Simultaneous Experience of Opposites

Why is There Awe? part 3

Psychologists say awe is a form of self-transcendence. You transcend, step outside of your usual sense of yourself. The boundaries between yourself and others blurs.

Neurologically, what’s happening is decreased activity in the brain’s parietal lobe. The parietal lobe contributes to our spatial sense of self and orients us in the physical world. And that in itself is kind of awesome. We tend to think that the sense of “me,” and the difference between “me” and other is just a feature of reality, but, no, there’s a particular part of your brain whose job it is to create that sense – to generate the useful illusion that there is a distinct “me,” spatially located “here.” When that parietal lobe calms down a bit, the illusion of self is a little less robust, and we see through it to oneness and connectedness.

Relatedly, the autonomic nervous system is gearing up when awe happens. The autonomic nervous system has some circuitry for calming us down, and it also has some circuitry for arousing us for fight or flight. Normally, the autonomic nervous system is either generating one or the other -- calmness or arousal -- one side comes on, and the other side shuts down. You can also be somewhere in between: not particularly calm, but not particularly aroused either. But experiences of awe involve both heightened calmness and heightened arousal at the same time.

Think about when you’ve experienced awe, didn’t it seem both exciting and calming at the same time? It’s extraordinary.

There’s also another mix of simultaneous opposites: a sense of mystery and unknowability, with the sense of knowing and insight. It feels like seeing something, at last, clearly – while at the same time having a sense of impenetrable, profound mystery. Paul Piff, psychology professor, says, “An awe-inspiring thing can be literally large or just conceptually large, but in either case your current understanding or frame of reference can’t accommodate it.” We’re like the baby going into a tunnel – nothing in our past experience has prepared us for it. Awe is a connection to something vast and mysterious – something impressive and powerful.

If you gaze into the sky on a clear rural night – or stand beneath an impressively large tree staring up at it -- you can get a sense of wonder almost right away. If you keep gazing, relaxing your shell, you might break into awe.

Billions of stars, balls of fire bigger than imagination, yet farther away than you can conceive. Billions of plant cells photosynthesizing, and carrying sap and making wood. There’s a sense of power in that vastness – and mystery. Vast, mysterious, powerful – just what our ancestors (and many today) call God.

The feeling of awe, studies show, appears to increase people’s feeling of connectedness and willingness to help others. People are more likely to behave altruistically after an experience of awe. One 2012 study found that awe had a social bonding effect that included reducing impatience and causing “people to perceive that they had more time available.”

Events that induce awe are among the fastest and most powerful drivers of personal change and growth. “Awe,” says psychologist Robert Leahy, “is the opposite of rumination.” Awe
“clears away inner turmoil with a wave of outer immensity. . . . Being in awe is losing yourself in something or someone else. The anxious person’s sense that ‘it’s all about me; I must control my situation’ disappears.”
Awe experiences teach that “it’s not about you.”

Confronted with grandness, we feel small – but not small as in ashamed or humiliated. Small yet connected to something much bigger – which makes us big -- and small at the same time.

Subjects who saw an awe-inspiring video were more generous than those who watched a humorous video, and they behaved more ethically in lab experiments. They helped the study’s investigator pick up more pens that were “accidentally” dropped, and they showed less of a sense of entitlement. Some of the subjects watched a video showing droplets of colored water “colliding with a bowl of milk” in super-slow motion. These subjects then exhibited higher pro-social behavior.

Other subjects watched awe-inspiring videos of destructive forces with potential to wreak harm: tornadoes and volcanoes. These subjects also exhibited the pro-social behavior. In another study, subjects were taken to the tallest hardwood grove in North America and were asked to look up at the eucalyptus trees, some exceeding 200 feet, for one minute. The control group went to a more urban area and looked up at a plain, tall building for one minute. Sure enough, the tree-gazers felt more awe and were happier precisely because of what they felt. They also acted more generously in a lab test and reported feeling less entitled than the building-gawkers.

There wouldn’t seem to be much fear mixed in with the sensation of gazing up at trees. But it is a milder form of something that pulls you out of yourself – something that, in more intense versions, would get scary.

In any case, it seems to be good for you.

* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of "Why Is There Awe?"
See also
Part 1: Awe is Scary Wonder
Part 2: What Evokes Awe?


What Evokes Awe?

Why Is There Awe, part 2

What evokes awe? Well, for starters, big things. Vastness seems to be a key component: the Grand Canyon; a starry sky on a clear night miles from city lights.

Psychologist Frank White, back in 1987, identified what he called the Overview Effect. It’s a shift in awareness reported by some astronauts and cosmonauts during spaceflight, often while viewing the Earth from orbit or from the lunar surface. White’s research found that many of the astronauts had undergone “truly transformative experiences including senses of wonder and awe, unity with nature, transcendence and universal brotherhood.”

One NASA astronaut said:
“It’s hard to explain how amazing and magical this experience is. First of all, there’s the astounding beauty and diversity of the planet itself, scrolling across your view at what appears to be a smooth, stately pace . . . I’m happy to report that no amount of prior study or training can fully prepare anybody for the awe and wonder this inspires.”
German cosmonaut Sigmund Jahn added:
“Before I flew I was already aware how small and vulnerable our planet is; but only when I saw it from space, in all its ineffable beauty and fragility, did I realize that humankind’s most urgent task is to cherish and preserve it for future generations.”
The experience showed them “it’s not about me,” got them out of the ego-self, connected them to a bigger reality.

There was both perceptual vastness, or being confronted with something of striking physical magnitude. And there was also conceptual vastness, “which is like a mind-blowing idea,” he says. If we just focus on imagining that, our Earth, in a vast sea of black, gently floating by, we can begin to approximate the sense of awe. For scientists, conceptual vastness alone can suffice. There’s a real awe that can come even when they aren’t confronted with immediate sensory perceptual vastness.

Michio Kaku is now a theoretical physicist and science writer. He tells about how when he was eight years old at school his teacher announced a great scientist, Albert Einstein, had died. She showed the class a photo of Einstein at his desk. She pointed to his unfinished manuscript in the picture. Young Michio found himself wanting to have a crack at it.

At eight-years-old, there’s so much of the world that seems unfathomable. At that age, he didn’t yet know much physics. But just the idea that this world could be known in this way, described on paper with the formulas of physics, gave him an experience of awe – an experience that has driven his career, and continues, he says, to be “the well from which I draw water when I’m tired and need refreshment.”

