The Workshops of Democracy

Daring Democracy, part 3

It's true that fixing the mechanics of elections would be helpful. It would help us feel more empowered, less fragmented, more hopeful, less isolated and indifferent. But democracy is more than elections. We also need to do the work of opening our hearts to democracy as a way of life. And when I say “we,” I need to acknowledge that y’all (that’s Southern for youse guys) are awesome. Just being here today, and Sunday after Sunday, and at other programs during the week is huge.

At congregations and other voluntary associations across the land, the work is done. Being here regularly helps grow an understanding that we are all in this together, dependent on, and accountable to, one another. It helps foster appreciation of the value of “otherness,” and hospitality to the stranger, those who seem different. It helps us engage creatively with the tensions: the internal tension when we find ourselves doing something not precisely in line with what we’ve said we value – and the external tensions with people whose opinions differ from ours. Engage those tensions, neither hiding them nor hiding from them, but using them to better understand ourselves and our neighbors.

Being here helps us find our voice, know the satisfaction of contributing to positive change, and resist narratives of our own powerlessness. It creates community, knowing that it takes a village to raise a Rosa Parks, and that steady companionship of kindred spirits nourishes the courage we need to speak and act as citizens.

Regular participation in congregational life is not the only way to do the work of opening our hearts to democracy as a way of life, but it is the best way I know.

So I really want to appreciate and invite us to appreciate together what an important thing – what an amazing thing -- it is to decide to be a congregation together, to keep this place going, to stay at the table to hash out differences, to resist the many temptations to take our ball and go home when things get a little hairy, to hang in and let the friction rub us smooth, to discern finally the lovely and delightful in one another and the light shining through our cracks. You’re here and you’re doing that, and that is such a great, hopeful thing – I just gotta say that.

But most Americans aren't here. During any given week, most Americans will not participate in any congregation where people practice and learn the gentle and the rough and tumble arts of being a people. More and more, Americans are either staying home, or they’re attending a mega-church, where they see a good show every week but participate in no decision-making, no dialog, no real encounter with one another. And our country suffers from the decline of heart-habits of democracy.

Fortunately, noncongregational forms of voluntary association may be gaining. Lappe and Eichen describe a growing network of organizations and concerns pushing back, reclaiming the vision that government of the people be for and by the people. Since most of the country isn’t here – that is, they’re not coming to us -- we can go to them. We can participate in and support noncongregational associations building democracy. What we learn here in our congregation about how to be together, how to be a people, are the attitudes and skills those other groups most need.
  • Visit the website of the Democracy Initiative to identify national and local campaigns.
  • The Move to Amend website connects a coalition of organizations and individuals quote “building a vibrant democracy that is genuinely accountable to the people, not corporate interests.”
  • Reclaim Our Democracy is a group based at First Parish UU in Concord, Massachusetts working on the issues of escalating inequality and the corrupting influence of money in politics. Check out their website.
  • Take a look also at Democracy Spring dot org, and
  • Democracy Awakening dot org. More than 500 UUs participated in the launch of Democracy Spring and Democracy Awakening in April 2016.
  • The Electoral Justice Project of the Movement for Black Lives started last November 2017 – they’re doing good building.
  • The League of Women Voters has been toiling for democracy since 1920, and their ongoing work is more vital and important now than ever.
I’ll stop there. That should be enough to get you started.

Lappe and Eichen quote William Hastie, who, they note, was America’s first African American federal appellate judge:
“Democracy is becoming, rather than being. It can easily be lost, but never is fully won. Its essence is eternal struggle.” (Hastie)
It’s not consensus and parades. It’s not easy, quiet, orderly, and safe. It is struggle. It is the fullness of life: connection and meaning, purpose and agency. It is the life of wisdom and love that we can only find and make collectively with others. It is very exciting.

* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of "Daring Democracy"
See also
Part 1: Democracy: Not Quiet and Orderly, But Exciting
Part 2: Democracy: The Spiritual Need

Above text is excerpted and slightly revised from sermon delivered on 2018 Mar 25:


Democracy: The Spiritual Need

Daring Democracy, part 2

We need each other not merely because cooperating helps us get what we want. Oh, no. Our need is much deeper than that. We need each other in order to become individuals in the first place.

Individuals do not make society. The truth is, it’s the other way around. Societies make individuals. It is in and through our network of relationships that we are fashioned into the individuals we are.

Shared social life is not a compromise. Nor is it a tool for satisfaction of our a priori interests. Shared social life is our fulfillment.

Democracy, then, is not just the means of compromising and balancing out our various interests. It is the means through which we become who we are. It is the locus of our origin. It is the dialog that creates both us and our interests in the first place.

The problem, then, is not how to get people to set aside interests, but how to form meaningful interests; not how to leave people alone, but how to integrate them with others. Alone, isolated, we are alienated, powerless – in hell.
“A just society, is one in which human beings are ‘empowered,’ they are able to use and develop their essentially human capacities. It is a society organized to transcend alienation.” (C.B. MacPherson)
Joining together with others to fashion a community – finding therein our belongingness, is what makes us real.

And we will do it. One way or another, we will do it. If we don’t learn and maintain the democratic arts of hospitality to the stranger, of cherishing the voice that will tell us something we could not have imagined for ourselves, if we don’t have communities that feel safe and also encourage us to be bold enough to relish the challenging voice that stretches us, then we will instead build insular communities dedicated to protection, craving the safety we cannot quite achieve. One way or another we will join together with others to make our lives real. If we don’t do it in democratic community, we’ll do it in totalitarian community. It was Benjamin Barber who said:
“Our interdependence as members of the human species requires us to belong – if not to free associations, then to totalistic collectivities.” (Strong Democracy, 1984, p. 112)
And it was Robert Nisbet who had earlier said:
“The genius of totalitarian leadership lies in its profound awareness that human personality cannot tolerate moral isolation. It lies, further, in its knowledge that absolute and relentless power will be acceptable only when it comes to seem the only available form of community and membership.” (The Quest for Community, 1953, p. 202)
Yes, democracy is the most effective means of organizing consensus among diverse people. Yes, democracy preserves stability, and balances competing interests. But that is to see democracy just as a tool, an instrument. It misses the more fundamental significance of democracy as an end in itself, an ethical ideal. Democracy’s real significance is its larger ethical meaning as a way of life, “a form of moral and spiritual association,” with democratic government as but one of its manifestations.

What I’m saying is, Democracy goes deeper than its forms – the mechanics of voting and fair elections.

Certainly, there are things we could do to improve elections. Many of us can rattle off ideas.
Without even touching the issue of campaign finance and the corrupting influence of money in our elections, we could:
  1. Replace the electoral college with direct popular vote
  2. End the disenfranchisement of felons and ex-felons.
  3. Allow on-site, day of voting registration.
  4. Reform voter ID requirements that disproportionately disenfranchise the poor and minorities.
  5. Have election MONTH instead of election DAY, with polls open 24-hours a day for 30 days.
  6. Eliminate gerrymandering. Require that district maps be drawn so as to produce the lowest possible sum of all the district perimeters.
  7. Require that each vote produces a hard-copy paper ballot.
  8. Institute Instant Run-off Voting for every race with more than two candidates so that no one gets elected without a 50%+1 majority.
That’s just off the top of my head (well, pretty much). You might have a few more you could add.

