What If I Don't Have a Gender Identity?

Last Sunday, after the worship service, 50 or so of us gathered in Community UU's Fellowship Hall for a screening of “Gender Revolution: A Journey with Katie Couric.” As I listened to the stories of the transgender people Couric interviewed, it occurred to me that I wasn’t sure I had such a thing as a gender identity.

I present myself as male because, from early on, I was told I was male. I never had any sense that was right or wrong. If my parents had told me from birth that I was a girl and dressed me in frilly pink dresses, I think I’d have been fine with that (at least for as long as I could have been prevented from noticing that my external genitalia didn’t match the other girls'). I did have certain preferences that were more common among boys than girls -- I loved playing football, for instance -- but as long as girls could also play football and participate in the other "tomboyish" things to which I was drawn -- being identified as a girl would not have felt like a problem for me.

Of course, I could be fooling myself – delusion is always a possibility – but it seems as though I present myself as male only because that’s easy and convenient (also, males have lots of advantages in our culture, so why not?) rather than because an inner gender identity makes me feel that being female would be wrong for me.

Maybe I'm unusual in how weak my inner sense of gender identity is (or, perhaps, unusual in how strongly I’m in denial about it). In 1977, at age 18, I went away to college and started going by Meredith, my middle name, whereas previously I’d always gone by Steven, my first name, or Steve. I was attracted to the gender ambiguity of “Meredith.” I was consciously making a small statement against the very idea of gender identity. I learned that sex is a biological category while gender is a social construct, and my opinion was that it would be better to stop socially constructing it. Or, at least, since gender roles are oppressive, especially to women, let’s construct gender in a way that allows for a lot more role fluidity -- and minimizes the significance of gender identity.

What I’ve been learning is that there is something biological about gender identity after all, and even if my brain’s gender identity structures really are at the weak end of the spectrum, a lot of people, both cisgender and transgender, have stronger gender identity built into their brains. I don’t know directly what that’s like, but I don’t have to know. Other people bear no burden to make their lives make sense to me. Rather, it’s my responsibility to extend respect and care to everyone, whatever ways they differ from me. It’s up to me to take them at their word about who they are and what they make of the meaning of their life and experience.

As for my identity? GBNS (Genderless But Not Sexless)? No, I have a gender, just not a gender identity. By long habit, I clearly present as male, don't have any energy to change those habits, and continue to benefit from the privileges of maleness. Even if, for me, my own gender is entirely a social construct, male is how I happen to have been socially constructed. Thus, I identify myself as male without identifying with being male. I might have just as readily taken to being constructed female, but I wasn't, so I'm not. Much. I guess. Not having been put to the test, I don't really know. Maybe I'm SHMPUA (Socially and Habitually Male but Personally/Privately Ultimately Apathetic). Or: SCMMLCANGBPGI (Socially Constructed Male and More or Less Comfortable with that but Apparently Not Genetically or Biologically Predisposed to a Gender Identity).
Image: Royalty-free from Shutterstock


Called to Repair Relationship

Yom Kippur, part 3

In group process there’s a principle called “step up, step back” -- along with such other principles as, “assume best intentions,” “use ‘I’ statements,” and “avoid generalizations.” The “step up, step back” principle asks participants to self-monitor how much they are speaking. If they’ve been speaking a lot, decide to step back and let others speak. If they’ve been quiet, push themselves to step up and contribute comments or suggestions. If you spent a year engaged with people and skillfully balancing stepping up and stepping back, you’ll probably be able to look back on that year and see yourself as having failed to work for peace, failed to speak up against what, in your opinion, was an injustice.

But it’s not all on you. Peace and justice must be built together, collectively, and we don’t all have the same vision of what peace and justice are. Similar considerations apply to the other usual faults and failings.

What looks to some of us like ignoring the poor in our midst looks to others like an appropriate level of attention given the need to respect other’s choices while allowing choices to have consequences.

What looks to some like withholding love might look to others like respecting autonomy and boundaries.

What looks to some like distorting the truth for our own advantage might look to others like standing up for oneself and trusting the process to sort it out.

What looks to some like conforming to fashion rather than conscience looks to others like considerately accommodating the tastes and sensibilities of others.

So what is wrong with you? Every fault or failing you could find in yourself has at its root a virtue. And, yes, these faults/virtues of ours sometimes hurt other people – and their faults/virtues sometimes hurt us. These bumps and hurts, too, are part of the process of our ongoing learning about how to skillfully balance respecting others autonomy -- and helping them; balance accepting others for exactly what they are -- and encouraging them to further growth; balance being interested in their lives -- and respecting their privacy; balance being open and sharing of yourself to others -- and maintaining boundaries; balance seeing things from other viewpoints -- and integrity to your own viewpoint.

It’s a lot to balance, and the hurts we cause others and the hurts we feel from others are the bumps of the continual re-alignment and re-adjusting of those balances.

The traditional language is that God forgives us for transgressions against God. I understand that as a reference to the forgiveness of our faults we experience when we see them in the light of the virtues that are at the source of those faults.

But for transgressions of one human being against another, the Day of Atonement does not atone until they have made peace with one another. I understand that as a call to relationship, to having the conversations in which we take the time to hear and empathize with others’ hurts, and hear and empathize with what led them to hurt us.

Those can be some hard conversations, and we aren't always up for that work. But once a year, we can take a deep breath and muster up the will to pick up that phone, approach that person we’ve been just a little estranged from, and take up the work of repairing relationships. It’s a wonderful tradition that calls us to remember each year to do that -- because it’s so easy to let it slide and slide.

These are the days of awe, the days of atonement. Now is a good time for that annual mustering for difficult work of repairing relationships -- for by our relationships do we live.

May you be inscribed in the book of life. G'mar Hatima Tova.

* * *
The evening hours that begin Yom Kippur are called “Kol Nidre,” which means “all vows.”

Some say that it is a prayer of people not free to make their own decisions, people forced to say what they do not mean. They say that the agony of those who had to say “yes” when they meant “no,” those coerced and oppressed, echoes in each repetition of this prayer.

Some say that the Kol Nidre is a confession. We are all transgressors, all exiled from the highest we know, all in need of the healing of forgiveness and reconciliation. For transgressions against God, the Day of Atonement atones; but for transgressions of one human being against another, the Day of Atonement does not atone until they have made peace with one another.

The Kol Nidre is a practical and honest reminder of our fallible humanity, recognition of which is the beginning of compassion. This is the version of the Kol Nidre prayer that appears in the Union Prayer Book in many Reform Jewish congregations:
May all the vows and promises before God, which we have left unfulfilled;
May all the moral pledges, penalties and other self-imposed obligations we have left undischarged, from last atonement day until this atonement day now come to us in peace;
May they all be forgiven by the almighty, and be accounted as of no moment.
We regret having made them.
Still more, we regret having neglected them.
May the almighty grace strengthen us in the future to keep us from the rash vow, the hastily-imposed self-discipline, and teach us to bear the sufferings of life as they come, with patience and with resignation.
* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of "Yom Kippur"
See also
Part 1: What's Wrong with You?
Part 2: Upsides of Failings


Upsides of Failings

Yom Kippur, part 2

A Yom Kippur invocation:
The day is bright with the glory of Yom Kippur. The day is bright with the glory of the world, with the glory of creation, with the glory of life.Light is sown for the righteous, and gladness for the upright in heart. The hope in our hearts will help us see the way in the year to come. We are called to follow the right path, and to atone for straying from it.