Michio Kaku went on to become one of the originators of string field theory. He says:
“All your selfish little concerns mean nothing next to the grandeur of the universe. Awe gives you an existential shock. You realize that you are hardwired to be a little selfish, but you are also dependent on something bigger than yourself. We look at the stars and think, ‘My problems are so trivial compared to the majesty of the night sky.’”
There’s awe in science. Is there awe in music? Erika Strand has sung in choirs since she was 12. Her college choir performed of Verdi’s Requiem. She says,
“Everything just came together and clicked. It starts with the Day of Wrath. Verdi is a sinner, and he’s terrified because it’s Judgment Day. The feeling of fear we conjured was so powerful. The music united all of us with the audience -- we all have fears and regret not having been the person we wanted to be -- as the piece expresses something so human.”
Erika Strand’s choir director used to tell his singers that they needed to continually adjust themselves to be perfectly in tune and balanced with each other.
“If the choir is a bit flat, you have to make yourself a little flat. If everyone is behind, you have to join them by compromising your pace. If your voice sticks out, even if it’s pretty, the whole thing is ruined.”
When the Requiem was over, no one had to say anything — everyone knew they had escaped the mundane and achieved transcendence. “Moments like that give life meaning,” she says.

But why does this happen? Why were we built to be animals that experience this thing called awe? I’m having some wonderment about awe.

One theory is that awe reinforced social hierarchies. Low-status individuals felt awe in presence of high-status individuals, which helped signal that they understood their place. The high-status person was big, and had to be adapted to – accommodated. Later, this primordial awe generalized into a response to anything that was vast and required accommodation. So now grand vistas, hurricanes, the Hoover Dam, Beethoven’s 9th symphony, or the experience of understanding a grand scientific theory can evoke awe.

But why would primordial awe have generalized in this way? We don’t know – except that sometimes traits do generalize. When you face a situation that cannot be assimilated by current knowledge structures, you may need to have your attention seized and step outside of your normal way of thinking – and that’s just what experiencing awe is.

* * *
This is part 2 of 3 of "Why Is There Awe?"
See also
Part 1: Awe Is Scary Wonder
Part 3: Simultaneous Experience of Opposites


A Thanksgiving Reflection

Perhaps the year 2020 has been on your mind of late -- because we SO enjoyed the presidential campaign and can't wait to spend another 18 months going through that! The year 2020 is on my mind today for a different reason. 2020 will mark the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the ship “Mayflower” in the region now known as New England.

Native American tribal leaders, human rights advocates, environmental justice advocates, and others have expressed concern about the way colonization may be celebrated.

As Unitarian Universalists, our heritage is particularly enmeshed with this issue. Several New England churches established during the 1600s continue today as Unitarian Universalist congregations, and Unitarian Universalists have had a role in developing this holiday known as “the American Thanksgiving Day.” And we are committed to peace and justice for all the world’s people.

Taking note of all this, the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly last June in Columbus, OH, adopted a resolution encouraging “all Unitarian Universalists to enter a time of education, careful reflection, and healing, during the years 2016-2021.” (see the full resolution: CLICK HERE; for more on the UU role in the Thanksgiving holiday: CLICK HERE.) The run-up to the quadricentennial of the Plymouth Rock landing is a particularly apt time to give special attention to the suffering, indignity, and loss that native peoples have suffered in the last 400 years.

As we seek to build a more just future, a more beloved and beloving community, we must be mindful of the past we share with others. To prepare for the future, we must make peace with our past – and better understand the people and the environment of the 1600s. The story of the Radical Reformation and the religious Dissenters and Separatists of the 1600s is part of our Unitarian Universalist story, and their influence is still with us. The story of indigenous peoples, including the Wampanoag Tribal Nation of Mashpee, Massachusetts, who first met the Pilgrims, and the story of their spiritual wisdom also needs our honor and respect. (Here's a start: CLICK HERE.)

The resolution asked for “all UU congregations across the United States of America to enter into dialogue with the local Native People in their areas about the Thanksgiving holiday and its history.” Here at Community UU in White Plains, NY, we have begun steps to connect with Lenape in our area, to learn from them their perspective and experience and how that can better inform our understanding of this Thanksgiving holiday.

Truth and reconciliation for all Americans, including those who were here before it was called America, requires this dialog, grounded for us in our Unitarian Universalist recognition that we are part of an interdependent web of all existence.

And so we celebrate harvest – the bounty of the earth that sustains us. Most of us grew up with a romanticized picture of the first Thanksgiving, and that’s not an altogether bad thing. We can correct for the inaccuracies of how we have recounted the past while holding on to the vision of cooperation and good will across cultural difference. The past wasn't really like the picture we learned as children of intercultural harmony between the Pilgrims and Native Americans at the First Thanksgiving. That picture of the past is a fantasy. Perhaps the future can make it a reality.

The creation of Thanksgiving involved influences from Native American people, influences from colonist Pilgrims, influences from the Jewish Sukkot festival -- and others. The meaning of Thanksgiving continues to be shaped by the encounter of people of different cultures. It takes all of us -- those who can trace their ancestry to the Plymouth Rock Pilgrims of 1620, those whose ancestors lived in this part of the world for many centuries before 1620, and those who arrived here, with or without documentation, from foreign shores just in the last few years, and everybody in-between. It takes first-generation Americans, 2nd-generation Americans, 16th-generation, and 160th-generation Americans to embody what it means to be American and to be thankful together.

In our harvest celebration of cornbread and cider, let us be reminded of the vision of radical hospitality, where we all have a seat at the welcome table.


Awe is Scary Wonder

Why Is There Awe? part 1

Rosh Hashanah is called "the days of awe." It's also called "the days of repentance." It's interesting that awe and repentance are combined in this way. What’s the connection, you think? How do awe and repentance connect? You’ve got 10 days to reflect on that.

One connection is that both awe and repentance involve setting aside our ego defenses, getting out of own way. They remind us, “it’s not about me.” This message is always challenging. It comes to us this Rosh Hashanah in the midst of the special challenges of a Presidential election. The candidates are trying as hard as they can to say “it is all about me.” And despite ourselves we are apt get pulled in to that style of thinking.

But it’s not about me, or you, or them.