Fixing the mechanics of elections, however, isn’t the same thing as democratic life: the larger ethical meaning of democracy as a way of life, “a form of moral and spiritual association.” Parker Palmer describes the deeper problem:
“We suffer from a fragmentation of community that leaves us isolated from one another. We suffer, ironically, from our indifference to those among us who suffer. And we suffer as well from a hopeless sense that our personal and collective destinies are no longer in our hands.” (Healing the Heart of Democracy, 2014. p. 19)
Lappe and Eichen argue that democracy is essential. Our human spiritual need is for connection, and for meaning. Meaning comes from a sense of purpose and of agency – that is, empowerment. Thus, democracy, they say, “as it enables us to meet these needs, is the realization of human dignity” They go on to say:
“Humans thrive best when the communities we create enable each of us, not just a privileged few, to experience a sense of power (that is, agency or simply knowing that our voices count), a sense that our lives have meaning beyond our own survival, and that we have satisfying connection with others. Add those together and what do you have? The essence of democracy. . . . Our deepest needs as human beings are met in the very journey for democracy itself.” (Daring Democracy, 2014, p. 162)

NEXT: The Workshops of Democracy

* * *
This is part 2 of 3 of "Daring Democracy"
See also
Part 1: Democracy: Not Quiet and Orderly, But Exciting
Part 3: The Workshops of Democracy

Above text is excerpted and slightly revised from sermon delivered on 2018 Mar 25:


Democracy: Not Quiet and Orderly, but Exciting

Daring Democracy, part 1
“A majority of Americans apparently have come to think of democracy as a matter of consensus and parades, as if it were somehow easy, quiet, orderly, and safe.” (Lewis Lapham, 2016)
Easy, quiet, orderly, and safe. Perhaps that sounds really good – right now. Perhaps after a stressful week, you crave the sanctuary of easy, quiet, orderly, and safe. Sometimes I crave that, too.

But I’m not going to offer easy, quiet, orderly, and safe today. Let me tell you why. You see: there’s another way to turn around anxiety stress. And that is to turn it into excitement.

Democracy isn’t easy, quiet, orderly, or even safe. What it is, is exciting.

Turning stressful anxiety into invigorating excitement is often as simple as just saying so. There’s a study about that; let me tell you about it. Professor Alison Brooks put volunteers into various nerve-racking situations including: singing karaoke in front of strangers; public speaking; doing ‘IQ-test’ arithmetic problems under time pressure. But before each activity, they spoke out loud a single sentence to themselves:
“I feel anxious,”
“I feel calm,” or
“I feel excited.”
Those who said “I feel calm,” got no effect at all, either on performance or self-confidence. Those who said, “I feel anxious” did worse. Both their self-confidence and their performance was lower. Those who said, “I feel excited,” “not only felt more self-confident but also performed better, objectively measured, at all the tasks — singing, public speaking, even arithmetic. Saying “I am excited” switches the mindset from threat to opportunity – which “increases dopamine activity, which focuses your attention and sharpens you mentally.” (Robertson 2017)

So let our sanctuary – a sanctuary which, per our vision statement, we hope to make a “sanctuary without walls” – be a place of excitement – a respite from stressful threat and a gathering ground for life and verve and challenge, not sleepy complacency. In that spirit, let us engage this exciting prospect: democracy.

In their book, Daring Democracy, which is one of two Unitarian Universalist Common Reads this year – a book for all UUs to read and talk about together -- Frances Moore Lappe and Adam Eichen, expose and document an “anti-democracy” movement, funded by big money, that co-opts democratic ideals and leaves so many in the US feeling lonely and powerless. The Anti-Democracy ideology narrows the freedoms of democracy to consumption – the freedom to shop.

As Unitarian Universalists, we affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Yet the current degraded state of democracy undermines worth and dignity.

As Unitarian Universalists, we affirm and promote the right of conscience and the use of democratic process. Yet we find our political institutions denying rights of conscience and limiting access to democratic process.

As Unitarian Universalists, we affirm and promote respect for the interdependent web of all existence. Yet the structures of government seem to mock our sacred interconnectedness.

"Democracy,” said John Dewey, “is the name of a way of life of free and enriching communion." The needs of democracy are the needs of life. As Terry Tempest Williams put it:
"Can we be equitable? Can we be generous? Can we listen with our whole beings, not just our minds, and offer our attention rather than our opinions? And do we have enough resolve in our hearts to act courageously, relentlessly, without giving up –ever – trusting our fellow citizens to join with us in our determined pursuit of a living democracy.”
You may have noticed, we kinda need each other. We need each other to become and to be what we are. Recognizing this, a number of theologians now conceive of hell not as a place, not as an afterlife condition, but as alienation. Hell, they say, is disconnection from the social soil from which we draw essential nutrients.