What does this require? The prophet Micah considers the possibilities: “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” No, none of these, says Micah.
“He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

So let us be recommitted in the year ahead to doing justice, loving kindness, walking humbly the way that seems most right. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur call us to consciousness: to review how we have lived in the year past, and to consider how we may live in the year to come. These days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are the Days of Awe, the days for taking time to look at ourselves, see ourselves clearly. Words such as these have guided generations upon generations of Jewish people in this crucial spiritual exercise:

“Hear, O Israel: God is our God. God is one. Blessed is God’s glorious realm for ever and ever. Blessed is God, ruler of the Universe, who hallows us with gifts and commands us to kindle the lights of the day of atonement. Let us give thanks for the transcendent light shining on all creation. Let us give thanks for the light which dwells within each of us if we will look inward and seek it."

Rabbi Hillel has said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I? If I do not act now, when will I act?”

The starting place is within. While there is yet time, before the last Shofar blast on Yom Kippur, before the Angel seals the Book of Life, the sages tell us that we have the means to change our destinies. The One who makes peace in the heavens, may that One make peace for us and for all Israel. (Reading for Yom Kippur adapted from the Jewish Awareness Group at the Unitarian Church of All Souls, New York City and the Unitarian Universalists for Jewish Awareness)
* * *
What's wrong with you? "Nothing" is a pretty good answer. "Everything" is also not bad. Those answers encourage an important self-acceptance -- but they might also encourage complacency. So a reflection on what skills we'd like to work on honing can, indeed, be helpful. I take the invitation of Yom Kippur to be to reflect on what skills those might be.

Every week our e-Communitarian includes a "Practice of the Week," with an idea that might help you hone skills of attention, gratitude, joy, compassion, peace, kindness, and wisdom. At the bottom of each "Practice of the Week" post, there’s a link to the list of all of them (HERE): 137 so far, as of this week.

Some of them are slogans to live by, to call upon and be guided by. Others are specific practices to do, worth a try once or for occasional use as needed. And others might really be your thing – a practice to stick with daily or weekly for the rest of your life to help you hone your skills of peace, joy, and wise compassion.

Acknowledging your faults and failings by itself doesn’t do much. That’s why Chaim Stern looks back on previous years and says, “Last year’s confession came easily to the lips.” He urges us to hope that this year’s confession will come from deeper than the skin. But Rabbi Stern wrote these words for use in liturgy (he was among the most prominent 20th-century liturgists of reformed Judaism), and we have included them in our Unitarian Universalist liturgy, in our hymnal readings under “Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.” There they are, suitable for reading year after year after year.

Whatever happens, next year we’ll be looking back and again saying, yeah, last year’s confession came easy. We'll be asking, “will this year’s come from deeper?” We'll be confessing that our promises to do better have not been serious – “our paths are strewn with promises like fallen leaves.”
Even as we might wish for radical transformation, the fact that these words are an annual ritual conveys the message that such transformation will not happen. Next year we’ll be saying the same thing.

Our hope is that this process, this annual ritual recitation of hopes, lends itself to a gradual raising of one’s standards. Perhaps last year’s work was too easy only by the higher standards we are now expecting from ourselves. May it be so.

Traditionally the faults and failings we find in ourselves typically include something similar to these:
We failed to work for peace
We kept silent in the face of injustice
We have ignored the poor in our own midst
We have withheld our love from those who depend on us
We have distorted the truth for our own advantage
We have conformed to fashion and not to conscience
We have sinned against ourselves and not risen to fulfill the best that is in us. (ibid)
All true. And it’s going to be true next year. So let's look at why these failings are so intractable.

Along with these failings come some good qualities. For instance, it's a good thing that we haven't been so arrogant as to believe we know what the best way to build peace is, or the best way to speak for justice. What sometimes, or to some of us, looks like speaking for justice, at other times, or to others of us, looks like sewing discord. What sometimes, or to some of us, looks like working for peace, at other times, or to others of us, looks like allowing injustice to go unchallenged.

We don’t all agree on what peace and justice look like, and only the zealots feel certain that they know. Most of us have some opinions in that area, but it’s wise to hold those opinions provisionally, because getting to peace and justice means working with other people who have different opinions about what constitutes peace and justice.

No wonder we can so reliably say every year that we’ve failed to work for peace and have kept silent in the face of injustice! And it’s a good thing we did fail – that is, it’s a good thing that we had enough humility not to try to force our opinion of peace and justice on others all the time, enough respect for other people to understand that peace and justice are collective work, and enough wisdom to see that the overall process must find ways to accommodate diverse visions, which means visions different from our own.

* * *
This is part 2 of 3 of Yom Kippur
See also
Part 1: What's Wrong with You?
Part 3: Called to Repair Relationship


What's Wrong with You?

Yom Kippur, part 1

“Atonement Day”
by Chaim Stern
Once more Atonement Day has come.
All pretense gone, naked heart revealed to the hiding self,
We stand on holy ground, between the day that was and the one that must be.
We tremble.
At what did we aim?
How did we stumble?
What did we take?
What did we give?
To what were we blind?
Last year’s confession came easily to the lips.
Will this year’s come from deeper than the skin?
Say then: why are our paths strewn with promises like fallen leaves?
Say then: when shall our lust be for wisdom?
Say now: Love and truth shall meet; justice and peace shall embrace.
What’s wrong with you? That question is a focal one at Yom Kippur. As Chaim Stern asks:
“How did we stumble? What did we take? What did we give? To what were we blind?”
Our confessions, like our promises to do better, are too easy, and shallow. Our lust is not for wisdom.

So many things are wrong with you. That message is a key aspect of Yom Kippur -- because it's a time for focusing on doing better in the year ahead.

I usually prefer to say there’s nothing wrong with you. You're perfect. The very first time I ever preached from the White Plains UU pulpit, four and a half years ago, when I was a candidate to become the congregation's minister, in a sermon called “Blessed Affliction,” I said:
“A newborn is perfect, and at the same time, we wouldn’t want it to stay exactly as it is for 40 years. Having the capacity for change, growth, and learning is a key part of what makes them perfect just as they are. So it is with every infant, every child, every youth, and every adult. Perfect. What we aren’t, and can’t be is everything. We have our gifts, and with them come our shadows. We have our vulnerability, our woundedness, our brokenness. I’d like to say two things about that. First, the shadow is necessary for the gift. Being not so good at X is what allows you to be good at Y. The so-called 'weakness' is what makes the strength possible. What we aren’t and don’t makes possible what we are and do. Second, I want to go a step further than that. Your weakness IS your strength. The part of you that seems broken is itself your gift to the world – it is your blessed affliction. You can’t have both the wisdom of experience, and youthful exuberance. If one of them is your gift, it’s not a fault that you don’t have the other. If your gift is speaking your mind freely, it is not a fault that you occasionally give offense. If your gift is diplomacy, it’s not a fault that you don’t speak your mind freely. If your gift is being tall enough to dunk a basketball, it’s not a fault that your aren’t small enough to be comfortable in the back seat of subcompact car. Not a fault – but we might say it’s the shadow side of your gift. It’s the thing that you aren’t and don’t that makes possible what you are and do. The shadow is not some unfortunate, if forgivable, shortcoming. The shadow is the necessary enabling condition of the gift.”
While Yom Kippur asks us to reflect on what we did wrong, my usual approach is to say: Wait. You can’t simultaneously exhibit contradictory qualities. You can’t be sagely and exuberant at the same time, can’t be both garrulously revealing and skillfully circumspect, can’t be both tall and short. So be who you are, bring your gifts to the world, along with the shadows that go with those gifts, and let other people bring different gifts.

If you did something you now regret, my usual approach is to suggest that we begin by noticing that there were reasons you did what you did. We face competing demands pulling us in opposite directions. Our own needs compete and pull in opposite directions. We try for the best balance we can at the time.

