Grief Amid Denial

Seven weeks ago, on December 23, I preached a sermon, “Reality Amid Ideology.” The ideology at issue was exceptionalism – the sense of being God’s favorite and under a special divine blessing. US exceptionalism goes back to John Winthrop, the Puritan governor in 17th century New England who told his fellow Puritans they were creating “a city set upon a hill.” The Monroe Doctrine articulated in 1823 declared that the Americas were off limits to any further European colonization – effectively ensuring US hegemony over two continents. Theodore Roosevelt’s imperialism acquired the Philippines and reached into Korea, Japan, and China, driven by a sense of uniquely American Manifest Destiny, and the racist conviction that Asian peoples were inferior to what Roosevelt called our Anglo-Saxon, our Teutonic – he even sometimes said Aryan -- civilization.

More recently, the ideology of US exceptionalism is expressed in four ways.

First, as military force. The American empire has displaced the old European empires, and we have been the world’s only superpower. Our military passion is evident in our literal flag-waving, our mania for displaying the US flag, and in the weird emotions we have around our national anthem. (Heaven forbid anyone should kneel during the required worship of our “rocket’s red glare”!)

Second, economic domination. Globalization has meant US domination. US control of natural resources and international markets drove a flourishing US economy and produced an inordinately high standard of living in this country. We have had a sense of "entitlement to the resources and goods of the world for our own benefit.”

Third, racism. Our exceptionalism as a nation has been enmeshed with our sense of national identity as a nation of people of northern European descent. There are reviled “others” – African Americans, rooted in the slave trade; Asian Americans, long regarded as the “yellow peril”; Hispanic Americans regarded as a threat to jobs for “real Americans” -- for a sense of the racial purity of the ruling class is a deep part of our history. I remind you there were anti-miscegenation laws, forbidding interracial marriage, in 16 states up until 1967 when the Supreme Court struck them down.

Fourth, religion. The Protestantism of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants purveyed a “God and country” patriotism over Biblical injunctions to welcome the stranger and embody neighborliness. But 9/11 was a blow to the myth of American exceptionalism – we saw that we are not immune to attacks we liked to think only happened in other countries.

US military hegemony is waning. Every year the war in Afghanistan drags on, the limitations on what military force can accomplish become more and more evident.

US economic dominance is waining. We certainly remain economically powerful, but no longer dominate. Meetings of the G8, for instance, have been cow-towing to US interests less and less – and that was before the 2016 election.

Preferred racial-ethnic singularity is waning. The ethnically northern-European have lost the capacity to maintain “our kind of America.”

And simplistic moral certitudes are waning. The old-line Protestant churches are in institutional free fall in numbers, dollars, and missional energy.

None of the things we’ve lost and are losing were ever good or healthy things to have. Military dominance inevitably turns the possessor into the global bully. Economic dominance was never sustainable. Racism has always been our scourge. And religious institutions that saw no need to distinguish between Bible-thumping and flag-waving were never conducive to real spiritual flourishing.

None of those things were good things to have. But each of them did provide certain delusional comfort to a lot of people. In the face of the loss of those comforts, one can grieve and relinquish – come to accept that the world no longer has what has been lost – or one can go into denial. Many Americans have and are opting for denial.

The attempts to cling to what has been lost manifest in many ways. For instance, we have an essentially racist and certainly classist prison system – in which the number Americans in prison, which had been 196,000 in 1972, exceeded 1.5 million in 2007. We almost octupled our prison population in those 35 years. As a proportion of population, we went from 93 imprisoned per 100,000 population in 1972 to 506 per 100,000 in 2007. (Since 2007 incarceration numbers have been dropping only slightly.)

Twenty-seven states have legislatively adopted stand-your-ground laws since 2005. The gun lobby has become unrestrained. Our government regards torture as a viable procedure. These are the responses of a people that feels threatened. They are attempts violently to shore up old privilege and entitlement and fend off reality.

