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:
  • Gardening
  • Cooking
  • Quilting
  • Art
  • Martial Arts
  • Poetry by Heart (making a practice of memorizing poems that provide insight or guidance for you)
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:
  • Create a Home Altar
  • Let Your Precious Go
  • Failure Gratitude (make a list of your failures in life, and then reflect on reasons to be grateful for those failures)
Some of these "Worth a Try" exercises are for doing with another person, and require some care in selecting the suitable partner.
  • Spiritual Intimacy (should be entered only with someone you’re prepared to be vulnerable with)
  • Fall in Love with Someone (your spouse or partner, perhaps! Otherwise, be sure you're ready)
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.
  • Be Patient
  • Pause
  • Slow Down
  • Take More Breaks
  • Honor Your temperament
  • Love Your Inner Child
  • Enjoy Humility
  • Accept the Limits of Your Influence -- and at the same time:
  • Do What You Can
  • Cultivate Self-Acceptance, and have compassion for yourself
  • Don’t Take Anything Personally
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 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
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
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

2017-05-14

Anger/Wrath

Anger, we've been taught, is a deadly sin. But there’s a crucial ambiguity about anger. On the one hand, there is the anger-the-feeling, the body’s physiological response to a situation that isn’t right. On the other hand, there’s anger-the behavior, which can take the form of stewing and seething or the form of yelling, gesticulating forcefully, and maybe hitting.

Anger-the-feeling is not wrong, not a problem, not a sin. Anger-the-behavior is a problem, either as seething or yelling. Fortunately, anger-the-feeling doesn’t have to be expressed in the forms anger-the-behavior stereotypically takes.

Anger-the-feeling is a version of the fight-or-flight physiological response to a threat – with the emphasis more on “fight” than on “flight.” Our ancestors millions of years ago were prone to being attacked, and they needed their body to trigger an upsurge in aggressive energy so they could fight to defend themselves.

Anger gets you ready to fight; fear gets you ready to run away, hide somewhere and be very still and attentive. Anger increases your blood pressure; fear increases your respiration rate. Anger makes you more risk-seeking; fear makes you more risk-avoidant. Feeling anger, people overestimate their ability to overcome an obstacle, defeat an opponent, or handle whatever’s coming at them; feeling fear, people underestimate their ability to successfully confront a situation. If an attacker or opponent has about the same height and weight as you, the lens of fear makes that opponent looks bigger than you. The lens of anger makes the opponent look smaller than you. Fear is your body telling you, “don’t be idiot; run, hide, be conciliatory and submissive.” Anger is your body telling you, “don’t let this twerp push you around.”

When anger-the-feeling arises in you, the crucial first step is to pay attention to it. Notice exactly what you are feeling: do you feel heat in your chest, a tightness in your shoulders? If you don’t notice that the feeling is there – or if you’re in denial about what you are feeling – then the feeling takes over. You lose the freedom to choose your response, for the feeling, if not identified, will simply dictate whatever form of expression it habitually uses – usually either seething resentment or yelling and dominance.

Once you name it to yourself and have pinpointed how it is manifesting in your body, the next question to ask yourself is where is this coming from? Can I bring understanding to the person who is triggering my anger?

To illustrate the role of understanding, put yourself in this scenario. You’ve been grocery shopping. Now you must get the groceries home and put away. You’re under some time pressure because you have an appointment coming up. You get to your apartment building, but the parking places on that side of the street are taken, so you park across the street. At the grocery store, you had asked for paper rather than plastic, and what you’ve got are three brimming-full paper grocery bags. You decide you need to do this in one trip, so you scoop up all three bags. Your field of vision is now somewhat limited. You wait for the light to change. You know it says “walk” for only a few seconds before it goes into its warning blink, and that stopped cars are ready to proceed the instant the light changes back. You’re making your way across the street, when some clod walking by the other direction bumps into you. Your groceries spill in the middle of the street. Your body floods with that anger reaction. Blood pressure up, you see red. You spin around, clutching the one bag of groceries that didn’t spill, and the angry, loud words that are already starting to come out of your mouth are definitely not words you would want your children to hear. And in that moment you see...the white cane. The anger just drains right away as you see the truth of the situation with clarity.

Understanding doesn’t usually come so quickly and clearly. But if we can give ourselves the space to work out as sympathetic an understanding as possible, then we’re better able to decide if a fight is really what’s called for.

Neither indulge nor suppress. Don’t suppress the feeling. It’s got something to teach you. But don’t indulge it either, by seething or raging. There may be a productive and important use for the energy of anger, preparing you to take on obstacles.

Carroll Saussy, a professor at Wesley Theological Seminary, distinguishes "holy anger" from "negative or sinful anger." Holy anger is
“a response to the experience of being ignored, injured, trivialized, or rejected, as well as an empathic response aroused by witnessing someone else being ignored, injured, trivialized or rejected. Anger is also a response to the awareness of social evils such as prejudice, oppression, and violence. Holy anger is a call to action. Negative or sinful anger is a vengeful, hostile, sometimes explosive reaction to an interpersonal or social situation; it aims to injure persons or institutions and tears at the fabric of society by destroying relationships. Whereas holy anger seeks to right a wrong, whether the evil has been perpetrated on oneself or another, sinful anger is the expression of a wrong-doer, who inflicts evil on wronged people.” (The Gift of Anger 115)
Anger can be the energy to right a wrong. Social justice movements are initiated and fueled by holy anger, righteous wrath against oppression. On the other hand, “an angry reaction to personal or social offense is narcissistic, a self-centered need to secure one’s power or reputation” (114). How do we tell the difference?

Take some deep breaths, be aware of your feeling, and calmly assess. Does this situation call for using your anger and confronting? Or does it call for surrendering the anger? Surrendering is not suppressing, but rather, after fully acknowledging the feeling, deciding to let it go and not seek redress.