We get angry, we get scared and anxious, we get sad, we get tired, we get stressed, and then we do things that aren’t the things we would do if those conditions weren’t present, but all those conditions arise for good reasons. They are natural responses that we need.

Are there more skillful ways to handle them? Maybe. So we can work on our skills, but it’s not our fault that we weren’t born already having those skills.

And skills do take time to develop. The time you take learning one skill is time you aren’t spending developing another skill. So, again, you can’t be everything. Ease up on yourself.

That’s my usual approach. But I sometimes go another way. I sometimes remind myself of the Japanese expression, “shoshaku jushaku.” It translates literally as, “to succeed wrong with wrong.” Life is one mistake, and then another mistake. Or it’s all one continuous mistake. Whatever you do, it’s a mistake. There is never any chance of getting it right. There’s a zen saying: “Open your mouth and you’re wrong.”

This can be liberating. No need to stress about how to get it right. You can’t. So relax.

There’s a story of Deshan, in 9th- century in China. As the head teacher of a monastery, Master Deshan gave regular sermons in the evening to the monks to instruct them in their training.
One evening the assembly gathered, and Master Deshan said, “I’m not giving a sermon tonight. I’m not answering any questions, and anyone who asks a question will get thirty blows.
One monk stepped forward and made a bow – which is what they did before asking a question. Deshan hit him. The monk said, "I haven't asked a question. Why did you hit me?”
Deshan said, "Where are you from?"
The monk said, "I come from Silla [in Korea]."
Deshan said, "Before you even got on board the ship, you deserved thirty blows."
This is the same Deshan who, on another occasion told a monk, “if you speak, you get thirty blows. If you do not speak, you get thirty blows.”

The monks under Deshan were learning the principle of shoshaku, jushaku – one mistake after another. It’s how life goes, and it’s not a fix-able condition. If it’s all a mistake anyway, our judgmentalism tends to relax.

So: What’s wrong with you? I like the answer, “nothing,” and I also appreciate the answer, “everything.”

* * *
This is part 1 of 3 of "Yom Kippur"
See also
Part 2: Upsides of Failings
Part 3: Called to Repair Relationship


Problems Are the Path

Forgiveness, part 3

There’s a reason that we were built to carry grudges. Grudges are the energy that seeks retribution. For all the ways retribution goes too far, and all the progress made in developing a concept of psychological health that has no need of retribution at all, retribution has always been a part of how human societies regulate themselves. It’s a part of how others learn to take seriously the wrong they’ve done and perhaps see the need to reform themselves. Even a process like Restorative Justice, which forswears retribution and is the most hopeful and promising approach of which I know for dealing with the harm from wrong action, derives some of its motivating energy from the awareness of the urge for retribution -- an urge that Restorative Justice then intentionally sets aside or redirects.

After the first step, acknowledging to ourselves that grudge-carrying is the sort of problem we were made to have, the second step is to honor the grudge energy. You really were wronged, and there really are useful functions for having a grudge as a result. Address your grudge as if it were a person and say, “Thank you, grudge energy, for doing such good work to protect me, help protect others, and signal that reform is needed.”

After properly and sincerely thanking your grudge for its good work, you can then look at whether it has outlived its usefulness. Is the grudge’s agenda really the agenda that the rest of you wants to have? Maybe not, and it’s time for that grudge to retire. (But don’t skip the thanking step. If you want someone to retire, you throw them a big party and say thank you a lot. Let them see that their work has been so wonderful that it is now finished.)

Forgiveness is a layered process. Retiring your grudge – for your own sake – is just one layer. You can put down the grudge, but still keep your distance from the person that wronged you. (We might call that first layer "letting go" -- you simply let go of the burden of the grudge but haven't gone to the further layer we might call "forgiveness.") Or you can advance into the second layer and seek to return to the closer rapport you had previously.

Forgiving, you see, is a kind of giving. When speakers of Old English prefixed “for-” to “giefan” -- their word for “give” -- they did so as an intensifier, signifying the completeness of the giving. Thus, emphatically, you are giving something when you forgive. What are you giving? You relinquish your right to hold a grudge, give up your claim to retribution, restitution, or repayment. That’s the first layer. The second layer would be to give good will and trust to someone who has earned only ill will and wary distrust from you.

There are times not to forgive, even if you feel that you want to. If by helping another person and forgiving their wrongdoing, you are fostering or enabling their dependence, irresponsibility, or incompetence, then continued giving, including for-giving, isn’t helping either of you. You can set aside the grudge, but still request restitution, or cut off ties with the person.

We’ve been taught that giving and forgiving are noble and magnanimous things to do. So being forgiving might make you feel superior. Or the other person might perceive a certain condescension in your forgiveness. If that’s happening, then it might be a good idea to hold off until forgiveness can come from a more humble place.

Nor should forgiveness be rushed. If you need time to process and heal, then take that time.

Giving forgiveness and needing to receive forgiveness are problems to continually negotiate. We want some assurance the wrong won’t repeat. We don’t want to be taken for chumps – seen as weak or naïve. We need our hurt to be fully recognized and honored – we’d like the offending party to recognize the harm they did. But maybe they won’t. At some point, your own honoring of your hurt has to be enough, just so you can drop the grudge and move on – but at what point is that?

These are problems. Another name for these problems is: life. We’ll always have them – approximately 83 of them, according to the Buddha. But if we crack the 84th problem, then we accept that our problems belong -- they come from being the sort of animal we were made to be. If we, as Rumi says, “greet them at the door laughing and invite them in,” instead of thinking we shouldn’t have any problems -- if we meet the problems with open hearts, and love them -- if we are curious about the problems instead of resentful of their presence, interested in where they came from and where they are inviting us to go -- then the problems are not the obstacles we took them to be. They are not the obstacle -- they are the path.

* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of "Forgiveness"
See also
Part 1: You've Got Problems
Part 2: Problems We Were Made For
A four-part series on Forgiveness from 2014 begins HERE.


Problems We Were Made For

Forgiveness, part 2

Life IS problems. Call them “challenges” if you like, but problems they are: one after another, and always about 83. Those problems will include how to get forgiveness, how to give forgiveness, to self, to others.

I can't fix any of those problems for you, but perhaps I can be of some service on the 84th problem. If you’re thinking there really shouldn’t be any problems with forgiveness – and you’re frustrated because the problems keep being there – let’s take a look at why those problems are there, and won’t go away.

We are made of the drives and impulses that most helped our ancestors survive and reproduce. We evolved into an extraordinarily social species. Surviving and reproducing depends simultaneously on being good cooperators AND effective competitors. This is a contradiction – a tension, a delicate balance. The ones that are too cooperative get taken advantage of; the ones that are too competitive get shunned. Getting that balance right is hard to do. In fact, it’s impossible to get it right all the time.

We have these huge brains. Our brains burn 20 percent of all the calories we use. For other primates, the brain uses only 10 percent of their calories, and a mouse brain uses only 2 percent of the mouse's calories. We need such big brains to deal with negotiating tremendously complex social situations. The wonder -- and the payoff for all those calories going to the brain -- is that we're as good at it as we are.

Let me illustrate. You might remember a few years ago, in 2011, Amy Chua published a book called Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Now, Chua was writing with a certain self-mocking irony that many people who only read about the book missed. Still, the book did make a case for the superiority of a strict Chinese-style of parenting in which children do not go on play dates or sleepovers, watch TV or play video games. Instead, they are drilled continuously in academic and musical skills. Many nonAsian overpressuring upper-middle-class parents in this country are doing about the same thing, but Chua was a bit more hard-core than most. Critics said this kind of parenting is too demanding, but I appreciated the point David Brooks made: it’s not demanding enough. “I believe she’s coddling her children,” he wrote.
“She’s protecting them from the most intellectually demanding activities because she doesn’t understand what’s cognitively difficult and what isn’t. Practicing a piece of music for four hours requires focused attention, but it is nowhere near as cognitively demanding as a sleepover with 14-year-old girls. Managing status rivalries, negotiating group dynamics, understanding social norms, navigating the distinction between self and group — these and other social tests impose cognitive demands that blow away any intense tutoring session or a class at Yale.” (Brooks, "Amy Chua Is a Wimp")
The school cafeteria is more intellectually demanding than the library. The classroom is a cognitive break from the truly arduous tests of childhood.