Yes, we need our ego defenses. We also need to see how control is an illusion – and let something bigger – something wider or higher or deeper – take control. Remember again that the self that dreams itself to be in control is not separate, and therefore has nothing to control.

In this time for turning, we confront the paradoxical truth that we have the ability to change – that turning does not come easily – that unless we turn we will be trapped forever in yesterday’s ways – while at the same time recognizing that we can’t make the turning happen.

Our ego selves cannot turn us. They can, at best, conspire with the greater forces of friendship and family, of stars and trees and nature, of all our relationship – for in the end there is no self other than a web of relationship. Which might be called God – and by whose grace we might yet turn. So today, as we begin the Days of Awe, I want to reflect with you on how Awe turns us, gets us out of our way, fills us up with a spirit not of our own making, reveals to you the truth that it’s not about you.

One way to get a good picture of awe: next time you’re on Youtube, try searching “baby in tunnel.” You’ll see small children riding their car seats as the car enters a tunnel. Their faces show surprise and confusion – wonderment mixed with fear – in other words, awe. Their current understanding – their frame of reference – can’t accommodate this new experience. For them, it’s a transformative experience. Those videos are a great illustration of awe.

There’s a lot of overlap with “wonder” – that feeling of surprise and admiration caused by something beautiful, unexpected, unfamiliar, or inexplicable. Awe is like wonder, but with some scariness mixed in. “Shock and awe,” for example, is a military strategy of overwhelming force to stun and scare the enemy into inability to fight. The Hebrew Bible mentions awe a number of times – and it’s a mixture of great reverence and fear.

Awe is scary wonder.

Psalm 119 says “My flesh trembles for fear of you, and I am afraid of your judgments” (NRSV). Other translations give “stand in awe” or “tremble in awe” in place of “am afraid.” Have you felt that? Profound wonder mixed with fear? As I wrote in this month’s issue of “On the Journey”:
When I think back on some of the most significant moments in my life – usually events that were firsts: my first high school debate tournament, first date, first kiss, first job interview, my wedding day, becoming a parent – one thing is clear: I was scared. I was trembling in fear. The body’s fear response, with accompanying adrenaline, is what let me knows: “Hey, there’s something really, really important here.” Fear gets your attention -- and that’s a good thing. The fear I felt made those events so meaningful for me. Those were moments when I understood that something was about to happen that would change my sense of who I was.
Awe is intensified wonder. If the wonder starts to get close to overwhelming, starts to unnerve you, starts to unsettle your unquestioned sense of who you are, putting in question what you took for granted, then there’s some fear that comes with that. That’s what turns wonder into fear. To get to awe, start with wonder and dive in until it spooks you just a little bit.

* * *
This is part 1 of 3 of "Why Is There Awe?"
See also
Part 2: What Evokes Awe?
Part 3: Simultaneous Experience of Opposites


Join the Rebel Alliance

Liberal Entitlement, part 4

"Good People"

Last July, journalist George Saunders published a long essay in The New Yorker reporting on his experiences attending Trump rallies. The piece was titled, “Who Are All These Trump Supporters? At the candidate’s rallies, a new understanding of America Emerges.” What haunted me from that article was the segment in which the phrase "good people" recurred. Saunders wrote:
"Talking to a Trump supporter about Trump’s deportation policy, I’d sometimes bring up Noemi Romero, a sweet, soft-spoken young woman I met in Phoenix. Noemi was brought to the U.S. when she was three, by undocumented parents. A few years ago, she had the idea of applying for legal status through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. But the application costs four hundred and sixty-five dollars, money her family didn’t have. Hearing that a local Vietnamese grocery was hiring, she borrowed her mother’s Social Security card and got the job. A few months later, the store was raided. Noemi was arrested, charged with aggravated identity theft and forgery, and taken to jail and held there, within the general prison population, for two months. She was given spoiled milk, and food that, she said, had tiny worms in it. Her lawyer arranged a plea bargain; the charges were reduced to criminal impersonation. This was a good deal, he told her, the best she could hope for. She accepted, not realizing that, as a convicted felon, she would be permanently ineligible for DACA.

"Puente, a local grassroots organization, intervened and saved her from deportation, but she is essentially doomed to a kind of frozen life: can’t work and can’t go to college, although she has lived virtually her whole life in the U.S. and has no reason to go back to Mexico and nowhere to live if she’s sent there.

"I’d ask the Trump supporter, 'What do we do about Noemi?'

"I always found the next moment in our exchange hopeful.

"Is she a good person? the Trump supporter might ask. I couldn’t feel more sorry for her, he might say. That kid is no better or worse than I am and deserves the best God can give her. Or he might say that deportation would have to be done on a case-by-case basis. Or propose some sort of registry—Noemi, having registered, would go back to Mexico and, if all checked out, come right back in. There had to be some kind of rule of law, didn’t there?

"Tellingly, the Trump supporter might confess that she didn’t think Trump really intended to do this mass-deportation thing anyway—it was all just campaign talk. The most extreme supporter might say that, yes, Noemi had to go—he didn’t like it, but ultimately the fault lay with her parents.

"Sometimes I’d mention a Central American family I met in Texas, while reporting another story. In that case, the father and son were documented but the mother and daughters weren’t. Would you, I’d ask, split that family up? Send those girls to a country in which they’d never spent a single day? Well, my Trump-supporting friend might answer, it was complicated, wasn’t it? Were they good people? Yes, I’d say. The father, in spare moments between his three jobs, built a four-bedroom house out of cinder blocks he acquired two or three at a time from Home Depot, working sometimes late into the night. The Trump supporter might, at this point, fall silent, and so might I." (New Yorker, 2016 Jul 11 & 18)
What do we do about Noemi? Is she a good person? the Trump supporter asks. Should the family with father and son documented and mother and daughter undocumented be split up? Were they good people? is the response. Not "is this cruel treatment of any human being?" Not "is this fair or just?" Not even "is this policy good for the US economy?" But "are they us?" For that, of course, is what “good people” means: it means "people who act in ways that make sense to me without any stretching of my sympathetic imagination." The division of the world into "good people" (us) and "bad people" (them) is a tell-tale indicator of the authoritarian attitude. People who are different are dangerous, and dangerous people deserve cruel treatment.

