Three Issues We Prefer Not to Think About

The Future Will Judge Us, part 2

What are we doing today for which our great-great-grandkids will have a hard time forgiving us?

Probably one of the first things that comes to mind for many of you is the environmental harms our generation is wreaking. Anthony Appiah, the Princeton philosopher and ethicist who has identified three criteria of when an issue is ripe for moral growth (SEE HERE), does cite environment protection as one area where our moral attitudes are changing.

First question, have the arguments against the practice (in this case, the practices of harming and depleting our environment) been around a while, had time to sink in and time to be refuted if they were going to be? Yes. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, widely credited with launching the environmental movement, has been out since 1962. The first Earth Day was 46 years ago. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has been warning us about climate change with reports every few years since 1990. Half the forests that once covered the earth are gone. Each year, another 16 million hectares disappear. Since 1990, half the rainforests have disappeared – and half of all plant and animal land species live in the rainforests. And we’ve known that for a while. We know – and have known for some time – about these threats.

Second question: Are the arguments for continuing the practices that damage and deplete the environment arguments of convenience or necessity or tradition rather than arguments of rightness or genuine social benefit? No one argues directly that environmental destruction is a good thing. The practices that have the consequence harming the environment are defended on grounds of convenience and tradition. We could re-tool for a green economy – provide jobs for people doing things that preserve the earth rather than deplete it – but that would take energy and planning and disrupting the habitual patterns we now follow.

Third question: Does continuation of the practice rely on people just not thinking about it much? Many Americans are in denial. Even people like me need the government to pass laws to facilitate my transfer to a greener lifestyle. Lifestyles with zero ecological footprint are possible, but will be rare unless governmental action uses a mixture of incentives, fees, requirements, and bans to create a context for mass transition. Yet, so far, this country hasn't managed to elect a majority of lawmakers that take environmental issues seriously. Our great-great-grandchildren, what there are of them, will find it hard to forgive us for that.

A second issue Appiah discusses as ripe for moral shift is the U.S. Prison system.

The harm is known and has been known for some time. From 1920 to 1980 our prison population slowly crept upward from about a quarter-million to just over half a million by 1980. Then in 1980, we started an incarceration binge. We now have 2.2 million people incarcerated in the US – in federal prisons, state prisons, and county jails. While the US has 4 percent of the world’s population, it has 25 percent of the all the world’s prisoners. Most of our prisoners are non-violent offenders, many of them on drug offenses that would not even have been illegal at all in some industrialized nations. The punishment prisoners face goes far beyond the judge’s sentence. 100,000 inmates are sexually abused every year. 25,000 are in isolation under conditions many psychologists say amounts to torture.

Criterion 1: The arguments against it have been around a while, had time to sink in and time to be refuted if they were going to be. Check.

Criterion 2: The arguments for it tend to be arguments of convenience or necessity or tradition. Check. The defenders of our prison status quo – insofar as there are any -- tend to cite the administrative difficulty of reform.

Critierion 3: Continuation of the practice relies on people just not thinking about it much. Check. Putting the issue out of our minds is easy to do because after all one point of prison is to keep prisoners out of sight.

A third issue that Kwame Appiah identifies is our treatment of the institutionalized and isolated elderly. This is a practice future generations will condemn. He writes:
"Nearly 2 million of America's elderly are warehoused in nursing homes, out of sight and, to some extent, out of mind. Some 10,000 for-profit facilities have arisen across the country in recent decades to hold them. Other elderly Americans may live independently, but often they are isolated and cut off from their families. Is this what Western modernity amounts to -- societies that feel no filial obligations to their inconvenient elders?”
Geriatricians Ward Ensminger and Norton Hadler have written how about how not-for-profit nursing homes, usually run by churches, were bought up, one by one, by profit-making interests. The grim reality of most for-profit nursing homes—‘walled communities’ where the elderly quickly lose their autonomy, in a place that
“lies somewhere between a homeless shelter and a hospital; a smelly, run down, unattractive warehouse filled with mentally and physically impoverished , half-dead people.”
Care is very expensive, but often not very good. They call,
“for a new community initiative to foster intergenerational communities where the aging live side-by-side with those who can benefit from their presence and experience over time...And when it is their time to die, it should be in their own bed, in their own neighborhood, with the full acknowledgement of their extended community." (Ensminger & Hadler)”
Keeping aging parents and their children closer is a challenge, particularly in a society where almost everybody has a job outside the home (if not across the country).

