2017-06-21

A Feeling. Mostly.

Freedom, part 1

On the subject of freedom, and speaking of fathers . . . I was seven years old when, at dinner one night, my father off-handedly mentioned that there’s an idea that everything you do is known in advance. He probably used the word "predestination," but that was not a word that stuck in my seven-year-old brain. What stuck was the idea that my every action might be known before I even did it. Santa Claus only knew of my naughty and nice actions as I committed them. This was much more alarming than that.

"How?" I asked.

"According to the hypothesis, it just is known," said Dad.

I am not sure if I recommend introducing seven-year-olds to this idea or not. Maybe. It was for me, a mindworm. It got me thinking about freedom. Because Dad had said "hypothesis," I understood that it might or might not be true. But I wanted to know. Was it true? Was there a way to find out?

In the weeks and months that followed, as I turned this notion over, I would sometimes stand in front of a mirror, staring at myself. OK. What am I going to do next? I didn’t know myself – but maybe “they” knew. (Somehow in my interpretation of the hypothesis, it was “they.” Somewhere there was – or might be -- some invisible audience of watchers, who watched the world like a movie they had seen before, knowing everything that was going to happen.) What could I do that would surprise them, that they wouldn’t know I was going to do? Suddenly, I would jerk my hand to the right – ah, ha! This would be immediately followed by the disappointing thought, “Oh. They could have known I was going to do that.” Then I’d try jerking my other hand in a different direction. Nope. They might have known I would do that, too. It seemed unlikely. But I couldn’t disprove that it was possible.

I returned to that mirror several times over the next couple years or so. I always approached without any premeditation about what I was going to do – because if I was carrying out a plan, that would be easier to predict, right? Well that’s what I assumed. I would try various sudden spontaneous movements – and each time immediately realize: it's conceivable that they knew I was going to do that.

I tried flipping a coin. "Tails! . . . Oh, they could have known it would be tails. I don’t know how, but maybe they just did. Rats."

Eventually I figured out what you have probably been thinking. It’s a weird thing to be fixated on. It doesn’t matter if it COULD have been known. What WOULD matter would be evidence that that somehow some entity DID know what everyone did. It’s hard to imagine what such evidence could be, but that would be interesting. Or if an actual human person of your acquaintance told you one evening that you were very predictable, and proceeded say that yesterday she wrote predictions of what you would do today, took out an envelope, opened it, and read to you a surprisingly accurate description of what you in fact had done all day, then THAT would be something. You might examine whether you were in a bit of a rut, and you might want to get out of it. But the abstract theoretical possibility that some invisible entity COULD have known what you were going to do is meaningless. It has nothing to do with real freedom -- as I eventually concluded.

Or did I?

Many years later, I was graduate student in philosophy having lunch in a sandwich shop next to the grounds (I went to a school where the cherished tradition was to say “grounds,” instead of “campus”). I was munching a hummus and sprouts on cracked wheat, and was there with two fellow grad students. Into our conversation, I raised the possibility of a super- duper-duper computer that could assimilate all the input of the whole universe and could then predict everything that would happen in the world. You will recognize that as but a slight tweak of the conundrum that had been with me for twenty-one of my then-twenty-eight years. One of my lunch mates then said something that has proved to be another mindworm for me. He said: a computer that incorporated and played out EVERY event in the world would just BE the world. That was kind of a liberating insight.

In between that seven-year-old in front of a mirror, and that 28-year-old at the sandwich shop, there was a 17-year-old me, riding in the car somewhere with my Dad, when I just came out with it. I said, “Dad, what is freedom?”

He said, “It’s a feeling. Mostly.”

It’s a feeling. Mostly.

So what gives you the feeling of freedom?

2017-06-16

Disgust and Moral Judgment

"Purity" -- and it's opposite, "pollution" -- have been getting slowly edged out of morality. This is new. For most of human history, some notion of "purity" mattered, but Western culture in recent centuries has been paring morality down to only questions of fairness and harm. Think, for instance, of all the rules in Leviticus. Here are two:
"You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard." (Lev. 19:27)

"...nor shall you put on a garment made of two different materials." (Lev. 19:19)
These aren't rules about treating people fairly and not harming them. They identify what is taboo. Purity rules identify actions that are intrinsically bad -- bad, not because they produce a harm or injustice, but just because they are bad in themselves. Purity rules are nonrational in the sense that they aren't supported by reasons that connect to justice, fairness, rights, or harm. But they are often powerful.

Why do humans have purity rules?

The brain -- and the body, too, for that matter -- is an array of kluges. (The term "kluge" is borrowed from engineering. It's a kind of patch or workaround -- a "quick-and-dirty solution that is clumsy, inelegant, inefficient, difficult to extend and hard to maintain.") Evolution has to use kluges to adapt organisms to changing circumstances because there is no option to go back to the drawing-board and design from scratch a more elegant way to meet emerging new needs. Evolution has to build from what 's there, and often appropriates an organ or structure and puts it to an entirely different use from the purpose for which it originally emerged. (I provide a few examples HERE.)

One of the things that has been "there" since before the emergence of the first vertebrates was an olfactory nerve, which detects odors. In mammals, the signal from the olfactory is processed in the insular cortex which guides us away from what we shouldn't eat by triggering a disgust reaction.

As some of the mammals began to develop greater sociability, ways of monitoring and regulating each other's behavior was necessary: the beginnings of morality. Today, we still sometimes call particularly bad behavior "disgusting." Or we say that a suspicious situation "smells fishy." In fact, our neural system for moral reaction is a kluge that incorporated and built upon our smell-sensing apparatus. Your insular cortex gets more active when you are seeing or thinking about something morally dubious. What began in our ancestors as a disgust reaction for avoiding unwholesome food was appropriated into a system for avoiding wrong behavior.
Disgust: The same facial expression conveys both
moral aversion and detection of unpleasant smells
  • Subjects asked to make judgments about controversial issues (e.g., marriage between first cousins or the making of a documentary in which people were tricked into being interviewed) make harsher moral judgments if they are standing next to a smelly trash can than if they are not. The brain more easily finds behavior morally disgusting if the disgust reaction is already given a little jump start.
  • Subjects "asked to wash their hands with soap before filling out questionnaires become more moralistic about issues related to moral purity (such as pornography and drug use)" (Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind 71). The brain that has been oriented toward cleanliness is then also more oriented to "moral cleanliness."
  • Subjects filling out a political attitude survey gave more conservative answers if a dispenser of hand sanitizer was nearby when they took the survey.
  • It works in reverse as well: moral aversion increases interest in cleaning oneself. Subjects "asked to recall their own moral transgression, or merely copy by by hand an account of someone else's moral transgression, find themselves thinking about cleanliness more often, and wanting more strongly to cleanse themselves" (Haidt).
A connection between the immoral and the malodorous is a feature of the brain's wiring. But while we don't have to learn what smells bad, we do have to learn what behaviors count as immoral. The ancient Hebrews learned that rounding off the hair of the temples was bad. Traditional Malaysians learned that throwing out trash during the first four days of the new year was bad. I learned that peeking at another student's test paper was bad. In all these cases, the learning was a matter of the brain being trained to process certain behaviors through, among other places, the insular cortex.

It's no wonder that humans, for most of our history, have been concerned with purity rules. We still are, of course, even if we are often unaware of it. Conservative rhetoric tends to more often invoke nonrational moral sensibilities (consider the rise of the alt-right insult "cuck") -- and there's some evidence that that this isn't accidental: a stronger attraction to purity rules is part of what seems to incline a person to be conservative (see Greg Murray, "Are You Easily Disgusted? You May Be a Conservative," Psychology Today.) Yet we all have intuitive, disgust-related moral reactions. There may be real health reasons to not eat rotted food, but we don't rely on reasons: it's disgusting. Under certain elaborately specified conditions incest, or cannibalism, or eating a cockroach may involve no harm or injustice and yet most of us, even under those specified conditions, find these things disgusting.

