Out Beyond Ideas

The Maccabee revolt in the 2nd century BCE. The Rebellion forces in Star Wars. On the one hand, we identify with oppressed people sticking up for their way of life, refusing to be assimilated. On the other hand, what are the rebels really fighting for? Are they fighting for or against progressive values?

Writer Lev Grossman raised questions about the usual way we interpret Star Wars:
“It’s entirely possible to read Star Wars as a movie about white men fighting to regain their rightful position as rulers of the universe, against a man who, if he’s not actually black, wears all black and has the voice of a black man. (Vader was voiced by James Earl Jones.) With a few notable exceptions – Princess Leia, Yoda, maybe Admiral Ackbar – women and nonhuman races are relegated to the sidelines. Human males run the show. Star Wars is framed as a story about revolution, but in some ways it’s also a fable about maintaining an old worldview of race and gender.” (Time magazine, "How J.J. Abrams Brought Back Star Wars," 2015 Dec 14)
Likewise the Maccabee revolution: it's about maintaining an old worldview. The story draws us into cheering for the rebels – yet we also identify with the sophisticates frustrated at the traditionalism of the less educated. Do these traditionalists not fear and hate people who are different? Do these traditionalists not seethe with resentment at what threatens the privileges to which they cling?

Perhaps we should let go of our own opinions, and not take sides if we aren't forced to. Instead, recognize that both sides upheld some important values and negated some other important values.

Of course, we are bound to have opinions. It is, in fact, a civic duty in a democracy, to form opinions about which candidates should be elected and which policies would be best. We also form opinions about what would be best for ourselves, what would be best for our families, what would be best for our congregation.

We exercise our best judgment, but we never really know what would be best. We don’t know if our criteria for best-ness are as comprehensive as they could be, nor do we know if our strategy for maximizing those criteria will work better than alternative strategies. We don’t know. We make our best guess – and then deal with the results with more guesses.

We can’t avoid making and having opinions. But as the saying goes: don’t believe what you think. In other words, be ready to change your mind and maintain a healthy skepticism about your own reasoning process.

We are especially prone to be suckered by stories. We love a story of good guys and bad guys. If we can just identify some group as the bad guys, then some version of the story we love can snap into place. Letting go of our opinions will mean letting go of our stories. We don't have to abandon stories altogether. We can still enjoy them -- in the way we enjoy any good fiction. We can have our stories, but we don't have to really believe them.

We see around us neighbors ready to identify Muslims as the bad guys. Perhaps we detect a similar but opposite impulse in ourselves to identify those neighbors as the bad guys.

We have to have some opinions about some things, but maybe we don’t have to have as many as we do. Are there some of them you could just let go of? If your situation doesn’t need you to weigh in on one side or another, then just stay in that space of openness, not judging good and bad, right and wrong. Unless you’re actually on the jury, you probably don’t need to have an opinion on whether the defendant is guilty or not. And when we do hold opinions, perhaps we could hold them lightly – tentatively – seeing clearly that threats to the opinion are not threats to us personally.

There’s a Zen koan about Fayan and his teacher, Dizang, in 10th-century China.
Fayan was going on pilgrimage.
Dizang said, "Where are you going?"
Fayan said, "Around on pilgrimage."
Dizang said, "What is the purpose of pilgrimage?"
Fayan said: "I don't know."
Dizang said, "Not knowing is most intimate." (Book of Serenity #20)
When we think we know, we filter experience through the categories of what we think we know. Letting go of those categories allows us to be present to the freshness of each situation. Not knowing is most intimate.

So, yes, light a candle for the Maccabee children. They represent a way of life we have left behind. We today are much more Hellenic than traditionalist. Yet still we light a candle for them – though they fought against change, though they despised anyone who was other, though they upheld patriarchy and theocracy.

We light a candle for all our enemies, for letting go of dogmatic insistence on our opinions, and for the hope of loving our enemies.

Our own opinions are surely right – and, at the same time, are also surely wrong. There is a light that shines beyond the question of who is the good guy and who has turned to the dark side. Rumi called it a field:
“Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing, there is a field
I'll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase "each other" doesn't make any sense.”
Rumi called it a field, but we might call it a light: the light beyond the dimness of our judgments of wrong-doing and right-doing, the light that shines on what we share. We all have fears; we all have the same needs, though different strategies for trying to meet them. It is a light that shines both from the sacredness of traditions and also from breaking through tradition to new ways of understanding. It is a light compassion: compassion for those who are other – compassion as well for those who fear those who are other. It’s a light of love that transcends all opinion. Don’t let that light go out.