So if you’re needing a story to make sense of what happened, that’s what I got: Reactivity to a changing world has produced rising authoritarian and anti-politics sentiments, which started as ideological rigidity and morphed from ideology to raw identity, accentuating the racism that has always been a part of American culture.

What To Do About It

First, remember that this, too, is just a story. It helps me make sense of things, and it might help you. But no story is ever the whole story. There’s some stuff going on out there that this story will help you see, and other stuff that it could make you blind to. So keep your eyes and your heart open, and be ready to take in other stories. The antidote to identity wars, us versus them, is listening with care and empathy to every story you can.

Second, let’s get over being surprised. I admit, I was. Perhaps our greatest liberal entitlement was the luxury of being shocked. Sure, some people of color, LGBT people, and Muslims were also surprised, but overall, not so shocked as white liberals at the "discovery" that the US harbors a lot of racism, sexism, xenophobia, and bigotry.

Third, as the great labor organizer Joe Hill said on the eve of his execution in 1915: “Don’t mourn. Organize.” Join the rebel alliance. There’s a new Star Wars movie coming out, and, no, we don’t have any cool spaceships to zip around in, but we can take inspiration from the metaphor.

My friend and colleague minister at First Unitarian in Orlando, Florida, Rev. Kathy Schmitz, posted on Friday afternoon:
"Wait and see what he does post-election" they said.
OK, I gave it 48 hours.
So far, far worse than I thought.
"Keep your heart open," they said.
It is.
Wide open.
And fully committed to the rebel alliance.
Hashtag: MightAsWellGetOnTheEnemiesListEarly.
Courtney Parker West posted an open letter:
Dear liberal white people whom I often love:...
I get it. It’s awful. It’s terrifying. It’s devastating. But find yourself a white person and complain to them, then get past your feelings because if you really want to be an ally, we don’t need your posts or your shock or even your tearful apologies, but rather your organizing manpower. People of color have always resisted and you can follow us. You can’t be with her anymore, so be with us.”
You have been called to live into this period of darkness that has been with us for some time. You have been called to the fierce love of resistance, solidarity, and hope.

As we are also mourning the death of Leonard Cohen, I conclude with Cohen's reminder that this fierce
love is not a victory march.
It is a cold and it is a broken hallelujah....
Even though it all went wrong
We stand before the lord of song
With nothing on our tongue but hallelujah.

* * *
This is part 4 of 4 of "Liberal Entitlement"
See also
Part 1: Election Prayer
Part 2: Called Into Darkness
Part 3: The Problem with Anti-Politcs


The Problem with Anti-Politics

Liberal Entitlement, part 3

Another point that has stuck with me was made in a David Brooks column from last February.
"We live in a big, diverse society. There are essentially two ways to maintain order and get things done in such a society — politics or some form of dictatorship....Over the past generation we have seen the rise of a group of people who are against politics. These groups — best exemplified by the Tea Party but not exclusive to the right — want to elect people who have no political experience. They want 'outsiders.'” (NYTimes, 2016 Feb 26)
Politics recognizes that competing perspectives and interests are legitimate, and the messy, interminable process of hashing out compromise and making deals is necessary and, on-balance, is good. No one gets everything they want, but in the long run more people get more of what they most want, and the outcomes result from ongoing dialog among diverse viewpoints – dialog which is a good unto itself, helping us feel that we’re in this together across our differences.

From the anti-politics point of view, there is one right answer, and compromise and deal-making are forms of corruption – departures from ideological purity. Anti-politics says, “Dialog? We don’t need no stinkin’ dialog. The right way to do things is the right way to do things, and any form of compromise is corruption of righteousness. You don’t make deals with the devil – you stand strong for your principles."

The problem with that is that it doesn’t recognize other people. Calling other people the devil is called demonizing them.

We’ve been seeing anti-politics on the rise for 30 years. It’s true that politics is a little distasteful. Compromising and deal making – as in, "I’ll vote for your bill if you’ll vote for mine" – can easily seem like corruption. But those were the ways that for most of this country’s history legislators of different parties were in conversation and got things done. They recognized the legitimacy of competing perspectives and interests. It required the humility to understand that your side might not be in sole possession of all virtue and truth.

Now our legislators don’t talk across the aisle at all, and little gets done. If you are seen working with the other side, then you are weak, you are caving, and next election you are likely to lose in the primary to someone who promises even greater ideological purity. Our legislatures are now filled with legislators who live in fear of legislating.

The rise of Trump is a continuation of the anti-politics delusion in which standing up for your principles means not taking into consideration any opinion but the one you already have, not considering other viewpoints, not compromising and not making deals. No one else’s interests count.

Anti-politics is political narcissism, and US voters have been demanding more and more narcissism for some time now. Our liberal entitlement has allowed us not to attend as energetically as we could have to the startling trends.

Further, anti-politics brings a declining importance of policy. Standing on principle has devolved from standing on policy principle to just standing for the principle of “us” against “them.” What was once an ideological purity test is now turning into, “We don’t care about your ideology – we just want to know that you are with us against them.” Policy is almost but not quite entirely beside the point. Very little of it gets passed anyway. We are fighting cultural battles and identity wars through political means.

So standing in opposition to Obama was more important for many legislators than noticing that some of what he was proposing was Republican enough so that it could have been proposed by a Republican president – and then they would support it, but what matters is supporting “us,” not the content of the legislation.

The election of 2016 breaks along identity lines rather than ideology lines. As a column on Friday by Mark Schmitt said:
“Consider immigration, the concept that drove both the Tea Party and the Trump campaign. For most of the long campaign, the media thought that it was about immigration policy: comprehensive immigration reform versus border security and deportations. The Republican 'autopsy' from 2012 concluded that Republicans should support immigration reform. But it turns out it was always just about immigrants, as in, people who aren’t like us, not policy.” (NYTimes, 2016 Nov 11)
That’s why so many voters didn’t care that what Trump said was so often clearly and blatantly false. Whether he was lying or not wasn’t the point. What he was saying demonstrated that he was on our side against them.

The dominant middle-class white culture has felt under assault for some time as economic and cultural shifts have brought changes. People who feel under assault start finding authoritarianism more attractive. With authoritarianism comes anti-politics: the feeling that dialog, compromise, and deal-making is what got us into this mess, rather than understanding that political process mitigates the mess. With anti-politics comes the replacement of any policy concern with merely identity concern.

