia’s “List of cognitive biases” contains 185 entries, from actor-observer bias (“the tendency for explanations of other individuals’ behaviors to overemphasize the influence of their personality and underemphasize the influence of their situation … and for explanations of one’s own behaviors to do the opposite”) to the Zeigarnik effect (“uncompleted or interrupted tasks are remembered better than completed ones”).

Some of the 185 are dubious or trivial. The Ikea effect, for instance, is defined as “the tendency for people to place a disproportionately high value on objects that they partially assembled themselves.” And others closely resemble one another to the point of redundancy. But a solid group of 100 or so biases has been repeatedly shown to exist, and can make a hash of our lives.

The gambler’s fallacy makes us absolutely certain that, if a coin has landed heads up five times in a row, it’s more likely to land tails up the sixth time. In fact, the odds are still 50-50.

Optimism bias leads us to consistently underestimate the costs and the duration of basically every project we undertake.

Availability bias makes us think that, say, traveling by plane is more dangerous than traveling by car. (Images of plane crashes are more vivid and dramatic in our memory and imagination, and hence more available to our consciousness.)

The anchoring effect is our tendency to rely too heavily on the first piece of information offered, particularly if that information is presented in numeric form, when making decisions, estimates, or predictions. This is the reason negotiators start with a number that is deliberately too low or too high: They know that number will “anchor” the subsequent dealings. A striking illustration of anchoring is an experiment in which participants observed a roulette-style wheel that stopped on either 10 or 65, then were asked to guess what percentage of United Nations countries is African. The ones who saw the wheel stop on 10 guessed 25 percent, on average; the ones who saw the wheel stop on 65 guessed 45 percent. (The correct percentage at the time of the experiment was about 28 percent.)

The effects of biases do not play out just on an individual level. Last year, President Donald Trump decided to send more troops to Afghanistan, and thereby walked right into the sunk-cost fallacy. He said, “Our nation must seek an honorable and enduring outcome worthy of the tremendous sacrifices that have been made, especially the sacrifices of lives.” Sunk-cost thinking tells us to stick with a bad investment because of the money we have already lost on it; to finish an unappetizing restaurant meal because, after all, we’re paying for it; to prosecute an unwinnable war because of the investment of blood and treasure. In all cases, this way of thinking is rubbish.

. . . the endowment effect . . . leads us to place an irrationally high value on our possessions. In [one] experiment half the participants were given a mug and then asked how much they would sell it for. The average answer was $5.78. The rest of the group said they would spend, on average, $2.21 for the same mug. This flew in the face of classic economic theory, which says that at a given time and among a certain population, an item has a market value that does not depend on whether one owns it or not.

If I had to single out a particular bias as the most pervasive and damaging, it would probably be confirmation bias. That’s the effect that leads us to look for evidence confirming what we already think or suspect, to view facts and ideas we encounter as further confirmation, and to discount or ignore any piece of evidence that seems to support an alternate view. Confirmation bias shows up most blatantly in our current political divide, where each side seems unable to allow that the other side is right about anything. Confirmation bias plays out in lots of other circumstances, sometimes with terrible consequences. To quote the 2005 report to the president on the lead-up to the Iraq War: “When confronted with evidence that indicated Iraq did not have [weapons of mass destruction], analysts tended to discount such information. Rather than weighing the evidence independently, analysts accepted information that fit the prevailing theory and rejected information that contradicted it.”
You probably recognize many of those cognitive biases Ben Yagoda and Wikipedia mentioned. And you probably recognize them because you’ve seen them in other people. They are harder to detect in ourselves. We humans are expert reasoners when it comes to spotting flaws in someone else’s argument. The positions we’re blind about are our own. For instance, when I mention to people that we’re good at seeing the weakness in other people’s arguments but lousy at noticing the gaps in our own reasoning, the most common response I get is: “Oh, yeah, I know a lot of people like that.”

Well, we are gathered for spiritual sustenance and spiritual challenge. Spiritually, what do we do with these facts about ourselves? There are two ways we might go from here.

I might talk about cultivating humility, developing a habit of doubting my own conclusions, holding my opinions lightly, and never believing what I think. I might talk about how to train and practice at spotting our own cognitive biases.