With the old delusional comforts slipping away, these are attempts want to get them back – to make America “great” again – meaning, push away the mounting evidence that US exceptionalism was always a dangerous delusion.

One may see parallels to this sort of phenomenon in other empires through history, but today we’ll look at the parallel case offered by a city-state: Jerusalem, before, during, and after the Babylonian Captivity. That’s because Jerusalem had prophets – figures such as Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Amos, Hosea, et al.

These figures offer us some helpful resources for us in our present situation. In particular, these prophet-poets played an important role of giving public voice to grieving.

In the centuries before the Babylonian Captivity, Jerusalem, too, was in the grip of an ideology of exceptionalism. From the covenant of Abraham, and then the covenant of Moses, the Israelites understood themselves as God’s chosen people. They felt they had a divine guarantee. The oracle Nathan had told David in 2nd Samuel:
“Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.”
The assurance is reiterated to Solomon in 1st Kings – that the Temple shall endure:
“The Lord has said that he would dwell in thick darkness. I have built you an exalted house, a place for you to dwell in forever.”
The ruling elites, sure of their protection, co-opted chosenness into the ideology that kept them in power – and kept oppressed laborers oppressed.
God was on the side of the powerful, and they need not hold themselves accountable to the poor, the widowed, the vulnerable.

The prophets called out the urban elite for their “arrogance, pride, and self-indulgence.” Around the middle of the 700s BCE, Amos and Hosea were active. Then Isaiah and Micah were active until the end of that century. Then there’s a gap of some 70 years before Jeremiah’s 40-year career as a prophet. The texts we have of these prophets provide us with poems indicting the wealthy class for imagining themselves “the center of the universe and not accountable" to anyone for anything. “The elite have manipulated the markets, paid low wages, foreclosed on homes, and managed the economy in their interest to the detriment of others” (Brueggemann). The elite have, in short, said the prophets, failed at both of the two central commandments: love God, and love neighbor.

Then in 597 BCE Babylonian forces deposed Judah’s King Jehoiakim and sent him and his family into exile along with his court and thousands of others. Eleven years later, 586 BCE, in response to uprising among the remaining Israelites, Babylonia’s King Nebuchadnezzar crushed the rebellion, destroyed the temple, and deported thousands more back to slavery in Babylon. Through the period of enslavement far from home, the Hebrew people maintained their national spirit and religious identity. There was a Jewish community led by elders and the first synagogues were established. Then, 48 years after the destruction of the Temple, in 538 BCE, Cyrus the Great of Persia conquered Babylonia and freed the Jews to return home – a people shaken and forever changed by the experience.

Perhaps this calamity was the judgment of God, as the prophets said. “Or perhaps it was the inexorable outcome of policies of abuse and exploitation in which widows, orphans, and immigrants” suffered. Or maybe those two are the same thing: “judgment of God” being another way of saying “inexorable outcome of policies.” Another possibility, not considered by the prophets, was that the destruction and captivity “was simply the consequence of Babylonian expansionism at the expense of a weaker state” (45), and would have happened regardless of Judah’s policies.

Walter Breuggemann writes:
“In any case, the end did come with great force and brutality....But the urban elites clustered around king and temple had not seen it coming. They imagined that their life was so good, so successful, and so guaranteed that it would not be interrupted. The practitioners of the ideology of exceptionalism in Jerusalem – chosen city, chosen king, chosen temple – lived in a state of denial about their coming future. Ideology as false consciousness does that to us. It gives us a constructed, contained view of reality that covers over the facts on the ground and offers us instead a preferred set of facts that reassures and confirms the way we thought and wished the world were. When the ideology is one of assurance issuing in entitlement and privilege, it will not be interrupted by facts of the ground, for such facts are characteristically ‘inconvenient.’ As a consequence, the facts on the ground must be denied in order to sustain a world view of entitlement and privilege.” (46-47)
Even after the first incursion that deposed King Jehoiakim and deported thousands in 597, the denial continued. Jeremiah reports that a competing prophet, one Hananiah, was confidently predicting that within two years all the deported would come back, including the royal family, restored to their rule. “The yoke of [Babylon] cannot last, because this is Jerusalem with all its guarantees.” (56)