An experimenter, Scott Murphy, offered subjects
"$2 if they would sign a piece of paper that said: I, _____, hereby sell my soul, after my death to Scott Murphy, for the sum of $2. There was a line for a signature, and below the line was this note: This form is part of psychology experiment. It is NOT a legal or binding contract in any way. Scott also told them they could rip up the paper as soon as they signed it, and they'd still get their $2. Only 23 percent of subjects were willing to sign . . ." (Haidt 44)
Apparently, refraining from "selling your soul" is a lingering purity rule for most of us.

The question is: Are we making progress when we move toward a more strictly rational morality, increasingly minimizing whatever purity rules are left? Or are we, instead, becoming disconnected from our inherent nature?

What do you think?

2017-06-15

Mind and Soul Ablaze

The Fire of Commitment, part 2

Let's unpack Rev. Mary Katherine Morn's lines in our hymn, "Fire of Commitment."
From the light of days remembered burns a beacon bright and clear.
Days remembered: we arrive at our commitments bringing our pasts with us, bringing all that has shaped us and made us who we are. Every person’s promise is thus unique. No matter how many people may utter the same words of a vow, the meaning of that vow is as individual as the people making it, for each is bringing to the commitment all the light of their days remembered, all of who they are. And that light shines as a beacon showing them the way to the new freedoms they will enter by their commitment.
Guiding hands and hearts and spirits into faith set free from fear.
Fear. Yes, with that word “fear,” Rev. Morn put her finger on why it is that our own wants, if not tempered with a grander commitment beyond to something more than ourselves, can be so oppressive and tyrannical. Our individual wants, left to their own devices, devolve into preoccupations with what we’re afraid of.

“I want to make sure I’m safe from this, . . . and this . . . and this” can become the dominant thought. But as the commitment of the soldier allows her to march straight into the face of fear and therefore to transcend fear, so, too our commitments, including our faith commitments, at their best, bring us out of ourselves and out of our fears.

The second verse echoes the theme:
From the stories of our living rings a song both brave and free.
From the stories of our living: it comes from our past, our history, the tale of who we are – individually and collectively. These are stories that contain within them the truth of our courage, our bravery, thus our capacity to commit to what connects us to others and to something bigger that our fears.
Calling pilgrims still to witness to the life of liberty.
Yes, the journey of your commitment, discovering as you go the surprising things that it asks of you, the surprising person that it makes you into – that journey is indeed a pilgrimage, a voyage to the holy beyond your power to articulate or predict. And in that pilgrimage is your witness.

Freedom is never solitary. As Rosa Parks said, “I would like to be remembered as a person who wanted to be free so other people would be also free.” The life of freedom opened up by our commitments always show others how it is done. We have learned, and still learn from others what freedom looks like, even as we also witness to others, intentionally or unintentionally, the life of liberty.
From the dreams of youthful vision comes a new prophetic voice.
Again, our past is the necessary soil from which the new sprout of commitment emerges. But the new prophetic voice we discover coming out of own mouths is never quite what our youthful vision imagined.

For freedom is not the same as power. Power as, Harriet Rubin said, is about control, and freedom is about unleashing.

There is within you a new prophetic voice, and you don’t know what it will say. In the freedom created through commitment, it will be unleashed, and what you hear yourself saying is likely to be as much a surprise to you as to anyone else.

The ancient Hebrew people were expressing this sense of unleashing without controlling when they conceived of the prophets in their scripture as mouthpieces of God. They weren’t choosing or controlling what to say, but were unleashing something beyond them – something
which demands a deeper justice built by our courageous choice.
The commitment is to keep choosing that which we do not choose – to choose to accept and embrace what we did not make, did not ask for, would never have thought to ask for, yet which imbues our lives with purpose and meaning.
When the fire of commitment sets our mind and soul ablaze --
When our hunger and our passion meet to call us on our way –
When we live with deep assurance of the flame that burns within,
Then our promise finds fulfillment, and our future can begin.
Our commitments really do make us new, make us into something different, larger, connected, whole. A commitment opens up a whole new world.



* * *
This is part 2 of 2 of "The Fire of Commitment"
See also
Part 1: Commit

2017-06-14

Commit

Fire of Commitment, part 1

Commit.

With Memorial Day recently behind us and June, the most popular month for weddings, now here, it's a good time to think about the meaning of committing – as a soldier commits to face fears, to be willing to kill and die for a cause, and as a couple commits their lives to each other.

Commit is from “com” meaning “with, together.” "Mitt" is a slang word for "hand," but it turns out that has nothing to do with the "mit" in "com-mit." Which is kinda too bad. Bringing hands together would be a nice image for commit – but, alas, that’s a false etymology. The true etymology, however, is even better. It’s from the mittere, meaning “to release, let go, send, throw.”

Commitment releases. That’s the paradox, isn’t it? Our commitments set us free. We arrive at liberation by accepting the constraints of discipline, by surrendering. By letting go and giving up ourselves to a person our cause, we become free.

It’s important to be able to do what you want – sometimes. But the tyranny of your own wants can be its own kind of oppression. And so we commit: to a cause, to an ideal, to a person, to a job, to an organization, to a marriage. And in that commitment we are given purpose and direction. We are liberated from the tyranny of our own wants. We are released, let go, sent – thrown – into the service of something higher than our individual wants and needs.

There is an element of choice – a crucial element of choice. We choose what to commit to. That choice part is vital, and, in a world full of coercions and attempted coercions, the choice part must be jealously guarded.

The important aspect of choice is highlighted by another etymology. As I was preparing the June issue of “On the Journey”, which is on the theme, “Freedom” (HERE), I was fascinated to discover that the roots of the words “freedom” and “friend” are connected. The Proto-Indo-European root priy-a meant “dear, beloved,” and that became the Proto-Germanic frija, which meant both “beloved” and “not in bondage” – thus combining meanings of friend and freedom. The notion of a friend, a loyalty and love that we chose, that we weren’t forced or coerced into, was the paradigm from which our concept of freedom developed.

But let us also recognize that the free choice part is only a part. We make the commitments we make without knowing all that that entails. You don’t know all the details of what a job, or a friendship, or a political organization, or a marriage, or a faith community will ask of you. Commitment means standing ready to do what is asked while having only a vague and fuzzy idea of what will be asked. It’s sounds good at the time, but you don’t know what you’re really getting into. And that’s what makes it so great.

That’s why your commitments make you more than you were. A commitment turns out to require actions, sacrifice of energy, time, and resources, that were not foreseen and thus couldn't have been chosen, and these unforeseen parts add to your life. Commitment brings to your life what you didn’t know you needed.

From our freedom come our commitments. And equally, from our commitments come our freedom. Our commitments release us, throw us – fling us – willy-nilly into a purpose and meaning so much more than our own small minds, our own small wants and needs, could ever have concocted on their own.

How does that happen? By what magic alchemy do we come to be able to do this – effect our liberation through our commitments? The minister who married LoraKim and me, who presided over, solemnized, and made official and real, our commitment to each other, was the Rev. Mary Katherine Morn. Rev. Morn has had something to say about how the fire of commitment works, for it was she who wrote the words to hymn of that title.

"The Fire of Commitment"

From the light of days remembered burns a beacon bright and clear;
Guiding hands and hearts and spirits into faith set free from fear.

Chorus: When the fire of commitment sets our mind and soul ablaze;
when our hunger and our passion meet to call us on our way;
when we live with deep assurance of the faith that burns within;
then our promise finds fulfillment and our future can begin.

From the stories of our living rings a song both brave and free;
Calling pilgrims still to witness to the life of liberty;

Chorus

From the dreams of youthful vision comes a new, prophetic voice;
Which demands a deeper justice built by our courageous choice.