Or, I might take a different approach. I might say, you know what? Let’s just give up on that. It can’t happen. The biases built into our reasoning processes are inherent. They’re not fixable. One of the things we do spiritually is celebrate ourselves – affirm our worth and dignity, the beauty and wonder of the amazing life forms that we are. So let’s celebrate our cognitive biases because that’s who we are as humans. We are apes who search out and latch onto any information that seems to confirm what we already believe; we overlook or ignore information that suggests otherwise; and once we get a notion into our heads, it’s almost impossible to dislodge it. We rely on emotional reactions and heuristic shortcuts because: who’s got time to time think for themselves and carefully analyze the data for accuracy and implications? It’s not that we’re lazy, it’s that we’re busy. We got things to be doing. Let’s celebrate how amazingly productive we are!

The cognitive biases provide us with shortcuts, and yes, sometimes the shortcuts bypass, well, the truth, that is, the conclusion we would come to with a more careful and objective analysis of the evidence. But they are worth it. Our emotional reactions and our heuristic shortcuts help us connect to each other, form community, and facilitate our fantastic productivity. The occasional negative effects of cognitive bias are usually negligible, only rarely disastrous, and most often help us get along in our relationships and progress through our tasks.

Anyway, brain studies indicate that we get a rush of dopamine when we are processing information that supports our beliefs. “It feels good to ‘stick to our guns,’ even if we are wrong.” (Jack and Sarah Gorman)

We see the speck in our neighbor’s eye but do not notice the log in our own eye because we were built to do that, and not one of us can help it. This is not a bug in the way our brains are wired. It’s a feature. Sure, there’s a shadow side to it, but it evolved for a reason. There are good reasons for having bad reason, so hooray for human cognitive biases!

Let's celebrate what we are! There isn't much, but there is a little bit, we can do to mitigate the cognitive biases, and I'll talk about that later.

We humans are not merely a social species, but ultrasocial – a level achieved only by a handful of species, mostly insects like ants, termites, and bees. Chimps, for instance, are highly social -- but they aren’t ultrasocial. Primatologist Michael Tomasello gave this illustration: “It is inconceivable that you would ever see two chimpanzees carrying a log together.” But you will see ultrasocial species -- like ants or humans -- carrying something together.

At some point in about the last million years, our ancestors developed shared intentionality – that is, the ability to share mental representations of a task so that multiple people can work on it. Take something as seemingly simple as one person pulling down the branch for the other to pluck the fruit, and then both of them share the meal. Chimps never do this.

We are profound collaborators, connecting our brains together to solve problems that single brains can’t. We distribute the cognitive tasks. No individual knows everything it takes to build a cathedral, or an aircraft. Our species success comes not from individual rationality but from our unparalleled ability to think in groups. Our great glory is how well we rely on each other’s expertise.

We rely on it so smoothly that we assume that we understand things ourselves that we have let others work out. Take zippers. Or toilets. Or cylinder locks – the sort of lock you probably have on your front door. Do you know how zippers, toilets, and cylinder locks work?

A study at Yale asked graduate students to rate how well they understood these everyday devices. Most of them rated their understanding pretty high. They were then asked to write detailed, step-by-step explanations of how the devices worked. Forced to spell out the details, they realized there were some key details they were pretty fuzzy on. Asked again to rate their understanding of these devices, they rated themselves lower. (Sloman and Fernbach)

This illusion of explanatory depth allows me to take for granted what other people know and frees me from having to, as we like to say, re-invent the wheel. Our vast and complex collaboration depends on “not having to think about it” — that is, not having to think about most things so that my neurons can focus on what I am contributing -- so that others don’t have to think about that.

* * *
This is part 1 of 3 of "Truth. Who Needs It."
See also
Part 2: When Truth Stopped Mattering
Part 3: If You Want Truth, Build Trust


"Hey Boss, You Don't Want Your Employees to Meditate"

When I saw the headline of the recent New York Times Op-Ed -- "Hey Boss, You Don't Want Your Employees to Meditate" -- I thought: Oh, good. This will counter the criticism that meditation and mindfulness in the workplace are tools for corporations to improve productivity while avoiding correcting the injustices that produce workplace stress.

Let's look at the criticism and how the study by Kathleen Vohs and Andrew Hafenbrack, who wrote the Op-Ed, addresses it.