Negotiating cooperative strategies while also protecting ourselves from getting taken advantage of, in a context where everyone else is trying to do the same is a huge cognitive task – and we have brains that do this for fun. It’s a lot to learn. And it’s constantly shifting. There’s always something new to work out. So, yeah, 83 problems. Being cooperative means we open ourselves up to be taken advantage of sometimes. We are wronged. Watching out for ourselves to not get taken advantage of sometimes results in stepping on someone’s toes. We wrong others. That’s the basic and ongoing dynamic that creates needs to forgive and to be forgiven. We get wronged and we wrong others. It’s gonna happen. Forgiveness is sometimes hard for the same reason that it’s necessary: it's all a part of this life of problems that our calorie-gobbling brains were made for.

So take that problem of the grudge that you just can’t let go of. The 84th problem is that you think that shouldn’t be a problem. So the first step is to recognize that it is a problem, and it should be -- it's just the sort of problem humans were made to have. There’s a reason that we were built to carry grudges. That grudge energy is trying to keep you safe from getting hurt again. It's also a part of protecting your social circle against the kind of behavior that hurt you.

* * *
This is part 2 of 3 of "Forgiveness"
See also
Part 1: You've Got Problems
Part 3: Problems Are the Path
A four-part series on Forgiveness from 2014 begins HERE.


You've Got Problems

Forgiveness, part 1

You’ve got problems. I kinda know what some of them are. Others, I have no idea of. But even if you’re someone here today who I’ve never met, I know you’ve got problems. We all do. And here you are at Community Unitarian Universalist Congregation. At CUUC, we have small groups; we have worship services. Perhaps you're thinking we can help with those problems -- give you some tools for getting through your week; help you be the person you really want to be. Or maybe, what you’d really like is confirmation that you’re just fine and your problems all stem from the evil or stupidity of other people. (A lot of people are in houses of worship this weekend – as any weekend – expecting confirmation that they are right and it’s “those others” who are wrong and are the problem. I understand. We all like a little confirmation. I’m not immune to that myself.)

In any case, you’ve got problems. And maybe forgiveness is one of them. Or maybe forgiveness is a whole bunch of them, because there are a lot of different issues that all fit under the general heading, forgiveness. In no particular order:
  1. Someone wronged you, and you resent it. You carry a righteous grudge, whether they apologized or not.
  2. Someone wronged you, and they apologized and you said you forgave them, but your heart didn’t really forgive them. You’re conflicted: part of you wants to let go of the grudge, but part of you is holding on to it.
  3. Someone wronged you, but they won’t apologize. You could forgive them could just acknowledge that they hurt you, but they won’t acknowledge it, so you can’t.
  4. You wronged someone, or they think you did, and they have a grudge against you. You’re mad at them for being mad at you, which makes it impossible for you to have any interest in apologizing, so you’re stuck.
  5. You wronged someone, and you’ve apologized but they haven’t forgiven you, and you feel miserable not being in their good graces.
  6. You and another person had a falling out – in the course of which you have both done some hurtful, regrettable things, and you want to repair the relationship, but you don’t know where to start, or how.
  7. Same falling out as before, but you’ve decided you don’t want to repair the relationship. You regard the relationship as ended. You want to have nothing further to do with that other person. Yet, despite your protestations to the contrary, you’re feeling that something’s missing from your life without that person.
  8. You wronged someone, and it took you a while to fully realize it, and now you want forgiveness, but they aren’t available. They’ve died, or moved away and you have no idea where.
  9. Someone wronged you, and you’d like to forgive them, but they’ve died or are otherwise unavailable.
  10. You did something wrong, and the affected parties have sincerely forgiven you, but you’re having a hard time forgiving yourself. You keep beating yourself up, harshly judging yourself, because of the error.
I’ll stop there. I’m sure those aren’t all the problems that we confront under the category of forgiveness. We could probably keep going until we got to 83, but you get the idea. This forgiveness thing is the name for a host of different problems. If those aren’t your problems, you have had them, or you will.

If you’re here so I can tell you something to make those problems go away, I can’t help you. If you wanted to hear that the problem is all other people, I can’t help you with that either. At least, not until we first acknowledge the 84th problem.

You see, there’s a parable from the Buddhist tradition – I think I’ve mentioned it once before -- that Gautama – the Buddha – in his travels through India was visited by a farmer, who said, “I attended your public talk. It was beautiful; I was moved. Please help me with my problems.” And the farmer started listing his problems: some of his cows got diseases; the grain market wasn’t consistent; fertilizer prices kept going up; his spouse was sometimes contrary; his children wouldn’t do what he told them; the neighbor’s dog was harassing his chickens.

Finally, the Buddha interrupted him and said, “You have 83 problems.”

This gave the farmer pause, and he said, “I hadn’t counted them, but that sounds about right.”

The Buddha said, “I can’t help you with any of them.”

The farmer was incredulous and angry. You’re this great, renowned spiritual teacher, and you can’t help me with any of my problems? What good are you?”

Buddha said, “You will always have 83 problems. Sometimes you can solve one of them, or it goes away by itself, but another one comes along to replace it. Always 83. However, perhaps I can help with the 84th problem.”

The farmer said, “What’s the 84th problem?”

The Buddha said, “You think you should have no problems.”

* * *
This is part 1 of 3 of "Forgiveness"
See also
Part 2: Problems We Were Made For
Part 3: Problems Are the Path
A four-part series on Forgiveness from 2014, begins HERE


Tragedy In the Context of Beauty. Or Maybe Vice-Versa.

Poetry Celebration: Ferlinghetti, part 3

Lawrence Ferlinghetti's poem, “Two Scavengers in a Truck, Two Beautiful People in a Mercedes” describes four people – two garbage collectors and an elegant couple -- stuck at traffic lights in downtown San Francisco. The contrast between the two pairs, the class divide, bridged and yet not bridged by the circumstance of a traffic light, is a critique of American classism.
At the stoplight waiting for the light
nine a.m. downtown San Francisco
a bright yellow garbage truck
with two garbagemen in red plastic blazers
standing on the back stoop
one on each side hanging on
and looking down into
an elegant open Mercedes
with an elegant couple in it
The man
in a hip three-piece linen suit
with shoulder-length blond hair and sunglassed
The young blond woman so casually coifed
with short skirt and coloured stockings
on the way to his architect's office

And the two scavengers up since four a.m.
grungy from their route
on the way home
The older of the two with grey iron hair
and hunched back
looking down like some
gargoyle Quasimodo
And the younger of the two
also with sunglasses and long hair
about the same age as the Mercedes driver

And both scavengers gazing down
as from a great distance
at the cool couple
as if they were watching some odourless TV ad
in which everything is always possible

And the very red light for an instant
holding all four close together
as if anything at all were possible
between them
across that small gulf
in the high sea
of this democracy.

“As if anything at all were possible” he writes, with a kind of meta-irony. It's ironic, because he's exposing that the appearance of the possibility of equality and democracy is not the reality. And at the same time it's unironic, achingly sincere: for the closeness with which are held is the reality, and it's the gulfs between us that are small, and merely apparent. Ferlinghetti thus calls us to a politics in which we notice that equality and democracy aren't real -- and yet are. Our aspiration must be to better live out, live into, live from, the reality of connection, care, respect, mutuality, oneness that we vitiate by ignoring. We are like fish who deny or fail to notice that we are submerged in water -- giving our lives a kind of dryness even as, in reality, we are soaked through.