Chorus



* * *
This is part 1 of 2 of "The Fire of Commitment"
See also
Part 2: Mind and Soul Ablaze
See also Rev. Amy Zucker Morgenstern's reflection on this hymn.

2017-06-02

Realities of White Privilege

White Supremacy, part 3

The tacit assumptions of White Supremacy show up in many subtle ways. When we make hiring decisions based on which applicant is a "better fit," how much of the perceived fit has to do with fitting in with the white culture of that workplace and its assumptions that whiteness and white culture is better? Do we even recognize whiteness as a culture – or do we think that culture describes nonwhite ways, while whites are merely exhibiting culture-less common sense and universal rationality?

Pretending to be colorblind, to not see color, merely enables oppression based on color to go unchallenged. Formal equality can fail to address the realities of inequality – an insight Anatole France expressed when he said,
“The law, in its majestic equality, forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges.”
That kind of formal equality is a merely a tool of adding harassment to the disadvantaged.

The tacit assumptions of white supremacy show up in numbers. Let us remember: Blacks are less than 13% of the populations, yet, as best we can tell since many police departments do not report, blacks are 31% of all fatal police shooting victims, and 39% of those killed by police when not attacking. Yes, it's worth remembering that 61% of the "killed by police when not attacking" category are not blacks. Still, the number that are is disproportionate.

Young black males, ages 15-19, are 21 times more likely to be to be shot and killed by the police than young white males. Between 2005 and 2008, 80% of NYPD stop-and-frisks were of blacks and Latinos. Only 10% of stops were of whites. 85% of those frisked were black; only 8% were white. Only 2.6% of all stops (1.6 million stops over 3.5 years) resulted in the discovery of contraband or a weapon. Whites were more likely to be found with contraband or a weapon.

Blacks – again, 13% of the U.S. population – are 14% of regular drug users, but are 37% of those arrested for drug offenses, and 56% of those in state prisons for drug offenses.

One in every 15 black men (and 1 in every 36 Latino men) are currently incarcerated, while for white men the statistic is 1 in 106. Prison sentences of black men were nearly 20% longer than those of white men for similar crimes in recent years.

Whites are 78% more likely to be accepted to the same university as equally qualified people of color. A black college student has the same chances of getting a job as a white high school dropout.

For every dollar a white man makes, white women make 78¢, black men make 72¢, black women make 64¢, Latina women make 53¢.

Voter ID laws do not prevent voter fraud, but do disenfranchise millions of young people, minorities, and elderly, who disproportionately lack the necessary government IDs.

African American children comprise 33.2% of missing children cases, but only 19.5% of cases reported in the media.

In 2009, bailed-out banks such as Wells Fargo and others were found to have pushed minority borrowers who qualified for prime loans into subprime loans, which can add as more than $100,000 in interest payments to a mortgage over the life of the loan. Among high-income borrowers in 2006, African Americans were three times as likely as whites to pay higher prices for mortgages: 32.1% compared to 10.5%. When looking for a home, black clients looking to buy are shown 17.7% fewer houses for sale, and black renters learn about 11 percent fewer rental units. Black car buyers are charged $700 more on average than white car buyers of the same car.

In one study thousands of identical resumes were mailed to prospective employers: Identical except only for the name. A black sounding name – say, Daunte Williams instead of David Williams – was 50% less likely to be called back. Fifty percent.

Doctors did not inform black patients as often as white ones about the option of an important heart catheterization procedure. White legislators – in both political parties -- did not respond as frequently to constituents with black sounding names.

(For more of the numbers see, "The Ultimate White Privilege Statistics and Data Post")

But in recent years we have been seeing a new resolve to change numbers like these. The Black Lives Matter movement, William Barber’s Moral Mondays coalition building, the various resistance movements that have sprung up since the election, the UUA’s unprecedented call for congregations to hold teach-ins about white supremacy indicate a new willingness to confront the reality and change it. NYPD’s stop-and-frisk practice has been ruled unconstitutional.

While the most recent news from Tulsa is that yet another officer was acquitted this week for yet another shooting of an unarmed black man, we are also seeing officers summarily fired for unwarranted violence, which we didn’t used to see so much.

I know our baby steps are too small, need to come faster and step longer, but the fact that small steps are happening shows that larger steps are possible.

Michael Eric Dyson’s book Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America urges whites to take action. Make what reparations we can. Educate ourselves – and Dyson provides some great books to start with. Talk to other white people and teach them what’s going on. Show up to protests, rallies, and local community meetings to be a voice for ending the injustice – but don’t dominate and take over. Make more black acquaintances: visit black folk in schools, jails, and churches. Bring active empathy to what you hear. Beyond acquaintanceship, seek to cultivate new friendships with black people. When we have cried together and shared the pain of the wounding of racism, we become also able to share the joy of being alive together. We become able to the laugh together. Of this is the substance of freedom and equality made.

Prayer

Dear Source of Healing and Wholeness we call by many names,

We attend our places of worship, heartsick for beloved community, torn inside by the stresses of negotiating a world that demonstratively holds that some lives matter more than others. We are seeking inner peace, for there is no peace for our spirits when millions of our neighbors are singled out for mistreatment, and have been for generations. A faith institution concerned with healing spirits that does not turn its energies to address the social causes that wound both white and black spirits is not doing its job.

We gather in the hopes of being strengthened in our capacity to be agents of healing and meaning and hope. The peace of living lives committed to building that community for future generations is available to us. Let us continue to find in our worship and in our lives the inspiration that shakes us from complacency, for inspiration that doesn’t shake us to renewed compassionate action is a sham. We pray for the inspiration that is genuine. Amen.

* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of "White Supremacy"
See also
Part 1: Truth With Your Own Tribe
Part 2: Believing In Privilege

2017-05-31

Believing In Privilege

White Supremacy, part 2

The Long and Continuing Ideology of White Supremacy

After the Civil War, slavery continued under different names. One of those names was "sharecropping."

Another name was "incarceration." The 13th amendment ended slavery or involuntary servitude “except as a punishment for crime,” so the white power structure started fabricating crimes to convict blacks of to continue slavery.

We have seen the photographs from the 1930s of smiling, celebrating white faces, where in the background we see what is hanging from a tree and realize that they are partying because murdering a black person makes them feel good. The Jim Crow era of separate water fountains and bathrooms – of restaurants and hotels that barred blacks was not just an inconvenience. It was a constant reminder that if you were black, you were despised.

Imagine housing policy that systematically corrals you into segregated neighborhoods, and then enforces poverty in those neighborhoods by denying home loans or business loans to any attempt at development. White people who advance up the economic ladder are generally committed and hard-working – and, somewhere along the line they got personal and business loans, they got insurance that lowered their risk, they got various financial services that have been systematically denied to blacks.

And if the people in your neighborhood can’t pull themselves up by building business that serve you, then you go unserved: African American neighborhoods have often been limited in their access to banking, healthcare, retail merchandise and even groceries. Deliberate policies preventing development also lead to abandoned buildings – which facilitate drug dealing and other illegal activity.

If a referee is unconsciously swayed by a little booing, what’s it like to be subject to continuous booing your entire life no matter what you do – and knowing the booing can turn into beating or killing at any moment?

And it’s not like that’s all in the past. We saw eight years of unprecedented disrespect to a president – including doubts about his citizenship – because he was black. And we followed that by electing a man whose company the Justice Department sued ― twice ― for not renting to black people. In 1992, his Hotel and Casino company in New Jersey was fined $200,000 because managers would remove African-American card dealers at the request of a certain big-spending gambler. During the campaign, he was supported by white supremacists – that is, the explicit kind – whom he refused to condemn. His rhetoric is consistent in treating racial groups as monoliths. He encouraged the mob anger that resulted in the wrongful imprisonment of the Central Park Five. At a campaign rally he condoned the beating of a Black Lives Matter protester. And we elected him anyway. He drew only 8 percent of black voters, and only 46 percent of all voters, but he got 58 percent of white voters. For a 58 percent majority of white voters, the candidate’s racism was not a deal breaker. Then he “picked top advisers and cabinet officials whose careers are checkered by accusations of racially biased behavior.” The ideology of white supremacy continues.