* * *
See also
The Seven Deadlies
Gluttony
Sloth
Greed/Avarice
Envy
Lust
Pride

2017-05-12

Greed/Avarice

Greed, more than any of the other “seven deadly sins,” has numerous and powerful champions. Oliver Stone’s 1987 film, “Wall Street,” was initially titled “Greed.” The ruthless corporate raider, Gordon Gekko, advocates greed:
“The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms -- greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge -- has marked the upward surge of mankind -- and greed, you mark my words, will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA.”


The speech by the fictional Gekko was inspired by a similar speech given by the actual Ivan Boesky, the Wall Street arbitrageur who was charged by the SEC with insider trading and who paid a $100 million penalty to settle those charges. Speaking at the University of California's commencement ceremony in 1986, Boesky said:
"Greed is all right, by the way. I want you to know that. I think greed is healthy. You can be greedy and still feel good about yourself."
The gospel of Greed has many followers. The stars and director of “Wall Street” have commented that over the years “people still approach them and say that they became stockbrokers because” they admired the characters in that film.

Yet greed is also universally seen as a problem by the world’s faith traditions. It goes by many names: covetousness, acquisitiveness, avidity, cupidity, avarice, miserliness, simony. Many find greed the root of all the other sins. In Hinduism, for example, the Mahabharata says:
“Covetousness alone is a great destroyer of merit and goodness. From covetousness proceeds sin. It is from this source that sin and irreligiousness flow, together with great misery. This covetousness is the spring also of all the cunning and hypocrisy in the world.... It is from covetousness that loss of judgment, deception, pride, arrogance, and malice, as also vindictiveness, loss of prosperity, loss of virtue, anxiety, and infamy spring.... Pitilessness for all creatures, malevolence towards all, mistrust in respect of all, insincerity towards all, appropriation of other people’s wealth... all these proceed from covetousness.”
Buddhism puts at the center the observation that desire is the cause of suffering. The Visuddhimagga says:
“Greed is the real dirt, not dust... The wise have shaken off this dirt and live.”
The Daoist text, the Dao De Jing, says:
“There is no greater calamity than indulging in greed.”
Sikh scripture declares
“Where there is greed, what love can there be?”
The goal of the secular world is to meet material needs. A fair secular structure will ensure that everyone has a chance to have their most basic needs met. That's important. Still, it’s about people wanting things – basic things, food, clothing, clean air, housing – and not so basic things, cars, TVs, books, "nice" clothes, corner offices. If we don’t have people wanting stuff, then we don’t have them doing the things to get it – thing which typically also provide goods or services to others.

Yet the market, upon which we depend for our material needs, requires a counter-weight. The good life includes openness to whatever comes – not just desire-driven activity to make certain things come. We express this in phrases have become clichés precisely because it is so important to remember them: the best things in life are free; you can’t take it with you; money is the root of evil; we do not live by bread alone.

Even in the secular, market sphere, greed, unconstrained, backfires. Gordon Gekko, in the 2010 sequel, “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps,” has come to recognize the problems of unmitigated greed:
“It’s greed that makes my bartender buy three houses he can’t afford with no money down. And it’s greed that makes your parents refinance their $200,000 house for $250,000. Then they take that extra $50,000 and they go down to the mall. They buy a plasma TV, cell phones, computers, an SUV, and, hey, why not a second home, while we’re at it, because, gee whiz, we all know the prices of houses in America always go up, right? And it’s greed that makes the government of this country cut the interest rates to one percent after 9-11 so we can all go shopping again. They’ve got all these fancy names for trillions of dollars of credit: CMOs, CDOs, SIVs, ABSs. I honestly think there’s only 75 people in the world who know what they are. I’ll tell you what they are: WMDs: Weapons of Mass Destruction.”
Too much greed damages our economy. All the more so, it damages our souls. Some good things come to us only by not wanting them. Joy comes to us when we en-joy what we were not anticipating, did not expect, or earn, or deserve. Grace just takes paying attention. You can’t earn grace – if you earned it, it isn’t grace -- but you can work on your attentional skills.

A path of spiritual practice and development is necessary for seeing and coming to terms with our delusions, yet the spiritual path is a tricky one. The very practices to open us to uncontrolled grace can so easily turn into technologies of attempted control. At that point, “spiritual practice” is just one more ego delusion, one more channel for a kind of greed. That can happen, as this "Dharma the Cat" comic illustrates:


Having a community of accountability helps us stay on the path without the path becoming delusive. Left to ourselves to practice, our egos will bend the spiritual path into one more on-ramp to the ego highway. We need the help of others in identifying our delusions. (This is the crucial point that the SBNRs -- "Spiritual But Not Religious" -- often overlook.) With a spiritual path and a supporting community of faith, we have a chance to transcend greed and move into grace. We have a shot at freedom.

* * *
See also
The Seven Deadlies
Gluttony
Sloth
Anger/Wrath
Envy
Lust
Pride
Pride

2017-05-11

Sloth

Is sloth such a bad thing? Jesus bids us to,
“Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin” (Luke 12:27, NRSV).
Those flowers sound pretty slothful.

In dealing with sloth, or any of the “deadly sins,” the point is not to squelch, repress, or exorcise the sin, but to understand why it’s there and to recognize its positive function. We all need to chill out, take a break, de-stress sometimes. There’s a lot to like about sloth.

We are here to create connection by helping each other to listen to our deepest selves, open to life’s gifts, and serve needs greater than our own. In our deepest self, we know that we, too, like the lillies, shine with a beauty that we do not have to earn, do not work for. It comes not from what we do but from just what we are.