Other of Ferlinghetti poems engage with paintings. Ferlinghetti himself is a painter, and his painting gives visual expression to his words. In turn, his poems sometimes give verbal expression to a painting, and he shows us a new way to see a well known art work. “Short Story on a Painting of Gustav Klimt” is Ferlinghetti’s meditation on “The Kiss.”
They are kneeling upright on a flowered bed
has just caught her there
and holds her still
Her gown
has slipped down
off her shoulder
He has an urgent hunger
His dark head
bends to hers
And the woman the woman
turns her tangerine lips from his
one hand like the head of a dead swan
draped down over
his heavy neck
the fingers
strangely crimped
tightly together
her other arm doubled up
against her tight breast
her hand a languid claw
clutching his hand
which would turn her mouth
to his
her long dress made
of multicolored blossoms
quilted on gold
her Titian hair
with blues stars in it
And his gold
harlequin robe
checkered with
dark squares
Gold garlands
stream down over
her bare calves &
tensed feet
Nearby there must be
a jeweled tree
with glass leaves aglitter
in the gold air
It must be
in a faraway place somewhere
are slient together
as in a flowered field
upon the summer couch
which must be hers
And he holds her still
so passionately
holds her head to his
so gently so insistently
to make her turn
her lips to his
Her eyes are closed
like folded petals
will not open
is not the One
Politically, socially, personally, and in all aspects of life, we find ourselves living amidst both beauty and tragedy – constant joy and constant sorrow. This is the fundamental condition to which both preachers and poets are always speaking, so it is that theme to which I return.

Unitarian minister Forest Church spoke of the twin realities of being alive and having to die. The tragic parts seem divided between those that are unavoidable -- old age, sickness, death – and the parts that leave us wondering whether maybe we could do better. The serenity prayer asks for the serenity to accept what I cannot change, the courage to change what I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. But it’s that “wisdom to know the difference” part that is so elusive. We never know. Ferlinghetti seems to be simultaneously calling for change and accepting our shortcoming as “the constipations that our fool flesh is heir to” – while also at the same time celebrating the beauty and joy of life in a way that is simultaneously earnest and ironic.

Benediction: "The World Is a Beautiful Place," by Lawrence Ferlinghetti
The world is a beautiful place
to be born into
if you don't mind happiness
not always being
so very much fun
if you don't mind a touch of hell
now and then
just when everything is fine
because even in heaven
they don't sing
all the time

The world is a beautiful place
to be born into
if you don't mind some people dying
all the time
or maybe only starving
some of the time
which isn't half bad
if it isn't you

Oh the world is a beautiful place
to be born into
if you don't much mind
a few dead minds
in the higher places
or a bomb or two
now and then
in your upturned faces
or such other improprieties
as our Name Brand society
is prey to
with its men of distinction
and its men of extinction
and its priests
and other patrolmen

and its various segregations
and congressional investigations
and other constipations
that our fool flesh
is heir to

Yes the world is the best place of all
for a lot of such things as
making the fun scene
and making the love scene
and making the sad scene
and singing low songs and having inspirations
and walking around
looking at everything
and smelling flowers
and goosing statues
and even thinking
and kissing people and
making babies and wearing pants
and waving hats and
and going swimming in rivers
on picnics
in the middle of the summer
and just generally
'living it up'
but then right in the middle of it
comes the smiling


* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of "Poetry Celebration: Ferlinghetti"
See also
Part 1: Some Ferlinghetti
Part 2: Ferlinghetti and the Good of Poetry


Ferlinghetti and the Good of Poetry

Poetry Celebration: Ferlinghetti, part 2

The news has a crazy addictive attraction. I'm not talking so much about the storm and flood news about Harvey or Irma. I'm mostly talking about the news from D.C. about our elected leaders, and from wherever there are demonstrations about which said leaders may be commenting. I get fixated on knowing details of each fresh craziness. Much of the news this year has been both funny and deeply concerning at the same time. And many days I am scanning several times a day for the latest take on what’s happening -- torn between the impulse to giggle and the impulse to rage.

I have a jones on to know what’s going on, to make it all make sense, even if the sense it makes is that our species is incapable of making sense. I amass the bits of articles and videos hoping they will help me get a handle on what I’m supposed to do, hoping they will provide a clue about where all this is headed.

Are we as a people going to learn something, swing back the other way? Are we seeing the reactive death throes of white supremacy, patriarchy, etc. -- one last gasp before we as a people finally settle into the reality that black lives do matter, immigrant lives matter, women’s experience and wisdom matter, science and facts and telling the truth matter, ecosystems and species diversity and climate change matter? Or is this instead the beginning of the descent, the first steps down the road to a barren and vicious Mad Max dystopia?

Where is human civilization headed? The question keeps me fascinated by the news feed. But whatever the answer is, my job is the same: to love and be present to each moment as it presents. Lawrence Ferlinghetti said, “All I ever wanted to do is paint light on the walls of life.” That’s my job – maybe yours, too. Paint light on the walls of life. And consuming column-inches about what some elected official or other has gone and said now really doesn’t help me do that.

But poetry does help. And by "poetry," I mean engaging in each of four activities:
  • Read poetry to yourself. Find favorite poets. Take looks at unfamiliar ones. Read one or several poems every day.
  • Speak poems. Reading or recite them aloud to others, giving yourself the chance to savor the oral qualities, notice the interpretation that your own voice gives them, and notice the reactions of your listeners.
  • Listen to poetry read aloud. Attend poetry readings, or, if that's really un-fun for you, then have a partner or friend occasionally read a poem to you at home -- or, heck, just listen to a recording (youtube has lots). Poems are meant to be heard -- at least every once in a while -- as well as seen.
  • Write poetry. Yes, write poems -- yes, you. They don't have to be publishable; they don't have to be "good;" they just have to be your sincere effort at getting at something real or vital with words on paper. Most of them can be purely private, without another human ever laying eyes on them, although it's a good idea every once in a while to share one with another human being.
William Carlos Williams wrote 60 years ago:
It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.
Poetry, said Ferlinghetti, should be dissident, subversive, an agent for change. He wrote:
Every great poem fulfills a longing and puts life back together.
Every bird a word, and every word a bird, and birdsong is not made by machines.
Poetry breaks the brass wall between races.
Poetry is the distillation of articulate animals calling to each other across a great gulf.
It is worth nothing and therefore invaluable.
The idea of poetry as an arm of class war
Disturbs the sleep of those who do not wish to be disturbed in their pursuit of happiness.
The natural-born nonviolent enemy of the state
It is the ultimate resistance.
It is the voice within the voice of the turtle
It is the face behind the face of the race.
It is the voice of the Fourth-person singular
Poetry: the last lighthouse in rising seas.
In another work, Ferlinghetti calls on us to take up arms by taking up pens:
The state of the world calls out for poetry to save it.
If you would be a poet, create works capable of answering the challenge of apocalyptic times, even if this meaning sounds apocalyptic.
You are Whitman, you are Poe, you are Mark Twain,
you are Emily Dickinson and Edna St. Vincent Millay,
you are Neruda and Mayakovsky and Pasolini,
you are an American or a non-American,
you can conquer the conquerors with words.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti -- poet, painter, publisher, activist – was born here in Westchester – in Yonkers. His father died six months before he was born. His mother was committed to an asylum shortly after he was born. He was taken in by an aunt – actually his mother’s uncle’s former wife – who took him to France for his first five years. Returning to the US, this aunt surrendered the boy to an orphanage in Chappaqua, where he stayed for two years until taken in by a wealthy family in Bronxville. He went to Bronxville public schools. Became an Eagle Boy Scout.