Let’s look briefly at the historical development of our ideas of individual and society. The ways that past conceptions met some needs and neglected others will show us what all the needs are.

For the Medievals, nobility -- as in “exalted moral character, dignity, and admirable excellence” -- was the same thing as nobility -- as in “inherited wealth and power”. Thus feudalism was profoundly, fundamentally, and vastly unequal. It sustained itself as long as it did because it was clear about where everyone belonged, where everyone fit in. The miseries of serfdom were bearable – or, at any rate, were borne – because they were aspects of a clear and coherent moral order of things.

With the slow rise of the mercantile classes, Western political thought began moving toward a modern conception of individuals. By 1776, Thomas Jefferson, implementing the political theory John Locke’s Treatises of Government had expressed 100 years before, grounded the colonies’ claim to independence in an assertion that individuals were all created equal. They had inalienable rights. They had interests that counted.

On this new conception, you’ve got your interests, and I’ve got mine, and the political problem is that your pursuit of happiness is liable to interfere with mine. To solve that problem, governments, said Jefferson, “are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,” for the purpose of balancing and co-ordinating individual interests. The government’s task was to get these atoms of individual interest to curb the urge to kill each other and set aside enough of their short-term interests to be able to cooperate for their own greater long-term interest.

This John Locke theory of the individual, and thus of the role of government, gave us equality, at least in principle, at least for white male property owners, but it left us without belongingness, ripe for alienation. It failed to see how deeply our need for each other goes.

NEXT: How deeply our need for each other goes.

* * *
This is part 1 of 3 of "Daring Democracy"
See also
Part 2: Democracy: The Spiritual Need
Part 3: The Workshops of Democracy

Above text is excerpted and slightly revised from sermon delivered on 2018 Mar 25:


We Don't Have to Choose

On Being Animal, part 3

The rise of grain-based agriculture made taxation systems functional on a large scale, which allowed for centralized power. Thus were born the relations of domination that have become so familiar in so many ways. Jared Diamond (noted in the previous post) called this "the worst mistake in human history." Chellis Glendinning describes it this way:
“The small-scale, nomadic life that had endured through more than a million years and thirty-five thousand generations was irreparably altered. The human relationship with the natural world was gradually changed from one of respect for and participation in its elliptical wholeness to one of detachment, management, control, and finally domination. The social, cultural, and ecological foundations that had previously served the development of a healthy primal matrix were undermined, and the human psyche came to develop and maintain itself in a state of chronic traumatic stress.” (My Name is Chellis and I'm in Recovery from Western Civilization, 1994)
The dominance mentality gave us slavery and colonization and continues to give us large-scale oppression. The agricultural revolution created a dominant class, and put us all in service to whatever was hierarchically above us. Women are to serve men, the poor are to serve the rich, people of color are to serve whites, and nonhuman animals are to serve human animals.

I think – I hope – that we human animals are beginning to figure a way out of the dominance orientation that came over us 12,000 years ago. I hope we can keep the agriculture and cities and civilization while also providing more contact with nature and ending the dominance that agriculture and civilization made possible. Whether the problem is racism, sexism, homophobia, or speciesism, its all really one problem: hierarchies of dominance through which we commit the fundamental immorality Immanuel Kant called treating others as a means only and not as ends in themselves.

So if the question is, "should we worry about nonhuman animals when there are so many human animals suffering?" the answer is: "worry about nonhuman animals" means striving to dismantle the domination paradigm -- and dismantling that paradigm is also the only way to alleviate human suffering. As long as we think it's OK to subjugate any being, then our brains are primed to think its OK to subjugate humans. Conversely, if we learn concern and respect for other species, we will be less able to allow oppression of humans.