Yet the three signs apply here as well: When we see old people who, despite many living relatives, suffer growing isolation, we know something is wrong. We scarcely try to defend the situation. When we can, we put it out of our minds. What are we thinking?

* * *
This is part 2 of 3 of "The Future Will Judge Us"
See also
Part 1: What Were They Thinking?
Part 3: Pending Moral Changes?


What Were They Thinking?

The Future Will Judge Us, part 1

"What were they thinking?" From the 15th into the 18th centuries, paranoia about witches in Europe and North America was at its peak. Estimates are that 40,000 to 100,000 people, mostly women, were executed, usually by burning, for being a witch. What were they thinking?

From the 16th into the 19th centuries, an estimated 12 million Africans were shipped as slaves to the Americas. About 5 or 6 percent of them were brought to what became or was the United States where, by 1860, the slave population had grown to 4 million. What were they thinking?

My two grandmothers – and many of yours – were born in this country when women were forbidden to vote. Denying the vote to half the adult population? What were they thinking?

We look back at the past and see a story of moral progress slowly leading up to us. Of course, it’s not that simple.

I was a kid in third grade, when, one evening I heard the word “napalm” on the evening news, reporting on the Viet Nam war. I turned to my Dad and asked, “What’s napalm?” I remember the calm way he answered: “It’s a gasoline jelly used in bombs. When the bomb goes off, the flaming jelly sticks to and burns things. People, mostly.”

He didn't seem bothered by this: he was so matter-of-fact. I was stunned. By third grade, I knew that we no longer burned people we thought were witches. Instead, we burned people we thought were communists.

Changes in practical realities don’t always match changing attitudes. No one would speak in favor of slavery today, but human trafficking continues on every continent. In the US, immigrant farmworkers are locked up, cheated out of pay, robbed of their names, stacked 10 to a room. Still, attitude shift isn’t nothing.

Once it was widely understood that a man’s husbandly and fatherly duties included beating his wife and children. Abuse and battering continue, but attitudes in the US and Europe, have shifted from expecting it, to accepting it, to seeing it as a foible one joked about, to viewing it as a serious crime.

Homosexuality was once a hanging offense. LGBT people still face many forms of discrimination, but their marriages are legally recognized now, and that’s not nothing.

Torture continues, but its condemnation is much more widespread. Waterboarding was invented in the middle ages by the Catholic Church that now condemns it.

Moral progress isn’t simple and straightforward, and it often hasn’t progressed as much as we like to think it has, but it does seem to slowly happen in some areas. So what might be next? What are we doing today, what practices do we tacitly accept or actively endorse, of which our great-grandchildren, looking back on the early 21st century, will ask: What were they thinking? There’s no possible way to tell, right?

It's easy and very tempting to think: "My own political and moral opinions are the correct ones. Therefore, the future will be a progressive story of more and more people figuring out what I already know." Due humility and regular recollection of how one's own opinions have changed through the years may help one avoid that trap. In fact, what seems like moral progress to most people at one time might turn out to be a cul-de-sac. In 1920 when, by Constitutional Amendment, alcohol was prohibited in the United States, a lot of people then thought that was moral progress. Most of us now regard that as a mistake. Movements to protect public decency by burning books or suppressing birth control felt like moral progress to the people of the time, but also turned out not to be such good ideas. So maybe some of our current moral ideas will come to be seen as similarly quaint and misguided.

Is there any more-or-less objective way to assess what the moral shifts in the near future will be? It turns out that maybe there is.

In a 2010 Washington Post column, Princeton philosophy professor Kwame Anthony Appiah advanced three criteria for identifying a practice that is on the verge of being widely condemned as immoral – three indicators that attitudes are probably about to shift. (SEE HERE.)
  • First, the arguments against the practice are out there. People have heard them, and the arguments are simmering in the back of our collective consciousness. For instance, the case against slavery didn't suddenly pop up in an instantaneous transformative insight -- a blinding moment of moral clarity. The moral argument against slavery had been around for centuries. It just took a while for it to really sink in. Arguments for women’s suffrage were around a long time even before the 1848 Seneca Falls convention more-or-less officially kicked off the US suffrage movement – and it took 72 years after that before women’s suffrage was won. People need time to know the argument, try it out, see if it stands up, see if a really good refutation shows up -- give themselves a few generations – to, you know, think it over.
  • Second criterion: Even those who defend it don’t offer a moral defense. They don’t say, “this is right,” – or, at least, they don’t say it with much conviction. Rather, they argue from tradition, or human nature, or necessity. Defenders of slavery said, “We have to have slaves to get the cotton crop in.” Or “this is how we’ve always done it.” Or “it’s human nature for some people to give the orders and others to obey them.”
  • Third criterion: we see a lot of pushing the issue out of our minds. At some important level, we know it’s wrong; we just put it out of mind. We don’t want to think about it. The practice persists only because most people won’t think about it. Those who ate the sugar or wore the cotton that the slaves grew simply didn't think about what made those goods possible. It was the abolitionists’ job to make clear and vivid the slave conditions so that it couldn’t be ignored.
For what current practices will our great-great-grandkids have a hard time forgiving us?