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This is part 3 of 3 of "A Hanukkah for Letting Go of Opinions"
See also:
Part 1: Hanukkah History
Part 2: Yay for the Bumpkins...?


Yay for the Bumpkins . . . ?

Emperor Antiochus IV, ruler of the Seleucid Empire, 175 - 164 BCE, was still, despite rumors to the contrary, very much alive in 168 BCE. He was just coming off a bit of a humiliation in Egypt. Finding that his appointed high priest, Menelaus, had been run out, Antiochus took out his frustrations on Jerusalem.

Antiochus attacked the town, restored Menelaus as high priest of the temple, massacred a few thousand Jews, outlawed Jewish rites and traditions, and ordered that Zeus be worshipped as the Supreme God. He then went on his way, leaving behind a governor in Jerusalem, Philip, to enforce Hellenic religion.

Had the people of Jerusalem thought like modernists – or postmodernists – do, they might have adapted to the new worship requirements. "No big deal," they might have said. "Zeus is simply a metaphor for Yahweh. Just go with it." The people of the second century before the Common Era were not prepared to think that way.

A huge part of what religion has always been about is: who is “us,” and who is “them.” The origin of religion – the reason religion emerged among early humans – probably had a lot to do with rituals and stories that facilitated the tribe’s cohesiveness, which was crucial since battles between tribes were frequent. The tribes that had a strong sense of bonding to “us,” and had hostility to “them,” were the tribes that survived. For the Jews of the 2nd century BCE, the word “Zeus”, and bowing to a statue of Zeus, meant “them” – and siding with “them” was a betrayal of “us.” There’s no metaphoring around when tribal identity is at stake -- when “us” is fighting for its continued existence as a distinct identity against "them.”

The more Hellenized Jews, however, didn’t see it that way. They actually were saying, essentially, “This is no big deal. Just go with it.” The First Book of Maccabees relates how Greek soldiers forcibly gathered the Jewish villages and told them to bow down to a Greek idol, then eat some pork. A Greek officer ordered Mattathias, a High Priest, to do these things. Mattathias refused. When another villager stepped forward and offered to cooperate on Mattathias' behalf, Mattathias drew his sword and killed the villager, then turned on the Greek officer and killed him too. That he struck out first against a fellow Jew indicates the simmering civil conflict between the Jewish factions.

Mattathias’ five sons and the other villagers then attacked the remaining soldiers, killing all of them. Mattathias and his family went into hiding in the mountains, where other Jews wishing to fight against the Greeks joined them. Led most prominently by Mattathias son, Judas Maccabee, the rebels retook their land from the Greek Seleucids. The Maccabean revolt succeeded.

Once the Maccabees had regained control, they returned to the Temple in Jerusalem. By this time it had been spiritually defiled by being used for the worship of foreign gods and for sacrificing animals the Jews regarded as unclean. Judas Maccabee restored and rededicated the Temple.

That’s the Hanukkah story from First Maccabees, redacted in the late second century, relating the events of 350 years before. There’s nothing in the books of Maccabees about a one-day supply of oil lasting for eight days. There’s only this decree that
“every year at that season the days of dedication of the altar should be observed with joy and gladness for eight days”
But why eight days? That bit isn’t explained until a portion of the Talmud written about 600 years after the Maccabean Revolt. That’s where we get the story of the Maccabees discovering that almost all of the ritual olive oil had been profaned. They found only a single container that was still sealed by the High Priest, and thus had not been profaned. That container had only enough oil to keep the menorah in the Temple lit for a single day. They used this, yet it burned for eight days. It had to be eight days because that’s how long it takes to have new oil pressed and made ready so that the Temple menorah can burn continuously.

So the rebels won. Yay, rebels. Of course, there is a sequel, and the Empire does strike back. Then, after that, there’s a return of the Jedi (the “Jewdi”? As Mel Brooks put it, “May the Schwartz be with you.”)

And so on, back and forth and forth and back through the millennia. This is where the story becomes a test case for letting go of our own opinions -- because in the Jewish civil war of almost 2200 years ago, there weren’t good guys and bad guys. There were just people trying to make their way as best they could. Both sides represented some qualities we can admire, and both sides were sometimes unskillful in their strategies.

On the one hand, we can identify with a rebel faction fighting against an empire that had slaughtered so many of its people. Just as in “Star Wars,” we cheer for the rebels, the country bumpkins who hold to an older and mystical religion. Yay for them.

On the other hand, we can also identify with open-ness to new ideas, to learning, to urban and urbane adaptability. If I were to sum up my philosophy of religion in six words, they would be: “It’s a metaphor. Go with it.” I identify with people who like to read Plato, and who are inspired by Greek ideas of democracy as opposed to the patriarchal and priestly rule of the Jewish traditionalists. (Not that the Seleucid Empire was very democratic, but they brought Greek thought that planted seeds of democratic hope.)