During World War II, he served in the Navy. He later explained: “It’s what everyone did. I’d never heard of conscientious objection.”

He saw the devastation of the nuclear bomb in Nagasaki. Six weeks or so after that bomb, Ferlinghetti was part a detail that walked through the destruction where he saw the bones amidst the rubble. “It made me an instant pacifist,” he said, and he’s remained one ever since.

After the war, he went to Columbia University, studied literature and particularly loved Shakespeare, Marlowe, the Romantic poets, Gerard Manley Hopkins, James Joyce, Whitman, Eliot, Pound, Carl Sandburg, Vachel Lindsay, Marianne Moore, E. E. Cummings, and novelists Thomas Wolfe, Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos. Then he went to Paris, and got a doctorate at the Sorbonne. Got married, and the two of them settled in San Francisco.

In 1953, Ferlinghetti and Peter Martin founded City Lights bookstore, the first bookstore in the country to sell only paperback books: He wanted literature to be cheap and available to everyone. Two years later, Ferlinghetti, now the sole owner of City Lights, launched the publishing wing of the enterprise. The first book he published was his own first book of poems, Pictures of the Gone World.

Ferlinghetti is often classed as one of the West Coast Beats, along with Gary Snyder, Kenneth Rexroth, and Phillip Whalen, in distinction to the East Coast Beats, Allen Ginsburg, Jack Kerouac, and William Burroughs, but Ferlinghetti denies that he is a Beat writer. It’s true that he wasn’t much like a Beatnik: he was married, a war veteran, had graduate degrees, had a day job running a bookstore and publishing house, was not part of the On the Road life Kerouac and others wrote about.

What he did do is publish the Beat writers, gave them a platform, and his publishing allowed them to become known as a movement. The Los Angeles Times called Ferlinghetti, “The man without whom the Beat Generation might never have found its voice.” In style and theme, Ferlinghetti’s work is certainly quite different from what united Ginsberg and Kerouac, but every Beat writer was different, and Beat writing is not defined by any one style and theme.

Reasons for including Ferlinghetti among the Beat writers include: he shares the populist, democratic, Bohemian spirit of the Beatniks – the rejection of the stiff, stultifying conformity of the 1950s, the subversive impulse, the social critique that’s more implicit than explicit, and conveyed through irony, the questioning of authority. He wrote:
‘Truth is not the secret of a few’
you would maybe think so
the way some
and cultural ambassadors and
especially museum directors

you'd think they had a corner
on it
the way they
walk around shaking
their high heads and
looking as if they never
went to the bath
room or anything

But I wouldn't blame them
if I were you
They say the Spiritual is best conceived
in abstract terms
and then too
walking around in museums always makes me
want to
'sit down'
I always feel so
in those
high altitudes
Ferlinghetti also shares the Beat writers sense that poetry is an oral medium, meant to be read aloud, shared among real-live physically-gathered listeners, not merely ink on a page in an academic library. And the connection with jazz music. Ferlinghetti gave hundreds of poetry readings in the 1950s and 60s, reading counter-cultural poems to the accompaniment of jazz music – often, I might add, while wearing a beret. You can't get much more Beat than that.

* * *
This is part 2 of 3 of "Poetry Celebration: Lawrence Ferlinghetti"
See also
Part 1: Some Ferlinghetti
Part 3: Tragedy In the Context of Beauty. Or Maybe Vice-Versa.


Some Ferlinghetti

Poems by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, read at the Sunday service on Aug 27.

I Am Waiting
I am waiting for my case to come up
and I am waiting
for a rebirth of wonder
and I am waiting for someone
to really discover America
and wail
and I am waiting
for the discovery
of a new symbolic western frontier
and I am waiting
for the American Eagle
to really spread its wings
and straighten up and fly right
and I am waiting
for the Age of Anxiety
to drop dead
and I am perpetually awaiting
a rebirth of wonder

I am waiting for the Second Coming
and I am waiting
for a religious revival
to sweep thru the state of Arizona
and I am waiting
for the Grapes of Wrath to be stored
and I am waiting
for them to prove
that God is really American
and I am seriously waiting
for Billy Graham and Elvis Presley
to exchange roles seriously
and I am waiting
to see God on television
piped onto church altars
if only they can find
the right channel
to tune in on
and I am waiting
for the Last Supper to be served again
with a strange new appetizer
and I am perpetually awaiting
a rebirth of wonder

I am waiting for my number to be called
and I am waiting for the living end
and I am waiting for Dad to come home
his pockets full of irradiated silver dollars
I am waiting
for the atomic tests to end
and I am waiting happily
for things to get much worse
before they improve
and I am waiting
for the Salvation Army to take over
and I am waiting
for the human crowd
to wander off a cliff somewhere
clutching its atomic umbrella
and I am waiting
for Ike to act
and I am waiting
for the meek to be blessed
and inherit the earth
I am waiting
for forests and animals
to reclaim the earth as theirs
and I am waiting
for a way to be devised
to destroy all nationalisms
without killing anybody
and I am waiting
for linnets and planets to fall like rain
and I am waiting for lovers and weepers
to lie down together again
in a new rebirth of wonder

I am waiting for the Great Divide to be crossed
and I am anxiously waiting
for the secret of eternal life to be discovered
by an obscure general practitioner
and save me forever from certain death
and I am waiting
for life to begin
and I am waiting
for the storms of life
to be over
and I am waiting
to set sail for happiness
and I am waiting
for a reconstructed Mayflower
to reach America
with its picture story and tv rights
sold in advance to the natives
and I am waiting
for the lost music to sound again
in the Lost Continent
in a new rebirth of wonder

I am waiting for the day
that maketh all things clear
and I am waiting for old man river
to just stop rolling along
past the country club
and I am waiting
for the deepest south
to just stop reconstructing itself
in its own image
and I am waiting for god to look out
from lookout mountain
and see the ode to the confederate dead
as a real farce
and I am awaiting retribution
for what America did
to Tom Sawyer
I am perpetually awaiting
a rebirth of wonder

I am waiting
for Tom Swift to grow up
and I am waiting
for Alice in Wonderland
to retransmit to me
her total dream of innocence
and I am waiting
for Childe Roland to come
to the final darkest tower
and I am waiting
for Aphrodite
to grow live arms
at a final disarmament conference
in a new rebirth of wonder

I am waiting
to get some intimations
of immortality
by recollecting my early childhood
and I am waiting
for the green mornings to come again
youth’s dumb green fields come back again
and I am waiting
for some strains of unpremeditated art
to shake my typewriter
and I am waiting to write
the great indelible poem
and I am waiting
for the last long careless rapture
and I am perpetually waiting
for the fleeing lovers on the Grecian Urn
to catch up to each other at last
and embrace
and I am awaiting
perpetually and forever
a renaissance of wonder

A Coney Island of the Mind #17: This Life Is Not a Circus
This life is not a circus where
the shy performing dogs of love
look on
as time flicks out
its tricky whip
to race us thru our paces
Yet gay parading floats drift by
decorated with gorgeous gussies in silk tights
and attended by moithering monkeys
make-believe monks
horny hiawathas
and baboon astride tame tigers
with ladies inside
while googly horns make merrygoround music
and pantomimic pierrots castrate disaster
with strange sad laughter
and gory gorillas toss tender maidens heavenward
while cakewalkers and carnie hustlers
all gassed to the gills
strike playbill poses
and stagger after every
wheeling thing
While still around the ring
lope the misshapen camels of lust
and all us Emmett Kelly clowns
always making up imaginary scenes
with all our masks for faces
even eat fake Last Suppers
at collapsible tables
and mocking cross ourselves
in sawdust crosses