First, the American workplace is often stressful. Ronald Purser and Edwin Ng cite a Stanford-Harvard study that identified the stressors:
"A meta-analysis of 228 studies showed that...major workplace stressors were associated with a lack of health insurance, threats of constant layoffs and job insecurity, lack of discretion and autonomy in decision-making, long work hours, low organizational justice, and unrealistic job demands...Stress is shaped by a complex set of interacting power relations, networks of interests, and explanatory narratives."[2]
Corporations care about this stress because it reduces productivity. Rather than address the problems by pushing for universal health insurance, by lowering job demands and shortening work hours, and by providing job security, worker autonomy, and organizational justice, some corporations have introduced mindfulness programs. Kristen Ghodsee worries that these
"employer-sponored mindfulness programs obscure the insanity of our American work culture." [1]
Purser and Ng suggest that mindfulness is being used to promote quietism. Mindfulness, perhaps,
"merely amounts to employee pacification and a form of passive nihilism." [2]
In an earlier piece, Ronald Purser and David Loy wrote that mindfulness training:
"has become a trendy method for subduing employee unrest, promoting a tacit acceptance of the status quo, and as an instrumental tool for keeping attention focused on institutional goals." [3]
Training in peace and acceptance might lead employees "to spiral into complacency and subjugation" [4]. Practices that encourage altruism may also make people easier to exploit. Corporate mindfulness may be the latest version of workplace "cow psychology" -- so called because contented and docile cows give more milk. Ghodsee concludes:
"There is something insidious about corporations and universities promoting mindfulness among their employees, particularly those who might otherwise fight for necessary institutional change." [1]
But wait. If acceptance of reality demotivates people from agitating for institutional change, would it not equally well demotivate them from pursuit of the company's productivity goals? Docile cows might give more milk, but companies want workers who are motivated and energized, not merely docile.

Actually, two points. One, my experience suggests that meditation and mindfulness don't demotivate activism. Two, meditation and mindfulness apparently do demotivate the pursuit of productivity goals for their own sake.

The first point doesn't have much evidence for or against it. I've found that meditation facilitates increased interest in the well-being of all beings, and that this strengthens rather than weakens interest in working for institutional change. But this, as the empirically-minded will note, is anecdotal. We don't yet have careful studies on whether either (a) nonactivists who begin a meditation practice are more likely to become social activists, or (b) activists who begin a meditation practice become more effective, more energetic, or less susceptible to burn-out in their activism.

The second point, thanks to Vohs and Hafenbrack, has a supporting study. Meditation apparently does function, in some contexts, to reduce worker motivation to pursue their company's productivity goals. Vohs and Hafenbrack write:
"Among those who had meditated, motivation levels were lower on average. Those people didn’t feel as much like working on the assignments, nor did they want to spend as much time or effort to complete them. Meditation was correlated with reduced thoughts about the future and greater feelings of calm and serenity — states seemingly not conducive to wanting to tackle a work project." [5]
Actual performance, however, was unaffected. Meditation brings both increased focus and decreased motivation, Vohs and Hafenbrack conclude, and these two effects seem to cancel each other out, leaving overall performance neither improved nor worsened.

This "decreased motivation" was for particular tasks. The tasks used in the study "were similar to everyday workplace jobs: editing business memos, entering text into a computer and so on" [5]. That is, these were tasks that had no evident connection to making the world better. They are tasks that would normally be motivated only by the prospect of extrinsic, self-centered, material reward.

Along with "focused, nonjudgmental awareness of the present moment," which, as Hafenbrack and Vohs say, characterize a state of mindfulness [6], meditation also facilitates an increased sense of connection to other beings, and thus increased compassion. It makes sense that a wider, deeper sense of connection, and of the interconnection of all things, would shift motivation away away from tasks with only a material or egocentric reward. Instead, motivation would tend to shift toward concern for others and tasks that support life. Jeremy Hunter writes:
"If people pay attention to their mind, body, and emotions, they begin to approach the world with more openness and inquisitiveness. Quite often that touches off deeper values, such as concern for others and the world at large. A decade ago, Mirabai Bush, founding director of the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, introduced a mindfulness program at Monsanto, a company that had been widely criticized for perpetuating shortsighted and damaging agricultural practices. At a corporate retreat, a top scientist approached her after a session and said, 'I realized that we’re creating products that kill life. We should be creating products that support life.' It’s a long journey from a personal insight like that to large-scale change, but at least we can say that mindfulness was starting to serve as a disruptive technology within the company.” [7]
We have yet to see American business culture make any notable shift toward compassion. But there is at least reason for seeing a connection between meditation and increased interest in compassion. An increase in workers who are more focused while also less interested in material rewards is a social good -- though not useful for the narrow productivity interests of corporate bosses.