* * *
This is part 2 of 3 of "A Hanukkah for Letting Go of Opinions"
See also:
Part 1: Hanukkah History
Part 3: Out Beyond Ideas


Hanukkah History

Happy Hanukkah! The eight-day festival of lights -- began at sundown on Sun Dec 6 ended at Sundown on Mon Dec 14. And then on Fri Dec 18 -- well, you know what happened on Fri Dec 18. Th new Star Wars movie opened, of course. The festival of lights – and then the temptation of the dark side.

The Hanukkah story and the Star Wars story both involve a heroic rebellion against an empire – and conflict within the rebelling faction. On this Hanukkah, let us review and remember that Hanukkah story – starting with the historical background.

The Historical Background

Alexander the Great's Greek-Macedonian forces conquered Israel in 333 BCE. Ten years later, 323 BCE, Alexander the Great died. On his death bed, Alexander carved up his empire and bequeathed various parts of it to his generals. Within another twenty years, the general that got Judea had lost it to Egypt. Another of Alexander’s generals, Seleucus, was more successful. Seleucus expanded on the holdings Alexander left to him, and established his own empire. The Seleucid Empire lasted 250 years, and, at its height, encompassed an area that included:
  • about half of what is now Turkey,
  • all of Syria,
  • all of Lebanon,
  • most of Israel,
  • a sliver of Jordan,
  • most of Iraq,
  • all of Azerbajian,
  • all of Iran,
  • about half of Turkmenistan,
  • half of Uzbekistan,
  • small chunks of Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan, and Tajikistan,
  • almost the entirety of Afghanistan, and
  • about half of Pakistan.

Big empire!

The ruling class of the Seleucid Empire were basically Greek-Macedonian, like Alexander.
In 198 BCE, the Seleucids took control of Judea, ending a century of Egyptian control, and returning the region to Hellenic rule. (“Hellenic” means Greek-based culture.)

The conquest by Alexander, followed up by the Hellenic re-conquest by the Seleucid Empire, introduced challenges and enticements to the Hebrew people: Greek sports, Greek art and architecture, Greek philosophy. The Hebrew people had been beat up on for centuries by Assyrians, by Babylonians, by Egyptians, but these Greeks were something else. They had not only a powerful army, but had more sophisticated thought. The Greeks could subjugate you by force, and then examine your concepts with Plato and Aristotle, win your heart with the tragedies of Sophocles and the comedies of Aristophanes, and top it off by dazzling you with some Euclidean geometry.

The first Plato I ever read was “the Apology of Socrates” in high school. It won my heart – I went on to be a philosophy major in college. So I guess you could say I can relate. I'm a "Hellenizer" myself.

In those BCE years, the Jewish urban intellectuals of Jerusalem found Greek thought very attractive. More and more of them were assimilating into the high secular Hellenic culture, abandoning Jewish tradition. Meanwhile, the traditionalists in the countryside – the country hicks from the small villages around Jerusalem – were having none of it. They didn’t buy that city-slicker sophistication. They had work to do, farms to run, no time for reading Plato or attending Greek drama, and no use for that new Greek gymnasium that had gone up. They had their own literary traditions and didn’t want them cast aside or overshadowed. To them, Hellenizing was turning to the dark side.

When the Hellenizers began to get their people appointed into positions as high priests over the Temple, the traditionalists fought back. The First and Second Book of Maccabees tell of the Maccabean Revolt in the 160s, BCE – before the Common Era. The Books of Maccabees paint the Revolt as a nationalist uprising of the Jews against the political and cultural oppression of Emperor Antiochus IV of the Seleucid Empire. To some extent, it was. But historians now understand that the root of the conflict was a civil war between orthodox, traditionalist Jews and secularizing, assimilating, Greek-influenced Jews.

Antiochus got involved in an attempt to quell the civil disturbance. He took the side of the Hellenizer Jews – and unfortunately escalated the conflict. In doing so, he abandoned the usual Seleucid practice of not interfering with the local religions. The standard approach of the Seleucid empire, over its vast range encompassing a great diversity of local customs and rites, like many empires, was: we’re going to take our tribute of taxes, we’re going to conscript some of your young men for the Imperial army, but you can keep your religion and your culture.