Hananiah represents a broad conviction “that a quick return to normalcy would surely happen. Evidence to the contrary did not count.” This conviction “made it impossible to see the reality at hand.” (57)

Denial, rooted in the ideology of exceptionalism, was countered by grief. Rituals of grieving – wakes, funerals, memorial services – allow us to emotionally relinquish what we have lost and face the new reality. The poems of the prophets and of the Psalms from the period of captivity express that grief.

And yes fantasies of violence against those that brought on our grief might be part of that response. Four years ago, an aunt of mine died, in a town outside of Pittsburgh. At the Memorial Service my Uncle, now widowed and anguished, rose to speak. He described what sounded like careless oversights made by medical personnel – oversights he saw as responsible for his beloved’s death. He had some anger about that. He said: “Now you tell me how I’m supposed to feel.” I can well imagine that fantasies of violence probably had come to him – what he momentarily imagined he’d like to do to those medical personnel who killed his spouse.

Our species has deep evolutionary reasons for the way emotions are wired in our brains, for our tendencies to violence, and for why in certain circumstances retribution can strike us as intensely appealing. Grieving – including expressing, articulating our sadness – helps us work through that. There can be no pretending here – no playing nice. Grief ain’t grief if it ain’t real. We need venues where raw feelings can be spoken with raw words.

Psalm 137, composed during the Babylonian captivity, is just such an expression of grief. Its evocative, haunting words have inspired a number of musicians to set them into beautiful songs – songs which usually leave off the last verses. Adam’s centering music this morning included Charles-Valentin Alkan’s musical depiction of Psalm 137.

It’s an instrumental paraphrase, but judging by the tempestuous ending, Alkan did not leave the Psalm’s last verses from his musical depiction.

When the staff this week raised a question about including all of the words of Psalm 137 in the insert in your Order Service, or maybe just leave off that last verse because it’s so disturbing – Adam spoke up including all the verses -- for the sake of the fidelity to the Psalmist and fidelity to the composer whose music depicts all of the Psalm, not just the nice parts. I’m glad he did – because as I have sunk into the experience of these words, and the grief of the people of Zion, how intense a raw that was, and how their feelings needed to be voiced, I see the importance of acknowledging even the impulses that aren’t nice. So that those impulses can then be relinquished. There is no rallying cry here to go and act on those impulses – that would be something very different. The Psalm also tells us that grieving, relinquishing, facing the new reality does not mean forgetting. Indeed, the memorial services that help us let go of our loved ones also help us be committed to remembering them.
By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?
If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill.
May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy.
Remember, Lord, what the Edomites did on the day Jerusalem fell.
“Tear it down,” they cried, “tear it down to its foundations!”
Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is the one who repays you according to what you have done to us.
Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.
Through grief, we work our way through anger – and through bewilderment. The sheer bewilderment of the people during the captivity is particularly poignant in Lamentations 5, which goes back and forth between the old assurances of forever, then the feeling of abandonment, then the hope for restoration, and then the thought that maybe that just can’t happen. The lament poem concludes:
“But you, O Lord, are enthroned forever,
Your throne endures through the ages.
Why have you forgotten us utterly,
Forsaken us for all time?
Take us back, O Lord, to Yourself,
And let us come back;
Renew our days as of old –
Unless you have utterly rejected us
And are angry with us beyond measure."
Here Israel has moved to candor about its profound loss – a necessary step and a big step away from exceptionalism. “It’s a move made possible by the anticipation and articulation of grief among the prophets” (70) and poets who give voice to the feelings of a people, who are skilled at grief – who “have the skills, courage, and presence to bring any death to speech, so that the community can fully and finally embrace the loss” (63).