Your boss might not want you to meditate -- though, since performance stays the same, your boss probably doesn't care. The rest of us who share this planet with you would love for you to cultivate compassion, acceptance, and focus.

* * *

[1] Kristen Ghodsee (Bowdoin College, Professor of Gender, Sexuality, and Women's Studies), "The Dangers of McMindfulness," ChronicleVitae, 2016 Apr 5.

[2] Ronald Purser, PhD (San Francisco State University, Professor of Management) and Edwin Ng, PhD (cultural theorist based in Melbourne, Australia; writes on Buddhism and mindfulness for the Australian Broadcasting Corp.’s Religion & Ethics blog), "Corporate Mindfulness is Bullsh*t: Zen or no Zen, You're Working Harder and Being Paid Less," Salon, 2015 Sep 27.

[3] Ronald Purser and David Loy (Zen teacher), "Beyond McMindfulness," Huffington Post, 2013 Aug 31.

[4] Norman A.S. Farb (University of Toronto Missauga, Department of Psychology), "From Retreat Center to Clinic to Boardroom? Perils and Promises of the Modern Mindfulness Movement," Religions, 2014.

[5] Kathleen Vohs (University of Minnesota, Carlson School of Management, Professor of Marketing) and Andrew Hafenbrack (Católica-Lisbon School of Business and Economics, Assistant Professor of Organizational Behavior), "Hey Boss, You Don't Want Your Employees to Meditate," New York Times, 2018 Jun 14.

[6] Andrew Hafenbrack and Kathleen Vohs, "Mindfulness Meditation Impairs Task Motivation but Not Performance," Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 2018 Jul.

[7] Jeremy Hunter (Claremont Graduate University, Drucker School of Management, Executive Mind Leadership Institute, Director and Professor of Practice), "Is Mindfulness Good for Business?" Mindful, 2013 Apr.


Transformed Into Ourselves, Not by Ourselves

Ministry & Metanoia, part 5

A Prayer

Dear Ground of Being,

We know we cannot transform ourselves. What we can do is attend. Keep watch. Be ever on the look-out for the beginnings of a new compassion awakening within us. We can direct what small and meager powers we can to nurture what is new in us that struggles to be born.

It begins with paying attention, in gratitude and in hope. In gratitude, we bring attention to the feel of sunshine, of the inhaling breath, the faces of friends, the food that sustains us.

Thank you, thank you, thank you. In gratitude, we bring attention to this world where our stumbling efforts at human community and lovingkindness occasionally shift governments and institutions.

Burkina Faso this week joined 20 other African nations to abolish the death penalty.

In hope, we bring attention to suffering, hoping for its ease. Let us not turn away from the cries of the world: the families of seven people murdered in India by mobs fueled by rumors being spread through a social media site; the suicide bombing in Kabul, Afghanistan; the children taken from their parents at the US border; the asylum seekers who have suffered from domestic and gang violence who are now to be turned away; the severe droughts that wrack Afghanistan, Argentina, Uruguay, Mongolia, and South Africa; and the flooding that is wracking Belarus, Rwanda, Mexico, New Zealand, and France.

In gratitude and in hope, may we keep watch on our world, for our world is our self, and keep watch on heart, listening, listening, for the call that it was made to answer.


A Reading

James Luther Adams, “A Time to Speak: Conversations at Collegium," 1986, in An Examined Faith: Social Context and Religious Commitment, 1991, pp. 32-33:
“The characteristic accent of the Gospels, metanoia, is lacking in liberal religion. We are an uncommitted and therefore a self-frustrating people. A sense of commitment requires a change of priorities. But as Unitarians we tend to assume we’re liberated already. Maybe this is a hangover from the Enlightenment, imagining that we are emancipated because we don’t accept the inerrant authority of the Bible, or something like that.