Privilege Generates the Belief It is Deserved

Another bit of human psychology that isn’t itself about race, but then manifests racially is revealed by observations of subjects playing the monopoly board game. Two people play, but with different rules. One randomly selected player started the game with $2,000 of monopoly money, got $200 for passing Go each time, and threw two dice for every move – which, you may recall, is the normal way monopoly is played. Let’s call this player Bob. The other player, let’s call him Bill, started with $1,000, got $100 for passing Go each time, and threw one die for every move.
“The students play for 15 minutes under the watchful eye of two video cameras, while down the hall researchers huddle around a computer screen, later recording the subjects’ every facial twitch and hand gesture.” (New York Magazine, 2012)
What happens? Initially "Bob"
"reacted to the inequality between him and his opponent with a series of smirks, an acknowledgment, perhaps of the inherent awkwardness of the situation. 'Hey,' his expression seemed to say, 'This is weird and unfair, but whatever.' Soon, though, as he whizzes around the board, purchasing properties and collecting rent, whatever discomfort he feels seems to dissipate....He balloons in size, spreading his limbs toward the far ends of the table. He smacks his playing piece as makes the circuit – smack, smack, smack – ending his turns with a board-shuddering bang!...As the game nears its finish, [Bob] moves his [piece] faster....He’s all efficiency. He refuses to meet [Bill’s] gaze. His expression is stone cold as he takes the loser’s cash."
People who are given unfair advantages start to act like they deserve it, must have earned it, must be better somehow. So Iowa Congressman Steve King last year wondered where
“are these contributions that have been made by these other categories of people?...
Where did any other subgroup of people [other than whites] contribute more to civilization?” (NYTimes, 2016)
Western civilization, he said, is rooted in “Western Europe, Eastern Europe and the United States of American and every place where the footprint of Christianity settled the world.”

The phenomenon of people born on third base believing they hit a triple is built into us – it’s in our nature -- which is to the detriment of the guy born on third but also to the detriment of the guy who is still at the plate trying to deal with the curve balls he’s being thrown. The guy at the plate is also likely to start believing the guy on third base must have hit a triple. It’s what he keeps insisting, and who has the energy to refute it when the next difficult pitch is about to come at you. That’s how white supremacy works.

I grew up with – and maybe you did too -- the mythic tales of the rise of Western Civilization, the kind of stories about ourselves that congressman Steve King so evidently believes in. Will and Ariel Durant’s “Story of Civilization” stretched to 11 volumes, the first published in 1935, with a new volume every few years until the last in 1975. It was hugely popular, sold over two million copies. The Durants “told human history (mostly Western history) as an accumulation of great ideas and innovations, from the Egyptians, through Athens, Magna Carta, the Age of Faith, the Renaissance and the Declaration of the Rights of Man.” (Brooks) While the Durants never said, "white people are genetically superior," or "are God's favorite," they also provided no other explanation for why these "great ideas and innovations" did not appear in the pre-Colombian Americas, sub-Saharan Africa, or East Asia. White readers were left to assume that there must be something special about white people.

I grew up inspired by that kind of story of my place in history. I came eventually to understand that the silences in that story -- silences about why the West's ideas and innovations occurred where and how they did -- created spaces within which racist assumptions could flourish. Twenty years ago, Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel helped many us get a better understanding of the rise of European wealth and power as geographically determined. Temperate climates, suitable soil, and availability of domesticable animals created the initial conditions that freed a little time for technological development and the rise of population centers which fueled further sharing of ideas and innovations. Moreover, close proximity of humans to each other and their domesticated animals led to diseases and eventual immunities not found among other humans. The technological development (steel, guns) and the immunity (germs) were the key means by which Europeans came to dominate the globe. The Europeans aren't smarter or more virtuous by nature, they are just the beneficiaries of geographic good luck.

Humans and chimps have a deep history of conquering each other when they can, so any people that stumbled upon the means for vast conquest was liable to use it. With that domination also came the willful destruction and erasure of the advances and contributions of Nonwestern peoples – advances all the more remarkable because not supported by the powerful geographic advantages of the civilization that emerged and spread from the fertile crescent into similarly temperate climes.

It was a long march through the last 3,000 years to the rise of white supremacy. It will be a long march to dismantling its injustices.

* * *
This is part 2 of 3 of "White Supremacy"
See also
Part 1: Truth With Your Own Tribe
Part 3: Realities of White Privilege

2017-05-30

Truth With Your Own Tribe

White Supremacy, part 1

Charles Deas' The Trapper and his Family (1845) depicts
 a voyageur and his Native American wife and children
"Oh Shenandoah" (also called simply "Shenandoah" or "Across the Wide Missouri") is a traditional American folk song of uncertain origin, dating to the early 19th century. The song appears to have originated with Canadian and American voyageurs or fur traders traveling down the Missouri River in canoes, and has developed several different sets of lyrics. Some lyrics refer to the American Indian chief Shenandoah and a canoe-going trader who wants to marry his daughter. By the mid 1800s versions of the song had become a sea shanty heard or sung by sailors in various parts of the world. ("Oh Shenandoah," Wikipedia)
Our American Myth has depended on images from our early history like the hardy fur-trader, wresting a living from a challenging wilderness – yearning for home and for the native chief’s daughter. It seemed heroic and noble, and our hearts go out to the lonesome traders in their canoes on the Missouri.

Hearing the stories of early American history as a child in elementary school, there was no hint that this was anything problematic about:
  • the purely instrumental and short-term view of nature – there to be despoiled of its resources, such as fur, without regard to welfare of other species and ecosystems;
  • the treatment of the native peoples as equally there for the pillaging – or exterminating. 
White men didn’t mind taking Native brides, though they’d never stand for their daughters taking a Native husband. Patriarchal attitudes about women intersected with racial ideas about which men had access to any woman and which did not.

One-hundred-fifty to two hundred years later, Woody Guthrie taught us to sing this land is your land.
This land is your land, this land is my land
From California to the New York Island
From the red wood forest to the gulf stream waters
This land was made for you and me.
How does that make you feel? It feels warm and fuzzy and inclusive. If we know about Woody Guthrie, we know he was saying this land doesn’t belong just to the corporations and the bosses, but to all of us. When my third-grade class sang that song at a class recital for our parents, I’m pretty sure it didn’t occur to anyone in the room to wonder how Native Americans would feel about this warm, fuzzy, inclusiveness we were having about our land. We took our supremacy so for granted that it was invisible to us. More of us can see it now, though we still have a ways to go.

Our Unitarian Universalist Association is examining the ways that our tacit assumptions that whiteness and white culture are better. So the call went out for Unitarian Universalist congregations to hold teach-ins on white supremacy. Many voices in the African American community have told us, “you white folks have to do your own work.” And the African American writer Michael Eric Dyson addressing white people says,
“You see, my friends, there is only so much I can say to white folk, only so much they can hear from me or anyone who isn’t white. You must be an ambassador to truth with your own tribes.”
Yes, we certainly need to attend to black voices, and defer to their authority to describe their experience, but white people also need to speak up as part of processing what we are learning.

There are differing ideas about what racism is. Racism
“signals the power not only to hate, but to make that hate into law, and into convention, habit, and a moral duty.” (Dyson 152)
– so if a black were to have a bigoted, discriminatory prejudice against whites, that wouldn’t be racism because he doesn’t command the institutional power to make his prejudice into the law and custom of the land. But the word racism isn’t always understood that way. White supremacy cuts through all that. “Reverse white supremacy” is still white supremacy, whereas it isn’t clear what, if anything, “reverse racism” is.