Next: applying the criteria

* * *
This is part 1 of 3 of "The Future Will Judge Us"
See also
Part 2: Three Issues We Prefer Not to Think About
Part 3: Pending Moral Changes?


Beltane and Flower Communion

Beltane and Flower Communion

May 1. We celebrate May Day. We celebrate the pagan holiday of Beltane. Beltane is the anglicised name for the Gaelic May Day festival, midway between the vernal equinox and the summer solstice.

Historically, Beltane was widely observed throughout Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. It is one of the four Gaelic seasonal festivals — along with Lughnasadh (or Lammas) at mid-summer, around the first of August; Samhain at mid-autumn, around the first of November; and Imbolc, at mid-winter, around the first of February. For the Irish, for centuries, this midpoint of spring was time for the cattle to be driven out to the summer pastures. Rituals were performed to protect the cattle, crops and people, and to encourage growth. Special bonfires were made. The people and their cattle walked around the bonfire or between two bonfires to receive the protection of the Beltane flames, smoke, and ash. Household fires were doused and then re-lit from the Beltane bonfire. Doors, windows, byres and the cattle themselves were decorated with May flowers.

The morning dew of Beltane was held to bring beauty and maintain youthfulness. Fairies or nature spirits, according to tradition, are especially active at Beltane – as they are six months later at Samhain. It is a "spring time festival of optimism."

The power of the sun is growing. The days are warmer and the light is longer. We know the sun’s power will wane again, and cold days and long nights will return, but now is the time of ascendency – of burgeoning, blooming, fertility, of the resurrection of new life.

To the ancient festival of Beltane, we bring our distinctive Unitarian celebration of the flowers. Called variously Flower communion, Flower celebration, or Flower festival, it is a joyous springtime ritual at many Unitarian Universalist congregations. Let us, on this occasion, re-tell the tale of the origin of this Unitarian celebration.

Two Czechs, Norbert Capek and Maja, met in New York City while Norbert was studying for his Ph.D. At Maja’s uring Norbert left the Baptist ministry and turned to Unitarianism. Now married, the Capeks returned to Czechoslovakia in 1921 and established the dynamic liberal church in Prague. In the spring of 1923, Norbert introduced this special flower service to his church.
“For some time he had felt the need for some symbolic ritual that would bind people more closely together. The format had to be one that would not alienate any who had forsaken other religious traditions. The traditional Christian communion service with bread and wine was unacceptable to the members of his congregation because of their strong reaction against the Catholic faith.
So he turned to the native beauty of their countryside for elements of a communion which would be genuine to them. This simple service was the result." (Reginald Zottoli, "The Flower Communion")
It was Maja, who had herself been ordained to Unitarian ministry in 1926, who brought the flower communion to the United States. Visiting in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1940, she introduced the flower celebration to the Cambridge Unitarian congregation. The outbreak of World War II prevented Maja’s planned return to Prague. Not until sometime after the war was over did she learn of Norbert Capek's death in a Nazi concentration camp.

As each person has placed their own flower in one of our vases, we signify that by our own free will we join with one another. The vases containing all the flowers are symbols of being united, held together. Later, people come to the vase and each takes a flower other than the one that they had brought. As no two flowers are alike, so no two people are alike, yet each has a contribution to make. Together the different flowers form a beautiful bouquet. Our common bouquet would not be the same without the unique addition of each individual flower, and thus it is with our congregation.

It would not be the same without each and every one of us. This service is a statement of our community. By exchanging flowers, we show our willingness to walk together in our Search for truth. We notice the ways we are different, and do not allow our differences to divide us.

