2017-10-17

Biases and Anxiety

What Other People Think? part 3

We Need Our Group. So Find One that Values Changing Your Mind.

I find it helpful to keep in mind: We are able to not care what some people think – THOSE people – by caring instead about what other people think – OUR people, as we have generalized them. I also find it helpful to remember the limitations and biases of my brain, and how seeing the world the way I do is largely a fluke of my social situation, mixed with some genetic predispositions.

Is there something we can do about this? A little bit, yes. Rather than Polonius, “to thine own self be true,” go back to Socrates, “know thyself.” Identify your own confirmation biases. You were made to be oriented toward tribal bonding, so try to be aware of how that’s at work in your opinion formation.

Since we are such a group-oriented species, see if you can hook up with a group that values evidence over any particular story for interpreting that evidence. This is tricky, because every group likes to think of itself as valuing the evidence, but almost all of them fail to notice how highly selective they are about the evidence they value.

But here’s an example. I understand that members of the Yale Political Union
“are admired if they can point to a time when a debate totally changed their mind on something. That means they take evidence seriously; that means they can enter into another’s mind-set. It means they treat debate as a learning exercise and not just as a means to victory.” (David Brooks, New York Times)
Can you identify times when evidence changed your mind? Can this congregation become the sort of tribe that admires members who talk about when evidence broke through their confirmation bias and changed their mind?

Nonanxious Presence

Edwin Friedman (1932-1996)
As I look further at this question – “Should we care what other people think? How much, in what ways, under what circumstances?” – there may be an underlying issue here of anxiety. The issue of how other people are judging us tends to come up in our lives when we’re feeling some anxiety about where we stand with people around us. The question, “do they like me?” naturally raises some anxiety, and to deal with that anxiety, one strategy is to tell ourselves we don’t care. This strategy tends to be disconnecting. It's a tried-and-true strategy for coping with anxiety without ever acknowledging to ourselves that the anxiety arose. And the drawback is that we disconnect.

Here’s an alternative that derives from the work of Jewish rabbi and family therapist Edwin Friedman: nonanxious presence. Nonanxious presence is one of my slogans I try to live by – not always successfully, but I try.

If I tell myself, “I’m not going to care what other people think,” I conceal from myself the anxiety that prompted me to say that. If I tell myself, “be nonanxious,” I’m bringing awareness to the fact that, yes, a little bit of anxiety is there, and I’m now intentionally going to move past that.

If I say, “I don’t care what they think,” I’m disconnecting. If I say, “nonanxious presence,” I’m telling myself to stay connected, stay present.

Another popular strategy for dealing with do-they-like-me? anxiety is to go the opposite way – instead of “I don’t care what they think,” I start doing and saying things I think they will like.

Those are the two main strategies: blow ‘em off, or bend over backwards to appease. Nonanxious presence is neither of these. It’s an approach that, first, recognizes the anxiety. I notice anxiety first in myself, and then notice how anxiety is functioning in the system around me, the anxiety of the people who aren’t liking me. Whatever reason they may say they disapprove of me, underneath that, there’s anxiety. Something about me is challenging their assumptions, their status quo, their world picture, and that’s anxiety-producing for them. Bringing awareness to my anxiety, and the anxiety in the system, I make a decision not to be ruled by that anxiety. This is easier said than done, and it’s a skill that takes a while to develop.

Supposing I’m able to move into being nonanxious, the next part is presence. I’m going to bring my presence to the situation -- MY presence – who I am. This is not appeasing, or saying what you think they want to hear so they’ll like you. Friedman’s term is self-differentiation. Self-differentiation is: the capacity to be present to, but not caught up in surrounding emotional processes – not taking on the anxiety in the system. It also involves reaching clarity about your principles and vision, and a willingness to be exposed and be vulnerable.

Nonanxious presence neither disregards what other people think, nor is it controlled by the natural human impulse for approval.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

In sum, other people, some of them, form judgments of us -- and though they probably think about us less than we imagine, making judgments of others and relating to how others judge us is inherent in being the social species that we are. This involves some good, some bad, and some ugly.

The good is that we care, we want to connect, and bond, and have a shared story, and not be psychopaths.

The bad is that we’re oblivious to evidence that doesn’t support our story, we suffer confirmation bias, and despise people with different opinions.

The ugly is anxiety – in ourselves and in the systems of which we’re a part. This anxiety can make us disconnect on the one hand, or lose ourselves and our integrity in seeking after approval on the other hand.

May we find ways to embrace and celebrate the good, compensate for the bad, and effectively manage the ugly.

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This is part 3 of 3 of "What Other People Think"
See also
Part 1: We All Care What Other People Think of Us
Part 2: The Self and Its Worldview

2017-10-16

The Self and Its Worldview

What Other People Think, part 2

George Herbert Mead (1863-1931)
What is this “self” thing to which Polonius tells us to be true? The great philosopher and social psychologist George Herbert Mead, whose career spanned the first three decades of the 20th century, understood the self as a generalized other. I always thought that was very helpful. The self IS others – certain important others – generalized into a single personality. A person’s “generalized other” is her conception of the important other people in her life in general – an amalgamation of the people with whom she identifies. (She literally identifies with them in the sense that she gets her identity from them.) The ones with whom the child identifies during the formative years, she generalizes into a shared set of attitudes and assumptions which are her attitudes and assumptions, defining who she is.

As the context of your life shifts, and the people you’re around, and the people you identify with, shift, who you are shifts. It does. Maybe just a little. Maybe a little bit more.

The question is: how much, how fast? When it happens too much, too fast, that’s a problem. You need a core sense of self that’s pretty stable over time.

You might hear advice such as: “Don’t let other people tell you who you are. Don’t let their voice be more powerful than your own.” What this means is: “Don’t let what people are telling you now replace too fast too much of what you have previously learned from other people.”

On the other hand, not shifting at all is also a problem. You need a core sense of self that’s pretty stable – but not totally static. Life is for growing and learning, and growing and learning means taking in influences from some other people.

Indeed, our vaunted rationality is more about social bonding than for discerning truth. A few years ago, Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber published an article, “Why Do Humans Reason?” If reason evolved to discern truth or make better decisions then natural selection would have weeded out confirmation bias (which Wikipedia defines as: "the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one's preexisting beliefs or hypotheses, while giving disproportionately less consideration to alternative possibilities").
“If a fact comes in that doesn’t fit into your frame, you’ll either not notice it, or ignore it, or ridicule it, or be puzzled by it—or attack it if it’s threatening.” (George Lakoff, qtd in Yudhijit Bhattacharjee, "Why We Lie," National Geographic)
"I trust this site to tell the truth."
Confirmation bias is a huge distortion – an enormous obstacle to adopting the belief that best fits all the available evidence. Confirmation bias exists because forming beliefs that fit the evidence is not the purpose of human reasoning. Forming social bonds is the purpose of reasoning.
“Most of us are quite willing to think or say anything that will help us be liked by our group. We’re quite willing to disparage anyone when, as Marilynne Robinson once put it, ‘the reward is the pleasure of sharing an attitude one knows is socially approved.’” (David Brooks, New York Times)
Human thinking is fundamentally relational because for our ancestors going back millions of years survival had more to do with strong relationships and social bonds of support than it did with reaching conclusions that fit the evidence. Competition between groups placed a premium on group solidarity, and group solidarity was reinforced by sharing an ideology – a characteristic pattern of reasoning.

The genus homo has been around for between 2.5 and 3 million years, and the scientific method for less than 400 years. Clearly, coming up with a story that really fits best with all the evidence that has been or could be gathered is a low priority for brains like ours. But having a story that we share with our tribe-mates is a high priority.

So powerful is our own worldview, so convinced of the power of its arguments do we become, that we can’t imagine how someone on the other side would answer those arguments. When I have talked to someone on the other side of some opinion that I have, and they’ve told me their answer, even when I understand it at the time – which is itself a rare occurrence – I don’t retain it. A few days later, I’m back to being unable to conceive how the arguments on my side could possibly be answered. Since it's important to me to understand other people, I find this forgetfulness (about details of how they defend viewpoints different from mine) perplexing and vexing.