Bertrand Russell’s 1932 essay, “In Praise of Idleness,” makes the positive case:
“I think that there is far too much work done in the world, that immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous, and that what needs to be preached in modern industrial countries is quite different from what always has been preached. I hope that, after reading the following pages, the leaders of the YMCA will start a campaign to induce good young men to do nothing. If so, I shall not have lived in vain.”
Long work days keep us from activities that are more fun and creative, and the economic productivity of work enriches the government, which uses that wealth to build up its military and fight wars. Thus, says Russell:
“The road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organized diminution of work.”
Playwright Wendy Wasserstein’s book on Sloth is a parody of self-help books. Her book within the book is called Sloth and How to Get It: A Guide to Living a Happy and Guilt-Free Slothful Life. In it, the authorial persona
“claims to have tried every self-improvement plan known to addled Americans, from the Atkins diet to getting in touch with her inner child, until discovering the solution, Sloth.”
The book lays out
“a program for achieving absolute indolence, the secret of a stress-free life....You have the right to be lazy. You can choose not to respond. You can choose not to move."
The vital first step in becoming a sloth is to
"break the cycle of excess energy and stored dreams. Sloth will release you from all the terrible shoulds dominating your life.”
The book tells how to become a sloth in your diet, exercise, work, and even love-life: it warns against true love, for that leads to passion, and passion is the biggest enemy of sloth.

The rapier of satire shows us the real issue at one point when it is describing the false prophets who would lead us astray from the salvation of sloth. One of these false prophets declares, “I don’t need to rest. I get high on life.” The book responds:
“This is bologna if I ever heard it. Who could possibly get high on life? In life, there is disease, random acts of violence, natural disasters, undisclosed fascist governments, not to mention world poverty and hunger. If you look life in the face, you couldn’t possibly get high on it. Even love fades. Once you adopt sloth, you are dealing with a responsible reaction to the truth about living.”
There in a flash the problem is exposed: disconnection. Confronted with disease, violence, oppression, injustice how do we not disconnect from life?

The spiritual calling is to stay present to life, even the hard parts. We are called to be a student assistant to life. The student assistant is ultimately not in charge, yet here to learn, and to help others.

In the final chapter of her book, Sloth, Wendy Wasserstein offers an ironic insight. She describes the "ubersloth" -- a person who
“achieve(s) slothdom in a subtle and camouflaging way.”

“Have you ever been lying on your couch, watching four well-groomed women of diverse ethnicities on television chatting about how they manage to get everything done? They call themselves ‘jugglers,’ and they’re all able to have husbands, children, careers, social causes, plus they exercise three hours a day, eat only vegetables, and employ personal stylists to tell them what to wear every morning. Or, have you ever seen a man on television talking about how he made $100 million before he was thirty, then walked from New York to China, directed three Oscar-winning movies, got married four times, each with better and better sex with a different gendered partner? In their outside façade, they are they anti-sloths – the doers and shakers. But just like in politics, where the extreme right and the extreme left meet, so in sloth the extremes merge into one another....Are these hyperscheduled, overactive individuals really creating anything new? Are they guilty of passion in any way? Do they have a new vision for their government? For their community? Or for themselves? Their purpose is to keep themselves so busy, so entrenched in their active lives, that their spirit reaches a permanent state of lethargiosis. In other words, their hyperactivity is no different than your or my slothfulness. Whether you’re a traditional sloth or a New Age ubersloth, we are all looking at the possibility of real thought, and rejecting it....For myself, stylistically, I prefer to remain on my couch. But the creative, spiritual, and political void of these new ubersloths makes me proud.”
We can disconnect from life and from ourselves by lethargic withdrawal. We can also disconnect from life and from ourselves through frenetic busy-ness.

The need, then is to lighten up on our preoccupations with work and worry and achievement, but without sinking into unremitting indolence. The middle way affords space for connecting to our life.

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

2017-05-09

Gluttony

Of the seven deadly sins, gluttony is the one with which we are most obsessed. Try going to a bookstore and telling an employee: “I’m looking for something that will help me with my problem of vanity. I suffer from pride and hubris, and I want some guidance on addressing that.” Or say you want to work on your envy, or sloth. A resourceful bookstore employee might be able point you to a few titles. If you say you want help with your lust, or your greed, you’ll mostly find titles giving advice on how to be more successful in gratifying these desires rather than in mitigating their control over your life. Tell the clerk you have an issue with anger, and you’ll have somewhat better luck -- there are several books about anger management. But if you say your problem is gluttony, then you have hit the mother lode. Bookstore shelves groan under the weight of title upon title of diet and weight-loss books to help you not groan under the weight of yourself.

While we don’t often use the word “gluttony” these days, we are a nation and a culture deeply obsessed with overeating and with body image. The Center for Disease Control says that in 1962, 13 percent of the US was obese. By 2010, 35.7 percent of US adults qualify as “obese.” We get judgmental about this. If obesity is a disease, then it differs from other diseases in the degree to which many of us blame those who suffer from it. There’s discrimination against the overweight, and the bias and judgmentalism gets mixed up with what might be legitimate concern about public health. There is a prevailing attitude that the obese are morally contemptible. Studies show, for instance, that employers
“not only tend to assume that a fat person will be less reliable, energetic, and efficient, but are reluctant to hire the overweight for positions (receptionists, etc.) in which their size might affront the delicate sensibilities of potential customers and the general public.” (Francine Prose, Gluttony)
On the other hand, there is, at the same time, a recognition that gluttony fundamentally affirms pleasure and passion. Diamond Jim Brady (1856 – 1917), railroad magnate of the gilded age, the story goes, “would begin his meal by sitting six inches from the table and would quit only when his stomach rubbed uncomfortably against the edge.” The life force, the appetite, the unrestrained gusto for the pleasure of life manifest in such prodigious feasting inspires a certain respect. The fastidious fasting, dieting self-deniers are not so fun to be around.