Each person takes home a flower brought by someone else - thus symbolizing our shared celebration in community. This communion of sharing represents the essence of who we are as a free people of a free religion.


A Path to Simplicity

The Gift to be Simple, part 3

The Greeks had a concept of paideia. They meant that life at its best was a continuous self-transformation of our person; that this lifelong project of transformation was an art form. In 1987, for the first time in this country, the number of shopping centers exceeded the number of high schools. A life of shopping – and working so that we can get the money to do the shopping – is not conducive to the practice of the art of lifelong transformation.

How did we get in this mess?

Humans have been around, as roughly the species that we are, for about 3 million years. We were designed to solve certain problems – find food, shelter, a mate, get the children raised, interact socially. So, of course, when, in the last 9,999 ten-thousandths of those 3 million years, the rich societies of the world developed technology to meet those basic needs more plentifully than we ever had before, we had to use it. It’s what we were designed to do. We were designed to try to solve those problems – built to spend our lives working on them. We weren’t designed to know what to do with ourselves after actually solving them. We’re built to seek more because for all those generations, more numerous that we can conceive, seeking more improved our survival odds.

We’re also built to compare ourselves to our neighbors. Financial advisor Dave Ramsey said, “We buy things we don’t need, with money we don’t have, to impress people we don’t like.” Why do we do that?

Robert Frank, Cornell economics professor has pointed out that our relative income is more important to us than our absolute buying power. Most of humans would rather make a $100,000 a year in a world in which everyone else was making $90,000 than make $110,000 in a world in which everybody else is making $120,000. Why are we like that?

UCLA neuroscientist Michael McGuire and colleagues have done a number of studies on vervet monkeys that suggest part of the answer. Serotonin levels correlate with position in the social hierarchy, both as cause and effect. If you artificially raise their serotonin levels with drugs, they become more likely to ascend the social hierarchy; and if you remove the most dominant monkeys, then the next ones down become the new top, and their serotonin level goes up. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that regulates mood and behavior; it enhances feelings of well-being. Writes Robert Frank:
“Suffice it to say that no matter how the relevant mechanisms work, there is compelling evidence that concern about relative position is a deep-rooted and ineradicable element of human nature.”
I think we have to have our eyes open to the sort of beings that we evolved to be. But that relative position that by our nature we attend to does not have to be a hierarchically-ordered position. I know not what options may be available to those vervet monkeys, but humans, at least, have powerful cultural concepts, ideas, learning, spiritual cultivation to interact with our genetic construction. We, at least, can have status without having to have a higher position in a hierarchy, without having to accumulate wealth, without having to impress people we don’t like.

We can learn to recognize and feel status as an equal, making an equal’s contribution to the community. The development of closer-knit communities is thus essential.

We need status, but if we don’t have a close sense of community, then the only path open to us with be the trappings of status, the symbols of status, which we accumulate in order to feel a status in which we cannot be secure because it is conferred partly in our imaginations, and by others whose deference we cannot trust, whose love we do not believe in, and whose eyes we do meet.

There’s another way.

We can live deliberately. There are people intentionally deciding to cut back work hours, cut back clutter, cut back consumption. For instance, there’s a tiny house movement – houses less than 400 square feet are popping up around the country.

The best hope is not to go to the woods, like Thoreau, nor to embrace the hardships of subsistence farming. The best hope is, however, to live deliberately in community. In community, we can share. The co-housing idea, for instance, I find more encouraging than isolated tiny houses. Co-housing communities don’t have all property held in common. But they hold in common some property – maybe a shared garden plot, and shared power tools, for instance. They may have some shared meals – where people take turns fixing a dinner for the whole community – say three times a week. While most of the cohousing communities built in the 1990’s and early 2000’s were suburban, there is now a surge in urban cohousing. That’s a hopeful direction for lives of greater richness and sharing and connection, less stress and alienation, more encountering life more consciously.

Whatever the path toward simplicity might be for you, it requires intention, deliberately breaking with some of the forces that have been pulling you along. There probably is a better way for you. May the path be found, and the courage to take it, step by step.

* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of "The Gift to be Simple"
See also
Part 1: Our Sordid Boon
Part 2: Consumption Up, Well-Being Down


Consumption Up, Well-Being Down

The Gift to be Simple, part 2

Despite the great recession of 2007-2009, and despite the slowness of a number of economic measures of recovery, U.S. per capita consumption, is still rising. Adjusted for inflation, in the 20 years 1976 to 1996, US per capita consumption rose 36 percent. In the next 20 years, from 1996 to 2016, it rose another 32 percent – barely slowed down.