“Let me put it autobiographically and say that in Nazi Germany I soon came to the question, 'What is it in my preaching and my political action that would stop this?' Maybe it was an extreme judgment of myself, but I said, 'If you have to describe me, you’d say I’m not really involved, for example, in combating anti-Semitism as it is in the United States.' It is a liberal attitude to say that we keep ourselves informed and read the best papers on these matters, and perhaps join a voluntary association now and then. But to be involved with other people so that it costs and so that one exposes the evils of society – in Boston we’re right across the tracks from poverty -- requires something like conversion, something more than an attitude. It requires a sense that there's something wrong and I must be different from the way I have been.

“The function of a vital church would be metanoia as a continuing process. There should be increasing awareness, a raising of consciousness with regard to the evils around us. There should be moments of commitment, for example, in prayer as a prophetic form of spirituality."
A Call to Leap

If we could end in ourselves that dynamic of self-protection and ego defenses – the dynamic in which lie the roots of evil – that would indeed be a profound conversion, metanoia. And it is nothing less than this that is the task of congregations. Adams says, “The function of a vital church would be metanoia as a continuing process.” A vital congregation seeks ever-increasing awareness. However raised its consciousness may be of evils around us, a vital congregation always aims at raising it higher. Every worship service must give some attention to the world’s pain – in the prayer if nowhere else – for this is prophetic spirituality. Taking in the anguish of the drought in Mongolia teaches our hearts greater kindness in our day-to-day interactions.

The function of the church – of the congregation – is transformation. We are not here to stay the same. We have plenty of ego defense mechanisms and self-protective strategies that keep us the same.

Were you transformed at last Sunday’s worship? At your last journey group meeting? Or at Faith Development Friday? If so, then those functions did their job – which is to say, they helped facilitate in some way you doing your job, us together doing our collective job. Then what? What’s next is the next transformation – each one a little more radical, each one chipping away a little more at the walls we erect around us, each one a little more attentive to the world hurt, and our own, and how our own and others’ defenses contribute to that hurt.

Are you seeing how the parts of today’s service fit together -- what the reflections on ministry, what Shannon left us, what Cindy takes from us, have to do with metanoia? Knowing those who came before, who made our community, we know ourselves. We know ourselves and thereby become transformed into ourselves more and more. This is what ministry is. It’s what I’ve been saying for five years in various different ways and what Rev. Carol said her way and what Shannon said in hers, and what Cindy’s emerging ministerial voice has already begun to say, and what many of our lay leaders also remember and remind: we can’t transform ourselves by ourselves; we need each other for that, and all the people present, past, and future that contribute their lives to ours, in so many ways we never know.

Because of them, because of their ministry, I can leap into mine, and you can leap into yours. And leap again. And leap again. Because of them, the net is there. And the name of the net is love.

* * *
This is part 5 of 5 of "Ministry & Metanoia"
See also
Part 1: Marking Ministry Milestones
Part 2: Shannon
Part 3: Cindy
Part 4: Metanoia



Ministry & Metanoia, part 4
“John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance [metanoia] for the forgiveness of sins.” (Mark 1:4)

“Jesus answered, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance [metanoia].’” (Luke 5:31-32)

“Now I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because your grief led to repentance [metanoia]; for you felt a godly grief, so that you were not harmed in any way by us. For godly grief produces a repentance [metanoia] that leads to salvation and brings no regret, but worldly grief produces death." (2 Corinthians 9-10)

“metanoia: a profound, usually spiritual, transformation; conversion.” (Random House Unabridged Dictionary)

“In Classical Greek metanoia meant changing one's mind about someone or something. When personified, Metanoia was depicted as a shadowy goddess, cloaked and sorrowful, who accompanied Kairos, the god of Opportunity, sowing regret and inspiring repentance for the ‘missed moment’.” (Wikipedia: "Metanoia")

“Metanoia is the sine qua non of the Christian life. You cannot be a Christian without it. What is involved in metanoia is what might be called a spiritual paradigm shift, a spiritual revolution. We encounter the Lord Jesus, and He personally invites us to change as persons: metanoei! He calls us each and everyone by name. ‘I have redeemed you; I have called you by name: you are mine’ (Is. 43:1). Live that way!” (Andrew M. Greenwell, Catholic Online)
In my reflections about ministry past, and ministry future, metanoia is what, ultimately, I have been talking about. Translating it simply as “repentance” is inadequate. Connotations of repentance are in there, but fundamentally it is profound change. Ministry – mine or yours, ordained or lay – means, most simply, serving. And what do we serve? When we minister, we serve the power of change, the capacity for transformation.