When Trump said, “I’m the least racist person you’ve ever met,” my guess is that he was imagining that racism was about skin color. But skin color is only a marker of a likely different culture. It’s the different culture that isn’t “us,” that Trump supporters don’t like. If black people would only act just like white people, there’d be no problem. For many Clinton-voters, that attitude is the epitome of racism. For many Trump-voters, that attitude is the epitome of not being racist: “If black people would only act just like white people, there’d be no problem. See? That proves we don’t mind that a person is black. We only mind that they don’t act white.”

Of course, African American culture is in part a response to the ongoing legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, housing discrimination and segregation that we are perpetuating to this day, the abandonment of school desegregation that is the current reality. And white culture is a response to the privilege that Africans Americans don't have.

Many Trump supporters don’t see that. They just see, “They’re different.” And from the authoritarian, anti-politics standpoint, different means wrong.

* * *
This is part 3 of 4 of 'Liberal Entitlement"
See also
Part 1: Election Prayer
Part 2: Called Into Darkness
Part 4: Join the Rebel Alliance


Called Into Darkness

Liberal Entitlement, part 2

You are called, dear reader. You, and everyone you know, have been called to live into this period of darkness, of danger, for our people, our society, our planet. Whether any of us will live through this period of darkness, I cannot say, but we have been called to be here now, to live into this time. It is for us to make what light we can against this darkness. This calling comes late in some of our lives, early in others, and in the middle of others. Wherever you are in the arc of your life, you are at this point now, facing this challenge.

On the plus side, you have resources. You are probably pretty smart, judging from what I know of the readership of this blog. And probably resilient. When you have to be, you can be very determined. And now you have to be.

None of us asked for this assignment – nor have we the option of refusing it. We’ve been training for it all our short, medium, or long lives.

Also on the plus side, you are not alone. Unitarian Universalists and others of good will are ready to stand with you. Are we enough? We are always enough to shine the light that we can shine.

Whether or not you think you’re ready, you’re ready. You stand now upon this stage, called to play the part that only you can play. The darkness has been with us for some time. That we haven’t known it constitutes our predicament.

One member of my congregation emailed me on the morning of Wed Nov 9 to say she
“woke sad and stunned by the election results. Why don't so many in our country think and feel like we do?”
Another added that he and his spouse
“went to sleep last night feeling worried and baffled, and woke up this morning in much the same state....We wondered whether our sense of liberal entitlement blinded us to who is really in need and hurting in this country. [Have we been] quick to dismiss concerns of people who don't think like we do (or who we don't think think like we do)? Is there a danger that in our insistence on inclusiveness we get blinded to those we don't realize we are excluding? And of course, we wonder where we go from here? How do we pick up the pieces and feel positive about the work we are all trying to see done? How do we pick ourselves up spiritually and reconcile what happened in the election -- not only in the results but the way we were all swept into the fervor and divisiveness?”
Those are questions a lot of us have.

Before I try to address any of that, I need to remind – well, myself – of something I’ve said before: Don’t believe what you think. Whatever story we have about what’s going on in the social and political world is just a story. You can take it provisionally and use it and temporarily let it guide you, but don’t believe it. No story can ever be complete. With that caveat, I offer you this story, in the hope that it offers a little bit of sense to what seems to make no sense.

From cognitive scientist George Lakoff, who I first read some 15 years ago, I learned that there’s an authoritarian paradigm and a nurturant paradigm.

The Authoritarian Paradigm

The authoritarian paradigm puts the emphasis on fighting evil. It sees life as difficult and the world as fundamentally dangerous. Survival requires strength and discipline to confront dangers and evils from competitors and within the human soul. It requires a clear and strict sense of right and wrong with a minimum acknowledgment of moral gray areas. Evil must be attacked and destroyed. Respect for authority is crucial in the fight against evil. Obedience to authority is part of maintaining the strict sense of right and wrong we need to navigate life’s difficulties, resist evil, and maintain the social and natural order. Systems of reward and punishment -- rewarding the self-disciplined, responsible pursuit of self-interest and punishing for those who undermine authority or lack self-discipline – are crucial to maintain authority and order. People come in two kinds: the mature, self-disciplined, self-reliant ones who should not be meddled with, and the whining, undisciplined, dependent ones who should never be coddled.

The Nurturant Paradigm

The nurturant paradigm puts the emphasis on nurturing good. It sees life as centered on loving interactions, caring and being cared for, deriving meaning from connection and care. A fulfilling life is a nurturant life, a life of empathy, of imaginative capacity to put ourselves in others shoes to more effectively caringly respond to their needs. Life is for self-development, realizing our unique potential, understanding our own self-development as intertwined with the development of others. The value of self-discipline and self-reliance lies in helping us contribute more to society, in realizing and developing self, and in finding joy – not merely as defenses against evil. And that self-discipline is fostered better through relationships of care and respect than through systems of reward and punishment. There is a legitimate role for authority, but authority arises less from a hierarchy for enforcing black-and-white morality with reward and punishment, and more from developed skill as a nurturer. The paradigm of authority is a kindly teacher, aimed at others’ development, rather than military dictator aimed at vanquishing threats. Legitimate authority emerges from relationships of accountability, for this facilitates dialog and individual critical thinking – as opposed to the authoritarian paradigm, in which authority comes from being strong and righteous, and accountability to morally weaker carping characters is unproductive and wearisome.

How the Paradigms Underlie Political and Child-Rearing Philosophies

Most of us have both paradigms, and we tend to go back and forth between them. Almost all of us can be authoritarian when decisive leadership is called for, and almost all of us have an ability to facilitate the growth and learning of others. It's a question of relative dominance. If the nurturant paradigm is relatively more dominant in your thinking, you'll tend to support political issues identified as "liberal." If the authoritarian paradigm is relatively more dominant, you'll tend to support political issues identified as "conservative."

Our attitudes about child-rearing parallel our political attitudes. The assumptions about how parents parent generally match our assumptions about how governments govern. Thus, researchers have found that the best way to tease out an authoritarian paradigm is by asking questions about child-rearing. Matthew MacWilliams has isolated just four questions that powerfully predict an authoritarian or nurturant outlook on child-rearing and on politics.

