A Feeling. Mostly.

Freedom, part 1

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

"How?" I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or did I?

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

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

He said, “It’s a feeling. Mostly.”

It’s a feeling. Mostly.

So what gives you the feeling of freedom?

* * *
This is part 1 of 3 of "Freedom"
See also
Part 2: Things That Feel Like Freedom
Part 3: Public Freedom, Private Freedom


Disgust and Moral Judgment

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

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

Why do humans have purity rules?

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do you think?


Mind and Soul Ablaze

The Fire of Commitment, part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Fire of Commitment, part 1


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"The Fire of Commitment"

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

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

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


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


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


Realities of White Privilege

White Supremacy, part 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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