In Judea, however, Antiochus faced a situation in which his subjugated people were fighting against each other. To bring peace to the region, he entered the conflict, put the Imperial might behind the Hellenizers – the natural choice for a Hellenic overlord – and sought to quash the Hebrew traditionalists. To do this, he banned the traditional practices of Judaism, persecuted any Jew who maintained the observances, and required the people to follow Greek religious practices, including worshiping Zeus, which meant bowing to a statue.

The Books of First Maccabees and Second Maccabees say Antiochus was simply wicked. They don’t mention that persecuting the local religions was a total departure from the Seleucid practice in all other places, and they downplay the civil conflict the Jews themselves were having with each other.

As the books of Maccabees tell it, the Seleucids had been ruling over the Jews in Jerusalem for about 30 years when, in 168 BCE, the Emperor Antiochus IV was rumored dead. Jason, who had been the high priest of the temple in Jerusalem, until outmaneuvered by Menelaus, believed the rumor to be true. Jason took advantage of the perceived interregnum to mount a little army of about 1,000 – tiny, but not bad for a priest. Menelaus fled.

Next: But Antiochus wasn't dead. . . 

* * *
This is part 1 of 3 of "A Hanukkah for Letting Go of Opinions"
See also:
Part 2: Yay for the Bumpkins...?
Part 3: Out Beyond Ideas


How to Let Go of Fear

We humans are governed by a dual-control system. Though both systems are in the brain, we can think of them as "head" and "gut." Head is thoughtful and rational but slow and often wrong. Gut is quick, intuitive, and even more often wrong.

Gut often leads us in irrational directions. For example, people who are told a certain device will save 150 lives are not terribly impressed. Oddly, they are more impressed if they learn the device will save 98% of 150 lives. Why that’s almost all of them! For Gut, it feels like a nearly full cup. You could even say it saves 85% of 150 lives, and still get a more favorable reaction than if you say it saves 150 lives. See what Head is up against?

Suppose I tell you that motor vehicle accidents are the number one cause of death of children. Is that good news? Oh, my god, that’s awful, says Gut. But if Head gets a chance, it’s going to say, hey, wait a minute. That’s great news. Every single other cause of death is less. Terrorists, internet stalkers, crystal meth, school shootings, avian flu, genetically modified organisms, contaminated food, pesticides – sharks – all the other fears of our time: much, much less. In particular: infectious diseases are now less. Measles, mumps, rubella, typhoid, polio, cholera, small pox – these things used to kill huge numbers of children, and now they've been reduced so much that motor vehicle accidents are left as the number one cause of death? That’s great news.

Try spending an afternoon in a Victorian cemetery, noticing how many gravestones have death-dates only a few years different from the birthdates. The defining feeling of our age ought to be gratitude, not fear. Yet it seems the less we have to fear, the more we fear. (Daniel Gardner, The Science of Fear: Why We Fear the Things We Shouldn't--and Put Ourselves in Greater Danger, 293)

You may remember the stories in the mid-1990s about silicone breast implants leading to connective-tissue disease. Out of about 100 million women, 1 percent had breast implants, and about 1 percent get connective-tissue disease, so by coincidence alone, that’s 10,000 women with both. The FDA said there was no evidence of a correlation between implants and disease. Activist groups were outraged. “We are the evidence,” became their slogan. But if we put the many-more-thousands-of-women who had connective-tissue disease without breast implants together with the many-more-thousands-of-women who had breast implants without disease, they might have claimed that they were the evidence that implants prevented disease, and there would have been a lot more of them. When the epidemiological surveys came in, they repeatedly confirmed that, while some women with breast implants were very ill, they were not more likely to be ill than women without the implants. But Gut pays attention to stories – it’s not so good with numbers, statistics, probabilities.
“Shaped in a world of campfires and flint spears, our intuition is as innately lousy with numbers as it is good with stories.” (Gardner 93)
Advertisers know that fear sells products, from home security systems to pharmaceuticals. Newspapers know that stories about things to be scared of sell newspapers. Politicians know that fear scenarios get them elected. And as the media, and the advertisers and manufacturers and politicians compete with each other to get our attention, the fear appeals grow more and more urgent-sounding.

The cumulative effect is that we begin to feel like the world is coming to an end. Apocalypse is in the air – as evidenced by the growth and popularity of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic movies and novels.

So what are we to do? Aware that fear gets attention, that fear can dominate lives, and that fear also leads us to bad decisions, how do we let it go?

First, and foremost, notice. Notice when you’re scared. Gut is an important part of who you are. Gut is your friend. Embrace your intuitive side. But don't do what it says until you've checked it out with Head. Don’t let Gut masquerade as a rational or realistic assessment of risk.