A study published 2018 Jan in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology assessed how speciesist respondents were. A sample item would ask, for instance, how strongly they agreed or disagreed with the statement, “humans have the right to use animals however they want to.” Follow-up questionnaires established that the attitudes were stable. Participants were then measured for biases based on ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation. The researchers wrote:
“We found significant positive correlations of speciesism with racism, sexism, and homophobia.”
The study also included further tests that suggested speciesism, racism, sexism, and homophobia all have the same psychological roots in
“a tendency to embrace hierarchy and rationalize existing social orders.”
There appears to be, wrote the researchers,
“a common component of generalized prejudice that drives different types of specific prejudicial attitudes.” (Caviola et al., “The Moral Standing of Animals: Towards a Psychology of Speciesism.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2018. Qtd in Brandon Keim, "What Racism, Sexism and a Belief in Human Superiority Have in Common," Anthropocene, 2018 Feb 21)
The task before us is not to choose whether race oppression, class oppression, gender oppression, species oppression, or oppression of our environment is really the biggest problem. They all come from the same acceptance of domination. The task before us is to replace domination with compassion, with concern and respect. Becoming more compassionate people in any area helps us become more compassionate people in all areas.

I do regard the suffering of human animals as more important than the suffering of nonhuman animals. If I had to choose between getting a human child or a pig out of a tiny crate into which they’d been stuffed, of course I’d choose the human child. I'd choose freeing the human over freeing 50 pigs. But we don’t have to choose. We don't have to choose.

Caring about any suffering improves our capacity to care about all suffering. I believe that truly dismantling racism will entail a shift in thinking and that shift will also increase the number of vegetarians – because kindness begets kindness. And from the other direction, attention to animal cruelty facilitates attention to cruelties to humans, whether based on race, gender, class, or LGBTQ status -- because care for the well-being of the other – whether the other is another species or another human – engenders more care for the well-being of all others. "Love is love is love is love."

It doesn’t come all at once. Your door in to the path of compassion might be race issues or climate change issues or species extinction issues or factory farm atrocities. But all the doors eventually lead to the same place: the replacing of all relations of dominance with relations of respect, concern, care, and compassion.

Here at Community Unitarian Universalist Congregation, our mission -- the reason for our existence as a congregation -- is, in part, to foster compassion and understanding. We gather for that purpose: to help each other be ever more compassionate and understanding. This congregation -- every member, friend, and visitor who walks through our door -- helps foster my compassion and understanding. I hope these words have helped foster yours.

* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of "On Being Animal"
See also
Part 1: Our Animal Condition
Part 2: The Greatest Cruelty on the Planet and the Worst Mistake in History

Text has been adapted from this sermon:


The Greatest Cruelty on the Planet and the Worst Mistake in History

On Being Animal, part 2

Closer contact with, and awareness of, the animal in me -- "the soft animal of [my] body, lov[ing] what it loves" -- engenders a greater respect for my fellow beings who, with me, share the burdens and the glories of "the mammal condition," "the warm-blooded condition," or "the vertebrate condition." Heightened self-awareness leads to greater respect for my fellow vertebrates, and greater respect for my fellow vertebrates heightens my self-awareness.

Where will deepened awareness of our animality take us? There is an emerging theology of nature that seeks to honor wildness as sacred – to connects in wonder to the aliveness of the world, from the enchantment of birdsong to the marvel of the moon. To consciously cultivate self-awareness of animality is to become more present, to become more attuned to the nuances of the unexpected.

Inner tensions and cognitive dissonance characterize much of human relationships to other species. We treasure wildlife, yet almost all of us, me included, find it really hard to stop the sort of spending habits that we know are causing a wave of extinctions. Many of us are outraged by abuses of dogs and cats, yet we eat food that comes from an industry that keeps equally sensitive and intelligent animals crowded in atrocious confinement. The meat industry, in the US alone, each year, slaughters 35 million cows, 105 million pigs, and almost 9 billion chickens.