We have contradictory attitudes about eating. The book of Proverbs warns:
“Be not among winebibbers, among riotous eaters of flesh. For the drunkard and the glutton shall come to poverty and drowsiness shall clothe a man with rags.” (Proverbs 23: 20-21)
Yet in Ecclesiastes we read:
“Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart. For God has long ago approved what you do.” (Ecclesiastes 2:24)
Nowhere are the contradictions of our lives and of our culture more obvious than when it comes to eating and body image. During any given half-hour of commercial television, you will see advertisements for restaurants, and fatty foods, and cooking shows. You’ll also see ads for weight loss that imply that eating is tantamount to suicide, that indulgence and enjoyment lead to social isolation.

We like food. It feels good. We can get obsessed with it if we get focused on too much – if we want only the finest foods, and we want a lot of them, and we want them right now. We also fall into obsession when we focus too much on denying the desire. Either way, we are defining ourselves by our desire – and that is the root of what gluttony is all about: allowing ourselves to be defined by desires for gratification.

In the balanced life, we have desire, and we are OK with the fact that we have desire. Our desire gets a seat at the table (as it were). But desire doesn’t gain total control. The voice of desire is neither suppressed nor indulged.

Paying attention to the voice of desire can guide us to a place where we respectfully hear that voice, and then make our own decision. That’s what neither repressing nor indulging looks like: it looks like separating ourselves from our desire, not identifying with it -- stepping back from it, yet paying attention to it. We can learn to investigate our desires, asking “What is this desire? Where did it come from? What does it have to say to me? What other desires are alive in me?” Freedom is not immediately caving in to every desire. Nor is freedom steadfastly suppressing every desire.

Be attentive, not indulgent. Talk to yourself: “Oh, there you are, you attraction to that cheesecake. I feel you there, pulling at me. And I know you are coming from a worthwhile place: you want me to have pleasure and maybe some energy from the calories and a little sugar rush. You’re just trying to look out for me.” From there, you’re in a much better position to choose. Maybe you then take that cheesecake, and maybe you don’t. Maybe you work out a different strategy to meet the need that is being voiced in you. By neither repressing nor indulging you are liberated from being controlled by the desire.

Desire isn’t you. And it isn’t your enemy. It’s a dear friend who’s a lot of fun, but sometimes gets crazy ideas. It’s not your master, and it’s not your slave: it’s your friend. So when your friend proposes some wild scheme involving, say, chocolate, you laugh. And then you’re thoughtful. And then you can either say, “OK, let’s do it.” Or you can say, “Let’s do that later. Let’s do something else, right now.”

We all have an inner glutton. It’s one of our teachers, telling us to enjoy what this sweet life offers us. But with this teacher, we don’t have to do every single assignment. And we can decide for ourselves how much we want to be graded on (ahem) the curve.

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

2017-05-08

The Seven Deadlies

There’s something about the number seven.
Seven days in a week.
Seven colors in a rainbow (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet).
Pre-moderns counted seven celestial bodies (Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn).
The earth, we learned in school, has seven continents (though, frankly, the basis for counting Europe as a separate continent from Asia is more cultural than geological).
Sail the seven seas and see the seven wonders of the world – before you get the seven-year itch.

Your phone number, not counting the area code, is seven digits. There’s a reason for this. Bell laboratories research in the 1950s found a steep drop-off between humans’ ability to recall a seven-digit number and ability to recall an eight-digit number. Perhaps seven is significant for us because of the way our brains are built.
“Countless psychological experiments have shown that, on average, the longest sequence a normal person can recall on the fly contains about seven items. This limit, which psychologists dubbed the "magical number seven" when they discovered it in the 1950s, is the typical capacity of what's called the brain's working memory.” (ABC News, 2009 Dec 6. HERE.)
We love to make lists of seven items. One of these is the seven deadly sins. Can you name them all? No, they are not, "Sleepy, Dopey, Grumpy, Bashful, Sneezy, Happy, and Doc." Those would be the seven dwarfs in the Disney "Snow White."

The seven deadly sins, as delineated by Pope Gregory I ("Gregory the Great") in the 6th century, are:
  • anger (or wrath)
  • lust
  • gluttony
  • sloth
  • envy
  • pride (or vanity)
  • greed (or avarice)
Then there are the seven virtues, that also go back at least to the Middle Ages:
  • prudence/wisdom
  • justice
  • temperance
  • courage
  • faith
  • hope
  • love
The first four derive from the writings of Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle, and came to be called the “cardinal virtues.” The last three, from Paul's letter to Corinthians, are called the “theological virtues.”

These seven virtues do not parallel the seven sins. Thus, a list called "the heavenly virtues" has also been made, providing direct antidotes to the seven deadly sins. To counteract anger, lust, gluttony, sloth, envy, vanity, and greed, respectively, are:
  • patience
  • chastity
  • temperance
  • diligence
  • kindness
  • humility
  • charity/generosity
"Temperance" is on both virtue lists. The Latin caritas translates as both "love" and "charity," so we can say it's also on both lists. "Diligence," from the Latin industria, carries a connotation of fortitude, which carries a connotation of courage -- so maybe that's also on both lists. The other four -- "prudence/wisdom," "justice," "faith," and "hope," -- are replaced by "patience," "chastity," "kindness," and "humility."

In the 20th century, Mohandas Gandhi crafted his own list of seven social sins:
  • Politics without Principle
  • Wealth without Work
  • Pleasure without Conscience
  • Knowledge without Character
  • Commerce without Morality
  • Science without Humanity
  • Worship without Sacrifice
In 2008, Pope Benedict, noticing that the traditional seven deadly sins were very individual and typically victimless (in and of themselves), followed Gandhi’s lead in making a list of seven social sins. Benedict’s seven social sins are:
  • Drug abuse
  • Polluting the environment
  • Contributing to widening divide between rich and poor
  • Excessive wealth
  • Creating poverty
  • “Bioethical” violations such as birth control
  • “Morally dubious'' experiments such as stem cell research
I was glad to see the Pope's interest in reducing the first five items, and I wished the last two items had been left off. Many better ways to bring the list to the magic number seven were available. Overconsumption of resources, exploitation of labor, undermining or failing to support: public education, full equality for girls and women, gun control, immigrant rights.... I have many helpful suggestions, and will return calls from the Vatican.