It’s in all of us – white or black or Asian or Hispanic or whatever. We all carry this tacit notion that whites are better. White supremacy is in black activist Cornel West, who said at the UU General Assembly in 2015:
“I've got a lot of vanilla brothers and sisters that walk with me and say, Brother West, Brother West, you know, I'm not a racist any longer. Grandma's got work to do, but I've transcended that. And I say to them, 'I'm a Jesus-loving, free, black man, and I've tried to be so for 55 years, and I'm 62 now, and when I look in the depths of my soul I see white supremacy because I grew up in America. And if there's white supremacy in me, my hunch is you've got some work to do too.'"
James Baldwin wrote about his father that
“he was defeated long before he died because, at the bottom of his heart, he really believed what white people said about him.”
White superiority infects the souls of black folk somewhat differently from the way it infects the souls of white folk, but in this country, it infects all of us. Michael Eric Dyson writes about a time his father said something disparaging about him.
“He lived in a prison of disbelief in his own worth, therefore he doubted mine too.”
My students at Fisk University, the historically black university in Nashville where I taught in the 1990s, told me about walking down the sidewalk beside a car stopped at a red light and hearing the sound of the car’s doors locking. It occurred to me that I probably wouldn’t even notice the sound at all. But when that happens over and over, it breaks through to consciousness. When I’m in stores, employees don’t follow me around.

Look, human psychology without race in the picture shows us some things. A careful analysis of football games has shown that there is a slight home-field advantage, and that advantage consists entirely in this: in the final quarter of close games, referees are a tiny bit less likely to call a penalty against the home team. They are human beings, and they don’t like being booed. They’ve been trained to put that out of their minds and call what they see. They know that fans are just being fans and that they, the referees, are just doing their job, and in a few more minutes this game will all be over and they can just walk away and forget it. They know their colleagues and bosses will back them up all the way, and, not that it matters, but they also know there are just as many fans watching on TV cheering for the visiting team. They have every possible social and legal protection, but being reviled, however temporarily, still affects them.

Applying that human psychology to the racial situation, how much more profound must be the affects on the hearts and spirits of anyone recognized as black of 400 years of contempt and hatred?

When my students at Fisk would remind me that under the constitution slaves were counted as just 3/5ths of a person, I was at first a little puzzled by the outrage about that. After all, slaves are zero percent of a person. How could 3/5ths, which was just for purposes of counting a state’s population to determine its share of representation in Congress and the Electoral College, be worse than the zero that slavery already entails? Eventually I began to see the indignity added to the oppression: Not only do you get no vote at all, no rights, but your mere presence as an owned human being gives more voting power to your oppressor. In the strange mathematics of humiliation, 3/5ths times zero makes something even lower than zero.

* * *
This is part 1 of 3 of "White Supremacy"
See also
Part 2: Believing In Privilege
Part 3: Realities of White Privilege

2017-05-29

The Three Base Practices for Joy

Joy, part 3

Some spiritual practices might be your thing -- or might not be. Other practices are worth a try -- even if you end up only doing them once. Then there are the kinds of spiritual practice that are slogans to keep in mind and try to live by. Beyond these three categories are the basics for a life of joy. (They're all listed HERE.) The basics are things like: Get Enough Sleep. You can’t be happy if you’re sleep deprived.

Exercise has actually not yet been the subject of a "Practice of the Week" post, though I expect it will be, and “Nourish Your Brain” is listed as a “keep in mind” exercise. A healthy diet and exercise are also among the basics of a life of joy. I’ve seen people sick in hospitals and in hospice who have a deep inner joy, but if you don’t have to be sick, doing what you can to be healthy and vital helps with joy. Taking care of yourself is a form of self-compassion, which is a practice of and for joy.

I also include in the basics category three practices that aren’t just some people’s thing but help everyone, aren’t just worth a try, but are worth sticking with, and they aren’t just for keeping in mind because they do require setting aside some dedicated time -- every day if you can, or at least every other day.

Three practices, 10-15 minutes each.

So, yes, if you do all three, we’re talking about half an hour to 45 minutes a day, and I know your schedules are already full. But I have a duty as your spiritual leader to tell you what I know about building more joy in your life, and this is what I know. Whatever else you are able to do of all those practices that are described on the website, these three will lay down a base that will facilitate all of them – will help you be better able to keep in mind the "keep in mind” practices and will deepen and enrich your “your thing” practice, and will strengthen the experience of the “worth a try” practices.

Most people find that the morning is the best time for these, and doing all three one right after another is a good routine, but, really, wherever you can fit them in, fit them in.

One: Journal for 10 or 15 minutes a day. (See also: "Morning Pages.") A cautionary note: not all journaling is equal – there are some ways of journaling that are just perseverating about one’s unhappiness, and that really doesn’t help. I’d say start with listing some gratitudes. There is a post about journaling at cucmatters.org that will provide you with some further helpful perspective.
“Studies have shown that writing about oneself and personal experiences can improve mood disorders, help reduce symptoms among cancer patients, improve a person’s health after a heart attack, reduce doctor visits and even boost memory....The power of writing — and then rewriting — your personal story can lead to behavioral changes and improve happiness.”
Two: Read wisdom literature. Wisdom literature is writing that’s inspirational or spiritually insightful. Choose for yourself what counts as wisdom literature for you, though I’d say the latest spy thriller or romance novel probably isn’t it. Essays of Thomas Merton, or Thich Nhat Hanh, or Pema Chodron, or writings of Rabindranath Tagore are certainly good. The poems of Mary Oliver or Walt Whitman, perhaps would work for you. The post on “Study Spiritual Texts” provides a sampling of over 30 titles just for a start.

In my own morning study, I find myself returning periodically to re-read certain ancient sources: The Dao De Jing, the Bhagavad Gita, the Bible’s Book of Psalms. There are always fresh.

Pick a book. Dip into it for a 10 or 15 minute period each day. When you finish, move on to another. Spending some time learning and reminding yourself each day of the wisdom of the ages builds joy.

Three: Just attention. Not attention TO anything predetermined, not moving, not talking – attention that is JUST attention. Find a posture that will allow you to be perfectly still without having to adjust yourself for 10 or 15 minutes. Decide beforehand how many minutes it will be, and set a timer, so you don’t have to be glancing at a clock to guessing when you’ve been at it long enough. Almost but not quite close your eyes. Sit motionless. Bask in silence. Start off by bringing attention to your breath – the sensation of air going out and coming in. When a thought arises, notice that you are thinking that thought. Watch the thought, watch yourself thinking that thought. Under this watchful attention, the thought will fade. Return to watching the sensations of the breath. And so on, until the timer rings.

You are not your thoughts. Thoughts are just things that happen to you. Once you truly grasp this, your own thoughts don’t have such a grip on you, and that’s very freeing, and very joyful.

So those are the three base practices I encourage. A final note about joy, and maybe a caution.
One of the sources that I have adapted from in several of the Practice of the Week posts is Jonathan Robinson’s book, Find Happiness Now: 50 Shortcuts for Bringing More Love, Balance, and Joy into Your Life. Another of the sources I draw on is Norman Fischer’s book, Training in Compassion. I mention these two titles by way of pointing out that finding joy and training in compassion turn out to be the same. So that’s the caution. This joy thing and the compassion thing go together. Joy makes us more compassionate, and compassion brings us more joy.

If you’re not interested in being a more compassionate person, then you might want to stay away from the practices that cultivate joy. If you’d really rather focus on guarding your resources and making sure other people aren’t taking advantage of you – if you’re more interested in assessing other people’s worthiness for whatever you might offer than you are in just offering it freely and profligately – then maybe joy itself isn’t your thing.

Is it?

* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of "Joy"
See also
Part 1: Joy and Happiness, Evolution, Money
Part 2: Joy Practice
On Joy
On the Journey: 2017 May: Joy

2017-05-27

Joy Practice

Joy, part 2

Practices that help cultivate joy (SEE HERE), I have grouped into three categories. The “Might be Your Thing" category has practices that are not for everyone – but one of them just might be what really works for you. These are things like:
These things really bring joy to some people. Any one of them might not be your thing. If it is, the question is, are you setting aside enough time to do it?

The second category is “Worth a Try.” These are practices for everyone, although perhaps not on a regular basis. I’m saying, try these one time. If you really like it you might start doing it on a regular basis, but even if you only ever do it once, it’s kind of a nice exercise to have done once. These include things like:
Some of these "Worth a Try" exercises are for doing with another person, and require some care in selecting the suitable partner.
Some of these practices are “lift your spirits” practices:
  • Watch an Inspiring Movie (includes a list of 36 films good for lifting your spirits)
  • Create a Magical Playlist (pick your favorite songs and make a playlist on your iPod, or on Spotify, or, if you’re old school, burn a CD -- or, if you’re really old school, making a tape, if that's still possible)
A key part of your strategy for cultivating joy in your life is (a) noticing when you’re kind of bummed, (b) making an intentional decision about what to do about that, because sometimes grief is appropriate and you need to let yourself be in that space for a while, and (c) having ways to cheer yourself up – if you decide that being cheered up is what you want.

The May issue of On the Journey explores the theme, Joy. The issue mentions several of the "Worth a Try" practices:
  • The Mirror Exercise (where you look yourself in the eye in the mirror and tell that person how much you appreciate and are proud of them)
  • The Year to Live List (where you imagine that you had one year to live, and make a list of what you’d like to do in that year, and then, maybe some of those things you go ahead and make plans to do, or else do something a little bit along those lines -- for instance, if “go to Tibet” would be what you’d want to do with one year to live, but that wouldn’t be responsible in your current reality, maybe you could make plans to visit, say, the Tibetan monastery in Woodstock)
  • The Birthday-Funeral (invite friends over, perhaps as a birthday celebration, and ask them to not to bring a gift but come prepared to share a favorite memory about their connection with you – the kind of stories that too often don’t get told except at funerals)
  • Create a Pain and Pleasure List (write down 10 things you like to do, 10 you don’t like doing, and then notice how much of your typical week is spent on the “don’t like” items -- see if you can move yourself to spending a bit more time doing what you do like)
All these are worth a try for everyone – at least once, and return to them as needed. This is how we pay attention to intentionally cultivating joy in our lives.

The third category are the “Keep in Mind” practices. These are things for everyone to just keep in mind, try to cultivate as you go through your day – try to make into a habit.They aren’t particular exercises, other than sometimes making them a focus of your journaling. Mostly these are little reminders to give yourself, habits of being to tell yourself to try to exemplify.
Each one of these has its own post on CUCmatters.org detailing what’s it’s all about and how to do it.

You’ve got your “Might Be Your Thing” practices – find one that is your thing. There’s the “Worth a Try” practices – give each of them a try once, and stay with the ones that seem helpful. And there’s the “Keep in Mind” practices that are slogans to live by and try to make into habits

Beyond these three categories there are simply “The Basics” for a life of joy.

Next: The Basics

* * *
This is part 2 of 3 of "Joy"
See also
Part 1: Joy and Happiness, Evolution, Money
Part 3: The Three Base Practices for Joy
On Joy
On the Journey: 2017 May: Joy

2017-05-25

Joy and Happiness, Evolution, Money

Joy, part 1

I do believe there’s a difference between happiness and joy. A British website called psychologies explains it this way:
“Joy is more consistent and is cultivated internally. It comes when you make peace with who you are, why you are and how you are, whereas happiness tends to be externally triggered and is based on other people, things, places, thoughts and events.” ("Joy vs Happiness," 2015 Sep 1)
OK. Joy comes from a place of peace – peace with who you are, peace with your world. Happiness often comes from a place of excitement.

But if you think of happiness as not just a moment of happiness, but the overall happiness of your life, then you’re getting a good measure of joy. Joy may be different from happiness, but if you’re unhappy, it's hard to be joyful. In fact, if you’re unhappy, you don’t really have a heart filled with peace, hope, faith, or love either. For that reason, it seems OK to go ahead and take happiness as a proxy for joy – understanding that we’re not talking about the momentary happiness from momentary circumstances, but your overall norm of cheerfulness about your life. The more you cultivate happiness, the more you’ll also at least contribute to cultivating the abiding joy that is a fruit of the spirit.

So how do you cultivate happiness and joy? Oh, I thought you’d never ask. OK, so maybe you didn’t ask. Either way, that’s the question I have been answering for you week after week for more than three years: the "Practice of the Week" posts describe practices for cultivating joy. But before I talk about that, I want to set the stage with a couple items that came to my attention in the news this week. One of them illustrates that challenge – why it’s hard to be joyful, why it takes intentional work. The other illustrates that our most common strategy isn’t all that relevant.

First, the challenge. It takes intentional practice to cultivate joy because evolution has designed us to be a little bit unhappy. A little unhappiness gave our hunter-gatherer ancestors a better chance of surviving and reproducing. They needed to be focused on dangers and problems and competition. We have inherited that tendency. This news item from just this week about that was about was about Homo Naledi, a human relative unknown before bones were discovered in South Africa in 2015. It took a while to get a good measurement on the age of the bones, but on Tue May 9 it was revealed that they are roughly 236,000 years old. That’s a lot more recent than the original guess that had them at about 2 million years old. It means that homo sapiens – us – and homo naledi were living at the same time. We already knew that Neanderthals were living at the same time as homo sapiens. Now we know that Homo Naledi was also among the competing homo species – and that only homo was equipped to win. The article I saw concluded with this observation:
“We are a competitive, resource-gobbling species today, and the new research helps confirm that, for better or for worse, we always have been.” (Time Magazine, 2017 May 11)
We evolved to really want to get stuff, to out-compete others at getting more of it. That’s the recipe that brought us into existence and allowed us to survive, but it’s not a recipe for happiness. The circuitry of anxiety and stress and continual acquisition that improved survival among our ancestors is no longer functional for us, so we need ways to override that circuitry. So that’s why it takes intentional focus – because we’re rewiring our circuitry to override aspects of our evolutionary default.

The other news item this week has to do with our usual strategy for making our life better: earn more money. On the one hand, there is such a thing as not enough. It’s hard to be happy amidst the insecurities of extreme poverty – not impossible, but hard, and it takes a rare level of spiritual attainment. On the other hand, there is also such a thing as too much, as when too much of our life is spent tending to finances and too little on the things that really make life joyful. For those of us without the level of spiritual attainment that makes abject poverty acceptable, how much is enough? There seems to be some geographic variation on that. A recent Gallup study looked at how income affects people’s daily emotions in 12 U.S. metro areas.
  • In Atlanta, the annual salary that correlates with peak happiness is $42,000.
  • In Chicago, Dallas, Miami, Phoenix, and Wahsington, DC, it’s $54,000.
  • In Boston and Houston, the annual salary that correlates with peak happiness is $75,000.
  • In New York City, Philadelphia, Seattle, and Los Angeles, it’s $105,000. (Time, 2017 May 8)
Interesting! That’s the peak – so people who made less than that as well as people who made more than that weren’t as happy. But, of course, that’s the general population – people that aren’t particularly doing the work to cultivate happiness. Do the work and you can override the circuitry of unhappiness with less than the salary correlating with peak happiness. (Or, for that matter, with more.)

So, what does this work look like? I have had a lot to say about that in the “Practice of the Week” posts I started posting on the CUUC Matters website back in 2014. Almost every week in your E-Communitarian newsletter (links to which are posted on our Facebook page HERE) you’ll find a title of a practice, a brief blurb, and a link to the full description. As of this writing, there are 127 different posts at cucmatters.org describing various ways to cultivate joy, and there are new ones still coming most weeks. Many of them overlap, and a few of them are the same practice, explained in, I hope, a helpfully different way.