These artists of sadness refused any cover-up of loss. “When the cover-up is broken, it becomes possible to breathe again. In denial, one can only hold one’s breath” (71).

The collapse of American illusions has not presented so acute a crisis as captive enslavement in a foreign land – which means many of us will be able to sustain denial for the indefinite future. Grief breaks through denial.

Poems -- like the ones HERE -- help articulate our loss, help us trust in reality. For in grieving our losses we can relinquish our illusions and position ourselves to receive anew.


Prophetic Grief: Four Poems

Our country has a profound need acknowledge loss, to give voice to grief and thereby relinquish our clinging to an imagined past. Giving voice to grief, to sadness about loss, is a key task of the prophets. The prophetic voices today come from our poets. Herewith, four examples:

In “How Much Faith?” Al Staggs grieves about the rising economic insecurity of the middle class.
So how much faith do we possess?
From where does our financial security come?
The economic crisis has deeply touched
both our emotional and spiritual lives
and we are compelled to ask deep questions.
If our lifestyles are radically altered; that is,
If our houses, cars and most of our possessions are lost
and our savings and retirement accounts become depleted
and we can no longer afford health coverage,
in what fashion will we then pray
and what will be the nature of our worship,
our praise and our thanksgiving to God?
Might all those turn to laments,
the kind of laments that the vast majority
of people throughout the world
have voiced for centuries?
They knew the grinding lifestyle of poverty
long before the sin of avarice gave birth
to our own present crisis.

In “After Katrina,” Kevin Simmonds grieves the losses brought by that hurricane.
There’s no Sabbath in this house.
Just work.
The black of garbage bags,
yellow-cinched throats opening
to gloved hands.
Black tombs along the road now,
proof she knew to cherish
the passing things,
even those muted before the waters came
before the mold’s grotesquerie
and the wooden house choked on bones.
My aunt wades through the wreckage, failing,
no matter how hard she tries,
at letting go.
I look on, glad, at her failing
her slow rites
fingering what she’d once been given to care for.
The waistbands of her husband’s briefs,
elastic as memory;
the blank stare of rotted drawers,
their irises of folded linen still,
smelling of soap and wood
and clean hands.
Daylight through the silent soft windows
And I’m sure now: Today is Sabbath,
the work we do, prayer.
I know what she releases into the garbage bags,
shiny like the wet skins of seals,
beached on the shore of this house.

In “We Cry Out,” Leonard Cohen grieves our failures, concluding on a hopeful possibility of repentance.
We cry out for what we have lost, and we remember you again. We look for each other, we cannot find us, and we remember you. From the ground of no purpose our children accuse us, and we remember, we recall a purpose. Could it possibly be? we wonder. And here is death. Could it possibly be? And here is old age. And we never knew; we never stood up, and the good land was taken from us, and the sweet family was crushed. Maybe, we said, it could be, and we gave it a place among the possibilities. I’ll do it myself, we said, as shame thickened the faculties of the heart. And the first reports were of failure, and the second of multilations, and the third of every abomination. We remember, we cry out to you to return our soul. Is it really upon us? Yes, it is upon us. Do we merit this? Yes, we merit this. We cry out for what we have lost, and we remember you. We remember the containing word, the hold channels of commandment, and goodness waiting forever on the Path. And here and there,
among the seventy tongues and the hundred darkness – something, something shining, men of courage strengthening themselves to kindle the lights of repentance.

In “Never Say,” Hirsch Glik speaks of the rejuvenation that can come when grief is acknowledged.
Never say you’ve come to the end of the way.
Though leaden skies blot out the light of the day.
The hour we all long for will surely appear –
Our steps will thunder with the words: We are here!
From lands of palm trees to far-off lands of snow.
We come with anguish, we come with grief, with pain and woe;
And where our blood flowed right before our eyes
There our power’ll bloom, our courage will arise.
The glow of morning sun will gild a bright today.
Night’s darkness vanish, like the enemy cast away.
But if we perish before this dawn’s begun –
This song’s a message passed to daughter and to son.
In blood this song was written, and not with pen or quill,
Not from a songbird freely flying as he will.
Sung by a people crushed by falling walls –
Sung with guns in hand, by those whom freedom calls!