In a study a couple years ago, participants were told “Donald Trump said vaccines cause autism.” (And Trump has repeatedly suggested there’s a link.) Participants who were Trump supporters showed a stronger belief that vaccines do cause autism. That’s not surprising: For them, Trump is a credible source, so they believe what he said. Then
“the participants were given a short explanation—citing a large-scale study—for why the vaccine-autism link was false, and they were asked to reevaluate their belief in it.”
The explanation was cogent enough so that participants “now accepted that the statements claiming the link were untrue.” They got it. They understood that, in fact, there is no link between vaccines and autism. But they didn’t retain it.
“Testing them again a week later showed that their belief in the misinformation had bounced back to nearly the same level.” (Bhattacharjee, National Geographic)
If it doesn’t fit our worldview, it doesn’t stick. Even in cases where information is accepted and agreed with in the moment, if it doesn’t fit our worldview, we forget it.

That’s how powerful our worldview is. And where did that worldview come from? It came from identifying with certain other people, and forming a generalized sense of how they thought.

This is bad news for truth, but it’s good news for integrity. Integrity with our worldview, with the sense of self that has that worldview, usually trumps new information that doesn't fit our worldview.

* * *
This part 2 of 3 of "What Other People Think"
See also
Part 1: We All Care What Other People Think of Us
Part 3: Biases and Anxiety

2017-10-15

We All Care What Other People Think of Us

What Other People Think, part 1

At last year’s congregational auction here at CUUC, the high bidder for the privilege of giving me a sermon topic wanted me to address the issue of other people’s opinions of us, and should we care what other people think? So today is the day I take up this topic.

It turns out there’s an answer to this question: Yes, we do and should care what other people think. Blessed be, amen, our closing hymn . . .

Oh, you know I’m not going to short-change a topic as rich as this one. (What would you think of me?)

The question is one of integrity, isn’t it? “To thine own self be true,” as Polonius said. And integrity – the wholeness of a life in which actions and principles are consistent – is important.

We’ve all met people who say, no, they are not affected by what other people think of them. Maybe you used to be one of those people – maybe you still are. I spent some years as youth imagining that I was immune to the opinions of others – but this was mostly so I could say snide and contemptuous things about lemming-people who followed the crowd and wouldn’t think for themselves.

Social psychologist Mark Leary did a very interesting study. He began by surveying a large group of students on their self-esteem and how much it depended on what other people think. Some of the students, question after question, reported that they were completely unaffected by the opinions of others. Other students said they were strongly affected by what other people think of them.

Leary then selected two groups: students who most strongly said they were not affected by others, and students who most strongly said they were affected by others’ opinions of them. Here’s what each student did. They had to sit alone in a room and talk about themselves for five minutes, speaking into a microphone. They were told that there was someone out of sight in another room listening to them, and that listener was making a determination, based on what they heard, whether they wanted to interact the speaker in the next part of the study. So the speaker is talking for five minutes into a microphone. And they can’t see the listener, but at the end of every minute as they’re talking, a number appears on a display in front of them – a number between 1 and 7. The students have been told that a 1 means "the listener really doesn’t want to interact with you. From what they’re hearing, they don’t like you." A 7 means that they very strongly do want to interact with you. Numbers in between indicate varying degrees of in-between interest.

Imagine how this would feel. You start talking about yourself, and at the end of one minute you see a 4. OK, they’re on the fence. You keep talking. At the end of the second minute, you see a 3.

Oh.

At the end of the third minute, it’s a 2.

I'm losing them!

At the end of the fourth minute, it’s up to a 3.

Ah, that last minute must have a little more interest in it.

Then at the end of the last minute, it’s back down to a 2 again.

Ugh.

Now, Leary has rigged it. Half the students, by random draw, got 4-3-2-3-2 – and it didn’t matter how charmingly or how boringly they talked about themselves. The other half of the students got rising numbers: 4-5-6-5-6.

Not surprisingly the students who had said that they cared about other people’s opinions had big reactions to the numbers. When one of these students got the sequence of falling numbers, their self-esteem sank.
“But the self-proclaimed mavericks suffered shocks almost as big. They might indeed have steered by their own compass, but they didn’t realize that their compass tracked public opinion, not true north” (Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind 91)
Leary says that we have an internal sociometer that continuously measures how the people around you value having you around. When your sociometer needle drops, it triggers an alarm and changes our behavior. Leary writes:
“the sociometer operates at a nonconscious and preattentive level to scan the social environment for any and all indications that one’s relational value is low or declining.” (qtd in Haidt 92)
We ALL care what people think of us. It’s just that some people have such low self-awareness that they think they don’t. And why do they have that delusion? Because they think people will think better of them if they profess to be the kind of person who doesn’t care what other people think.

Actually, there is one group of people that truly do not have the internal unconscious sociometer and can be said to not care what other people think of them: psychopaths. Psychopaths would care what others think only as part of a plan to manipulate or exploit them. They don’t have shame and guilt: the social emotions that correspond to being attentive to what others think of us.

At this point you may be thinking, OK, we are all, if we aren’t psychopaths, attentive to others opinions, but even so, there are some people who are clearly always seeking approval and others who, while attentive to overt signs of approval and disapproval, aren’t always trying to get approval. Some people seem to need to constant reassurance and others seem to be more “self-defined” or self-differentiated. They take for granted that they are "acceptable enough," and, unless explicitly shown or told they aren't, they don’t seem to think about it.

To get at what’s going on here, we have to unpack the notion of self a little bit. What is this “self” thing to which Polonius tells us to be true?

Next: The Self

* * *
This is part 1 of 3 of "What Other People Think"
See also:
Part 2: The Self and Its Worldview
Part 3: Biases and Anxiety

2017-10-03

Quintessence of Glorious Dust

Yay! Death! part 3

At one point in his book, To Be a Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death, after describing his encounters with certain transhumanists keen to inhabit robot bodies that would colonize the galaxy, Mark O’Connell reflects:
“Some essential element within me reacted with visceral distaste, even horror, to the prospect of becoming a machine. It seemed to me that to speak of colonizing the universe – of putting the universe to work on our projects – was to impose upon the meaningless void the deeper meaninglessness of our human insistence on meaning. I could imagine no greater absurdity, that is, than the insistence that everything be made to mean something.” (20)
Yes. Being who you are means making meaning in that particular way that you do. And that’s beautiful within the boundedness of its finitude. But to burst those bounds, to raise the prospect of subjecting everything to one particular way of meaning-making, is to lose meaning.

I am, then, so grateful for that boundedness, that finitude which frees me play my part without overrunning all the other parts. What has meaning in context, loses meaning when stripped of its context – and the context that allows our lives to have meaning is that they are so brief, so bound to particular place – and a single lifespan of time.

The transhumanists speak of “the sense of ourselves as trapped in the wrong sort of stuff, constrained by the material of our presence in the world.” (55) They therefore seek a “more suitable computational substrate.” But it is just this material constraint that gives us the context for making some meaning of ourselves.

Would it be “you” if you were uploaded into a robot’s computer brain? Yes, it would be “you” in the same sense that the mountains and rivers and stars are already you. It would be "you" in the same sense that it would also be "me." The other sense of you is rooted in the sinews and guts of your particular body, and to put your brain processes into a machine would be to create something as different from you as your child. It would, in some sense, be your child. But it wouldn’t be you. (Nor is the future self into which you are slowly, willy-nilly, turning, and of which you are also the parent, as Wordsworth recognized, writing, "The Child is father of the Man.")

For one thing, a human brain, being organic, is, for better or worse, unpredictable. Each one has its own style, its own predilections, but also has a fair amount of randomness built into it. We often find ourselves doing something, and we make up a story that makes the action seem like part of a coherent purpose. That’s often a story made up after the fact to rationalize some bit of randomness. Our brains are like a school of fish, or a murmuration of starlings “where elements interact and coalesce to form a single entity whose movements are inherently unpredictable.” One could, I suppose, build randomness into a computer emulation of your brain, but what seems to appeal to the transhumanists is getting rid of the flaw of our unpredictable randomness. Get rid of that, and an essential aspect of our humanness has been stripped away.

Our materiality, the randomness and surprise our “wetware” produces, the urgency and preciousness of life that comes from its brevity, the dying animal that we are: this is our glory and our part to play in the vast cosmos.

At the end of one of his chapters, Mark O’Connell describes being back home writing up his experience with one of the sects of transhumanism. He writes:
"What a piece of work is man, I thought. What a quintessence of dust. Some minutes later, my wife entered the bedroom on her hands and knees, our son on her back, gripping the collar of her shirt tight in his little fists. She was making clip-clop noises as she crawled forward, and he was laughing giddily, and shouting “Don’t buck! Don’t buck!” With a loud neighing sound, she arched her back and sent him tumbling gently into a row of shoes by the wall, and he screamed in delighted outrage, before climbing up again. None of this, I felt, could be rendered in code. None of this, I felt, could be run on any other substrate. Their beauty was bodily, in the most profound sense. I never loved my wife and our little boy more, I realized, than when I thought of them as mammals. I dragged myself, my animal body, out of bed to join them.” (68-69)
Blessed be.



* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of "Yay! Death!"
Part 1: Yearning for Immortality
Part 2: Two Epiphanies

2017-10-02

Two Epiphanies

Yay! Death! part 2

The question of death is always the question of self. Self is not static. You are always changing, continuously dying because continuously changing. Your current self is impermanent -- a temporary way-station between your past selves and your future selves. Thus, the only way to "live" (well, exist) forever would be to be frozen and never thawed.

The question of death is always the question of self. Self is not separate. You are not a closed-off, self-contained isolation chamber. This simple point is a profound one. You are not just a vast set of complex interactions going on inside your skin, but are also the vast set of complex interactions between those going on inside your skin and those going on outside the skin – starting with sensory input and extending to everything that interacts with the things from which you’re getting sensory input – that is, the whole universe. The self -- the whole self -- is the world. Thus, the self will be around as long the world is.

The impermanent point means that "you" cannot be immortal. The not separate point means that you are.

I recognize the urges and desires that drive many of these transhumanists. Some of them feel keenly the limitations of their brains, and they want to be integrated with machines that will transcend those limitations. Myself, I used to want a really long life just because I was curious what the future would bring. What new art and music, what breakthroughs, what political experiments lay in the future? I was very curious about this, and I wanted to live a long time just so I could see as much of it as possible.

That was up until 2003. In August of 2003, I went to the first meditation retreat I’d been to that was longer than a weekend. It was five days. The moment I so well remember didn’t happen at the retreat, but after it ended. The retreat was in Tucson. I had gotten there by taking a bus from El Paso. But on the way back I had gotten a ride from one of the other retreatants whose route home went through El Paso. So I’m riding in the passenger seat of his pick-up truck, rolling along I-10. Near the boundary between the Sonoran desert and the Chihuahuan desert, I was gazing up at some mountains in the distance when it happened.

I was suddenly powerfully aware that I will be there. I will be there. What this meant was that I will be present for all of those futures that I was so curious about. I am other people. It’s not just these 100 billion neurons that interact to form a self, but these 100 billion neurons are also interacting with the 100 billion neurons inside other skins, and with the many beings everywhere. What is me is the whole thing. So if anyone is around to see the future, that’s me.

In that moment, reincarnation was cast not as something that happens when one body dies, and one self inside one skin transfers to one other skin. We are all constantly, continuously reincarnating in everything else – and it in us. Everything is constantly, continuously reincarnating in everything else. And always has been.

Beings of all past times, Viking warriors, ancient Athenians and Chinese, on back through Neanderthals and dinosaurs were at that moment seeing those mountains through these eyes, and I will present through future beings for all future events. Why would I care whether or not one of those future beings happened to have my idiosyncratic personality quirks, harbor memories that currently reside only among these 100 billion neurons, or answer to my name? I will be there.

That epiphanic moment shifted me. Since that day, now more than 14 years ago, I have not felt that restless desire for longevity of this body. That’s just been gone from me. So it was with a small jolt that I read about these transhumanists and saw the form of an old familiar yearning still burning in them.

I’m happy to enjoy this body while it works out for it to be here, and happy to shoulder responsibility for it contributing what it can, and when the time comes to let it go, as Mary Oliver said, let it go – and continue on as the whole universe that constitutes me and all beings.

About two and a half years after that moment, I had a second. It was my forty-seventh birthday in 2006. I was reflecting, as one does on birthdays, on the years past and those that might be to come for this body – all of life, in the form of this body, presenting itself to itself.

What suddenly flooded over me this time was a profound gratitude for mortality. Forty-seven years gone by – maybe, given that death could come at any moment, all the years this body would get, and very likely more than half of the years this body would get. And then it would be gone. And that felt like such a relief.

It was the flip side of the earlier epiphany. On the one hand, I will be there. On the other hand, I don’t have to be there in a way that includes this form. I am not responsible for eternity, not responsible for being and doing any more than what one short lifetime can do -- and this illusion of mine, that I am a separate identity, the illusion to which ego clings, which I am able to occasionally drop only to pick up again shortly after, is gratefully NOT something we will be stuck with for terribly much longer.

It was liberating in a way that complimented the liberation of the earlier moment. While the first freed me from obsessive concern to preserve the particular quirks of this assemblage of attributes, the second freed me to go ahead and enjoy the particular quirks of this assemblage of attributes. They’ll only be around a short while, so love them while they’re here.

* * *
This is part 2 of 3 of "Yay! Death!"
See also
Part 1: Yearning for Immortality
Part 3: Quintessence of Glorious Dust

2017-10-01

Yearning for Immortality

Yay! Death! part 1

Some people really don’t want to die. Until a couple months ago, I had no idea the lengths to which some folks were going. I was strolling through a bookstore with LoraKim, and a book by Mark O’Connell caught my eye. It’s called To Be a Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death. I bought the book.

I read about Alcor, a company that currently has 117 clients "who are no longer among the quick." (23) Alcor has frozen their bodies, for $200,000 each, or just their heads, for $80,000 each, until such time as science figures out a way to bring them back to life.

I read about people who are working hard at developing 3-D brain scan technology with a view toward eventually being able to upload the full data into a computer that could then “run” that brain. This might be one of the ways of bringing back the cryogenically frozen people. Or any living person could, they think, have their personality transferred to a more advanced nonbiological carrier. Human consciousness rendered into “platform independent code,” can then be booted up on whatever the most advanced computer around might be, and it would be the same personality and consciousness in the same way that a text is the same text whether it is manifested on a magazine page in Times New Roman, or on a computer screen in Arial bold, or on a piece of notebook paper in your handwriting.

I read about other people who are working on neuroprosthetic replacements for brain parts. If you get a different part replaced by neuroprosthesis every year or two, eventually you have a brain consisting entirely of prosthetic parts, all of which are infinitely replaceable – giving you, voila, immortality.

I read about biohackers enhancing their senses by implanting electronics under their skin.

I read about other people who are taking a more biological approach, convinced that if they can just get enough funding, they’ll be able to reverse the cellular aging process and render our bodies eternally young.

Whichever of the various strategies these people might be pursuing, they are all called “transhumanists,” and they share a sense that death is deeply wrong -- an affront. It shouldn’t happen, and we if we put our minds to it, we can figure out a way to end this scourge.

One of the characters in the book is Aubrey de Gray. I looked up his TED talk. “Who here is in favor of malaria?” he asks his audience. His argument is: if you’d like to see malaria ended, wouldn’t you want to see all death ended? He is visibly exasperated by the lame arguments he encounters against curing aging:
  • Wouldn’t it be crushingly boring?
  • How would we pay the pensions?
  • What about starving Africans?
  • Dictators would rule forever.
And those are pretty lame arguments. I think we sense a much more compelling truth, but aren’t used to articulating it – so these short bad substitute arguments come out instead.

Then de Gray mentions a point that he seems to take as a somewhat more serious objection. To avoid overpopulation disaster, we’d have to curb the birthrate: cut way, way down on children.


The first point I’d make is: even if you could keep this body from aging any further, you can’t stop me from learning and changing. If you can’t stop me from learning and changing, then I’m gradually becoming a different person.

This was vividly demonstrated for me just last night. Last night, I was at my 40th high school class reunion – the only class reunion I've ever attended. The experience of seeing these people that I spent many formative years with, but haven’t seen for 40 years was both strange and familiar, both centering and de-centering. It was a clear experience of how 40 years of learning and changing has turned us into different people.

Certain ways the face moved, and the sounds of their voices were recognizable and familiar (but there’s no particular value in just keeping characteristic facial expressions and vocal tones around). When we were all in high school, we were not real estate agents and electricians and nurses and librarians and mechanical engineers and lawyers and ministers, and now we are. We were not spouses and parents and grandparents, and now we are. We aren’t the people we were. Also: we’re a lot more polite to each other now.

So imagine the world 100 years from now. That world is going to have different people in it, no matter what. These different people might have habits of facial expression and of body movement, might speak with the vocal pitches, timbres, and cadences, might even have a few of the memories – of the people alive today -- but they will be different people.

Or, those alive today might have been allowed to die and be replaced by younger generations.