Notice when fear arises. “Ah, there’s fear. Eyes are opening wider, heart beating a little faster – yep, I’m experiencing fear. Hello there, fear.” Don’t tell the fear to go away. Don’t repress or suppress. Instead, attend to fear. Pay attention to it, listen to it.

Letting go of something isn't a matter of deciding to banish it. Whether it is anger, or resentment, or a grudge, or attachment to a relationship that just isn’t working anymore -- or fear -- you didn’t consciously decide for the feeling to arise, so you don’t get to decide it’s going away. What you can decide to do is see through your illusion of control. Let fear go, not in the sense of dismissing it, but actually in the sense of allowing fear to proceed. Let it go – that is, allow it to go on. You don’t have to do what it says, but give it a hearing.

If you saw the wonderful Pixar movie Inside Out, then you’ve seen how fear is like a little person inside. Just like a real person, if Fear feels listened to, then Fear will start calming down. It may take a while. Give it all the time it needs. It’s when we don’t acknowledge our fears that they just keep on in the background pulling our levers.

Moreover, the more we know the way that fear works, and the more we understand how the quirks of evolution made our brains this way, then the more we can recognize our built-in tendencies toward certain kinds of error and the better able we are step back from a Gut reaction when we see it arising.

Finally, Head and Gut are not the only players here. What about Heart? What about Spirit? What about that source of the living tradition we share: Jewish and Christian teachings that call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbor as ourselves? When fear arises, and you give it a fair hearing, you can then say, “OK, let me now hear from love, from that capacity within me to love my neighbor, love all beings. What does universal love have to say?” That’s the question to come back to, the question I leave you with: What does love have to say?

* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of "Letting Go: Fear"
See also:
Part 1: Fear Kills
Part 2: Your Head vs. Your Gut


Your Head vs Your Gut

We have a lot to be scared of -- or, we think we do. Terrorists and mass shooters may be currently at the top of our lists, but it’s a long list. Here's a sampling, in no particular order, of some of the things that spook us:

internet stalkers
crystal meth
avian flu
genetically modified organisms
contaminated food
contaminated water
contaminated air
climate change
breast implants
the obesity epidemic
West Nile virus
mad cow disease
alien invasion (the interplanetary kind)
alien invasion (the international kind)
flesh-eating diseases
road rage
pedophiles lurking in parks and internet chat rooms
spontaneous combustion
Satanic cults
genetically enhanced bioweapons
computer hackers
identity thieves
self-replicating nanotechnology that turns everything into “gray goo”
artificial intelligence robots taking over the world
weird experiments in physics that could create a black hole destroying the planet

At home, children are forbidden from playing alone outdoors, as all generations did before, because their parents are convinced “every bush hides a pervert.” As it happens:
“Obesity, diabetes, and the other health problems caused in part by too much time sitting inside are a lot more dangerous than the specters haunting parental imaginations." (Daniel Gardner, The Science of Fear: Why We Fear the Things We Shouldn't--and Put Ourselves in Greater Danger, 13)
Fear, of course, has its purpose. We need fear. Fear helps us survive by gearing up energy to protect ourselves -- either by fighting of the threat or running away from it. When someone behaves "fearlessly" they probably aren't literally without fear. They're just managing their fear well. The presence of fear is what allows courage to be courage and not just foolish risk-taking.

In human evolution, we needed mechanisms that would grab our attention and steer us away from danger. Every human brain is two systems attempting to operate side-by-side. There’s Head (reason), and Gut (feelings and intuitions). If you want reasoning, Head is gonna have to stop and think. Head is slow.

But if you need a snap judgment, Gut is there for you. Gut doesn’t worry with having to explain itself – often you can’t explain your hunches, your intuitions. Your Gut, operating below the radar of consciousness, checks for the most readily available examples it can find in the brain’s storage. If an alley looks a certain way, you’ll feel uneasy about walking down it because Gut has grabbed a quickly accessible memory of something you saw in a movie in which someone walked down an alley like this and got attacked.

Gut can’t even tell the difference between your first-hand experience and someone else’s stories. Gut believes the examples that are most readily at hand. Statistics completely fail to hold Gut’s attention. Gut just fixates on one or two lurid stories.

This dual-control system was pretty adaptive for hunter-gatherers who never traveled very far.
If there was a vivid memory of danger ready to hand, then it was probably a memory of something that actually happened in your presence and not far from where you are right now. If you’re facing a situation that looks similar, it makes sense for that fear reaction to be triggered without waiting for the slow, plodding assessment of reasoning.

Imagine a Stone Age hunter who falls asleep by the glowing embers of a campfire one night. When he opens his eyes in the morning, he is lying on a sidewalk in Times Square. That’s basically us. We inherited our protective and fearful gut reactions from our Stone Age ancestors – only, we’re trying to make our way in a very different world.