Is it more important for a child to be:
  • respectful or independent?
  • obedient or self-reliant?
  • well-behaved or considerate?
  • well-mannered or curious?
The former in each pair indicates an authoritarian orientation. Generally, we’d like our children to exemplify both qualities of each pair. The authoritarian paradigm sees independence and self-reliance as flowing from respect and obedience, so learning to be respectful and obedient is the priority. The nurturant paradigm sees being well-behaved as flowing from being considerate, so learning to be considerate is the priority.

For the last year, I’ve been somewhat obsessively reading lots of articles in newspapers, magazines, and online analyzing this campaign. Most of them weren’t very memorable, but one of the ones that stuck with me came out last January by Matthew MacWilliams.

What MacWilliams’ research was finding, he reported, was that these four questions predicted Trump support better than any other factor – better than age, gender, education, or income class. Trump himself isn’t respectful, obedient, well-behaved, or well-mannered, but he certainly wants to be shown orderly respect and obedience, so supporters saw in him a strong man who would enforce the needed qualities on an unruly populace. The felt need for an authoritarian approach – encouraged by every action movie and a lot of the news narratives – occurs in women as well as men, which perhaps helps us understand how 42 percent of women could have voted for Trump.

There are a lot of lenses available for looking at what happened on Tue Nov 8. This one might be worth keeping in mind: The authoritarian need has been on the rise, encouraged by frustrations and a changing world. Trump appealed to the authoritarian need.

* * *
This is part 2 of 4 of "Liberal Entitlement"
See also:
Part 1: Election Prayer
Part 3: The Problem with Anti-Politics
Part 4: Join the Rebel Alliance


Election Prayer

Liberal Entitlement, part 1

I went to pray on Tuesday morning.
I went to join the people, my neighbors, at the precinct to worship together.
The electoral priest gave me a paper ballot wafer.
This is my body politic.
And handed me a pen – a small container of ink.
This is my blood.
I offered up my prayer, expressed the yearning of my heart.
As prayer does, it connected me to -- made me a part of -- something much bigger than myself.
Within a day, the Goddess answered my prayer, and the answer was:
"No. You’re not ready yet for that. I know you thought you were -- but you have more work to do – you and your neighbors -- more lessons to learn, more bridges to build. More compassion to share. You must love more widely and more fiercely and organize more energetically and more effectively."
I come to pray on this Sunday morning.
I come to join my people at our congregation to worship together:
To share our prayer -- express the yearning of our hearts.

May we be made ready. May we find the strength and resolve to do the work, learn the lessons, and build the bridges. We ask for the courage to love more fiercely, brightly, and constantly than we ever have before -- and for the energy to organize the effective forms of public love, which is justice.


* * *
This is part 1 of 4 of "Liberal Entitlement"
See also
Part 2: Called Into Darkness
Part 3: The Problem with Anti-Politics
Part 4: Join the Rebel Alliance


What To Do About Confirmation Bias

Tribe, part 3

Our ancestors may have needed confirmation bias. Without that mechanism for fostering group agreement, maybe our ancestors would not have survived. Today, however, we have the resources to live together without intertribal hate and violence. The biggest obstacle remaining is the way our own brains are built.

Today, across the news and social media, we see tribal loyalties trump any serious attempt at objectivity. "Objectivity" might not be the right word -- I don’t know if there’s really such a thing as objectivity. So let me put it this way: re-confirming the bias of one’s own group is much more motivating for a lot of people than trying hard to see another’s point of view.

The demonstrators against police violence have a strong confirmation bias for seeing things one way. Police officers have a strong confirmation bias for seeing things another way. And so the tribal lines are drawn, and getting past them is not going to be easy. That’s the dark side of tribes.

We’ve built a society of disconnection. Our veneration of privacy and autonomy were very helpful for some things, but left us with work that often lacks meaning and relationships that are disposable. In the absence of healthy tribal connection, we take refuge in less healthy tribal forms -- for some kind of tribe is a human need. Without the kind of ongoing connection with our neighbors that now comes out only when we respond to disasters, we have sought more insular, vicious tribes.

For our ancestors, reaching agreement was more important than whether the conclusion was data-based, but for tribes today coalescing around political candidates, that kind of selective attention ignoring large parts of reality may be disastrous. For the members of police communities and the members of protest communities, inability to see the other with empathy will make the conflict intractable and never-ending.

We have to start with ourselves – knowing that each one of our brains was built for powerful confirmation bias that takes work to manage – manage, not eliminate.

#1. Don't believe what you think.

You were made to have confirmation bias, and to think that your own beliefs are true. Even suggestions you don't believe have a way of directing your attention and action to seek their confirmation. Now that you know this, you can partially counter it just by noticing it at work.
When you notice it, say to yourself: "There goes my brain just wanting to confirm. I can't entirely stop it from doing that, but I can deliberately withhold cognitive assent from what it finds."

If you’re a fan of a sports team, then sports might be a handy place for you to start practicing. Notice how you think the world is a better place if your team wins. Righteousness has prevailed, right? Notice how you can't really believe that -- but you cheer for your team anyway, just because it's fun. Can you consciously bring the same attitude to other things that you think?

#2. Cultivate negative capability.

"Negative capability" was John Keats' term for "capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason." Work on being comfortable not knowing. As the Korean Zen master Seung Sahn often repeated: "Only don't know." Cultivate awe and wonder and mystery -- which depend on the absence of a satisfying story/explanation. In fact, refuse, to the extent you can, to let any story/explanation satisfy.

#3. Cultivate play.

Use play to switch around your images and metaphors. Your brain is built to latch onto stories, images, metaphors. You can't help that, but you can loosen the grip of any one story by playing around with other stories. People who expose themselves to a great multiplicity of stories – whether through traveling, reading novels, or cultivating diverse friends -- are less in the grip any one bias.

#4. Plunge in.

This one may seem counter-intuitive since it amounts to heightening your bias. There is, however, something true about every bias. Plunge in and see what you can learn about yourself from stories woven from random events. The lines on your hand, the Tarot cards that happen to come up, your zodiac sign -- explore what meaning can be made out of such coincidences. So you might actually try paying a visit to a palm reader, or Tarot psychic, or astrologer, and let them tell you the detailed story they make up.