Either way, it’s going to be a world full of different people 100 years from now. Why should we want the world of 100 years from now to have the first sort of different people instead of the second sort of different people?

* * *
This is part 1 of 3 of "Yay! Death!"
See also
Part 2: Two Epiphanies
Part 3: Quintessence of Glorious Dust

2017-09-29

What If I Don't Have a Gender Identity?

Last Sunday, after the worship service, 50 or so of us gathered in Community UU's Fellowship Hall for a screening of “Gender Revolution: A Journey with Katie Couric.” As I listened to the stories of the transgender people Couric interviewed, it occurred to me that I wasn’t sure I had such a thing as a gender identity.

I present myself as male because, from early on, I was told I was male. I never had any sense that was right or wrong. If my parents had told me from birth that I was a girl and dressed me in frilly pink dresses, I think I’d have been fine with that (at least for as long as I could have been prevented from noticing that my external genitalia didn’t match the other girls'). I did have certain preferences that were more common among boys than girls -- I loved playing football, for instance -- but as long as girls could also play football and participate in the other "tomboyish" things to which I was drawn -- being identified as a girl would not have felt like a problem for me.

Of course, I could be fooling myself – delusion is always a possibility – but it seems as though I present myself as male only because that’s easy and convenient (also, males have lots of advantages in our culture, so why not?) rather than because an inner gender identity makes me feel that being female would be wrong for me.

Maybe I'm unusual in how weak my inner sense of gender identity is (or, perhaps, unusual in how strongly I’m in denial about it). In 1977, at age 18, I went away to college and started going by Meredith, my middle name, whereas previously I’d always gone by Steven, my first name, or Steve. I was attracted to the gender ambiguity of “Meredith.” I was consciously making a small statement against the very idea of gender identity. I learned that sex is a biological category while gender is a social construct, and my opinion was that it would be better to stop socially constructing it. Or, at least, since gender roles are oppressive, especially to women, let’s construct gender in a way that allows for a lot more role fluidity -- and minimizes the significance of gender identity.

What I’ve been learning is that there is something biological about gender identity after all, and even if my brain’s gender identity structures really are at the weak end of the spectrum, a lot of people, both cisgender and transgender, have stronger gender identity built into their brains. I don’t know directly what that’s like, but I don’t have to know. Other people bear no burden to make their lives make sense to me. Rather, it’s my responsibility to extend respect and care to everyone, whatever ways they differ from me. It’s up to me to take them at their word about who they are and what they make of the meaning of their life and experience.

As for my identity? GBNS (Genderless But Not Sexless)? No, I have a gender, just not a gender identity. By long habit, I clearly present as male, don't have any energy to change those habits, and continue to benefit from the privileges of maleness. Even if, for me, my own gender is entirely a social construct, male is how I happen to have been socially constructed. Thus, I identify myself as male without identifying with being male. I might have just as readily taken to being constructed female, but I wasn't, so I'm not. Much. I guess. Maybe I'm SHMPUA (Socially and Habitually Male but Personally/Privately Ultimately Apathetic). Or: SCMMLCANGBPGI (Socially Constructed Male and More or Less Comfortable with that but Apparently Not Genetically or Biologically Predisposed to a Gender Identity).

2017-09-28

Called to Repair Relationship

Yom Kippur, part 3

In group process there’s a principle called “step up, step back” -- along with such other principles as, “assume best intentions,” “use ‘I’ statements,” and “avoid generalizations.” The “step up, step back” principle asks participants to self-monitor how much they are speaking. If they’ve been speaking a lot, decide to step back and let others speak. If they’ve been quiet, push themselves to step up and contribute comments or suggestions. If you spent a year engaged with people and skillfully balancing stepping up and stepping back, you’ll probably be able to look back on that year and see yourself as having failed to work for peace, failed to speak up against what, in your opinion, was an injustice.

But it’s not all on you. Peace and justice must be built together, collectively, and we don’t all have the same vision of what peace and justice are. Similar considerations apply to the other usual faults and failings.

What looks to some of us like ignoring the poor in our midst looks to others like an appropriate level of attention given the need to respect other’s choices while allowing choices to have consequences.

What looks to some like withholding love might look to others like respecting autonomy and boundaries.

What looks to some like distorting the truth for our own advantage might look to others like standing up for oneself and trusting the process to sort it out.

What looks to some like conforming to fashion rather than conscience looks to others like considerately accommodating the tastes and sensibilities of others.

So what is wrong with you? Every fault or failing you could find in yourself has at its root a virtue. And, yes, these faults/virtues of ours sometimes hurt other people – and their faults/virtues sometimes hurt us. These bumps and hurts, too, are part of the process of our ongoing learning about how to skillfully balance respecting others autonomy -- and helping them; balance accepting others for exactly what they are -- and encouraging them to further growth; balance being interested in their lives -- and respecting their privacy; balance being open and sharing of yourself to others -- and maintaining boundaries; balance seeing things from other viewpoints -- and integrity to your own viewpoint.

It’s a lot to balance, and the hurts we cause others and the hurts we feel from others are the bumps of the continual re-alignment and re-adjusting of those balances.

The traditional language is that God forgives us for transgressions against God. I understand that as a reference to the forgiveness of our faults we experience when we see them in the light of the virtues that are at the source of those faults.

But for transgressions of one human being against another, the Day of Atonement does not atone until they have made peace with one another. I understand that as a call to relationship, to having the conversations in which we take the time to hear and empathize with others’ hurts, and hear and empathize with what led them to hurt us.

Those can be some hard conversations, and we aren't always up for that work. But once a year, we can take a deep breath and muster up the will to pick up that phone, approach that person we’ve been just a little estranged from, and take up the work of repairing relationships. It’s a wonderful tradition that calls us to remember each year to do that -- because it’s so easy to let it slide and slide.

These are the days of awe, the days of atonement. Now is a good time for that annual mustering for difficult work of repairing relationships -- for by our relationships do we live.

May you be inscribed in the book of life. G'mar Hatima Tova.



* * *
The evening hours that begin Yom Kippur are called “Kol Nidre,” which means “all vows.”

Some say that it is a prayer of people not free to make their own decisions, people forced to say what they do not mean. They say that the agony of those who had to say “yes” when they meant “no,” those coerced and oppressed, echoes in each repetition of this prayer.

Some say that the Kol Nidre is a confession. We are all transgressors, all exiled from the highest we know, all in need of the healing of forgiveness and reconciliation. For transgressions against God, the Day of Atonement atones; but for transgressions of one human being against another, the Day of Atonement does not atone until they have made peace with one another.

The Kol Nidre is a practical and honest reminder of our fallible humanity, recognition of which is the beginning of compassion. This is the version of the Kol Nidre prayer that appears in the Union Prayer Book in many Reform Jewish congregations:
May all the vows and promises before God, which we have left unfulfilled;
May all the moral pledges, penalties and other self-imposed obligations we have left undischarged, from last atonement day until this atonement day now come to us in peace;
May they all be forgiven by the almighty, and be accounted as of no moment.
We regret having made them.
Still more, we regret having neglected them.
May the almighty grace strengthen us in the future to keep us from the rash vow, the hastily-imposed self-discipline, and teach us to bear the sufferings of life as they come, with patience and with resignation.
* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of "Yom Kippur"
See also
Part 1: What's Wrong with You?
Part 2: Upsides of Failings

2017-09-27

Upsides of Failings

Yom Kippur, part 2

A Yom Kippur invocation:
The day is bright with the glory of Yom Kippur. The day is bright with the glory of the world, with the glory of creation, with the glory of life.Light is sown for the righteous, and gladness for the upright in heart. The hope in our hearts will help us see the way in the year to come. We are called to follow the right path, and to atone for straying from it.

What does this require? The prophet Micah considers the possibilities: “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” No, none of these, says Micah.
“He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

So let us be recommitted in the year ahead to doing justice, loving kindness, walking humbly the way that seems most right. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur call us to consciousness: to review how we have lived in the year past, and to consider how we may live in the year to come. These days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are the Days of Awe, the days for taking time to look at ourselves, see ourselves clearly. Words such as these have guided generations upon generations of Jewish people in this crucial spiritual exercise:

“Hear, O Israel: God is our God. God is one. Blessed is God’s glorious realm for ever and ever. Blessed is God, ruler of the Universe, who hallows us with gifts and commands us to kindle the lights of the day of atonement. Let us give thanks for the transcendent light shining on all creation. Let us give thanks for the light which dwells within each of us if we will look inward and seek it."