Gut was really helpful for our ancestors dealing with the world they found themselves in a million years ago. But a system that grabs our attention, gives us quick-reaction intuitive judgments, and overrides reason is ripe for manipulation. So the evening news specializes in “a report you can’t afford to miss” about “a danger that could be lurking near you.” It grabs attention. That’s what they need for their ratings.

The result is that the overall fear in our lives creeps up. We overestimate the risk from things that make the evening news, and underestimate the risk from things that don’t. Murder, terrorism, fire, flood – and sharks – seize our fearful imaginations. Risks like diabetes, asthma, and heart disease – and auto accidents -- are much greater but get less of our attention.

Let me illustrate how Head and Gut compete for control. Consider this question: A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost? The immediate impulse is to say 10 cents. It feels right. It’s wrong, and if Head has a chance to come in, it can offer a helpful corrective. In a nonthreatening scenario, dealing with math, there's a good chance you call in Head and follow Head's advice. Head will say: “Oh. The ball costs 5 cents and the bat cost $1.05.”

Suppose I ask you two questions: "Was Mohandas Gandhi older or younger than 9 years old when he died? OK, right. He was older. Forget that. How old was he?"

Now suppose I ask you a different pair of questions: "Was Mohandas Gandhi older or younger than 140 years old when he died? OK, right. He was younger. Forget that. How old was he?"

People who were asked the first pair of questions, guess an average age of 50. People who are asked the second pair of questions, guess an average age of 67. See, this is the Anchoring Principle. The brain starts with an anchor number, and then revises up or down to compensate for numbers that are obviously off. But our brains don’t compensate enough. The nine – or the 140 – is stuck in our brains, and even though I say “forget it,” it’s there.

How can we live with brains so irrational?

Suppose I ask you to estimate the probability of an event: What’s the chance of so-and-so winning the presidential election? What’s the chance of a major storm hitting the US in the next 6 months that does more damage than Sandy did? If I ask you to take a minute to vividly imagine the event before you guess, you’re going to estimate much higher, though vividness of imagined detail has nothing to do with probability.

One lottery’s slogan is ‘just imagine.’ They do more than invite us to daydream. They ask us to do something that elevates our intuitive sense of how likely we are to win the jackpot – which is a good way to convince us to gamble. (Gardner 52)

* * *
This is Part 2 of 3 of "Letting Go: Fear"
See also:
Part 1: Fear Kills
Part 3: How to Let Go of Fear


Resolving the Paradox of Tolerance

The paradox of tolerance is: if you tolerate everything, do you even tolerate intolerance? If you do tolerate intolerance, then you are failing to defend tolerance. If you don't tolerate intolerance, then you're being intolerant yourself. Hence: paradox.

Fortunately, this is not hard to resolve. It's about overall climate. Just remember that key phrase: overall climate.

Look, I'm committed to tolerance. I'm committed to cultivating a diversity of viewpoints, and I appreciate people around me who disagree with me. Two things to remember:

1. Tolerance does not mean you are exempt from criticism. I honor your right to have an opinion different from mine. As Evelyn Beatrice Hall (British writer, b. 1868) famously said:
"I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it."
Tolerance generally means you get to say it, but that doesn't mean I don't also get my say. And when I get my say, I might very well choose to be very pointed in explaining how you have misrepresented the facts, and how, even if you had the facts right, they do not support the conclusion you have fallaciously drawn.

If, in the process, I also throw in some rude remarks, ad hominem attacks, and misrepresent some facts myself, then I am being a bad debater, not an intolerant one. As long as I'm not using force (which, when it comes to government tolerance, is known as "the coercive apparatus of the state") to stifle or punish your viewpoint, then tolerance is not an issue.

That much is easily grasped. Here's where people start running aground of difficulties:

2. Tolerance does not even require that we must always abstain from use of force to limit your expression. Generally, of course, we want to let viewpoints be freely expressed. However, "time, place, and manner" restrictions are widely recognized as legitimate. You can have your opinion, and express it, but not in certain places at certain times. And the manner of expression might be inappropriate: you can't yell your opinions at the top of your lungs in the middle of a hospital ward in the middle of the night. In fact, in general, you can't disturb the peace.

In determining what sort of content should not be tolerated, the question is: How do we facilitate the greatest overall climate of tolerance? A given climate of tolerance is greater than another when it yields greater diversity of expression. If we allow hateful bigoted expressions to be freely uttered, or posted on the walls of public institutions, then we inhibit counter-expressions.