NEXT: About the practices.

* * *
This is part 1 of 3 of "Joy"
See also
Part 2: Joy Practice
Part 3: The Three Base Practices for Joy
On Joy
On the Journey: 2017 May: Joy

2017-05-24

Pride

Pride: arrogance, vanity, hubris, haughtiness, conceit, snobbery, self-importance. “Pride,” said Pope Gregory I “is the root of all evil.” The other vices “spring from this poisonous root.” Pope Gregory identified four species of pride:
(1) Boasting of having some excellence that you don’t have;
(2) Having certain excellences and believing that you got them entirely on your own;
(3) Having a certain excellence and believing that no one else has it;
(4) Having an excellence, understanding that it came to you from above, but still believing that it came to you from your own merit.

“Pride is the beginning of all sin” says Ecclesiasticus, a book that Protestants class as Apocrypha, Catholics call Deuterocanonical, and for the Eastern Orthodox is simply Biblical, as it was for Augustine. Citing Ecclesiasticus, Augustine went on to argue:
“Every sin is a contempt of God, and every contempt of God is pride. For what is so proud as to despise God? All sin, then, is also pride....Pride encourages humans to displace God, to act on the willful denial of human limitation, to covet unjust privileges, and to glory in itself far too much.”
What Augustine thought of as displacing God, we might call choosing the delusion of separateness over the reality of interconnection and interdependence.

Pride can be a problem for ourselves and for others. On the other hand, pride can be a necessary antidote to a history of shaming and denigration, as it is for LGBT folk and African Americans. As the African American writer Michael Eric Dyson has observed:
"White pride is the vice that makes black pride necessary."
Or, as Martin Luther King put it several decades earlier:
“Yes, we must stand up and say, ‘I’m black and I’m beautiful,’ and this self-affirmation is the black man’s need, made compelling by the white man’s crimes against him.”
From my position of privilege (white, straight, cis-male, middle-class, educated), it’s easy for me to say I don’t have any more need for pride. Indeed, it is one of my privileges that my life situation allows me the luxury of preferring humility and gratitude – though that doesn’t mean I’m successful at achieving them. I don’t have to fight daily for recognition and respect. If I’m not heard for what I wanted to say, almost always it is because I wasn’t very skillful in saying it, not because of pre-existing doubts about my worthiness to be listened to. There are others who don’t have that privilege, who exhort themselves and their peers to pride as a necessary bulwark against social forces and conditions that denigrate who they are.

Pride in being LGBT, African American, or Latino/Latina is important and valuable. On the other hand, pride in being American is a bit different. It’s understandable if you’ve just been sworn in as a naturalized citizen. If, however, all four of your grandparents, both your parents, and you were born and raised on US soil, I don’t see the point. Our national arrogance has been more problematic than whatever felt need is being addressed by proclaiming pride in being an American. Yes, we do need to know who we are, understand how our country and culture shape us, and understand the power and privileges that are at our disposal so we can deploy them with lovingkindness and compassion. Paying attention to all the things that being American means – the attitudes and the assumptions that we imbibe – is crucial to self-understanding. And, yes, the U.S. has done some good in the world. As a nation, we've also done some damaging things – both abroad and to many of our own people.

Comedian Chris Rock captured the ambivalence when he said:
“If you’re black, America’s like the uncle that paid your way through college but molested you.”
The question isn't whether to be proud or ashamed of our country, but how to take the benefits Uncle Sam conferred and use them to stop the molestation. What shall we do with the privileges of being American?

Our national policies have arrogantly pursued what we thought was our own self-interest without regard to what damage we were doing to other peoples. Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr pointed out:
“Great nations are too strong to be destroyed by their foes. But they can easily be overcome by their own pride.”
The strand of the American inheritance for which I am most grateful is our tradition of criticism and dissent. Through the institutions of free speech, free press, and an independent judiciary -- flawed, sold-out, and co-opted as they sometimes are -- this country has fostered development of a deep and rich discourse of self-critique. I am profoundly grateful for that development. "Grateful," I say. I might, instead, have said the tradition of dissent makes me proud of being American. "Grateful," however feels more to the point, more germane, and more accurate than "proud." True patriots love their country enough to tell it the truth, and I am grateful that our country has had many such true patriots.

Claiming pride is sometimes a necessary antidote to a history of shame. I don't expect that in my lifetime the day will come when that strategy is no longer necessary. Not in my lifetime. But I see the little ones in our Religious Education classes -- kindergartners and elementary-schoolers -- and I imagine saying to them:

"Not in my lifetime, but maybe, just maybe, in yours, little one, the day will come when no one’s pride functions to deprive and shame others. On that day when no group is systematically shamed, countering the shame with pride will be unnecessary. The day will come when gratitude takes the place of pride. The day will come when being grateful for being, and for the conditions that made us what we are, always feels to the point, and comes from a place near to the heart. The day will come when being proud of ourselves will seem, at worst, hubris and, at best, a quaint way of expressing what is really gratitude. The day will come. Not in my lifetime, little one. But maybe in yours."

* * *
See also:
The Seven Deadlies
Gluttony
Sloth
Greed/Avarice
Anger/Wrath
Envy
Lust

2017-05-19

Lust

We inherit a long tradition of serious repression about lust. Augustine (354-430) was a major contributor to this repression. For Augustine, the ideal is life-long virginity of heart, mind, and body: without a hint of desire ever arising.

Second best would be a life of unmarried virginity of body.

Third best: matrimony without sex.

Fourth best: matrimony with pleasureless procreative activity. It should be like shaking hands. Through sufficient exercise of the rational will, we can control our feelings and impulses so that sexual activity occurs without any enjoyment, but solely for fulfilling the duty of procreating.

Fifth best: procreative activity accompanied by pleasure. This is a regrettable and clearly degraded state of affairs.

Worst of all: Acting for the sake of pure sexual pleasure without intending to produce kids.

Augustine, like Plato before him, put inordinate emphasis on rational control. But life is not just about what we choose. Some of it is about what chooses us. Sometimes, in fact, we require loss of control. The good life is about being open to the surprises that come to us, including the surprising emotions, and involuntary sensations. The good life includes the possibility of intimate partnership, a possibility undermined by too much control.

We want to feel swept away, and we want our partner to feel swept away. We want to turn our bodies over to the nourishment of a grander thing: a thing grander than our individual rational choice; a love we don’t choose or control, but simply serve. Lust is the unchosen desire best satisfied through losing ourselves in the service of love.

Each one of the seven deadly sins contains a virtue as well as a possible vice. The virtue of lust is that it impels us to risk setting aside our usual defenses and entering radical mutuality.

Lust is not simply a desire, but two desires that become one. It consists of the desire to please and to be pleased. Lovers A and B, in their consummation, find that A takes pleasure in B’s pleasure, and B takes pleasure in A taking pleasure in B’s pleasure, and A takes further pleasure in B taking pleasure in A taking pleasure in B’s pleasure. And so on. In this feedback loop, the two desires merge into one, and the pleasure belongs to neither lover separately.

While there is much about this that is voluntary, and mutual consent is crucial to the enterprise, there is also a significant role for the involuntary – for the delight we take in evoking from each other involuntary bodily responses. In the merger there is a depth of surrender, a surrendering of rational will and separate identity, and thus a liberation from the tyranny of our separateness with its calculated self-protection. The experience reveals and manifests a spiritual possibility: we might learn to encounter each moment of our living with something like that ecstasy of merger – a continuous unfolding lovemaking with reality.

We are emerging out from under the long shadows cast by Plato and Augustine. More and more of us now understand that our bodies are not corrupted prisons for our pure and ethereal souls, but, rather, our bodies are integral parts of our identity and potential vehicles of liberation and fulfillment.