Rabbi Hillel has said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I? If I do not act now, when will I act?”

The starting place is within. While there is yet time, before the last Shofar blast on Yom Kippur, before the Angel seals the Book of Life, the sages tell us that we have the means to change our destinies. The One who makes peace in the heavens, may that One make peace for us and for all Israel. (Reading for Yom Kippur adapted from the Jewish Awareness Group at the Unitarian Church of All Souls, New York City and the Unitarian Universalists for Jewish Awareness)
* * *
What's wrong with you? "Nothing" is a pretty good answer. "Everything" is also not bad. Those answers encourage an important self-acceptance -- but they might also encourage complacency. So a reflection on what skills we'd like to work on honing can, indeed, be helpful. I take the invitation of Yom Kippur to be to reflect on what skills those might be.

Every week our e-Communitarian includes a "Practice of the Week," with an idea that might help you hone skills of attention, gratitude, joy, compassion, peace, kindness, and wisdom. At the bottom of each "Practice of the Week" post, there’s a link to the list of all of them (HERE): 137 so far, as of this week.

Some of them are slogans to live by, to call upon and be guided by. Others are specific practices to do, worth a try once or for occasional use as needed. And others might really be your thing – a practice to stick with daily or weekly for the rest of your life to help you hone your skills of peace, joy, and wise compassion.

Acknowledging your faults and failings by itself doesn’t do much. That’s why Chaim Stern looks back on previous years and says, “Last year’s confession came easily to the lips.” He urges us to hope that this year’s confession will come from deeper than the skin. But Rabbi Stern wrote these words for use in liturgy (he was among the most prominent 20th-century liturgists of reformed Judaism), and we have included them in our Unitarian Universalist liturgy, in our hymnal readings under “Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.” There they are, suitable for reading year after year after year.

Whatever happens, next year we’ll be looking back and again saying, yeah, last year’s confession came easy. We'll be asking, “will this year’s come from deeper?” We'll be confessing that our promises to do better have not been serious – “our paths are strewn with promises like fallen leaves.”
Even as we might wish for radical transformation, the fact that these words are an annual ritual conveys the message that such transformation will not happen. Next year we’ll be saying the same thing.

Our hope is that this process, this annual ritual recitation of hopes, lends itself to a gradual raising of one’s standards. Perhaps last year’s work was too easy only by the higher standards we are now expecting from ourselves. May it be so.

Traditionally the faults and failings we find in ourselves typically include something similar to these:
We failed to work for peace
We kept silent in the face of injustice
We have ignored the poor in our own midst
We have withheld our love from those who depend on us
We have distorted the truth for our own advantage
We have conformed to fashion and not to conscience
We have sinned against ourselves and not risen to fulfill the best that is in us. (ibid)
All true. And it’s going to be true next year. So let's look at why these failings are so intractable.

Along with these failings come some good qualities. For instance, it's a good thing that we haven't been so arrogant as to believe we know what the best way to build peace is, or the best way to speak for justice. What sometimes, or to some of us, looks like speaking for justice, at other times, or to others of us, looks like sewing discord. What sometimes, or to some of us, looks like working for peace, at other times, or to others of us, looks like allowing injustice to go unchallenged.

We don’t all agree on what peace and justice look like, and only the zealots feel certain that they know. Most of us have some opinions in that area, but it’s wise to hold those opinions provisionally, because getting to peace and justice means working with other people who have different opinions about what constitutes peace and justice.

No wonder we can so reliably say every year that we’ve failed to work for peace and have kept silent in the face of injustice! And it’s a good thing we did fail – that is, it’s a good thing that we had enough humility not to try to force our opinion of peace and justice on others all the time, enough respect for other people to understand that peace and justice are collective work, and enough wisdom to see that the overall process must find ways to accommodate diverse visions, which means visions different from our own.

* * *
This is part 2 of 3 of Yom Kippur
See also
Part 1: What's Wrong with You?
Part 3: Called to Repair Relationship

2017-09-26

What's Wrong with You?

Yom Kippur, part 1

“Atonement Day”
by Chaim Stern
Once more Atonement Day has come.
All pretense gone, naked heart revealed to the hiding self,
We stand on holy ground, between the day that was and the one that must be.
We tremble.
At what did we aim?
How did we stumble?
What did we take?
What did we give?
To what were we blind?
Last year’s confession came easily to the lips.
Will this year’s come from deeper than the skin?
Say then: why are our paths strewn with promises like fallen leaves?
Say then: when shall our lust be for wisdom?
Say now: Love and truth shall meet; justice and peace shall embrace.
What’s wrong with you? That question is a focal one at Yom Kippur. As Chaim Stern asks:
“How did we stumble? What did we take? What did we give? To what were we blind?”
Our confessions, like our promises to do better, are too easy, and shallow. Our lust is not for wisdom.

So many things are wrong with you. That message is a key aspect of Yom Kippur -- because it's a time for focusing on doing better in the year ahead.

I usually prefer to say there’s nothing wrong with you. You're perfect. The very first time I ever preached from the White Plains UU pulpit, four and a half years ago, when I was a candidate to become the congregation's minister, in a sermon called “Blessed Affliction,” I said:
“A newborn is perfect, and at the same time, we wouldn’t want it to stay exactly as it is for 40 years. Having the capacity for change, growth, and learning is a key part of what makes them perfect just as they are. So it is with every infant, every child, every youth, and every adult. Perfect. What we aren’t, and can’t be is everything. We have our gifts, and with them come our shadows. We have our vulnerability, our woundedness, our brokenness. I’d like to say two things about that. First, the shadow is necessary for the gift. Being not so good at X is what allows you to be good at Y. The so-called 'weakness' is what makes the strength possible. What we aren’t and don’t makes possible what we are and do. Second, I want to go a step further than that. Your weakness IS your strength. The part of you that seems broken is itself your gift to the world – it is your blessed affliction. You can’t have both the wisdom of experience, and youthful exuberance. If one of them is your gift, it’s not a fault that you don’t have the other. If your gift is speaking your mind freely, it is not a fault that you occasionally give offense. If your gift is diplomacy, it’s not a fault that you don’t speak your mind freely. If your gift is being tall enough to dunk a basketball, it’s not a fault that your aren’t small enough to be comfortable in the back seat of subcompact car. Not a fault – but we might say it’s the shadow side of your gift. It’s the thing that you aren’t and don’t that makes possible what you are and do. The shadow is not some unfortunate, if forgivable, shortcoming. The shadow is the necessary enabling condition of the gift.”
While Yom Kippur asks us to reflect on what we did wrong, my usual approach is to say: Wait. You can’t simultaneously exhibit contradictory qualities. You can’t be sagely and exuberant at the same time, can’t be both garrulously revealing and skillfully circumspect, can’t be both tall and short. So be who you are, bring your gifts to the world, along with the shadows that go with those gifts, and let other people bring different gifts.

If you did something you now regret, my usual approach is to suggest that we begin by noticing that there were reasons you did what you did. We face competing demands pulling us in opposite directions. Our own needs compete and pull in opposite directions. We try for the best balance we can at the time.

We get angry, we get scared and anxious, we get sad, we get tired, we get stressed, and then we do things that aren’t the things we would do if those conditions weren’t present, but all those conditions arise for good reasons. They are natural responses that we need.

Are there more skillful ways to handle them? Maybe. So we can work on our skills, but it’s not our fault that we weren’t born already having those skills.

And skills do take time to develop. The time you take learning one skill is time you aren’t spending developing another skill. So, again, you can’t be everything. Ease up on yourself.

That’s my usual approach. But I sometimes go another way. I sometimes remind myself of the Japanese expression, “shoshaku jushaku.” It translates literally as, “to succeed wrong with wrong.” Life is one mistake, and then another mistake. Or it’s all one continuous mistake. Whatever you do, it’s a mistake. There is never any chance of getting it right. There’s a zen saying: “Open your mouth and you’re wrong.”

This can be liberating. No need to stress about how to get it right. You can’t. So relax.

There’s a story of Deshan, in 9th- century in China. As the head teacher of a monastery, Master Deshan gave regular sermons in the evening to the monks to instruct them in their training.
One evening the assembly gathered, and Master Deshan said, “I’m not giving a sermon tonight. I’m not answering any questions, and anyone who asks a question will get thirty blows.
One monk stepped forward and made a bow – which is what they did before asking a question. Deshan hit him. The monk said, "I haven't asked a question. Why did you hit me?”
Deshan said, "Where are you from?"
The monk said, "I come from Silla [in Korea]."
Deshan said, "Before you even got on board the ship, you deserved thirty blows."
This is the same Deshan who, on another occasion told a monk, “if you speak, you get thirty blows. If you do not speak, you get thirty blows.”