Compared to 20 years ago, we own 70 percent more cars per person -- and we drive 30 percent more miles.

Our houses are getting bigger and bigger. In 1950, the median size of a new single-family house built in the U.S. was 1100 square feet. Wasn’t that enough? In 1973, the median was up to 1,525 square feet; twenty-five years later, 1998, the median reached 2000 square feet. Last year, median square feet of new houses broke 2500. That’s median, not mean, so this is not a product of the upper echelons building enormous mansions. It means half of all new houses built today are twice or more the size of the median new house in 1960.

The percentage of the world’s population comprised of Americans totals less than 4.5 percent. The percentage of the world’s resources consumed by Americans totals 30 percent. That means the average American is consuming 10 times the resources of the average rest-of-the-world.

In 2012, American children were receiving allowances averaging $780 per year. The same year, more than an eighth of the world population was living on that much per year. That’s almost a billion people getting by on what the average American child gets in allowance.

We aren’t happy with all this wealth. While that per capita consumption was rising and rising, the percent of Americans reporting they were “very happy” has stayed right about the same as it was in 1957. Standard of living is going up, but quality of life is not.

There is an index of social health. It combines 16 indicators:
  • infant mortality,
  • child abuse,
  • child poverty,
  • teenage suicide,
  • teenage drug abuse,
  • high school dropouts,
  • unemployment,
  • weekly wages,
  • health insurance coverage,
  • poverty among the elderly,
  • out-of-pocket health-care costs among the elderly,
  • homicides,
  • alcohol-related traffic fatalities,
  • food insecurity,
  • affordable housing, and
  • income inequality.
According to this index, the social health in the US peaked in 1973, then steadily fell until 1981. Since then, it has bounced around a bit and essentially stayed flat.

We’re consuming more and more resources, but our national social health is staying lower than in was 43 years ago.

And to support these consumption rates, we work frenetically. A Gallup poll last December “found that 61 percent of working Americans said they did not have enough time to do the things they wanted to do.”

It’s true that we probably exaggerate our own busy-ness. A 2011 study from Monthly Labor Review found that “people estimating 75-plus hour workweeks were off, on average, by about 25 hours.” OK, but something about modern life makes us feel very, very busy.

Having more money really doesn’t make us any happier – except for the very poor. If you're trying to get by on less than $10,000 a year, then more money really would make life better. For those making the US median or more, any further increase in income would have no real relation to the quality of life. Doctors are the highest income group in the U.S. Lawyers aren’t far behind. But what are the professions with the highest proportion of unhappy people? Doctors and lawyers. Of course, I know some very happy, emotionally healthy people who are doctors and lawyers. But there are also a lot of unhappy ones out there, leading lives of quiet desperation. The point is that wealth isn’t really what we want. It’s only what we so often act like we want.

The life of simplicity is richer than modern consuming lifestyles. As Duane Elgin wrote thirty-five years ago,
“We cannot be deliberate when we are distracted from our critical life circumstances. We cannot be intentional when we are not paying attention. We cannot be purposeful when we are not being present. Therefore, crucial to acting in a voluntary manner is being aware of ourselves as we move through life” (Voluntary Simplicity 32).
Our normal waking consciousness is so embedded within a stream of inner-fantasy dialogue that little attention can be paid to the moment-to-moment experiencing of ourselves. We aren’t continuously and consciously ‘tasting’ our experience of ourselves. “Getting and spending we lay waste our powers,” as Wordsworth put it.

Simplicity is not turning away from progress, but is crucial to progress. Elgin writes:
“The West has pursued material and social growth without a balanced regard for the development of interior human potentials. The result has been the emergence of a life-denying and self-serving order that has exhausted both its vitality and its sense of direction.” (233).
We can learn
“to touch the Earth ever more lightly with our material demands...to touch others ever more gently and responsively with our social institutions...to live our daily lives with ever less complexity and clutter...the skills of touching life ever more lightly be releasing habitual patterns of thinking and behaving that make our passage through life weighty and cloudy rather than light and spacious; to ‘touch and go’ – not to hold on – but to allow each moment to arise with newness and freshness;...to be in the world with a quiet mind and an open heart....Who we are as an entire human family is much greater than who we are as the sum of isolated cultures” (234-236).
* * *
This is part 2 of 3 of "The Gift to be Simple"
See also
Part 1: Our Sordid Boon
Part 3: A Path to Simplicity