The temptation to make a seven-item list of special significance has not passed by the Unitarian Universalists either. We have our seven principles! (HERE) Some of us call them the seven lively principles to stand over against the seven deadly sins.

What motivated Pope Gregory I’s traditional list of seven deadly sins? And why those seven? After all, the seven deadly sins are not listed in the Jewish or Christian Bible. What is in the Bible are the Ten Commandments, the violations of which amounts to a list of sins: idolatry, swearing, sabbathlessness, filial disrespect, murder, adultery, theft, deceit, covetousness. (Count only nine? Some traditions split "idolatry" into two to get ten, and other traditions split "covetousness" into two. There's a handy table in Wikipedia's "Ten Commandments" entry: HERE.) Given the centrality of the Ten Commandments in our Judeo-Christian heritage, wouldn’t those be the main sins?

Maybe ten (or nine) is just too many to hold in working memory. Theologians might, then, have looked to the Book of Proverbs:
“There are six things that the Lord hates, seven that are an abomination to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that hurry to run to evil, a lying witness who testifies falsely, and one who sows discord in a family.” (Proverbs 6: 16-19)
There are seven, here – quite different from Gregory the Great’s list (only pride – “haughty eyes” – made the cut for Gregory). These seven, though, aren’t nicely encapsulated in a single word each.

In the New Testament, there’s a sin list in Galatians:
“Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” (Galatians 5: 19-21)
Despite these various Biblical sources for sin lists, early Christian thinkers felt a need to create a different list.

In the fourth century, Evagrius of Pontus, made a list of eight “evil thoughts.” He almost, but not quite, grasped that seven is the magic number. When, over two centuries after Evagrius wrote his list, Pope Gregory I created the seven-sin list that became so widely known, Gregory only had to do a little tweaking of Evagrius. Gregory kept "gluttony," "greed/avarice," and "anger/wrath" from Evagrius' list. Evagrius and Gregory both listed acedia, though, for Evagrius, the term meant dejection, while Gregory and subsequent writers explained the term in a way that gradually made "sloth" the better English translation. Evagrius had listed the actions, "prostitution and fornication," which Gregory replaced with the psychological state, "lust." Evagrius used the Greek work lype, which generally means sadness; Gregory shifted to a more specific focus on sadness related to comparing oneself to others, "envy." Evagrius had hubris and boasting (or vainglory) as two separate sins, which Gregory combined into one, "pride/vanity," thereby getting the list down to seven.

Saint John Cassian, shortly after Evagrius, also had a similar list of vices, leading up to Gregory stamping Papal imprimatur on “the seven deadly sins.” What these church leaders were trying to do was identify the root sins. The seven deadlies are not the most serious offenses. A little envy, or a touch of pride is not as serious as lying, cheating, stealing, and murdering. Rather, the seven deadlies were seen as the origins, the root causes, of the more serious sins. Envy, vanity, anger, sloth, lust, gluttony, or greed could lead you to lie, steal, or kill.

These early church figures were developing a kind of theological psychology. If a person could purge themselves of these seven, none of those other sins would tempt. Indeed, precisely because these seven so often occur in mild form, and are universal, or nearly so, the seven deadly sins constitute an agenda for spiritual work for everyone. The project of coming to terms with these root bedevilments of the human condition is necessary for our healing and wholeness.

We might quibble with Gregory the Great’s list. Idolatry, for instance – broadly defined as attachment to a fixed concept or image, to the detriment of open-ness to the dynamic freshness of each moment – is at the root of a lot our suffering, and in some ways may even be the root from which these other roots spring. Still, by and large, Pope Gregory has given us a good list, attention to which reveals insights of meaning, power, and possibilities of liberation.

But entirely purging any of these seven is neither necessary nor desirable. Indeed, we need every one of them, and for that reason, they are always with us -- our taunting companions, as theologian Phyllis Tickle calls them.
“These [seven] taunting companions of ours can prod us into well-being as well as destruction. Indeed, without them we will die just as because of them we are condemned to die.”


* * *
See also
Gluttony
Sloth
Greed/Avarice
Anger/Wrath
Envy
Lust
Pride

2017-05-06

Free Speech on Campus

Free speech issues have been intensifying on American campuses.

In February:
"Protests that erupted at UC Berkeley ahead of a planned Wednesday appearance by right-wing commentator Milo Yiannopoulos caused $100,000 worth of damage to the campus." (CNN, 2017 Feb 2)
In March:
"Last week, a guest lecture at Middlebury College by Charles Murray, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, was disrupted by hundreds of student protesters. Allison Stanger, a political science professor at the college, subsequently interviewed Mr. Murray at an alternate location on campus. As they left the second venue, they were violently confronted by masked protesters, and Ms. Stanger was injured." (NYTimes, 2017 Mar 7)
In early April:
"Administrators expressed disappointment and threatened discipline in the wake of a demonstration that disrupted a planned public event last week featuring conservative commentator and author Heather MacDonald at Claremont McKenna College....About 250 protesters on Thursday blocked the entrance to the Athenaeum, where MacDonald was scheduled to appear. Many chanted “black lives matter” and “black lives — they matter here.” (LA Times, 2017 Apr 9)
And in mid-April:
"White nationalist Richard Spencer's speech at Alabama's Auburn University was preceded by controversy and punctuated Tuesday night by protests, arrests and some violence." (NPR, 2017 Apr 19)
Critics of the protesters deride them as intolerant. For example:
"On American campuses, fragile thugs who call themselves students shout down and abuse speakers on a weekly basis. To read Heather MacDonald’s account of being pilloried at Claremont McKenna College is to enter a world of chilling intolerance." (David Brooks)
About a year and a half ago The Liberal Pulpit wrote about "Resolving the Paradox of Tolerance." We argued then that policies of tolerance should aim to maximize the overall climate of tolerance. Some intolerance can be tolerated in the interest of maximizing the overall climate of tolerance, while other intolerance cannot be tolerated.
"It is necessary to limit some hateful expressions. Otherwise, the powerful haters will create a climate intolerant of views different from theirs....The question to ask ourselves is: Does the intolerance in question threaten the overall climate of tolerance? If it is not of such nature or power to have a reasonably discernible chill effect on other viewpoints, then allow it (though do share your criticisms of it). But if the vitriol is driving out other viewpoints, then, in the name of tolerance itself, it should not be tolerated. Every limitation on expression damages the overall climate of tolerance....Sometimes not curtailing certain expressions damages the climate of tolerance even more." (The Liberal Pulpit, 2015 Dec 14)
Following this approach, the question would be whether the speeches by Yiannopoulos, Murray, MacDonald, and Spencer, had they proceeded without protest, would have done more damage to the overall climate of tolerance than not allowing them to speak would do. The issue, however, is better cast as one of acceptance and respect than of tolerance. So is the climate of acceptance and respect degraded when a university gives Yiannopoulos, Murray, MacDonald, or Spencer a platform for their views? Is it degraded more by protests that block or hamper these speakers' expression?