And yet gobble up at last
to shrive our circus souls
the also imaginary
wafers of grace

A Coney Island of the Mind #5: Sometime During Eternity
Sometime during eternity
some guys show up
and one of them
who shows up real late
is a kind of carpenter
from some square-type place
like Galilee
and he starts wailing
and claiming he is hip
to who made heaven
and earth
and that the cat
who really laid it on us
is his Dad

And moreover
he adds
It’s all writ down
on some scroll-type parchments
which some henchmen
leave lying around the Dead Sea somewheres
a long time ago
and which you won’t even find
for a coupla thousand years or so
or at least for
nineteen hundred and fortyseven
of them
to be exact
and even then
nobody really believes them
or me
for that matter
You’re hot
they tell him

And they cool him

They stretch him on the Tree to cool
And everybody after that
is always making models
of this Tree
with Him hung up
and always crooning His name
and calling Him to come down
and sit in
on their combo
as if he is the king cat
who’s got to blow
or they can’t quite make it

Only he don’t come down
from His Tree

Him just hang there
on His Tree
looking real Petered out
and real cool
and also
according to a roundup
of late world news
from the usual unreliable sources
real dead

A Coney Island of the Mind #15: Constantly Risking Absurdity
Constantly risking absurdity
and death
whenever he performs
above the heads
of his audience
the poet like an acrobat
climbs on rime
to a high wire of his own making
and balancing on eyebeams
above a sea of faces
paces his way
to the other side of day
performing entrechats
and sleight-of-foot tricks
and other high theatrics
and all without mistaking
any thing
for what it may not be

For he's the super realist
who must perforce perceive
taut truth
before the taking of each stance or step
in his supposed advance
toward that still higher perch
where Beauty stands and waits
with gravity
to start her death-defying leap

And he
a little charleychaplin man
who may or may not catch
her fair eternal form
spreadeagled in the empty air
of existence

The dog trots freely in the street
and sees reality
and the things he sees
are bigger than himself
and the things he sees
are his reality
Drunks in doorways
Moons on trees
The dog trots freely thru the street
and the things he sees
are smaller than himself
Fish on newsprint
Ants in holes
Chickens in Chinatown windows
their heads a block away
The dog trots freely in the street
and the things he smells
smell something like himself
The dog trots freely in the street
past puddles and babies
cats and cigars
poolrooms and policemen
He doesn’t hate cops
He merely has no use for them
and he goes past them
and past the dead cows hung up whole
in front of the San Francisco Meat Market
He would rather eat a tender cow
than a tough policeman
though either might do
And he goes past the Romeo Ravioli Factory
and past Coit’s Tower
and past Congressman Doyle
of the unamerican committee
He’s afraid of Coit’s Tower
but he’s not afraid of Congressman Doyle
although what he hears is very discouraging
very depressing
very absurd
to a sad young dog like himself
to a serious dog like himself
But he has his own free world to live in
His own fleas to eat
He will not be muzzled
Congressman Doyle is just another
fire hydrant
to him
The dog trots freely in the street
and has his own dog’s life to live
and to think about
and to reflect upon
touching and tasting and testing everything
investigating everything
without benefit of perjury
a real realist
with a real tale to tell
and a real tail to tell it with
a real live
democratic dog
engaged in real
free enterprise
with something to say
about ontology
something to say
about reality
and how to see it
and how to hear it
with his head cocked sideways
at streetcorners
as if he is just about to have
his picture taken
for Victor Records
listening for
His Master’s Voice
and looking
like a living questionmark
into the
great gramaphone
of puzzling existence
with its wondrous hollow horn
which always seems
just about to spout forth
some Victorious answer
to everything

A Coney Island of the Mind #9: See It Was Like This When
it was like this when
we waltz into this place.
A couple of rakish cats
is doing an Aztec two-step

And I says
Dad let's cut
but then this dame
comes up behind me see
and says
you and me could really exist

Wow I says
Only the next day
she has bad teeth
and really hates

* * *
This is part 1 of 3 of "Poetry Celebration: Lawrence Ferlinghetti"
See also
Part 2: Ferlinghetti and the Good of Poetry
Part 3: Tragedy In the Context of Beauty. Or Maybe Vice-Versa.


Reason's Role

Moral Psychology, part 3

Our moral intuitions and emotions are vital -- we can barely function without them. They, more than our rationality, provide us with the basic sense of right and wrong we draw upon at dozens, if not hundreds, of decision points every day. Important as they are, they are limited and sometimes wrong. One problem is that these feelings are highly resistant to reason. Thought experiments like the trolley conundrum illustrate that a feeling of the wrongness of an action is hard to shake, even for a hypothetical scenario in which you are repeatedly reminded that one of the conditions is that you know that the counter-intuitive action would have the better results.

While reason won't sway moral intuitions much, nonrational factors do so with worrisome ease. In Rob Drummond's show “The Majority,”
“The votes are interspersed with Drummond’s narrative, . . . about how he got involved with the anti-fascism movement and ended up being arrested for punching a white supremacist.” (Sophie Gilbert, Atlantic)
Later, Drummond shares his “disgust with himself for, as he puts it, ‘punching a man for having an opinion.’” He asks again whether it’s okay to abuse someone for something they personally believe, and this time 87.6 percent say no. He has, essentially, converted the audience. And the ease with which he’s done it is, muses Sophie Gilbert,
“yet another unnerving element to bolster his argument — that few of us really know or deeply consider what we’re voting for.”
Our moral decisions -- sometimes even life or death decisions -- aren’t very carefully considered. Studies have revealed:
  • People shown a comedy clip, and then asked whether they’d push the large man to his death, were more likely to approve killing the large man than those in another group that was shown a “tedious documentary about a Spanish village.” (Sarah Bakewell, New York Times)
  • We are more generous toward a stranger if we have just found a dime.
  • A judge’s decision to grant parole depends on how long it has been since he or she had lunch.
  • Subjects asked to make judgments about controversial moral questions -- for example, 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.
Even what feels like a deep-rooted moral instinct can be pretty fickle and easily manipulated. And that has huge consequences.

If moral assessment is so easily manipulated, that means voting behavior is too. What candidates actually say in the course of a campaign has little impact on voters. Most voters just take in the vibe and let their unconscious biases pull them toward trust or distrust. Completely irrelevant factors can shift how a voter feels about the world, and a good feeling about the world benefits the incumbent.
  • In areas with a strong college football fan base, it was found that if their team won its most recent game before the November election, the incumbent candidate got a big boost.
The citizenry is not competent to make electoral decisions, as the last election so vividly demonstrates. I’m not saying throw out democracy, because any other form of picking leaders would also be fraught with irrational biases.

In the end, reason is our only hope. It’s slow, and its plodding, and it’s pretty useless for day-to-day moral decision-making, where our emotional habits of right and wrong guide us, and our biases are just consistent enough to lend us an appearance of integrity. In fact, reason often takes generations to successfully call into question an unquestioned moral habit.

Firm moral habits widely held 150 years ago upheld slavery, those of 100 years ago denied women the right to vote, those of 50 years ago denied marriage equality to same-sex couples. Pressing questions that asked for rational justification of these habits gradually shifted them. Are darker skinned humans really so different that enslaving them is reasonable? Why shouldn’t women vote? Why shouldn’t gay people marry and have family lives? Repeatedly pressing such questions eventually pushes human brains to draw on parts other then the ventromedial prefrontal cortex in the quest to articulate defensible reasons.