We refer to the "free market of ideas" because there is indeed an analogy between the discourse of viewpoints and the free market. If you leave either completely free, then it quickly becomes unfree. For the maximum overall climate of free expression -- just as for the maximally free market -- a little regulation is required.

In 1890, Congress passed the Sherman Act, and in 1914 passed two additional anti-trust laws. We passed these laws because we'd learned that if we left the market entirely unregulated, then monopolies could (and would and did) arise which then stifled other businesses. A big, powerful company could afford to sell products at below cost until the competition was driven out of business -- and thus establish and maintain monopoly control: just the opposite of a free market. We needed to limit the market freedom of powerful would-be monopolies in order to foster greater market freedom overall. If you don't limit the freedom of the bullies to bully, then the bullies will limit everyone else's freedom.

In the same way, it is necessary to limit some hateful expressions. Otherwise, the powerful haters will create a climate intolerant of views different from theirs.

When do we tolerate intolerance and when do we not? 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 -- but sometimes it's worth it. Sometimes not curtailing certain expressions damages the climate of tolerance even more.

It may sometimes be difficult to tell what the effects on the overall climate of tolerance are. Sometimes our best judgment might get it wrong -- and we'll end up tolerating something we shouldn't have tolerated, or shutting down some expression which we should have allowed. Applying the criterion won't always be easy. Community is messy. There is no easily-applied criterion, but there is a criterion: maximization of the overall climate of tolerance.


UUs and Black Lives Matter Banners

Bethesda, MD: The River Road UU's sign was defaced twice.
All across the country, UU congregations are putting up "Black Lives Matter" banners. Sometimes this attracts the attention of people who don't like that message. In the following cities, UU congregations have posted Black Lives Matter banners which were then vandalized or stolen -- which made the news.

Annapolis, MD. Banner stolen. READ HERE.

Chandler, AZ. Banner defaced, "all" written over "black." READ HERE.

The sign at the Arlington, MA UU Church
Arlington, MA. Their banner has been repeatedly defaced -- usually with the word "black" crossed through and the word "all" written in. This happened despite the fact that their banner actually includes the words:
"Of course all lives matter. We believe every individual is important and every person deserves to be treated with justice and compassion. We live, however, in a society that often suggests otherwise. Because of the continuing injustice and violence disproportionately faced by people of color, we affirm that Black Lives Matter." READ HERE.

Bethesda, MD. Word "Black" cut out of the banner. READ HERE.

Pittsburgh, PA. A smaller yardsign saying "Black Lives Matter" was stolen. The next five signs put up in its place were vandalized then stolen. READ HERE.

In Reno, NV, vandals wrote "WHITE" over the word "Black"
on the banner of the UU Fellowship.
Reno, NV and Bedford, MA: Banners vandalized. READ MORE. This article mentions that, as of Nov 13, more than 50 UU congregations have posted "Black Lives Matter" signs. At press time, 17 had reported their banner had been vandalized or stolen.

UU congregations aren't the only ones to be standing up for what's right. For instance, a Baptist church in Wayne, PA. READ HERE. And another Baptist church in Jamaica Plains, MA. READ HERE.

Of course, the signs don't always get vandalized. The UU congregation in Las Cruces, NM made news for taking the stand of support and putting up a Black Lives Matter sign. READ HERE.

And not all of the UU response to attacks or criticism has been noble. Our congregation in Chicago's Beverly community caved under pressure. READ HERE. Hearing of the Beverly congregation's withdrawal of their sign, Elizabeth Mount posted:
“As a Unitarian Universalist seminarian and a member of the First Unitarian Society of Denver, I am disappointed in this congregation’s conciliatory response to racist trolling. Our General Assembly this year agreed on national support of the ‪#blacklivesmatter‪ movement. We have had these conversations for over a year in many congregations, and this feels like a giant step backward. If we can’t even specifically say that black lives matter out loud and in print, how can we possibly say we don’t think black people are ‘less than’?”
Good question, Elizabeth.


Fear Kills

Here at Community UU, our theme for December is "Letting go." The “Letting Go” issue of On the Journey is out (HERE), with material on which to reflect. Our journey groups this month will allow for plunging into this important topic and going deep. (Not in a Journey Group? Sign up HERE.)