To lay the ground of approach to these questions, some considerations:

First, the Miltonian ideal is delusion. British poet John Milton famously said in 1644:
"Though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously, by licensing and prohibiting, to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?"
The problem here is that there never was nor ever can be any such thing as a "free and open encounter." Long before Milton, Aristotle had identified ethos, pathos, and logos as the modes of persuasion. The speaker's ethos (character and credibility) in the eyes of a given audience, always an essential factor in persuasion, is a reflection of dynamics of power that have nothing to do with truth and that inherently tilt the playing field. Pathos (rousing the audience's emotions), whether prominent or subtle, done effectively or not, is also always a factor, and adds constraints to every encounter. The background knowledge and experiences that audience members bring with them place significant restrictions on their persuadability. These are not the constraints and restrictions of "the truth of the matter" or "the way reality is," but tend more to be the constraints and restrictions of confirmation bias, ego defense, wishful thinking, and other manifestations or tools of power. If you had been imagining that invited speakers at universities are part of a system of "free and open encounters" from which Truth can never be "put to the worse," I urge you to stand disabused.

Second, "free marketplace of ideas" is not at issue. These speakers -- and, indeed, any speaker invited to speak on a college campus -- are not presenting otherwise unavailable thoughts. Rather they are further publicizing ideas they have already published. Moreover, the prominence of the internet ensures ready access to all manner of offensive expression. Given online connectivity, the free market of ideas can be in no danger, and has never offered so wide a range of wares so easily to so many.

Third, dehumanizing or delegitimizing groups of people reduces free speech. We cannot remove ethos from public discourse -- and, insofar as we can coherently imagine what that would be like, we wouldn't want to -- but we can reduce barriers to access to ethos based on group membership. Free speech is maximized when all members of a given community can participate as fully recognized members of that community. Speech that functions to diminish the character and credibility of others because of their membership in a racial, ethnic, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, or religious group diminishes free speech.

A campus speaker who denies the holocaust, or who explicitly supports white supremacy, or who claims that trans people are really men and women in disguise (as Ben Carson has done) invalidates the humanity of some people. That's an overall reduction in the climate of acceptance and respect, and, as such, reduces free speech.

When our prestigious universities were populated entirely with middle- and upper-class, white, presumptively straight males, a guest lecturer committee would have been hard-pressed to find a speaker to invite to campus who would threaten the humanity, legitimacy, or belongingness of any portion of their audience. The world was so ordered as to make possessors of whiteness, maleness, and wealth so secure in their belongingness as to be unthreatenable. While the world is still largely ordered that way, universities now strive to be inclusive and diverse -- to be a home to members of groups not so secure. If the members of those groups are required, as a condition of entering discourse, to first defend their human worth, then the university has not provided all its members equal access to public speech.

These, I think, are the issues to which to attend in considering who to invite to speak on campus. Yiannopoulos and Spencer do more damage than good to campus free speech. As for Murray or MacDonald, I don't have an opinion on whether it would be better to debate them or not invite them -- but, since I'm a middle-class straight white cis-male, my own opinion on that is not the important one. We must listen to those whose human worth is more in jeopardy.

2017-05-04

Left Snark, Right Snark

The Corruption of Our Democracy, part 3

Gerrymandering

With the use of computers and very precise neighborhood by neighborhood data – even household by household data – lawmakers carve intricate and fantastically convoluted districts to pack and crack: create a few districts and pack as many of the opposition voters into them, and then crack up the remaining opposition voters into districts where they can be easily outvoted. In the 2014 midterm elections, in both Pennsylvania and in North Carolina, democratic candidates got 44 percent of all votes cast for congress. Yet Democrats won only 27 percent of the seats in Pennsylvania and 23 percent in North Carolina.

Gerrymandering corrupts our democracy, and we could take steps to limit it. A computer program could draw district boundaries such that each district contains the same population and the sum of the lengths of the district perimeters is the lowest possible.

Lobbying

Corporations spend about $2.6 billion a year on lobbying expenses that they report. That’s 34 times the combined amount of all labor unions and public interest lobbying groups. The biggest companies have over 100 lobbyists – they are everywhere, all the time. Corporate lobbying influence has been growing and growing since the 1970s, and the domination of politics by business interests is now similar to what it was during the Gilded Age in the late 1800s. That’s a problem.

Those of you who stayed around last week to watch the documentary “13th” learned about ALEC – the American Legislative Exchange Council. It’s an organization of corporate interests that not only suggest general principles they’d like supported, but write the entire bill themselves and hand it to a legislator to introduce.

Perhaps investing more in congress to allow lawmakers to hire staff to do their own work instead of relying on lobbying groups would help.