The monks under Deshan were learning the principle of shoshaku, jushaku – one mistake after another. It’s how life goes, and it’s not a fix-able condition. If it’s all a mistake anyway, our judgmentalism tends to relax.

So: What’s wrong with you? I like the answer, “nothing,” and I also appreciate the answer, “everything.”

* * *
This is part 1 of 3 of "Yom Kippur"
See also
Part 2: Upsides of Failings
Part 3: Called to Repair Relationship

2017-09-20

Problems Are the Path

Forgiveness, part 3

There’s a reason that we were built to carry grudges. Grudges are the energy that seeks retribution. For all the ways retribution goes too far, and all the progress made in developing a concept of psychological health that has no need of retribution at all, retribution has always been a part of how human societies regulate themselves. It’s a part of how others learn to take seriously the wrong they’ve done and perhaps see the need to reform themselves. Even a process like Restorative Justice, which forswears retribution and is the most hopeful and promising approach of which I know for dealing with the harm from wrong action, derives some of its motivating energy from the awareness of the urge for retribution -- an urge that Restorative Justice then intentionally sets aside or redirects.

After the first step, acknowledging to ourselves that grudge-carrying is the sort of problem we were made to have, the second step is to honor the grudge energy. You really were wronged, and there really are useful functions for having a grudge as a result. Address your grudge as if it were a person and say, “Thank you, grudge energy, for doing such good work to protect me, help protect others, and signal that reform is needed.”

After properly and sincerely thanking your grudge for its good work, you can then look at whether it has outlived its usefulness. Is the grudge’s agenda really the agenda that the rest of you wants to have? Maybe not, and it’s time for that grudge to retire. (But don’t skip the thanking step. If you want someone to retire, you throw them a big party and say thank you a lot. Let them see that their work has been so wonderful that it is now finished.)

Forgiveness is a layered process. Retiring your grudge – for your own sake – is just one layer. You can put down the grudge, but still keep your distance from the person that wronged you. (We might call that first layer "letting go" -- you simply let go of the burden of the grudge but haven't gone to the further layer we might call "forgiveness.") Or you can advance into the second layer and seek to return to the closer rapport you had previously.

Forgiving, you see, is a kind of giving. When speakers of Old English prefixed “for-” to “giefan” -- their word for “give” -- they did so as an intensifier, signifying the completeness of the giving. Thus, emphatically, you are giving something when you forgive. What are you giving? You relinquish your right to hold a grudge, give up your claim to retribution, restitution, or repayment. That’s the first layer. The second layer would be to give good will and trust to someone who has earned only ill will and wary distrust from you.

There are times not to forgive, even if you feel that you want to. If by helping another person and forgiving their wrongdoing, you are fostering or enabling their dependence, irresponsibility, or incompetence, then continued giving, including for-giving, isn’t helping either of you. You can set aside the grudge, but still request restitution, or cut off ties with the person.

We’ve been taught that giving and forgiving are noble and magnanimous things to do. So being forgiving might make you feel superior. Or the other person might perceive a certain condescension in your forgiveness. If that’s happening, then it might be a good idea to hold off until forgiveness can come from a more humble place.

Nor should forgiveness be rushed. If you need time to process and heal, then take that time.

Giving forgiveness and needing to receive forgiveness are problems to continually negotiate. We want some assurance the wrong won’t repeat. We don’t want to be taken for chumps – seen as weak or na├»ve. We need our hurt to be fully recognized and honored – we’d like the offending party to recognize the harm they did. But maybe they won’t. At some point, your own honoring of your hurt has to be enough, just so you can drop the grudge and move on – but at what point is that?

These are problems. Another name for these problems is: life. We’ll always have them – approximately 83 of them, according to the Buddha. But if we crack the 84th problem, then we accept that our problems belong -- they come from being the sort of animal we were made to be. If we, as Rumi says, “greet them at the door laughing and invite them in,” instead of thinking we shouldn’t have any problems -- if we meet the problems with open hearts, and love them -- if we are curious about the problems instead of resentful of their presence, interested in where they came from and where they are inviting us to go -- then the problems are not the obstacles we took them to be. They are not the obstacle -- they are the path.

* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of "Forgiveness"
See also
Part 1: You've Got Problems
Part 2: Problems We Were Made For
A four-part series on Forgiveness from 2014 begins HERE.

2017-09-19

Problems We Were Made For

Forgiveness, part 2

Life IS problems. Call them “challenges” if you like, but problems they are: one after another, and always about 83. Those problems will include how to get forgiveness, how to give forgiveness, to self, to others.

I can't fix any of those problems for you, but perhaps I can be of some service on the 84th problem. If you’re thinking there really shouldn’t be any problems with forgiveness – and you’re frustrated because the problems keep being there – let’s take a look at why those problems are there, and won’t go away.

We are made of the drives and impulses that most helped our ancestors survive and reproduce. We evolved into an extraordinarily social species. Surviving and reproducing depends simultaneously on being good cooperators AND effective competitors. This is a contradiction – a tension, a delicate balance. The ones that are too cooperative get taken advantage of; the ones that are too competitive get shunned. Getting that balance right is hard to do. In fact, it’s impossible to get it right all the time.

We have these huge brains. Our brains burn 20 percent of all the calories we use. For other primates, the brain uses only 10 percent of their calories, and a mouse brain uses only 2 percent of the mouse's calories. We need such big brains to deal with negotiating tremendously complex social situations. The wonder -- and the payoff for all those calories going to the brain -- is that we're as good at it as we are.

Let me illustrate. You might remember a few years ago, in 2011, Amy Chua published a book called Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Now, Chua was writing with a certain self-mocking irony that many people who only read about the book missed. Still, the book did make a case for the superiority of a strict Chinese-style of parenting in which children do not go on play dates or sleepovers, watch TV or play video games. Instead, they are drilled continuously in academic and musical skills. Many nonAsian overpressuring upper-middle-class parents in this country are doing about the same thing, but Chua was a bit more hard-core than most. Critics said this kind of parenting is too demanding, but I appreciated the point David Brooks made: it’s not demanding enough. “I believe she’s coddling her children,” he wrote.
“She’s protecting them from the most intellectually demanding activities because she doesn’t understand what’s cognitively difficult and what isn’t. Practicing a piece of music for four hours requires focused attention, but it is nowhere near as cognitively demanding as a sleepover with 14-year-old girls. Managing status rivalries, negotiating group dynamics, understanding social norms, navigating the distinction between self and group — these and other social tests impose cognitive demands that blow away any intense tutoring session or a class at Yale.” (Brooks, "Amy Chua Is a Wimp")
The school cafeteria is more intellectually demanding than the library. The classroom is a cognitive break from the truly arduous tests of childhood.

Negotiating cooperative strategies while also protecting ourselves from getting taken advantage of, in a context where everyone else is trying to do the same is a huge cognitive task – and we have brains that do this for fun. It’s a lot to learn. And it’s constantly shifting. There’s always something new to work out. So, yeah, 83 problems. Being cooperative means we open ourselves up to be taken advantage of sometimes. We are wronged. Watching out for ourselves to not get taken advantage of sometimes results in stepping on someone’s toes. We wrong others. That’s the basic and ongoing dynamic that creates needs to forgive and to be forgiven. We get wronged and we wrong others. It’s gonna happen. Forgiveness is sometimes hard for the same reason that it’s necessary: it's all a part of this life of problems that our calorie-gobbling brains were made for.

So take that problem of the grudge that you just can’t let go of. The 84th problem is that you think that shouldn’t be a problem. So the first step is to recognize that it is a problem, and it should be -- it's just the sort of problem humans were made to have. There’s a reason that we were built to carry grudges. That grudge energy is trying to keep you safe from getting hurt again. It's also a part of protecting your social circle against the kind of behavior that hurt you.

* * *
This is part 2 of 3 of "Forgiveness"
See also
Part 1: You've Got Problems
Part 3: Problems Are the Path
A four-part series on Forgiveness from 2014 begins HERE.