Poems cited in Walter Brueggemann, Reality, Grief, Hope


Creature Comforts

I was intrigued to learn that the word desire comes from the Latin de sidere. “Sidere” is the root of “sidereal,” meaning “of or relating to the stars.” The suggestion is that our desires are “written in the stars.” We are fated to desire what we desire. We don’t choose our desires, nor are they rationally determined.

Freedom means that you can do what you like. But you don’t decide what you like. Brian Magee puts it this way:
“If I am ordering a meal in a restaurant, I may be free to choose whatever I like from among the alternatives on the menu. But I am not free to choose what I like shall be. I cannot say to myself: 'Up to this point in my life I have always detested spinach, but just for today I am going to like it.' What I am in the mood for, and what I like or detest, are not at my command.”
Desire can take us to soaring heights of passionate intensity that makes life delicious and glorious. Desire for inner peace and equanimity can take us to contemplative practices that cultivate compassion, gentleness, and wise insight.

On the downside, desiring what we can’t get strips life of satisfaction and generates only discontent. Or desires can become addictions that make our lives miserable. But either way, we don’t choose them.

Sometimes they grab us by throat and take over. Other times, it takes an intentional process of inner exploration to discover the yearnings you didn’t know you had. We don’t always know what we want. But whether they are loud and blatant or quiet and hidden, we don’t choose our desires. They choose us.

Philosopher William Irvine, exploring the topic of desire, was struck by the case of Thomas Merton. In his college years, Merton was a hard drinker who ran with a fast crowd and fathered a child out of wedlock. Merton would later describe his young adult self as
“an extremely unpleasant sort of person – vain, self-centered, dissolute, weak, irresolute, undisciplined, sensual, obscene, and proud. I was a mess.”
Then, out of the blue, Merton felt a desire to convert to Catholicism. He took instruction, got baptized, and became a Catholic. Shortly thereafter, he got another spontaneous desire: to become a priest. He tried the Franciscans for a while. And then a third desire: to be a Trappist monk. He didn’t know where the desire came from, but there it was: powerful, irresistible, clear.

William Irvine recounts Merton’s story, and finds it very disturbing.
“It raises the possibility that we are all just three spontaneous desires away from life in a Trappist Monastery.”
That’s disturbing to Irvine because he hasn’t had those desires. It startles him to realize that he could.

We don’t control what desires come: Merton becoming a monk; Siddhartha Gautama leaving behind the palace of pleasure for practices of severe austerity, and eventually leaving those behind for the Middle Way; less dramatic, or, at any rate, less renowned cases of shifting the direction of one’s life are not uncommon.

Every year, 18-year-olds show up on college campuses intent on a Business degree – and somewhere in the next year or two some of them decide that what they really desire is to study 18th-century French poetry. Or maybe they show up intending to major in art history and discover that what they really love are the complexities and challenges of the finance industry.

Our calling comes to us as a desire to be a certain sort of person, follow a certain path. It’s called “calling” because we don’t choose it. We are called to it, as if by a voice, as if written in the stars in writing that, suddenly or slowly, becomes clear. We humans are as free and as unfree as any other animal.

Desire emerged in animals because the ones that desired certain things that made surviving and reproducing more likely were naturally selected for. Evolution made certain things feel good, which is to say, desired. William James pondered the case of chickens who build nests and tend the eggs in them despite never having done so before, never having seen other chickens do that. Squirrels gather and bury nuts, even in their first year when they have no experience of winter and don’t realize food will become scarce.