Direct-to-Voter "Lobbying"

But, you know, it’s not just our legislators that are being constantly lobbied by the interests of greater corporate profit about all else. It’s us. As pharmaceutical companies discovered the advantages of direct-to-consumer advertising, so, too, have corporate interests discovered the advantages of direct-to-voter lobbying. And the corporations don’t even have to pay for it.

Even if we had 100% public financing of all elections, and eliminated all corporate lobbying, talk radio and Fox news would still be presenting distortions and factual errors that encourage people to vote against their own interests. Propagation of falsehood and distortion corrupts our democracy.

We've seen a rise since 1987 (when the Fairness Doctrine was repealed, allowing radio stations to air commentary without giving time for opposing views, paving the way for the rise of talk radio), and a further rise since 1996 (the year Fox news was founded) in messaging with a heavy corporate bias. I’m not saying the left is always thoroughly fact-checked and well-reasoned. The left has documentarians and comedians, while the right wing has talk radio and Fox TV. It’s kind of funny how that works. Liberal attempts to do talk radio and duplicate the angry snark of conservative talk show hosts have not done so well. And conservative attempts to make documentary films -- or tell a joke -- likewise generally flop. I’m not sure why that is. But whatever the medium, distortion and factual inaccuracy are not the exclusive province of the right. I’ve seen some fuzzy-reasoned and weakly evidenced documentaries on the left, even if I was sympathetic to the claim being advanced. And I've recognized unfair jokes from late-night comedians, even if I did laugh at them.

One thing about my experience of democracy in action at a Charlottesville church: there was no talk-radio-type bluster, and there were no jokes. There was no ridiculing – not the angry ridiculing of the incensed right, nor the giggling ridiculing of the aloof left. Maybe the left can’t do angry snark and the right can’t do funny snark, but we’re all doing a lot of snark these days. If democracy is, as John Dewey said, “a way of life of free and enriching communion” – if democracy is what I fully experienced on one glorious Sunday afternoon in Virginia almost 30 years ago – there’s no snark. There’s no ridiculing.

I admit that I have engaged in ridiculing. I’ve been snarky, and still am from time to time. Sometimes I go for the joke instead of the heart. I can tell you that in this next week I’m very probably going to spend some time streaming Trevor Noah, Stephen Colbert, Seth Meyers, John Oliver, and/or Samantha Bee, and I will take what balm I can for my political pain in smirking along with the comics, in laughter as respite for tears. We take the solace that’s available when real democracy is not.

I’m concerned that corporations have disproportionate power, and that their pursuit of profits, which they are legally and even ethically required to aggressively maximize because they have a fiduciary responsibility to their stockholders, is harming this country and this planet. But demonizing corporations is not the way forward. Demonizing the other party is not the way forward.

I have glimpsed what democracy truly looks like. It looks like a couple hundred of the people with whom I share my life gathered 30 years ago to hear and to listen and to disagree, to care passionately about the issues, to care for each other more – and to outvote me.

Except for very small towns, city politics cannot look like that, nor can state or national politics. But if we personally experience the awesome community-forming power of face-to-face democracy, we may be energized to seek better democratic process on the larger scales. We will want to allow more voices rather than just wealthy ones. We will want to cultivate the democratic "habits of the heart" that engender better listening, better appreciation of our mutual interdependence, warmer hospitality to 'otherness', more life-giving holding of tensions, and more capacity for creating community (see 2013 post, "Five Habits of the Heart"). We will want to make it easier for representatives to represent all their constituents rather than lobbyists, to publicly fund campaigns, and to create districts without regard to partisan interest. The first step to doing these things is to want them. Wanting them comes from loving democracy. Loving democracy comes from having chances to experience it -- perhaps the most significant experience a congregation can provide.

* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of "The Corruption of Our Democracy"
See also:
Part 1: I Love Democracy!
Part 2: Painful Divide

2017-05-03

Painful Divide

The Corruption of Our Democracy, part 2

Fastforward 25 or so years and it’s the year 2010. I’ve become a minister, and I’m serving a congregation in Gainesville, Florida. I’m also the president of the Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry of Florida, representing Florida’s 44 congregations in lobbying for Unitarian Universalist values in the Florida legislature in Tallahassee. One of the members of the board of this legislative ministry is a woman from the Venice, Florida congregation named Kindra Muntz. Kindra is interested and engaged in all our legislative ministry issue – housing, reproductive rights – but she is most passionate about democratic process: voting rights, gerrymandering, campaign finance.

2010 you’ll recall is the year that the Citizens United decision was handed down – and that was a clear step backward. After I left Florida, I’d still see Kindra every June at General Assembly. If it was an even-numbered year, when we were selecting a new Congregational Study Action Issue, Kindra was at work lobbying the delegates to select repairing our democratic process. And then, in 2016, Kindra’s issue won. Also on the ballot were, “Ending gun violence,” “a national conversation on race,” and “climate change and environmental justice.” Edging these out was Kindra’s proposal, “the corruption of our democracy.”

The argument that, in the end I think proved decisive for the delegates was that we’ll never be able to make progress on any of the other issues if we don’t first have a fair and functioning democracy. Kindra kinda had a point. But we have a deep problem of which money in politics is only the symptom of our divisions and of the pain and despair we feel from those divisions.

Here’s another symptom. Americans have been surveyed about whether they would be displeased or upset if their child married someone outside their political party. In 1960, five percent of Americans said they’d mind if their child married someone of the other party. By 2010, 40 percent say they’d be upset. 50 percent of Republicans say they wouldn’t want their daughter or son to marry a Democrat, and 30 percent Democrats say that about marrying a Republican.