You actually will learn something about yourself. Even if it isn't any more true of you than it would be for anyone else, it's still got some truth for you. It brings attention to an aspect of yourself. You can then better notice when that aspect is asserting itself. When you notice, you can then decide whether that's really the aspect that you want at the fore just then. The metaphors, images, or stories that most insidiously influence us are the ones that operate largely unconsciously. Fleshing out the details helps us be more conscious of them.

These four suggestions are all individual work. What we need is communal work. We need tribal connection not just with our self-selected tribe. We need tribal connection with all the people we see and interact with on a daily basis.

If we don’t figure out a way to come together as if a disaster has struck, then we will be coming together because a disaster has struck.

* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of "Tribe"
See also
Part 1: Left Alone
Part 2: Why Humans Reason


Why Humans Reason

Tribe, part 2

When we don't have strong connection to others in our tribe, it's bad for us. At the same time, there’s a dark side to our inherent tribalism. To unpack, a bit, the risks and the downside of our tribal need, I want to call attention to a curious feature of human reasoning: confirmation bias.

We all have a “tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms [our] preexisting beliefs or hypotheses” (Wikipedia). Thucydides observed, some 400 years BCE, that
"it is a habit of mankind to entrust to careless hope what they long for, and to use sovereign reason to thrust aside what they do not fancy."
Dante's Divine Comedy notes,
"opinion—hasty—often can incline to the wrong side, and then affection for one's own opinion binds, confines the mind."
Thomas Jefferson said,
"The moment a person forms a theory, his imagination sees in every object only the traits which favor that theory.”
We look for – and we see everywhere – support for our own theories.

And it goes even deeper than that. We tend to start noticing support for mere suggestions! Suppose your friend mentions that a mutual friend was born in middle-third of summer, which makes her a Leo. He mentions this by way of categorizing some tendency of hers. Or suppose he mentions that she was born in 1959, which was the year of the Pig, and uses this as a meaningful category for describing some aspect of the type of person she is. Even if you are quite sure that you believe in neither the Babylonian nor the Chinese form of the zodiac, the mere suggestion creates an unconscious filter at least temporarily increasing your attention to the person's lion-like or pig-like qualities.

A cousin of confirmation bias is the behavioral confirmation effect – also known as the self-fulfilling prophecy. What you think will happen influences how you act, and your action makes it happen. Typically you don’t notice the role that your own behavior had in making the result happen.

I mention all this because I want to raise this question: Why do we have confirmation bias? Why is there a behavioral confirmation effect? Whenever we reason – that is, whenever we advance a claim and seek to support it with evidence – we’re likely to be under the sway of confirmation bias. Why is that?

If the evolutionary function of reasoning – supporting claims with evidence – were to better discern the truth, or to make better decisions – then natural selection would have weeded out confirmation bias and the behavioral confirmation effect a long time ago. In fact, they never would have arisen. This tells us that the evolutionary function of reason is NOT to discern truth or to arrive at better decisions.

So what is the evolutionary function of human reason? Scholars Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber argue that the function of human reason is in order for us to persuade one another. That is, in human evolutionary history, it is typically valuable for a group to agree on its viewpoints and theories. It is typically less valuable that those viewpoints and theories be true, or correspond to reality. As long as the decision-making isn't terrible but only a little bit less than optimal, then group agreement is more valuable than a marginal increase in good decision-making.

We are deeply social animals, and having a shared view of things helps us like each other and get along. Very often that’s more important than whether the shared view of things is true. If the objective is to produce conclusions supported by the most careful examination of the widest possible range of evidence, then confirmation bias is a significant obstacle. But if the objective is to produce conclusions that the group collectively endorses, then confirmation bias is quite handy: it keeps us focused on the evidence we can point out to each other to reinforce our consensus and bring lagging skeptics on board.

We evolved not only in a context of dependency on others within our tribe, but also in a context of recurring conflict with other tribes. In other words, we really needed to get along with our own people and also really needed to be able to fight against outsiders. Tribal survival depended on being able to defend our stuff (our turf, our food, our males' access to our reproductive-age females), and, when times got tough, survival sometimes depended on being able to conquer a neighboring tribe and take their stuff.

Shared viewpoints would have been doubly useful. First, shared viewpoints functioned to strengthen the bonds within our tribe. Second, shared viewpoints also functioned to facilitate a useful hatred of neighboring tribes who had different viewpoints. We needed to have viewpoints that were OURS – that were a product of tribal conversation – and we also needed those viewpoints to NOT be terribly closely determined by reality -- because then the other tribe would arrive at the same conclusion, and we wouldn't be able to hate them for their corrupt beliefs. Confirmation bias suits the need with amazing efficacy.

* * *
This is part 2 of 3 of "Tribe"
See also
Part 1: Left Alone
Part 3: What To Do About Confirmation Bias


Left Alone

Tribe, part 1

When you’re married to someone who likes disaster movies, then you end up watching a lot of disaster movies. The appeal of disaster movies is the appeal of actual disasters: we get to all get along. We become united – and by something clearly important. When 9-11 happened, when Superstorm Sandy hit, New Yorkers pulled together. Whenever a flood or a tornado or a tidal wave hits a community, you hear the same story: how nice it was that we were all working together. And we needed each other.

If you’ve ever caught yourself secretly hoping for a disaster just because it would be something significant and real, well, you’re not the only one. So much of our lives seem insignificant and unreal because we don't have to work together with others to deal with threats to the tribe’s very survival: coming together to care for each other in a way that feels real, solving problems that feels real, addressing threats that are real. When we’re not doing that for a short period of time it feels like a welcome respite. When we’re not doing that ever, it’s hard for life to feel real for a social species like homo sapiens.

Millions of years of evolution selected out just the traits that were oriented to being social, caring for and protecting the tribe. Sebastian Junger wrote a book called, Tribe. He says:
“Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it. What they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary.”
In the 1700s, the European colonists and Native Americans were never far from each other. The colonists, we know, were commercial and industrious. The indigenous peoples were communal and tribal. Colonial society was wealthier, more advanced. The Europeans had more stuff, more powerful tools, could do more things, and they were always working on getting still more. They were making "progress" happen.