2017-09-18

You've Got Problems

Forgiveness, part 1

You’ve got problems. I kinda know what some of them are. Others, I have no idea of. But even if you’re someone here today who I’ve never met, I know you’ve got problems. We all do. And here you are at Community Unitarian Universalist Congregation. At CUUC, we have small groups; we have worship services. Perhaps you're thinking we can help with those problems -- give you some tools for getting through your week; help you be the person you really want to be. Or maybe, what you’d really like is confirmation that you’re just fine and your problems all stem from the evil or stupidity of other people. (A lot of people are in houses of worship this weekend – as any weekend – expecting confirmation that they are right and it’s “those others” who are wrong and are the problem. I understand. We all like a little confirmation. I’m not immune to that myself.)

In any case, you’ve got problems. And maybe forgiveness is one of them. Or maybe forgiveness is a whole bunch of them, because there are a lot of different issues that all fit under the general heading, forgiveness. In no particular order:
  1. Someone wronged you, and you resent it. You carry a righteous grudge, whether they apologized or not.
  2. Someone wronged you, and they apologized and you said you forgave them, but your heart didn’t really forgive them. You’re conflicted: part of you wants to let go of the grudge, but part of you is holding on to it.
  3. Someone wronged you, but they won’t apologize. You could forgive them could just acknowledge that they hurt you, but they won’t acknowledge it, so you can’t.
  4. You wronged someone, or they think you did, and they have a grudge against you. You’re mad at them for being mad at you, which makes it impossible for you to have any interest in apologizing, so you’re stuck.
  5. You wronged someone, and you’ve apologized but they haven’t forgiven you, and you feel miserable not being in their good graces.
  6. You and another person had a falling out – in the course of which you have both done some hurtful, regrettable things, and you want to repair the relationship, but you don’t know where to start, or how.
  7. Same falling out as before, but you’ve decided you don’t want to repair the relationship. You regard the relationship as ended. You want to have nothing further to do with that other person. Yet, despite your protestations to the contrary, you’re feeling that something’s missing from your life without that person.
  8. You wronged someone, and it took you a while to fully realize it, and now you want forgiveness, but they aren’t available. They’ve died, or moved away and you have no idea where.
  9. Someone wronged you, and you’d like to forgive them, but they’ve died or are otherwise unavailable.
  10. You did something wrong, and the affected parties have sincerely forgiven you, but you’re having a hard time forgiving yourself. You keep beating yourself up, harshly judging yourself, because of the error.
I’ll stop there. I’m sure those aren’t all the problems that we confront under the category of forgiveness. We could probably keep going until we got to 83, but you get the idea. This forgiveness thing is the name for a host of different problems. If those aren’t your problems, you have had them, or you will.

If you’re here so I can tell you something to make those problems go away, I can’t help you. If you wanted to hear that the problem is all other people, I can’t help you with that either. At least, not until we first acknowledge the 84th problem.

You see, there’s a parable from the Buddhist tradition – I think I’ve mentioned it once before -- that Gautama – the Buddha – in his travels through India was visited by a farmer, who said, “I attended your public talk. It was beautiful; I was moved. Please help me with my problems.” And the farmer started listing his problems: some of his cows got diseases; the grain market wasn’t consistent; fertilizer prices kept going up; his spouse was sometimes contrary; his children wouldn’t do what he told them; the neighbor’s dog was harassing his chickens.

Finally, the Buddha interrupted him and said, “You have 83 problems.”

This gave the farmer pause, and he said, “I hadn’t counted them, but that sounds about right.”

The Buddha said, “I can’t help you with any of them.”

The farmer was incredulous and angry. You’re this great, renowned spiritual teacher, and you can’t help me with any of my problems? What good are you?”

Buddha said, “You will always have 83 problems. Sometimes you can solve one of them, or it goes away by itself, but another one comes along to replace it. Always 83. However, perhaps I can help with the 84th problem.”

The farmer said, “What’s the 84th problem?”

The Buddha said, “You think you should have no problems.”

* * *
This is part 1 of 3 of "Forgiveness"
See also
Part 2: Problems We Were Made For
Part 3: Problems Are the Path
A four-part series on Forgiveness from 2014, begins HERE

2017-09-17

Tragedy In the Context of Beauty. Or Maybe Vice-Versa.

Poetry Celebration: Ferlinghetti, part 3

Lawrence Ferlinghetti's poem, “Two Scavengers in a Truck, Two Beautiful People in a Mercedes” describes four people – two garbage collectors and an elegant couple -- stuck at traffic lights in downtown San Francisco. The contrast between the two pairs, the class divide, bridged and yet not bridged by the circumstance of a traffic light, is a critique of American classism.
At the stoplight waiting for the light
nine a.m. downtown San Francisco
a bright yellow garbage truck
with two garbagemen in red plastic blazers
standing on the back stoop
one on each side hanging on
and looking down into
an elegant open Mercedes
with an elegant couple in it
The man
in a hip three-piece linen suit
with shoulder-length blond hair and sunglassed
The young blond woman so casually coifed
with short skirt and coloured stockings
on the way to his architect's office

And the two scavengers up since four a.m.
grungy from their route
on the way home
The older of the two with grey iron hair
and hunched back
looking down like some
gargoyle Quasimodo
And the younger of the two
also with sunglasses and long hair
about the same age as the Mercedes driver

And both scavengers gazing down
as from a great distance
at the cool couple
as if they were watching some odourless TV ad
in which everything is always possible

And the very red light for an instant
holding all four close together
as if anything at all were possible
between them
across that small gulf
in the high sea
of this democracy.


“As if anything at all were possible” he writes, with a kind of meta-irony. It's ironic, because he's exposing that the appearance of the possibility of equality and democracy is not the reality. And at the same time it's unironic, achingly sincere: for the closeness with which are held is the reality, and it's the gulfs between us that are small, and merely apparent. Ferlinghetti thus calls us to a politics in which we notice that equality and democracy aren't real -- and yet are. Our aspiration must be to better live out, live into, live from, the reality of connection, care, respect, mutuality, oneness that we vitiate by ignoring. We are like fish who deny or fail to notice that we are submerged in water -- giving our lives a kind of dryness even as, in reality, we are soaked through.

Other of Ferlinghetti poems engage with paintings. Ferlinghetti himself is a painter, and his painting gives visual expression to his words. In turn, his poems sometimes give verbal expression to a painting, and he shows us a new way to see a well known art work. “Short Story on a Painting of Gustav Klimt” is Ferlinghetti’s meditation on “The Kiss.”
They are kneeling upright on a flowered bed
He
has just caught her there
and holds her still
Her gown
has slipped down
off her shoulder
He has an urgent hunger
His dark head
bends to hers
hungrily
And the woman the woman
turns her tangerine lips from his
one hand like the head of a dead swan
draped down over
his heavy neck
the fingers
strangely crimped
tightly together
her other arm doubled up
against her tight breast
her hand a languid claw
clutching his hand
which would turn her mouth
to his
her long dress made
of multicolored blossoms
quilted on gold
her Titian hair
with blues stars in it
And his gold
harlequin robe
checkered with
dark squares
Gold garlands
stream down over
her bare calves &
tensed feet
Nearby there must be
a jeweled tree
with glass leaves aglitter
in the gold air
It must be
morning
in a faraway place somewhere
They
are slient together
as in a flowered field
upon the summer couch
which must be hers
And he holds her still
so passionately
holds her head to his
so gently so insistently
to make her turn
her lips to his
Her eyes are closed
like folded petals
She
will not open
He
is not the One
Politically, socially, personally, and in all aspects of life, we find ourselves living amidst both beauty and tragedy – constant joy and constant sorrow. This is the fundamental condition to which both preachers and poets are always speaking, so it is that theme to which I return.

Unitarian minister Forest Church spoke of the twin realities of being alive and having to die. The tragic parts seem divided between those that are unavoidable -- old age, sickness, death – and the parts that leave us wondering whether maybe we could do better. The serenity prayer asks for the serenity to accept what I cannot change, the courage to change what I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. But it’s that “wisdom to know the difference” part that is so elusive. We never know. Ferlinghetti seems to be simultaneously calling for change and accepting our shortcoming as “the constipations that our fool flesh is heir to” – while also at the same time celebrating the beauty and joy of life in a way that is simultaneously earnest and ironic.