A question now beginning to be pressed in public discourse is: Why exactly do we still have Confederate monuments?

I’m not keen to question all of our moral shortcuts. I want a life that feels sacredness, even if there is no good reason for it – so I have some empathy for those who find sacredness in a statue of Robert E. Lee. I want a life where at least some of my loyalty can be taken for granted without being subject to a need to rationally justify it. I want a life where I trust authorities, like scientists who tell me about climate change when I can’t make the calculations myself. We need our moral shortcuts. For all their irrationality, fickleness, and manipulability, we’d be uprooted, adrift, and lost without them.

The spiritual lesson of this is, first, humility. What feel like our strongest convictions aren’t so strong in a different set of circumstances, and what seems like ironclad logic is probably an illusion of rationalization. So let us hold our own opinions with humility.

Second, relatedly, let us try to have empathy for those with whom we disagree. Yes, their brains have built-in biases. Our brains were built the same way and are just as biased. Where we have no certain access to truth, let us seek to replace the urge to be right with the call to love.

And let us try – not all the time, but sometimes – to take the time to take the slow road of entertaining hard questions of whether our own most precious moral intuitions really are justified.

And one other thing: maybe visit the Against Malaria Foundation website, and send them a donation. I now have.

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This is part 3 of 3 of "Moral Psychology"
See also
Part 1: Do We Want Our Moral Intuitions to Be Rational?
Part 2: Care, Loyalty, Authority, Fairness, Liberty, and Sacredness


Care, Loyalty, Authority, Fairness, Liberty, and Sacredness

Moral Psychology, part 2

For many people, it just feels wrong to push a person to his death, even if doing so will save five other people, and it doesn't feel wrong to pull a lever to consign one person to death instead of five – even though the results in both cases are the same. But most of us have a hard time articulating a rational basis for that feeling.

The two points I want to make are:
  1. Moral intuitions are crucial. We need them. Rationality is too slow and plodding to the do the job alone.
  2. Moral intuitions are also problematic: on the one hand, they are stubbornly resistant to evidence that they are misguided, yet on the other hand they can often be easily manipulated to our detriment. Bringing in reason, plodding as it is, can, over the long haul, slowly tend to correct for the limitations of our moral intuitions.
First: our unreasoning feelings are very important for making moral decisions. Our moral intuitions are there to guide us in real-life situations where we don’t have the sort of certainty that the trolley scenario asks us to assume. No matter how much you’re told that you know pulling the lever will save five and kill one person on the side-track forty yards away, and that you know pushing the large man onto the track will likewise save five, the damage of pulling a lever just doesn’t feel as certain as the harm of pushing somebody right next to you off a platform into the trolley’s path. Thus, we can’t help but recoil from the near harm more than from the distant harm – which is also surely a factor in why we haven’t sent $50 to the Against Malaria Foundation: it’s so far away.

Consider what life would be like without the moral emotions. Patients who suffer damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex lose their emotionality.
“They could look at the most joyous or gruesome photographs and feel nothing. They retained full knowledge of what was right and wrong, and they showed no deficits in IQ. They score well on tests of moral reasoning. Yet when it came to making decisions in their personal lives and at work, they made foolish decisions or no decisions at all. They alienated their families and their employers, and their lives fell apart.” (Haidt 39)
You need your gut instincts, your moral intuitions, even if you can’t rationally justify or explain them.

Here’s something reasoning is good for: You need to buy a new washing machine, and you have to choose from among ten options. Assuming you have no brand loyalty, you list your criteria and you do some research on how each machine rates on each of your criteria: price, energy efficiency, water use, load capacity, cleaning efficacy, durability and repair record. You work out some way of balancing strengths in some areas with weaknesses in others, and you make your selection. Now
“imagine what your life would be like if at every moment, in every social situation, picking the right thing to do or say became like picking the best washing machine among ten options, minute after minute, day after day. You’d make foolish decisions, too.” (Haidt 40)
That’s what life is like for people with ventromedial prefrontal cortex damage.

Moral intuitions, tied to our emotional reactivity, give us our shortcuts. Reasoning it all out is just too slow and tedious. We have certain moral circuitry that allows for the quicker judgment we need.

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt has identified six moral foundations that, he says, have a genetic basis because they helped our ancestors survive, and also require learning and training to take particular shape. The six moral foundations are: care, loyalty, authority, fairness, liberty, and sacredness. In each of these areas, our brains develop shortcuts of moral reactivity that guide us in negotiating the complex moral landscape that we face every day.

Liberals tend to emphasize care. Caring for people is good, harming them is bad. (Cf. Judith Shklar's definition of a liberal as someone for whom cruelty is the worst thing we do.) Conservatives tend to emphasize loyalty and authority. Betrayal and subversion are bad. Conservatives also value caring for people – their children and families; liberals also value certain contexts of loyalty and respecting authorities, like teachers and doctors who can help us. So it’s a matter of emphasis.

Additionally, all of us value fairness and liberty, but these play out in different ways. For liberals, fairness is a matter of extending universal human rights. Everyone deserves education, health care, a chance at a decent living, nondiscrimination – denying these things to anyone is unfair. For conservatives, fairness is a matter of people getting what they deserve: hard-workers deserve their income, criminals deserve their punishment – anything less is unfair. For liberals, fairness is about equality. For conservatives, fairness is about differentiation.

Liberty also plays out differently. Liberals are more attuned to the threats to liberty that come from the oppressive working conditions and labor practices purveyed by corporations, or oppressive policing. Conservatives are more attuned to threats to liberty from oppressive taxes or government regulation, because that violates their fairness foundation – that people deserve what they work for, and ought to be rewarded, not hampered, in doing that work. They are less concerned about oppressive police, because their stronger authority foundation identifies police as necessary authority.

The sixth moral foundation is sacredness. Certain objects are sacred: flags, crosses. Certain places are sacred: Mecca, or a battlefield related to the birth of your nation. Certain people are sacred: saints and heroes. Certain principles are sacred: liberté, egalité, fraternité – or, for Unitarian Universalists, our seven principles. Our bodies are sacred – which is why desecrating (de-sacred-ing) bodies of the dead feels so wrong even if it doesn’t do any objective harm.

The psychology of the sacred – and of the disgusting (the opposite of sacred) – offers a clue toward understanding how one animal, humans, managed to form such large, complex cooperative societies. A shared sense of what is sacred and what is disgusting helps bind individuals into moral communities.

The sacred and the disgusting are a bit more prominent in conservative than in liberal minds. Several studies have shown that conservatives are more easily disgusted than liberals – and that holds in cultures all over the world. Conservatives talk about the sanctity of life, the sanctity of marriage, and of the body, seeing the body as a temple. Liberals are more likely to have the sentiment expressed on this bumper sticker:

Liberals, though, also have a sense of the sacred. Often, it is evoked by nature, which helps energize concern for the environment. Rationally, yes, we pay attention to the science, but it’s hard to keep track of all the factual details about what consequences will result when from what environmental practices. A sense that forests are sacred, that ocean and desert ecosystems are sacred, is a very helpful moral shortcut.

We all value care, loyalty, authority, fairness, liberty, and sacredness. Some of these are in tension: liberty, for instance, is in direct tension with authority; loyalty to your own group can be in tension with care for people outside your group. We balance and prioritize these value foundations in different ways.

We have emotional feelings for these values, and for some of the balances we’ve worked out between them, and that’s a good thing. Without the intuitive, quick-reaction moral feelings -- the feelings lost when the ventromedial prefrontal cortex is damaged -- we only have our plodding rationality, and we can’t function very well.

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This is part 2 of 3 of "Moral Psychology"
See also
Part 1: Do We Want Our Moral Intuitions to Be Rational?
Part 3: Reason's Role