Yet something weird was happening. From time to time a European would “go native” – defect from white society and go live with a native tribe. This never happened the other way around. Not that our European ancestors were terribly welcoming overall, but there were some attempts, say, to welcome Indian children into colonist towns and homes. They never wanted to stay. In 1753, Benjamin Franklin wrote:
“When an Indian child has been brought up among us, taught our language and habituated to our customs, yet if he goes to see his relations and make one Indian ramble with them, there is no persuading him ever to return.”
Through the colonial period, there were, the history books tell us, occasional wars and skirmishes between the settlers and the First Nations. With war comes prisoner taking. What probably wasn’t mentioned in your school history text is that the Europeans taken prisoner by the Americans often came to prefer life with their captors. When released, they would sometimes ask to stay. When colonists rescued them, they would escape and hide from their rescuers. This made prisoner swap agreements rather awkward. To honor their side of the swap, the natives had to forcibly return colonists, and still some colonists refused to go.
“In one case, the Shawanese Indians were compelled to tie up some European women in order to ship them back. After they were returned, the women escaped the colonial towns and ran back to the Indians.” (David Brooks, NYTimes, 2016 Aug 9)
In 1782, six years after the colonists had declared their independence from Britain, Hector de Crèvecoeur wrote,
“Thousands of Europeans are Indians, and we have no examples of even one of those aborigines having from choice become European.”
What’s going on? Is our cultural tradition, so good at domination and progress and doing more and getting more, foregoing what really gives people fulfilling lives?

I understand that evolution has reasons for making us the sort of beings that aren’t ecstatically or contentedly happy all the time. A certain dissatisfaction with things as they are is a necessary motivator to stir us from complacency. But did Western culture take that drive way, way too far?

I know there’s a tendency to romanticize tribal peoples. Tribes did war with each other. Life was often difficult. They were not, by and large, what we would call environmentalists – they, too, deforested and overhunted, and gave little thought to sustainability. But still Sebastian Junger’s description haunts me. These sentences don’t sound like romanticizing:
“They would have practiced extremely close and involved child care. And they would have done almost everything in the company of others. They would have almost never been alone.”
Almost never alone. We traded that for more individual autonomy and choice and privacy, for being left alone – being left . . . alone. Was it a good trade? We gained wealth. We lost our strong tribal connectedness. We pay the price in that loss and in higher rates of depression. The World Health Organization reports that people in wealthy countries suffer depression at up to eight times the rate of people in poor countries.

The millennial generation – people who are now between about 15 and 35 years old – may be in some ways choosing community over autonomy more so than previous generations. Millienials are more likely to turn the office into a source of friendships, meaning and social occasions, with less professional distance. Some millenials are trying to reclaim neighborhood hospitality – not as an accidental product of necessity, as it was 100 years ago – but as an intentional choice that requires effort. That feels like a good thing. Humans are built to live tribally. We need our tribe. When we don't have one, it's bad for us.

* * *
This is part 1 of 3 of "Tribe"
See also
Part 2: Why Humans Reason
Part 3: What To Do About Confirmation Bias


More Than Words Can Say

Covenant, part 3

A contract, whether oral or written, consists of words. There may be disputes about the meaning of those words, but the words are the contract. Covenant is different. Covenant is ultimately beyond words.

Yes, we generally do make attempts to articulate the covenant in words, but the words aren’t the covenant. A poem can articulate the love the poet feels for the beloved, but the poem isn’t the love. The covenantal reality is much more than what can be spoken. A marriage covenant, for example, can never be wholly and fully expressed by the vows made at the wedding, no matter how carefully or extensively those vows might be crafted. The promise is more than what can be said.
Love rings the bells of wanted birth and wedding day --
Love guides the hands that promise more than words can say.
(Brain Wren, "Love Makes a Bridge")
This is not to say that articulating vows is unimportant.The words matter – but they matter not because they capture and constitute the whole promise, but because they serve to point to the promise that is deeper and wider than words can say.

As a people of covenant, we cannot grasp all that this covenant means – we can only live it. We cannot articulate all that our commitment to each other means – but can articulate a few aspects that will help us stay pointed in the direction of being the people we want to be: we promise to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person, or being, to respect the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part, to nurture each other in our spiritual journeys and engage in service. The words are merely the tip of the iceberg of the covenant as it is lived.

The great Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams speaks of the community-forming power – this mysterious thing that, like God promising Abraham, lifts us out of our separate, small lives and forms us into community, a great nation. Covenant is the name of that mystery, that community-forming power, the promise and commitment to be together, bear witness to one another, to be for each other what we cannot be alone. As Annie Dillard says,
“Together we notice not only each mountain shadow and each stone on the beach but we notice each other's beautiful face and complex nature so that creation need not play to an empty house.”
We are surrounded by a culture that emphasizes individualism, heroic separation. The covenantal theology that Unitarian Universalism has inherited and shaped in its own way teaches that there is another way.

Our flourishing lies in the promises we make to and with each other. That flourishing happens through the keeping of those promises, and maybe even more it happens through the repairing of the promises when they are broken. For under-girding our covenantal promises to each other is the covenantal promise to the promise of covenant itself – our promise to do the work of re-connecting when we find ourselves divided. We forgive ourselves and each other and begin again in love. When we think someone isn’t doing enough, when we find someone annoying, when we think someone isn’t listening to us, is doing things wrong, in that very moment: forgive ourselves and each other and begin again in love.

That’s the covenant, and the covenantal tradition of which we are today the latest manifestation. Of course we try to keep our promises, and often we do. But it’s when we don’t that we confront the task of repair, of beginning again in love, and that’s when our lives meet the holy. As Rev. Gretchen Haley writes:
“Let me tell you right now, sometime in the next year, maybe in the next few minutes, the people you most believe in and care about are going to disappoint you. Your church is going to disappoint you. This world is surely going to disappoint you. Like, all the time. We all are walking wounded and weary from the way this world can – and does – break our hearts. And what our faith asks of us, what our faith imagines for us, is that somehow, right at that moment when our hearts break, we will find our way to see through that heartbreak. We will stay put – not close off, not run away, not hurt back – but keep on being in relationship, doing what we can to repair the world and each other, keep on opening our hearts with greater love. And, right then, our covenantal faith says, we are most whole and most at home.”
We are promise-making, promise-keeping, promise-breaking, and promise-repairing animals. And here we are. A group of people who happen to be in a room together looking for meaning and belonging -- the most recent embodiment of a tradition that shows us how to do that. For we are a covenantal people -- and our lives do not play to an empty house.

* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of "Covenant"
See also
Part 1: The Covenantal Tradition
Part 2: What Makes a People