Our Sordid Boon

The Gift to be Simple, part 1

Two hundred fourteen years ago, about, William Wordsworth’s 1802 poem said:
“The world is too much with us, late and soon
Getting and spending we lay waste our powers
Little we see in nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon.”
One hundred sixty-two years ago, Henry David Thoreau’s 1854 book, Walden, asked: “Why should we live in such a hurry and waste of life?” Thoreau said he wished to live deliberately, which, for him, meant fronting “only the essential facts of life.” Only the essential. Elsewhere in Walden he wrote:
“Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand.
Instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb nail. Simplify, simplify. Instead of three meals a day, if it be necessary eat but one; instead of a hundred dishes, five; and reduce other things in proportion.”
Thirty-five years ago, Duane Elgin’s 1981 book, Voluntary Simplicity, expanded on Wordsworth’s and Thoreau’s desire for “a way of life that is outwardly simple, inwardly rich.” To choose simplicity, as opposed to being swept along in consumeristic habits that we never stop and think carefully about, never question, “means encountering life more consciously. To live more simply is to encounter life more directly.”

It’s about living with a purpose; mindfully and consciously emphasizing spiritual wholeness. It’s about de-emphasizing materialism and using less of the world's natural resources and promoting a humane, sustainable future -- as integral parts of an approach to developing authentic selves and beloved communities.

Like Earth Day, which began a little earlier, voluntary simplicity represents values that have only grown more important. Intentionally building a life of simplicity requires careful attention.

I need to be clear that simply having less money doesn’t get there. I returned from Honduras Thursday night, where I spent a week of my time there in a tiny and very poor village of fewer than 100 people. This village, Mabita, is in the Moskitia region. The Moskitan people are an indigenous people. They speak Spanish with visitors but speak Moskitan among themselves. The region is supposed to be set aside for them, though there is little actual protection from the gradual encroachment of outsiders cutting down the forest and pine savanna to make cattle pasture. I have some anger about that, and so I do have to mention to you that if you eat beef then you probably are supporting the market forces that are making that happen. In any case, the Moskitan people have been subsistence farmers for centuries, and they are still basically subsistence farmers. The village just a couple years ago constructed a small water tower with about a 1,000-gallon plastic barrel on top, and PVC pipes now provide running water to some of the houses. For the rest, household water still comes from carrying a bucket to the town well. There are no electric lines bringing power from a power plant. Last year a UN grant allowed them to get a few solar panels, so now they have a few electric lights – but before that, no electricity. There’s no telephone service. Never have been any landlines. Many of the residents have cell phones, but to use them they have to go outside of town a couple kilometers, and go up on hill where they pick up a signal from a cell tower in Nicaragua.

There’s a need there for cash. Subsistence farming doesn’t pay for health care. A large part of what money they can get will be sent to a sick or hurt relative in some other village to help with their care. They used to get a large part of their cash income from poaching macaw chicks in the area. Now, thanks to LoraKim and One Earth Conservation, the nonprofit she founded, they earn money helping to preserve the macaws.

This is not the kind of simple living that I’m talking about. Even if health-care were provided, even if their life were a little less fraught and arduous, and even if they weren’t under constant threat of losing more land to cattle ranchers, what I learned was, it’s a complicated little society. They don’t have email, or websites, or newspapers or newsletters or any way of letting each other know what’s going on. Transparency about the making of decisions that affect the village is difficult. So there’s constant gossip and innuendo about who did what. Subterranean resentments fester. It’s complicated and kind of stressful in its own way.

Turning now to the other end of the spectrum, there is, well, most of us. We have known for some time that much of the US suffers from “affluenza” – defined as
  1. the bloated, sluggish and unfulfilled feeling that results from efforts to keep up with the Joneses.
  2. An epidemic of stress, overwork, waste and indebtedness caused by dogged pursuit of the American Dream.
  3. An unsustainable addiction to economic growth.
If the Moskitan people are impoverished the old-fashioned way, by lack of wealth, we are often impoverished by wealth itself.