People of good will have different opinions about this, different strategies for dealing with the cognitive dissonance. The view I have come to is that the slaughtering is not the problem. Putting them out of the unremitting misery and pain to which factory farms consign these animals for all or most of their lives is the kindest thing we do for them. It’s not that they die that is the issue. We all die. It’s the life that matters. What those numbers mean to me is that every year the US meat industry is bringing 35 million more cows, 105 million more pigs, 9 billion more chickens into lives of constant agony.

We know enough about cow and pig and chicken physiology to know that what is going on in them parallels what goes on in humans under conditions of great pain and stress. The conditions at factory farms constitute the biggest, harshest, most painful ongoing cruelty on the planet. The intensity of the suffering and the vast, vast scale of it can bring me to weep – when I’m not pushing it out of my mind.

My concern with the life rather than the death has a parallel in Unitarian theology and history. Four hundred years ago, Unitarians turned away from the prevailing European emphasis on Jesus’ death as the atonement for our sins. Sixteenth-century Unitarian theologian Faustus Socinus settled among our early Polish churches. His extensive works laid out a theology that told us, look to Jesus’ life, what he did, what he taught. It is the quality of his living that needs our attention, not his death.

For the factory farmed animals today, I believe, it is the quality of their lives that needs our attention, not the fact of their death. For me, then, deciding to be vegetarian has been a path toward greater self-awareness. When I no longer had to push certain knowledge out of my mind just in order to have lunch, then I was just a little bit more available to love and respect the creatures of my world. When my food choices no longer supported the harshest ongoing cruelty on the planet, then I was a tiny bit better able to respect and honor my whole self -- including the parts of me that are just like them: the pain receptors; the adrenaline, fear, and stress; the creature comforts, if they could get them -- they all work in me as they do in them.

Thus I was better able to be present to all the animal that I am.

Should we worry about nonhuman animals when there are so many human animals suffering – when human trafficking, starvation, oppression calls for our attention? I believe there is just one evil: call it dominance. Call it the social disease of hierarchy. Let's look at some human history to see how this came about.

Our forebears for 95 percent of human history were hunter-gatherers. I don't want to romanticize these ancestors: hunter-gatherer life was often difficult, and sometimes violent as tribes went to war against each other. As for their basic arrangements of governance, though, it was not such a bad deal. Hunter-gatherers had leaders, but those leaders had to be in a caring and accountable relationship with those they led.

Then, about 12,000 years ago, that changed. The rise of agriculture was a package deal that included domestication of such animals as the cow and the pig and some others, along with the cultivation of crops, most importantly grains: wheat, barley, rice, and maize. Only with the rise of agriculture did the centralized state become possible. Only grain crops have a set annual harvest time and are “visible, divisible, assessable, storable, transportable, and ‘rationable’.” (James C. Scott, qtd in John Lanchester, "How Civilization Started," New Yorker, 2017 Sep 18) Thus reliance on grains made a workable taxation system possible. “The taxman can come, assess the fields, set a level of tax, then come back and make sure he’s got his share of the harvest.”

That’s what led to the birth of the state: “complex societies with hierarchies, division of labor, specialist jobs (soldier, priest, servant, administrator), and an √©lite presiding over them.” (New Yorker)

This system required huge amounts of manual labor, which was often forced. With agriculture came the first slavery. Agriculture allowed support of large standing armies, transforming war from feuds between clans into mass slaughter. Jared Diamond called the Neolithic Revolution “the worst mistake in human history.”

NEXT: We don't have to choose which oppression/injustice to pay attention to. They ALL come from the dominance mindset.
* * *
This is part 2 of 3 of "On Being Animal"
See also
Part 1: Our Animal Condition
Part 3: We Don't Have to Choose

Text has been adapted from this sermon:


Our Animal Condition

On Being Animal, part 1

What does it mean that we are human?

We’ve been asking what it means to be human for millennia. But lately we’ve been learning that a better question to investigate, if we want to understand ourselves, might be: what does it mean that we are animal?