And I get that. In fact, I admit that I’m a part of that. I am not immune to the divides that split our nation, and those divides have pushed me to a wider opposition to one entire political party than my parents or their parents felt necessary most of their lives. If my daughter had come home her senior year in college and announced she was engaged to a guy who, she went on to tell us, was the president of her campus’ chapter of the College Republicans, yeah, I’d feel that. I'm sure I'd have learned to like the fellow, but at first there'd have been a twinge of feeling I'd failed as a parent. I’m sorry, but I think I would have had that twinge. And please know, those of you who are Republicans, that I love and respect you, and am committed to offering you every service I can as your minister. I am thankful every day that you let me have that role in your life, and right now what I have to offer is my confession. I’m confessing the limits and the blinders of my biases -- and that I’m hurting. This level of political divisiveness hurts. I weep for my country.

I also weep from knowing our history -- the chicanery and genocide with which Europeans stole this continent, the terrible abuse and tragedy of slavery, and Jim Crow, and red-lining. Yet through those tears, it was possible to believe that we as a country were learning, were bending the arc of the moral universe toward justice. With this additional wound of such deep division, every hopeful possibility is dimmed. There’s no possibility of real democracy – “a way of life of free and enriching communion” -- when we are this divided, when our alienation from one another has reached the level it has

Much of the UUA material on the corruption of our democracy focuses on the role of money in politics, and corporate personhood, and the idea that money is speech. The Citizens United decision lifted limits on how much corporations can give to campaigns.

The role of money in politics is, indeed, a problem. It’s true that money doesn’t directly buy elections. The losing candidate often outspends the winning candidate. Last November’s presidential election is a particularly vivid case in point: The winning candidate, our current president, spent about half of what losing candidate spent. The biggest spender doesn’t always win, but if you don’t spend at least a certain minimum, you’re never taken seriously and don’t stand a chance. And that minimum keeps rising and rising. The enormous cost of election has driven our lawmakers into continual fundraisers.
“Countless hours spent grubbing for money from affluent contributors changes candidates' priorities and sense of constituent needs. As they speak with potential donors, candidates hear repeatedly about resentment of progressive taxes and "wasteful" social spending. Special tax breaks for corporations and hedge fund managers start to sound reasonable.” (Benjamin Page, "How Money Corrupts American Politics)
The need for money tends to filter out centrist candidates, and candidates on the economic left. Candidates whose views are not broadly acceptable to the affluent can’t raise what is now the minimum to be taken seriously as a candidate.

Yes, that’s a corruption of democracy. Public funding of elections might help.

* * *
This is part 2 of 3 of "The Corruption of Our Democracy"
See also
Part 1: I Love Democracy!
Part 3: Left Snark, Right Snark

2017-05-02

I Love Democracy!

The Corruption of Our Democracy, part 1

I love democracy. I think my most joyous experiences as a Unitarian Universalist lay person came almost 30 years ago. I was a graduate student at the University of Virginia and a member of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church, Unitarian Universalist in Charlottesville. I would’ve been about 29 or 30 years old, and had two small children in the church’s RE program.

There was some proposal on the floor at a congregational meeting. I don’t remember what it was. I just remember that I was for it. I took my turn and was recognized by the chair, and I spoke to my fellow Unitarian Universalists about why this proposal was a good idea, would strengthen our church and its values. Other members of the church spoke against it – people I had come to admire and respect, people I had gotten to know at the church’s social events, coffee hours, and committee meetings and retreats.

Amendments were proposed, and some of them, by majority vote, were incorporated, and others, failing to get a majority vote did not. I had to decide how to vote on each proposed amendment, and I carefully weighed what fellow UUs had to say. It was so much fun. It was great.

In the end we arrived at a final version of the proposal. It was the kind of proposal that required a 2/3rds vote to pass. And my side, arguing that it should pass, got 58 percent of the vote. My side lost. We got most of the votes, we got a majority. But we did not get the super-majority that was required.

I was so happy. I mean, I wasn’t happy that we lost. My cognitive judgment about what policy would have been better for the church was disappointed, but emotionally and spiritually, it wasn’t the outcome that mattered. It was the process, for in that process, I spoke and I was heard. I think a swayed a few people who were undecided. And my thoughts were taken seriously by the other side, seriously enough that they needed to rise to respond to the points I had raised.

We all had a vote and a voice, and we were listening to each other. Each of us, however we ultimately ended up voting, was listening to what everyone said. We weren’t just listening politely, or even listening respectfully, but we were listening – I’ll call it “listening from the place of risk.” I didn’t have that language available to me then – I didn’t have that concept – but I felt this thing that I would later call listening from the place of risk. What you place at risk when you listen from the place of risk is whatever opinion you had on the topic before the speaker began. You are ready to have your mind changed. Maybe it changes, and maybe it doesn’t, but you are ready to have it changed.

In that process, I belonged. I mattered. And I belonged and mattered because we all belonged and mattered. My personhood and agency were affirmed and that felt good, but what felt really good was being a part of a process of affirming the personhood and agency of everyone there.

I was lifted out of myself and made a part of something bigger – and maybe getting outvoted even might have helped in lifting me out of myself. I left my church that day elated, with an elation that has abided in my heart lo these many years.

You don’t get that if your leadership’s primary concern is making sure the meeting doesn’t go too long, or if people aren’t earnestly wrestling with the issue as manifested by proposing amendments in an attempt to more finely balance the competing values. I learned that day that debate can be a form of love – and that conflict is a way to see each other for who we really are – namely, distinct human beings with different viewpoints. We can’t cherish our differences if we don’t know our differences, and we can’t know our differences except superficially without the willingness to spend the time articulating our disagreement. When we do that from the place of risk, we not only see each other for who are -- it’s a process in which we become who we are. Embedded in community, our individuality is born.

So. I love democracy. It was John Dewey who said, “Democracy is the name of a way of life of free and enriching communion.”

A way of life –

Of free and enriching –

Communion.


Don't you, too, love that?

* * *
This is part 1 of 3 of "The Corruption of Our Democracy"
See also
Part 2: Painful Divide
Part 3: Left Snark, Right Snark