* * *
This is part 1 of 3 of "The Gift to be Simple"
See also
Part 2: Consumption Up, Well-Being Down
Part 3: A Path to Simplicity


Creating Situatedness

Bless the World, part 3

Without rooting in social context, we don't know who we are. There are new tools of individual freedom today, but they cannot be utilized without social interconnection, solidarity, grounding. Marcia Pally’s new book Commonwealth and Covenant offers the phrase, “separability amid situatedness.” This is the capacity to be unique, to create, explore, innovate, experiment with new ways of thinking and living – while also being situated — embedded in loving families and enveloping communities.
“Though we are all unique individuals, we become our singular selves through our relations and responsibilities to the people and environments around us.” (Amazon review)
To put it in terms of the Unitarian Universalist principles, the first principle and the last principle mutually constitute each other. The first principle declares the inherent worth and dignity of every person (or being), and the last principle is about the interdependent web of all existence. But it is the interdependent web that creates our inherent worth and dignity – and because of our worth and dignity, we rely on one another in relations of interdependence. Separability amid situatedness. But
“overemphasis on 'separability' — individualism run amok — results in greed, adversarial and deceitful political discourse and chicanery, resource grabbing, broken relationships, and anomie.” (Amazon review)
Blessing, as I said previously (HERE), is about place. When a person, object, or event blesses you, when you bless someone or something, there’s a relationship. Blesser, blessee, and blessing situate each other, locate one another, and place us within a context of belonging and value. It is both cause and effect of healthy cultural infrastructure within which we can thrive.

Creating situatedness – the blessing of each other by each other – requires, as Marcia Pally recognizes and as our Unitarian Universalist covenantal faith tradition has long embodied, covenant rather than contract. When two isolated individuals make a deal, they express it as a contract. When we are situated within something, we have a covenant. A contract protects interests. A covenant protects relationships.
“A covenant exists between people who understand they are part of one another. It involves a vow to serve the relationship that is sealed by love: Where you go, I will go. Where you stay, I will stay. Your people shall be my people. People in a contract provide one another services, but people in a covenant delight in offering gifts.” (David Brooks, NYTimes, HERE)
If the social fabric we need is to be rewoven, it will happen through covenant – “hundreds of millions of people making local covenants — widening their circles of attachment across income, social and racial divides.” And that will probably require a shared story about who we are as a people.

I’ve never been all that keen on the notion of patriotism. For starters, why don’t we say “matriotism”? For enders, patriotism has often seemed too closely tied to unhealthy nationalism. But when I heard New Jersey Senator Cory Booker contrast tolerance with what he called patriotism, I thought, “OK, that’s a definition of patriotism I can get behind.”

Tolerance, said Booker, means, “I’m going to stomach your right to be different, but if you disappear off the face of the earth I’m no worse off.” Patriotism, on the other hand, means
“love of country, which necessitates love of each other, that we have to be a nation that aspires for love, which recognizes that you have worth and dignity and I need you. You are part of my whole, part of the promise of this country.” (Booker interview with Bill Maher, quoted by David Brooks)
I’m still not sure why nation – as opposed to state or county on the one hand – as opposed to continent or planet on the other hand – need be the crucial category. But whatever the category, the emotion Booker described is what it means to be situated in a shared collective life. That love, that recognition of worth and dignity and our interdependence, locates and grounds us, makes it possible for each of us to be blesser, blessee, and blessing.

Without that, there is no “together” – and no other possibility waiting. Without that, good proposals that arise lack political will and remain unimplemented. Without that, Mother’s Day is a commercialized celebration of one narrow image of what mothering looks like.

Be a blessing to the world. I charge you – with all of whatever authority is mine because you have freely conferred it on me: Be a blessing to the world – as a mother is blessing to a child, and also as a child is blessing to their mother. Knowing that you can’t do that alone – knowing, as you do now – that blessing the world requires attending to relationship, nurturing the situatedness that makes separability meaningful, then may you realize that other possibility, waiting – that possibility whose name is “together.”

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This is part 3 of 3 of "Bless the World"
See also
Part 1: The Blessing You Receive and the Blessing You Do
Part 2: Together Is Hard


Together Is Hard

Bless the World, part 2

"None of us alone can save the world. Together -- that is another possibility waiting," as Rev. Rebecca Parker said. Getting together to build a more peaceful and just world is no easy matter. We lack consensus about what, in fact, justice requires when, where, and for whom. Nonviolent conflict resolution methods remain precarious and fragile in the face of temptations to resort to violence.