There’s a paradox here – as there often is with spiritual matters. Indeed, paradox is one of the signs of the spiritual. The paradox is that the most radical change of all would be if we could truly, truly believe that there is nothing wrong with us exactly the way we are. The change we most need is to see that no change is needed. See? Paradox.

We have lived our lives in the grip of “shoulds” – I should do this, I should be that. Some of us might sometimes even feel that we should experience a metanoia and stop wanting to be different from how we are – but that merely makes metanoia into one more "should." But you can’t make it happen. The Christian Testament speaks of metanoia, if it happens, as a grace of God. I can’t make this kind of transformation happen. I can’t "should" myself into it. The Christian tradition recognized this, but talks a lot about it anyway.

There’s a kind of commitment – not to make something happen but to be open to it, to prepare for it, to orient toward it – understanding that whether the transformation actually happens is out of our hands.

James Luther Adams, the preeminent Unitarian theologian of the 20th century, was committed to Unitarianism and to liberal religion. Yet he was also often critical of certain tendencies within Unitarianism -- particularly our tendency to complacency. Indeed, we are often complacent -- but we don’t have to be. So Adams urged us to continually expose the evils of society. He spoke of being “involved with other people so that it costs.” It’s not enough to have the right sort of attitude. “It requires a sense that there's something wrong and I must be different from the way I have been.”

I put it this way: the something that is wrong is that we think something is wrong. Yes, we fail to be fully involved in stopping injustice, combating anti-semitism, combating white supremacy, patriarchy, any form of dominance. We fail to be “involved with other people so that it costs.” Why do we fail? We fail because we think there’s something wrong with us, and we’re at work trying to fix it, or cover it up.

Because we perceive an inner flaw, we develop defense mechanisms and self-protective strategies. If we really could fully grasp just how perfect we are just the way we are, those defensive, protective strategies could fall away.

One very basic example of how this works is captured in the word “productive.” Economists have specific ways to measure productivity, and our sense of our worth as human beings gets tied up in being productive workers. In pursuit of greater levels of productivity, we get stressed, and rushed, and so we cut someone off in traffic.

We measure our worth comparatively, so being worthy means being worthier than at least some other people. Ideally, we’d like to be worthier than all other people. We think it’s a good thing to be THE BEST. This is not rational. Being the best simply means that everyone else is worse. Why are we so concerned with everyone else being worse? Necessarily, there will always be exactly one person who is best at something. Is the world any better off if that person is you?

All the great evils – abuse and harassment, war and genocide, battering, violence, and cruelty in all its forms -- flow from the same basic dynamic that gives us competitive self-promotion and mild rudeness in traffic. None of us is entirely free of that dynamic.

Can we be “involved with other people so that it costs”? What is cost but a way of thinking about how to protect ourselves from paying too much? Our capacity to be “involved with other people so that it costs” is proportional to – or is the same thing as – our capacity to stop protecting ourselves from what seems like a “cost.”

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This is part 4 of 5 of "Ministry and Metanoia"
See also
Part 1: Marking Ministry Milesones
Part 2: Shannon
Part 3: Cindy
Part 5: Transformed Into Ourselves, Not by Ourselves



Ministry & Metanoia, part 3

We are marking milestones today: milestones of ministry past and milestones of ministry future. It has been twenty years since Rev. Shannon Bernard's ministry ended. It has been two years since Cindy Davidson's ministerial internship began. She stands now on the threshold of professional ministry.

How Our Professional Ministers Come to Be

Ordination. Among us Unitarian Universalists, the power to ordain rests solely with congregations. Boston, where our Unitarian Universalist Association is headquartered, has no say in who may be ordained a Unitarian Universalist minister, apart from recognizing our congregations. A group of people that want to be a UU congregation must have 30 people sign their initial charter, and must file that charter with our Boston headquarters. But once any group is recognized as being a bona fide UU congregation, then that group has total power to make whomever it sees fit into ordained Unitarian Universalist ministers.