James says the hen tends her eggs because she finds them “utterly fascinating and precious and never-to-be-too-much sat upon.” It feels good to her to sit on her eggs. It feels bad not to – if she is prevented from sitting on her eggs, she feels anxious. She tends her eggs because she wants to – she has a desire to. She wants to because it feels good to do that and feels bad not do it.

In evolutionary history, first there was reflexive action – organisms wired so that stimulus A produces response B -- like sneezing in response to certain stimuli. To progress from reflexive action to desire-driven action requires an ability to learn: emotional memory of what felt good and bad in the past, and reasoning enough to calculate how to produce good-feeling results and avoid bad-feeling results.

Once we have organisms with the emotions, memory, and cognition required to have pursuable desires – then chains of desire form. That is, some things feel good just because they are instrumental for getting something else that intrinsically feels good. I want A for no reason other than that it leads to B, which I want for no reason other than that it leads to C. And then we begin to be organisms who enjoy accomplishments even when they are no longer connected to increasing our odds of surviving and reproducing.

Mountain-climber George Mallory, asked in 1923 why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, famously replied, “because it’s there.” There’s no evolutionary reason to desire to reach the peak of tall mountains, but that desire is a side-effect of being the sort of organism that builds chains of desire, and is motivated to move through the chain because each link starts to feel good all by itself. And then we enjoy accomplishment for its own sake. The chain can become disconnected from the survival-and-reproduction advantages that originally prompted the building of the desire chain.

When John Kennedy in 1962 declared that “we choose to go to the moon in this decade not because it is easy, but because it is hard” he was appealing to this desire for accomplishment even when disconnected from any purpose for accomplishing it. (In fact, the space program wasn’t so disconnected from perceived threats to survival. It was driven by cold war military objectives of impressing upon the Soviet Union that we had the capacity to deliver Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles to the other side of the globe. It was a display meant to intimidate, and such displays are common throughout the animal kingdom. Nevertheless, Kennedy’s appeal succeeded because the idea of doing something just because it’s hard felt good.)

Indeed, birds evidently feel some satisfaction in a nest well built even independent of their desire to have a place to sit on eggs. We gather this because some species build multiple nests and end up using only one. One theory is they are building decoy nests. Another theory suggests that they learn more about a given crook and its environment by building a nest there, and what they learn tells them somewhere else would be safer. Well, maybe. In any case, it seems evident that they desire to build nests. They build them because nests are to be built. They do it not because it is easy but because it is hard.

We are made of desires. We don’t choose them. Advertisers and grifters can easily manipulate them. Yet desires constitute the meaning of our lives. Even something as fundamental as the desire to live is astonishingly easy to change if you have access to a brain and know where to place the electrodes, as in the case of the woman receiving treatment for Parkinson’s when the electrodes were slightly misplaced. Or, like Tolstoy, we might find the desire for life itself goes away for no evident cause.

It’s true that certain complex desires are unique to humans. Only humans have desires to play “Stairway to heaven” on a guitar, or to read a novel, or to invest in the futures market, or to organize a SuperBowl party, or to become a Trappist monk. (I like to imagine that being a Franciscan monk might appeal to a variety of species, but Trappist? Definitely only humans.) Four things to note about these uniquely human desires:
  1. Every species has some desires that are unique to it.
  2. Not all humans have any given such desire. Only humans desire to own an original Van Gogh, but not all humans do. No one has yet discovered any desire that all humans have – or even one that nearly all humans have -- that isn’t also shared by other species.
  3. When we focus for a while on how we don’t choose our desires – when we open ourselves to notice the mystery of where they come from and how they aren’t in our control – it becomes more difficult to regard the desires that rule humans as superior to those that rule other animals.
  4. Our desires, however specific and complex, are built up from components shared, at least, by all mammals.
Consider, for instance, cows. What do cows desire? Well, what do we know about cow interests and capacities?