Consider, by way of illustration, the mottled history of Mother's Day. In 1870, Unitarian Julia Ward Howe wrote her “Appeal to womanhood throughout the world,” also known as her “Mother’s Day Proclamation.” She urged women across the world to join the cause of peacebuilding. Long before Mother’s Day was celebrated with brunches and flower bouquets, Mother’s Day was part of organizing pacificist mothers against war. Julia Ward Howe’s radical call to create peace still resonates today. She wrote:
“Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience. We, the women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs. From the bosom of the devastated Earth a voice goes up with our own. It says: ‘Disarm! Disarm!’”
But getting together for peace is difficult for us. Howe’s “Mother’s Day for Peace” was observed in scattered localities for 25 years, but never caught on nationally. Mother’s Day did not become a national holiday until 1917, and when it did, it was no longer a day sharing Julia Ward Howe’s focus on peace. Rather, the new national Mother's Day resulted from Methodist Anna Jarvis’s campaign for a day to honor the important role of mothers.

Jarvis' Mothers Day was ripe for commercialization, which quickly happened. The holiday grows seemingly more commercialized every year. Moreover, Mothers Day as we have known it promotes a very homogenized and romanticized notion of motherhood. In 2011, a group called Strong Families re-conceived of Mothers Day as "Mamas Day." Strong Families explains:
“We know that mamahood is not one size fits all. But most popular images of mothers exclude mamas based on their sexual orientation, race, income, immigration status and more. And Mothers Day, one of the biggest commercial holidays in the United States, often reinforces traditional ideas of family and motherhood that there's only one way to be a family.” (mamasday.org)
Each year, Strong Families commissions artists to create original art reflecting the various ways our mamas and families look. At the mamasday.org website you can see their collection of e-cards. By adopting a “mamas” framework, Strong Families makes visible the diverse kinds of families that exist today. Mamas Day is a celebration of all mamas, everywhere -- which means it does something that commercialized, homogenized, romanticized Mother's Day does not: promote extending to every family the rights, recognition and resources it needs to thrive.

The ways we conceive of mother’s day are a chance to more powerfully bless the world with a more inclusive blessing. Our Unitarian Universalist Association is on board with Mamas Day. On May 8, the UUA.org home page declared:
“Today, Unitarian Universalists join Strong Families’ Mamas Day campaign to shift away from the commercialized version of Mother’s Day. Unitarian Universalists identify with Strong Families’ expanded frame of motherhood as we welcome and support all families in our congregations and spiritual communities. Strong Families takes this a step further by helping people advocate for laws that protect and help families thrive. This is a cause worthy of Julia Ward Howe’s radical vision of Mother’s Day.”
In the 146 years since Julia Ward Howe's "Mother's Day Proclamation," her vision has progressed very little. It's been essentially abandoned for most of that time, and the attempt to revive it remains small-scale. It's just one example of how getting together to build a more peaceful and just world is no easy matter.

Moreover, we are in the midst of trends that make “together” harder and harder. Demographic diversity is increasing all over the world from global migration. We can celebrate the richness that diversity brings, but without a shared sense of commonality, an understanding of the unum amidst our pluribus, there’s not much togetherness.

Second, growing inequalities of wealth erode the sense that we’re all in this together. Inequality creates division.

Third, the internet gives people a lot more choice of what to watch, what to read, but it also means we and our neighbors share less and less of a common story. And in general the ideology of individualism grows stronger. Alienation and isolation is a problem. Alienated young men and women join ISIS – or street gangs -- so they can have a sense of belonging. Political polarization grows as people don’t interact with those on the other side.

The narrative of continuing progress toward racial justice, which was always a bit rosier than the reality, has been exposed as false: in the last few years white America has been realizing there’s been no progress in race relations for at least a generation.

People feel powerless. The supposed liberations of individualism leave us uprooted. We need social identities in order to act effectively. Efficacy comes from knowing who you are, having a firm identity, and that comes from embeddedness in a rich social fabric. Other people, noted Ralph Waldo Emerson, “are lenses through which we read our own minds.” Without a strong network around us, we never know our own mind. Without rootedness in social soil, there’s no sense of who one is. Without a foundation neither fluid nor at risk, there’s no ground from which one can live daringly.

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This is part 2 of 3 of "Bless the World"
See also:
Part 1: The Blessing You Receive and the Blessing You Do
Part 3: Creating Situatedness