Benediction: "The World Is a Beautiful Place," by Lawrence Ferlinghetti
The world is a beautiful place
to be born into
if you don't mind happiness
not always being
so very much fun
if you don't mind a touch of hell
now and then
just when everything is fine
because even in heaven
they don't sing
all the time

The world is a beautiful place
to be born into
if you don't mind some people dying
all the time
or maybe only starving
some of the time
which isn't half bad
if it isn't you

Oh the world is a beautiful place
to be born into
if you don't much mind
a few dead minds
in the higher places
or a bomb or two
now and then
in your upturned faces
or such other improprieties
as our Name Brand society
is prey to
with its men of distinction
and its men of extinction
and its priests
and other patrolmen

and its various segregations
and congressional investigations
and other constipations
that our fool flesh
is heir to

Yes the world is the best place of all
for a lot of such things as
making the fun scene
and making the love scene
and making the sad scene
and singing low songs and having inspirations
and walking around
looking at everything
and smelling flowers
and goosing statues
and even thinking
and kissing people and
making babies and wearing pants
and waving hats and
dancing
and going swimming in rivers
on picnics
in the middle of the summer
and just generally
'living it up'
Yes
but then right in the middle of it
comes the smiling

mortician


* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of "Poetry Celebration: Ferlinghetti"
See also
Part 1: Some Ferlinghetti
Part 2: Ferlinghetti and the Good of Poetry

2017-09-16

Ferlinghetti and the Good of Poetry

Poetry Celebration: Ferlinghetti, part 2

The news has a crazy addictive attraction. I'm not talking so much about the storm and flood news about Harvey or Irma. I'm mostly talking about the news from D.C. about our elected leaders, and from wherever there are demonstrations about which said leaders may be commenting. I get fixated on knowing details of each fresh craziness. Much of the news this year has been both funny and deeply concerning at the same time. And many days I am scanning several times a day for the latest take on what’s happening -- torn between the impulse to giggle and the impulse to rage.

I have a jones on to know what’s going on, to make it all make sense, even if the sense it makes is that our species is incapable of making sense. I amass the bits of articles and videos hoping they will help me get a handle on what I’m supposed to do, hoping they will provide a clue about where all this is headed.

Are we as a people going to learn something, swing back the other way? Are we seeing the reactive death throes of white supremacy, patriarchy, etc. -- one last gasp before we as a people finally settle into the reality that black lives do matter, immigrant lives matter, women’s experience and wisdom matter, science and facts and telling the truth matter, ecosystems and species diversity and climate change matter? Or is this instead the beginning of the descent, the first steps down the road to a barren and vicious Mad Max dystopia?

Where is human civilization headed? The question keeps me fascinated by the news feed. But whatever the answer is, my job is the same: to love and be present to each moment as it presents. Lawrence Ferlinghetti said, “All I ever wanted to do is paint light on the walls of life.” That’s my job – maybe yours, too. Paint light on the walls of life. And consuming column-inches about what some elected official or other has gone and said now really doesn’t help me do that.

But poetry does help. And by "poetry," I mean engaging in each of four activities:
  • Read poetry to yourself. Find favorite poets. Take looks at unfamiliar ones. Read one or several poems every day.
  • Speak poems. Reading or recite them aloud to others, giving yourself the chance to savor the oral qualities, notice the interpretation that your own voice gives them, and notice the reactions of your listeners.
  • Listen to poetry read aloud. Attend poetry readings, or, if that's really un-fun for you, then have a partner or friend occasionally read a poem to you at home -- or, heck, just listen to a recording (youtube has lots). Poems are meant to be heard -- at least every once in a while -- as well as seen.
  • Write poetry. Yes, write poems -- yes, you. They don't have to be publishable; they don't have to be "good;" they just have to be your sincere effort at getting at something real or vital with words on paper. Most of them can be purely private, without another human ever laying eyes on them, although it's a good idea every once in a while to share one with another human being.
William Carlos Williams wrote 60 years ago:
It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.
Poetry, said Ferlinghetti, should be dissident, subversive, an agent for change. He wrote:
Every great poem fulfills a longing and puts life back together.
Every bird a word, and every word a bird, and birdsong is not made by machines.
Poetry breaks the brass wall between races.
Poetry is the distillation of articulate animals calling to each other across a great gulf.
It is worth nothing and therefore invaluable.
The idea of poetry as an arm of class war
Disturbs the sleep of those who do not wish to be disturbed in their pursuit of happiness.
The natural-born nonviolent enemy of the state
It is the ultimate resistance.
It is the voice within the voice of the turtle
It is the face behind the face of the race.
It is the voice of the Fourth-person singular
Poetry: the last lighthouse in rising seas.
In another work, Ferlinghetti calls on us to take up arms by taking up pens:
The state of the world calls out for poetry to save it.
If you would be a poet, create works capable of answering the challenge of apocalyptic times, even if this meaning sounds apocalyptic.
You are Whitman, you are Poe, you are Mark Twain,
you are Emily Dickinson and Edna St. Vincent Millay,
you are Neruda and Mayakovsky and Pasolini,
you are an American or a non-American,
you can conquer the conquerors with words.


Lawrence Ferlinghetti -- poet, painter, publisher, activist – was born here in Westchester – in Yonkers. His father died six months before he was born. His mother was committed to an asylum shortly after he was born. He was taken in by an aunt – actually his mother’s uncle’s former wife – who took him to France for his first five years. Returning to the US, this aunt surrendered the boy to an orphanage in Chappaqua, where he stayed for two years until taken in by a wealthy family in Bronxville. He went to Bronxville public schools. Became an Eagle Boy Scout.

During World War II, he served in the Navy. He later explained: “It’s what everyone did. I’d never heard of conscientious objection.”

He saw the devastation of the nuclear bomb in Nagasaki. Six weeks or so after that bomb, Ferlinghetti was part a detail that walked through the destruction where he saw the bones amidst the rubble. “It made me an instant pacifist,” he said, and he’s remained one ever since.

After the war, he went to Columbia University, studied literature and particularly loved Shakespeare, Marlowe, the Romantic poets, Gerard Manley Hopkins, James Joyce, Whitman, Eliot, Pound, Carl Sandburg, Vachel Lindsay, Marianne Moore, E. E. Cummings, and novelists Thomas Wolfe, Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos. Then he went to Paris, and got a doctorate at the Sorbonne. Got married, and the two of them settled in San Francisco.

In 1953, Ferlinghetti and Peter Martin founded City Lights bookstore, the first bookstore in the country to sell only paperback books: He wanted literature to be cheap and available to everyone. Two years later, Ferlinghetti, now the sole owner of City Lights, launched the publishing wing of the enterprise. The first book he published was his own first book of poems, Pictures of the Gone World.

Ferlinghetti is often classed as one of the West Coast Beats, along with Gary Snyder, Kenneth Rexroth, and Phillip Whalen, in distinction to the East Coast Beats, Allen Ginsburg, Jack Kerouac, and William Burroughs, but Ferlinghetti denies that he is a Beat writer. It’s true that he wasn’t much like a Beatnik: he was married, a war veteran, had graduate degrees, had a day job running a bookstore and publishing house, was not part of the On the Road life Kerouac and others wrote about.

What he did do is publish the Beat writers, gave them a platform, and his publishing allowed them to become known as a movement. The Los Angeles Times called Ferlinghetti, “The man without whom the Beat Generation might never have found its voice.” In style and theme, Ferlinghetti’s work is certainly quite different from what united Ginsberg and Kerouac, but every Beat writer was different, and Beat writing is not defined by any one style and theme.

Reasons for including Ferlinghetti among the Beat writers include: he shares the populist, democratic, Bohemian spirit of the Beatniks – the rejection of the stiff, stultifying conformity of the 1950s, the subversive impulse, the social critique that’s more implicit than explicit, and conveyed through irony, the questioning of authority. He wrote:
‘Truth is not the secret of a few’
Yet
you would maybe think so
the way some
librarians
and cultural ambassadors and
especially museum directors
act

you'd think they had a corner
on it
the way they
walk around shaking
their high heads and
looking as if they never
went to the bath
room or anything

But I wouldn't blame them
if I were you
They say the Spiritual is best conceived
in abstract terms
and then too
walking around in museums always makes me
want to
'sit down'
I always feel so
constipated
in those
high altitudes
Ferlinghetti also shares the Beat writers sense that poetry is an oral medium, meant to be read aloud, shared among real-live physically-gathered listeners, not merely ink on a page in an academic library. And the connection with jazz music. Ferlinghetti gave hundreds of poetry readings in the 1950s and 60s, reading counter-cultural poems to the accompaniment of jazz music – often, I might add, while wearing a beret. You can't get much more Beat than that.

* * *
This is part 2 of 3 of "Poetry Celebration: Lawrence Ferlinghetti"
See also
Part 1: Some Ferlinghetti
Part 3: Tragedy In the Context of Beauty. Or Maybe Vice-Versa.