Poets, philosophers, and scientists have long explored “the human condition.” What about the mammal condition? The warm-blooded condition? The vertebrate condition? It's a worthy and important question, What are the distinctive attributes of our species? But to understand what it means to be the sort of being that we are requires equal attention to other questions: What are the distinctive attributes of our genus? What are the distinctive attributes of our order? Of our class? Of our phylum?

Our animality is more important than our humanity. By that I mean: the parts of ourselves that we have in common with other species tells us more about what we are than the thin sliver of our genome that distinguishes homo sapiens from its near relatives.

Research has been closing the perceived gap between human animals and other animals -- and that gap has been closing from both directions. We've learned a lot in the last fifty years about primates, mammals, birds, reptiles, and all vertebrates. So far we've found that the most unequivocal test of self-consciousness has been passed by humans, chimps, bonobos, orangutans, gorillas, rhesus macaques, bottlenose dolphins, orca whales, elephants, and European magpies. But all vertebrates, at least, think, solve problems, learn, and feel. They all experience fear and gladness, anxiety and comfort. Mammals and birds are particularly complex and nuanced in the ways that they exhibit these qualities, but all animals want to live, and to flourish. It's worth looking into these findings and what we've been learning about a great many animals. I shall focus today, however, not on how we've closed the gap by learning more about nonhuman animals, but how we've closed the gap by learning more about human animals.

In particular, we now know: intentions don’t cause our action. Brain processes outside of your control or awareness already decided what you were going to do BEFORE the conscious intention formed. You think you do things because you meant to. Actually, that feeling of “meaning to” is an after-the-fact illusion. Neural signals for motion precede the conscious awareness of intention to move by 300 to 500 milliseconds (.3 to .5 seconds).

Why do our brains create this illusion of conscious intentional control? The brain’s decision-making circuitry, unconscious and out of your control as it is, does learn and change from experience and in order to do that, it needs to distinguish between actions that are “mine” and those that just happen. That feeling of conscious intent you have is just your brain putting an “I did that” stamp on its memory of an episode – so that it can learn from its experience.

We can no longer plausibly claim, “We humans are in control of ourselves while nonhuman animals are machinelike bundles of conditioned responses.” Either they are not machines, or, if they are, so are we.

Michael Gazzaniga’s split-brain experiments further confirm that the story we tell ourselves about who we are and what we are doing is an after-the-fact fabrication. The right brain can process input and arrive at decisions that we carry out – but only the left brain has language centers. When Gazzaniga flashed the word "walk" to just the right hemisphere, many subjects stood and walked away. When asked why they were getting up, subjects had no problem giving a reason. "I’m going to get a Coke," they might say. Our inner interpreter module is good at making up explanations, but not at knowing it has done so.

My language centers and neocortex notice my behavior, and they make up a story about this character named “Meredith” who is heroic, yet with certain endearing foibles. At each moment of the day this “Meredith” can be found deliberately and intentionally acting. Whatever it is he’s doing is a reasonable part of his pursuit of reasonable purposes. This is an after-the-fact story. The behavior came first, we now know. My story about myself as intentional, purposeful, and rational is fabricated later to rationalize that behavior. Yet my brain makes it seem to me that everything I did was just what I “meant” to do. That’s the delusion we live in.

Knowing about the ways we are fooled, and how our fundamental animal nature is at work, can help us begin to befriend our animality, our selves. We were made, as a number of species have been, to walk the savannas and woodlands of this wild earth. It is where deep parts of ourselves find their greatest comfort and ease.

Today, many of us, like me, find ourselves sitting indoors in front of a computer for hours at a time. If I am in touch with all of myself, then I feel those other parts biding their time, quietly yearning for their element.

David Abram writes of “becoming more deeply human by acknowledging, affirming, and growing into our animality.”