Fellowship. Boston exercises more control over something called Ministerial Fellowship. To be admitted into Fellowship has a number of steps.
  1. File an initial inquiry form with the Ministerial Credentialing Office.
  2. Have an interview with a fellowshipped UU minister, and file the form about that.
  3. Get accepted into a theological school, and tell the credentialing office that you have.
  4. Sign an agreement to abide by the rules and policies of the Ministerial Fellowship Committee.
  5. Sign a criminal offense disclosure form.
  6. Obtain the sponsorship of a UU congregation, and submit the form for that to the Credentialing office.
  7. Complete a full approved career assessment which will measure which sorts of careers are most suited to a person like you, and have the assessment report sent to the credentialing office.
  8. These first seven are mostly filling out forms and applications and one long series of questionnaires, and proving your competence at filing papers with the ministerial credentialing office. Cindy completed these years ago. Now we get down to the real training.
  9. Successfully complete a unit of chaplain training, called Clinical Pastoral Education. Cindy did that summer before last.
  10. Earn a Master’s of Divinity degree. Cindy received the M.Div. from Meadville Lombard Theological Seminary last month.
  11. Complete the independent reading list of about 37 books about UU history, polity, theology. As for that, we'll just say that Cindy's looking forward to some summer reading this summer.
  12. Make an appointment to see the Ministerial Fellowship Committee, submit a hefty packet of information about yourself to them, and go in person to be interviewed for over an hour by seven members of that Committee.
The MFC interview is the final step. If the interview goes well, and the first 10 have all been been successfully completed, the ministerial candidate is admitted into ministerial fellowship. Cindy has an appointment to see the Ministerial Fellowship Committee in December. I have every confidence that we shall be hearing word in December that Cindy Davidson has been admitted into preliminary fellowship.

In the usual order of things, the newly fellowshipped minister then, at some point, asks a congregation – often the first congregation they serve as minister – to confer the honor of ordination. I look forward very much to attending Cindy’s ordination ceremony, probably in the next year or two.

What Our Ministers Inherit

Come on up here, Cindy.

It is custom among Unitarian Universalists – though there is no written regulation on the subject – that the stole signifies ordination. Cindy begins serving our congregation at Mohegan Lake in September, and though she will be their minister and will be preaching twice a month, in keeping with our custom, Cindy won’t be wearing a stole on Sunday mornings until after her ordination. But today, just for this morning, we will make an exception, in recognition of our confidence in her ministry.

This stole -- the one I am wearing this morning -- is one of several that you have seen me in, signifying my role as a Unitarian Universalist minister. I told Cindy about a month ago, that on her last day I wanted to give her one of my stoles, that I would invite her to pick out whichever one she liked. Yesterday, she picked this one.

The stole is symbol of ordination, and of a long inheritance of loving and serving congregations. Whether you stand on the shoulders of giants, or on the shoulders of those of much diminished stature, if you stand on a pile of enough of them, it's apt to improve your vision of the horizon.

Ministerial stoles, as you may have noticed, are highly variable in design, style, and fabric. This particular one, I have been periodically wearing for years. It represents to me not just any ministry, but mine. And by “mine,” of course, I mean it isn’t really mine at all. It is the ministry of all of my ministers -- to me they were giants -- and all of theirs, and all of theirs. Their labors and their hearts took shape in thousands of lives, including mine. This strip of cloth represents the ministry of all the people and experiences and values that shaped me.

It is the ministry of Reverends Eugene Pickett, Duncan Howlett, Terry Sweetser, Wayne Arnason, and Mary Katherine Morn, who were my ministers in my childhood, youth, and young adulthood.

It is the ministry of Rev. Christine Robinson, who guided and taught me through my ministerial internship.

It is all the ministry that ever happened at and brought into being and form the Unitarian Universalist Community of El Paso, Texas, which saw fit to ordain me.

It is all the ministry that ever happened at and brought into being and form the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Gainesville, Florida, to which I was called from 2006 to 2013.

It is the ministry of 109 years of lay leaders and congregants of Community UU at White Plains.

It is the ministry of Reverends James Fairley and Clif Vesey and Peter Samson and Betty Baker and Shannon Bernard and Carol Huston, and five interim ministers -- the ministry which it has been my duty and honor to carry and to uphold in this congregation these last five years.

And now, Cynthia Louise Davidson, it is yours.

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This is part 3 of 5 of "Ministry and Metanoia"
See also
Part 1: Marking Ministry Milestones
Part 2: Shannon
Part 4: Metanoia
Part 5: Transformed Into Ourselves, Not by Ourselves