Animal Behavior and Cognition is a peer-reviewed journal for empirical research on animal behavior, behavioral ecology, ethology, cognitive science, and comparative psychology. In 2017 the journal published, “The Psychology of Cows” – an extensive review of the literature by Lori Marino and Kristin Allen. The references pages cite some 240 articles and books the authors combed through. What does the research show?
  • Cows learn different tasks, have long-term memory, complex spatial memory, extrapolate the location of a hidden moving object, discriminate complex stimuli, and discriminate humans from one another and discriminate among individual cows.
  • "Calves as well as adult cows show learned fear responses to humans who have previously handled them in a rough manner."
  • Cows have fear and anxiety, and we now know that the less eye white is shown, the better they feel – and that their ears also signal their emotional states.
  • Cows also like to play, and decreased play compromises well-being.
  • When subjected to stress, cows, like mammals generally, including you and me, are less able to judge ambiguous stimuli.
  • Cows pick up the emotions of those around them in a phenomenon called emotional contagion. “When cows are exposed to stressed conspecifics [other cows] they too show pronounced stress responses, such as decreased feeding and increased cortisol release."
  • Cows have diverse personalities. Some are bold, others shy. They have variable sociability, gregariousness, and temperamentalness.
  • “Cows display broad parameters of social complexity,” where social complexity is measured as “the number of differentiated relationships that members of a species have with conspecifics.”
Cows have the emotional, memory, and cognitive capacities to form desires through essentially the same processes that desires form in us. Probably no cow has formed the desire to know more about ancient Greek philosophy, but, rather to my disappointment, relatively few humans have that desire either. Nor, we may reasonably surmise, has any cow desired to drive a car at 500 miles an hour, and, thankfully, relatively few humans have that desire.

But the desires that almost all humans share would seem to be largely shared by cows. We experience fear and anxiety and desire to avoid it. We desire to avoid beings who harm us. We experience well-being, and desire the things conducive to it. We are devoted to our offspring, and desire their well-being. We desire play. We desire self-expression – to manifest our different personalities. As our emotions resonate with those around us, we desire social harmony. We desire relationships – the variable companionships of others of our kind.

* * *

For the last two Sundays I have been, in various ways, looking at our attitudes toward difference. When we’re at the polarization stage, we think we – our culture, our religion, our species – is good or superior, and what is different is worse and inferior. When we’re at the minimization stage, we minimize differences and emphasize how we’re all the same.

Two weeks ago ("What is 'White Culture'?"), I talked about white culture, and how those of us who are of that culture might see that our own way of seeing things isn’t just universal common sense but the product of particular cultural training. The path forward from minimization of cultural differences is more deeply grasping the ways we ourselves are cultural products, which allows us to appreciate the profundity of cultural difference.

Last week ("God is Not One"), I talked again about moving beyond minimization – this time when it comes to other religions. Religions aren’t all the same. What’s called for is appreciating the real differences.

When it comes to culture and religion, many of us are at the minimization stage, so I have been offering a case for going beyond that to appreciation. When it comes to other species, many of us are at the polarization stage -- the stage of feeling that "we have worth and dignity – they don’t." Here our need isn’t to move beyond minimization, but just to move into minimization – to recognize the extent of our commonality.

This might raise your level of concern about animal cruelty. Whether it does or not, it’s an important insight into ourselves. If who we are – our nature as beings on this planet – is an iceberg, then being human is only the tip. "What does it mean to be human?" That’s a question that points our attention only to the tip of our being. "What does it mean to be primate?" Now we’re attending to a little more of ourselves. "What does it mean to be mammal?" "What does it mean to be vertebrate?" As we explore these questions – learning what we have in common with all vertebrates rather than what separates us from other primates – a much fuller picture of what sort of being we are begins to emerge.

We are driven by desires we do not choose, that are written in our stars, and that often conflict with each other. We seek the comforts of our common creatureliness -- food and health, rest and play, companionship and self-expression. May all such of our desires be fulfilled.