Mary Oliver tells us we find our truest place in and through the sounds – and sights and smell and feel – of animals and the wild: “You do not have to be good,” she says. “You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”

I do not disparage the fine things my neocortex can do, nor the level of detail of envisioning the future that my more developed forebrain can do, nor the wonders of abstract and symbolic language produced and comprehended by my human versions of Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas. These functions are great. But, a couple things about that:

Number 1, these features that are more developed in a human brain are only a small part of who I am.

Number 2, great as they are, those functions cause problems – aside from the delusion of intentional control. The forebrain that envisions the future is prone to obsessive worrying about that future. Recalling and reconnecting with our animality can help with that anxiety. It can bring us what Wendell Berry called the "peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief."

* * *
This is part 1 of 3 of "On Being Animal"
See also
Part 2: The Greatest Cruelty on the Planet and the Worst Mistake in History
Part 3: We Don't Have to Choose

Text has been adapted from this sermon:


So They Won't Change Me

Some years ago I read about A.J. Muste and something he said. Looking for that quote, I came across this passage from Denise Roy's essay, "The Mother is Standing" in the anthology, The Maternal is Political: Women Writers at the Intersection of Motherhood and Social Change (2008) -- which includes the line from Muste that I was looking for:
"Our protest that Good Friday morning did not change the world, at least as far as we can see. Nevertheless, it changed me, and it changed our community. A reporter once asked A.J. Muste -- a social activist who, during the Vietnam War, stood outside the White House night after night -- 'Mr. Muste, do you really think you are going to change the policies of this country by standing out here alone at night with a candle?'

"'Oh,' Muste replied, 'I don't do this to change the country. I do this so the country won't change me.'

"When I am willing to cross the line of how much I think I can love, I am changed. When I am more in touch with what I love than what I fear, I take a stand. My prayer is that more and more of us, on behalf of all children, will use the energy of a mother to touch the seeds of courage and love within us for the sake of the world."
Don't get me -- or A.J. Muste -- wrong: knowing what we stand for, and standing for it, does change the country. And the world. There's certainly a place for strategic thinking, and choosing where to put our energy for maximum effect. But we never get to the strategy questions unless we are clear and firm about who we are -- what we are willing to stand for even when a particular instance, or a million particular instances, make no apparent difference at all. Taking action that grounds us in our own values is ultimately the only thing that can change the world.

On Sun Feb 25 afternoon, Cindy Davidson and I were outside Governor Andrew Cuomo's home in Mt. Kisco. We were there participating in a vigil calling for the Governor to be more active on climate change: stop statewide fossil fuel projects, including shutting down the Algonquin pipeline; release the results of a risk assessment study of the pipeline that the Governor ordered two years ago; and commit New York to being fossil-fuel-free by 2030. It was a chill and drizzly afternoon. Soon there was no feeling in my toes. Still I was glad to be there -- glad to be putting my shivering body on the side of love for our planet.

When a reporter asked to speak with me, she asked a few questions and then pointed out that the Governor did not appear to be home -- so how could we hope to have any affect on him? At that moment, A.J. Muste's words came to mind. I didn't quote them quite right, but was close.

When we place our bodies into the postures that show what we love, what we care about, it changes us -- and strengthens us against the kind of change that would be a weakening of our commitments. It solidifies us as the beings we are, screws our courage to the sticking place, secures us against the dissolution, dissipation, and distraction that so easily happens. When we are unmoved in our resolve to be people who stand for loving life and our planet home that sustains us -- people who will not be changed into anything more complacent -- then power that changes the world can take root in us.

Channel 12's News Story

See also:
The Examiner, "Protestors Rally Outside Cuomo’s House, Demand Pipeline Risk Study"
LoHud, "Governor must reveal risks of fracked gas pipeline near nuclear storage"
MidHudson News, "Activists call on Cuomo to be ‘a climate hero’"
Patch, "Faith Groups Hold Environmental Vigil At NY Governor's House"
FIOS 1, "Activists call on Gov. Cuomo to take up commitment to clean energy: Interfaith group held vigil outside of governor’s home in Mount Kisco"