If we find that an attraction, an urge, has arisen within us, we can indulge it. Or we can repress it. Or we can bring presence, awareness, and investigative curiosity to the urge, neither indulging nor repressing. What is it, exactly? What are the options for honoring it and addressing it? We might then choose to defer the urge, seeing a greater possibility of fulfillment at a later time and place. We can bring the urge into dialog with our values: that is, not allowing the urge to overwhelm our values, but also not attempting to use our values to deny the legitimacy of the urge.

To have that dialog, it helps to be clear on what the values are. Margaret Farley, a Sisters of Mercy Nun, articulated seven value principles for sexual ethics:

1. Do No Unjust Harm

Harm can take many forms: “physical, psychological, spiritual, relational. It can also take the form of failure to support, to assist, to care for, to honor.” Lust tugs us toward situations in which either we or our partner are likely to be uniquely tender and vulnerable. Our values tell us to pay acute attention to the risks of harm.

2. Free Consent

Justice requires autonomy, and without free consent, there is no autonomy. Seduction or manipulation of persons who have limited capacity for choice because of immaturity, special dependency, or loss of ordinary power violates free consent. Promise-keeping and truth-telling are also aspects of honoring free consent, since betrayal and deception limit the free choice of the other person.

3. Mutuality

True relationship entails a context recognizing each partner’s activity and each partner’s receptivity -- each partner’s giving and each partner's receiving. “Two liberties meet, two bodies meet, two hearts come together” – and if they aren’t both bringing roughly equivalent levels of heart and self to the encounter, it isn’t mutual.

4. Equality

The partners bring roughly equal levels of power and autonomy to the relationship. Inequalities of power may come from differences in social and economic status, or differences in age and maturity. Teachers and their students have an inherent power inequality, as do counselors and their clients, ministers and their parishioners. The principle of equality also “rules out treating a partner as property, a commodity, or an element in market exchange.”

5. Commitment

A one-night stand “cannot mediate the kind of union -- of knowing and being known, loving and being loved -- for which human relationality offers the potential.” Nevertheless, an encounter that turned out to be brief may still have been ethical as long as it accorded with each of the preceding principles, and there was openness to the possibility that the encounter might have led to long-term relationship.

6. Fruitfulness

Making babies is one way to be fruitful and keep the relationship from closing in on itself. There are other ways for love to create new life: if not from the lovers, then in the lovers. This new life should bless the world, not just the lovers. Thus is love fruitful and for the good of all.

7. Social Justice

Our intimate relationships occur within the context of social justice, which requires that all people’s romantic and intimate relationships be honored and respected. “Whether persons are single or married, gay or straight, bisexual or ambiguously gendered, old or young, abled or challenged in the ordinary forms of sexual expression, they have claims to respect from...[faith] communit[ies] as well as the wider society. These are claims to freedom from unjust harm, equal protection under the law, an equitable share in the goods and services available to others, and freedom of choice in their sexual lives -- within the limits of” these principles.

When lust arises, pay attention to it -- neither indulging nor repressing. In the process, also pay attention to these seven principles of justice in sexuality.

* * *
See also:
The Seven Deadlies
Gluttony
Sloth
Greed/Avarice
Anger/Wrath
Envy
Pride

2017-05-16

Envy

“You see something, want it, feel it only sensible and right that it belong to you and not the person who has it. Once the injustice of the other person having it is established – this doesn’t usually take too long – his unworthiness must be emphasized, at least in your own mind. Your own greater worthiness goes quite without saying. His loathsomeness doesn’t; it may be said over and over, to yourself. Whatever the object of inordinate desire – an item of art or luxury, the friendship or love of another person, the prestige that goes with a position or place or prize in life – the world begins to seem out of joint, so long as he has it and you do not.” (Joseph Epstein, Envy)
It’s that double-reality that’s insufferable: he has it AND you do not. If you both have it, that’s fine, and if neither of you have it, that’s OK. Envy says there are two solutions: one, you get what they’ve got, ideally in a slightly better version, or two, they lose what they had. Envy doesn’t care which. Of course, there’s a third solution: learn how to not be envious, but Envy won’t tell you that.

We envy people who we see as roughly comparable. I don’t envy LeBron James because I have long since given up any hope of that kind of athletic genius. But another middle-aged minister whose basketball skills exceed my own might trigger a brief bit of envy. Women tend to envy other women and men tend to envy other men – because we see them as being in a comparable position, and we’d like to do as well as they do.
“Studies such as Robert H. Frank’s Luxury Fever have shown that people would agree to make less total money so long as they make more than their neighbors: that is, they would rather earn, say $85,000 a year where no one else is making more than $75,000 instead of $100,000 where everyone else is making $125,000.”
H. L. Mencken said that contentment in America is making $10 a month more than your brother-in-law. The advertising industry is built on the aim of inducing as much envy as possible. Envy seems to cut across all economic systems. As the saying goes:
Under capitalism, man envies man. Under socialism, vice-versa.
The “if-I-can’t-have-it-you-can’t-either” impulse runs deep. In an experiment with chimpanzees, there’s a chimp in a cage and a table of their favorite foods outside the cage. The cage is on wheels and the chimp can reach out, grab the edge of the table and pull it over and get the food. There’s also a rope attached to a couple of the table legs. Pulling on the rope causes the table to collapse and the food to roll away, irretrievably out of reach. Now put two chimps in side by side cages. They can both reach the table, and they each have their own rope that can collapse the table. As long as they pull the table closer to where they both can reach it and share the food, all was well. But if one chimp pulled the table over toward himself out of the reach of the other chimp, then the aggrieved chimp would often pull the rope, collapse the table and thus ensure that neither of them got the food.

Often. Not always. Some chimps have the “if I can’t have it you can’t either” impulse stronger than others. It’s the same with their cousins, the humans. And it’s a good thing. We need people who care about equality just for equality’s sake – even when that sometimes means taking away something from someone else with no tangible benefit to anyone.

That’s a strange thing to say. But even though there may not seem to be any benefit in one instance, over the longer haul there may be. The chimp who pulls the rope to deny food to another chimp gets no benefit THIS TIME. But next time, the greedy chimp will be more likely to share. When the deprived chimp does pull the rope to say, “fine, then neither of us is getting any food,” that chimp doesn’t just quietly pull the rope. Oh, no. “When the table rolled away from them, the annoyed chimps exploded in rage, turning into screeching black furballs.” (Ariely) They are very loud about communicating a message for next time: treat me fairly.

Maybe in some circumstances we know that there will be and can be no next time, but our emotions are wired the way they are from millions of generations dealing with situations in which there were next times. The roots of envy lie in an impulse to insist upon equality because even though there may be no benefit to you this time, you increase your odds of better treatment next time. Without that impulse, we’d never have developed as much fairness as we have.

The pinch of envy might spur us to a wholesome pursuit of justice. Another possible positive: it might drive us work harder to achieve the qualities we admire in others.

Still, we may pursue those positives without the wretchedness that envy brings. For the most part, we need an antidote for envy, and that antidote is what the Buddhists call mudita – sympathetic joy, taking joy in other people’s joy. Sharon Salzberg offers this beautiful meditation for cultivating and nurturing mudita.
"We begin with someone whom we care about; someone it is easy to rejoice for. Choose a friend and focus on a particular gain or source of joy in this person's life. Whatever good fortune or happiness of theirs comes to your mind, take delight in it with the phrase, 'May your happiness and good fortune not leave you.' Following this, we move through the sequence of beings: benefactor, neutral person, enemy [difficult person], all beings." (Lovingkindness, p. 134)
Even if you don't think of yourself as an envious person, we could all use mudita strengthening.

* * *
See also:
The Seven Deadlies
Gluttony
Sloth
Greed/Avarice
Anger/Wrath
Lust
Pride