Letting go is a central spiritual idea. Oriah Mountain Dreamer said,
“Sometimes I think there are only two instructions we need to follow to develop and deepen our spiritual life: slow down and let go.”
Letting go overlaps with so many other important theological and spiritual topics – issues that matter for our spiritual growth.
  • Forgiveness: let go of that grudge.
  • Death: let go of your secret illusions of immortality in order to live fully in this brief span.
  • Faith – because letting go “requires we believe that, once we release our grips, life will not leave us empty-handed.
  • It takes faith to let go of what we’ve got.
  • Gratitude: this is what prepares us to trust and let go.
  • It’s letting go of wanting things to be different to make room for being grateful for how they are.
  • Love – because, as the saying goes, if you love something, let it go.
  • Mindfulness: let go of the past in order to live in the present.
  • Justice: letting go of our unjust privilege.
  • Transformation: Because we have to let go of clinging to our usual patterns in order to open up to become something new.
There’s the kind of letting go that implies that you’ve had a hold on something. Release it.

And there’s the kind of letting go that just means allowing things to proceed – not trying to control or hold them. Let them go: allow them to continue.

And, of course, for those of you who have seen a certain animated Disney film, “let it go” also seems to have something to do with self-assertion and independence and building a solitary ice palace, your soul spiraling in frozen fractals all around, and the cold never bothering you anyway.

Elsa’s aria also affirms that in letting it go,
“the fears that once controlled me, can’t get to me at all.”
Today, the letting go that I want to particularly focus on is letting go of fear. There are a lot of ways one can go on the topic of “letting go,” and, in light of recent events, I think what we most need to talk right now about is fear. (Our Journey Groups will, of course, explore the many other facets of letting go.)

Our nation seems to be in the grip of some powerful fears. ISIS spooks us. Why did the Paris bombings last month grab our hearts and attention so much more than a bombing in Beirut the day before did? I suspect part of the reason is that when it happened in Paris, it scared us a lot more. Beirut seems like another world – the victims another culture, another skin tone, not really relevant to US whites. But if terrorist strikes can kill 100 in Paris -- Western and predominantly white -- maybe they could do that in New York. Maybe what happened in San Bernardino last Wednesday was just the beginning.

We’re scared of Jihadists – and also scared of how that fear might lead some our country’s less stable citizens to anti-Muslim violence, lashing out, blaming all Islam, attacking mosques, catching us in the collateral damage, maybe. So, suddenly, say, a planned field trip to visit a mosque seems scary – even though any rational assessment of risks will recognize that the chances of being killed in a traffic accident on the way to the visit are probably a few hundred times greater than the chance of being killed by an explosion or gunfire while there.

Fear itself typically does us more damage than the things we’re afraid of. Just after 9-11, for instance, fear of airplanes went up as you might imagine. Analyzing patterns of car use and airplane travel after 9-11 shows that there was a shift from airplanes to cars that lasted about one year. We have pretty good ways to measure total vehicle miles traveled, and, during the year it took a year for the fear of airplanes to die down, return to normal levels, we saw people putting in more miles by car. The thing is, airplane travel is safer. The fatalities per vehicle mile traveled stayed constant, so as automobile travel went up, so did traffic fatalities.

Gerd Gegerenzer analyzed the numbers, and was able to deduce that the extra car travel in the year after 9-11 killed just shy of 1600 people. That is, the number of Americans killed in car crashes as a direct result of the switch from planes to cars was 1,595. Those were nearly 1600 people who would not have died if the ratio of plane travel to car travel had stayed the same as it was the years preceding 9-11.

The actual collapse of the twin towers killed less than 3,000 people. The increased fear of airplanes over the next year killed over half again that many. Fear kills.

* * *
This is part 1 of 3 of "Letting Go: Fear"
Part 2: Your Head vs. Your Gut
Part 3: How to Let Go of Fear

* * *

P.S. Speaking of "Let It Go" -- you might get a kick out of this Google Translate parody:


This Week's Prayer

Dear love, which calls us to respond,

How shall we respond?

On Wednesday, 14 people were shot dead in San Bernardino, at a center for people with developmental disabilities. It was the second mass shooting of the day. We didn’t hear so much about the gunman in Savannah, Georgia who shot four, killing one.

The Friday before a gunman killed an officer and two others at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs.

What does it mean to pray for the victims and their families? That we take this moment to hold them in our thoughts, in our hearts. As the Daily News pointed out, God isn’t fixing this. It’s up to us to do that.

So as we prayer for the victims, we also pray for ourselves. That we may have the fortitude to demand action. To raise our voices to insist that civilian ownership of combat rifles and certain kinds of ammunition need not be allowed.

We pray for anger that prevents complacency when, one day after the San Bernardino murders, the Senate voted down a measure that would have made it more difficult for people on the terror watch list, felons, and the mentally ill to buy guns.

We pray that our attention and righteous anger may be directed where it needs to be: at elected leaders in thrall to the money and political power of an industry dedicated to profiting from spread of assault weapons.