2021-11-23

Gratitude, Grace, and Grief, part 2


By grieving healthily, the memory of loss gradually transforms its predominate tone: from pain to gratitude for what was. This work can have no deadlines. You’re ready to move on when you’re ready to move on, and you can’t determine in advance when that will be. It takes as long as it takes. You can bring some intentionality to the process, but you can’t control how long it takes. Eventually, on its own schedule, grief work leads us toward gratitude and peace.

The other connection between gratitude and grief points the opposite direction. Gratitude contains hints back toward grief. All things must pass. That for which we are today grateful will pass. Today, once again, I am grateful for breathing. Some day – maybe today – my breathing will end. I will have no more awareness of chipmunks or blue jays.

Gratitude for health contains the reminder that it is impermanent. Hence the urgency of appreciating it now. The loved ones around the table at your Thanksgiving dinner will be separated from you – if not by fallings out or by growings apart, then by either by their death or yours. So appreciate them now – bask in gratitude for them now. Gratitude is the advance pre-work of grief.

Life is about change, and showing up for it -- showing up for life – means fully immersing yourself in all the gratitude and the grief of it. The gratitude and the grief flow into each other, not even as two sides of the same coin, but as, really, the same side of this thing called your life. And a consciousness of the grief deepens the gratitude, even as a consciousness of the gratitude brings a tinge of grief.

That’s not bad. That is, in fact, the fullest good that we have.

And with that let us return, as I promised we would, to that romanticized story of European Puritans and the Wampanoag people in 1621 -- precisely 400 years ago now – the story with which our Thanksgiving holiday is entangled. White Americans came to think of a largely imaginary 1621 event as “the First Thanksgiving.”

The kernel of truth in that Thanksgiving story we learned in elementary school is that apparently, there actually was a harvest celebration in Plymouth colony that year. It would have been around late September or early October. It seems the celebration included some firing of guns into the air, and some of the Wampanoag did show up to investigate what they imagined was a battle going on.

Everything we know about that 1621 feast came from a description in one letter by colonist Edward Winslow. That letter was lost for 200 years. After it was rediscovered, a Boston publisher, Alexander Young, in 1841 printed up the brief account of the feast. Young dubbed the episode “The First Thanksgiving.” White Americans, craving a romanticized story of their past, latched on to it and heaped on the embellishments like they heaped on the food at Thanksgiving dinner.

The colonists celebrating in 1621 did not call their event "Thanksgiving." For them, “thanksgiving” was a day of fasting – and this was a feast -- the opposite of their thanksgiving observance. More significantly, calling any event involving white settlers in North America "the first Thanksgiving" overlooks the fact that, for thousands of years before Europeans arrived, Indigenous people throughout Turtle Island (North America) celebrated seasons of Thanksgiving. 'Thanksgiving' is a very ancient concept to the first nations of this continent.

Still, there is one good thing to come out of this false mythology about Thanksgiving Day. And that’s that the day has now become an occasion for reflecting on the situation of indigenous people – a day for remembering injustices done to native Americans and for respectfully honoring indigenous people and culture. It is, in fact, a day of mourning, and has been observed as such since 1970. In that year, 51 years ago, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts was arranging celebrations of the 350th anniversary of the 1620 Plymouth Rock landing. Wampanoag Wamsutta (Frank) James was invited to speak -- then disinvited after the event organizers discovered his speech was one of outrage for atrocities and broken promises. So instead of participating in the official proceedings, Native people gathered at Cole’s Hill overlooking Plymouth Rock.

Every year since, Native Americans have been gathering there from around the country at noon on the fourth Thursday of November to observe a National Day of Mourning. You can livestream the 2021 Day of Mourning at noon on Thursday, broadcast from Plymouth, MA. You'll find the link for livestreaming it at uaine.org. I encourage you to do that. Give it a look – maybe on your laptop in the kitchen as you go about the preparations for your Thanksgiving feast. It starts at noon on Thursday.

Why would we watch? Because we have grief work to do – to mourn what was lost, to grieve the centuries of mass cruelty, injustice, broken promises. And through that grieving, to be pointed toward gratitude – that indigenous people were not all wiped out, that they are among us yet, vibrant and alive and living out a rich and wise culture that enriches our world.

As grief and gratitude deepen each other, let us grieve the loss of the romanticized version of American history – the frankly white supremacist version of American history that all of us who grew up in this country grew up with – and be grateful that we now know more of the truth. Grieving that loss of the triumphalist story, we reclaim the energy that had been attached to that story, and become able to reinvest that energy correcting, in joy, the wrongs that continue.

And wrongs do continue. The poverty rate among families with children on reservations is 36 percent, compared with 9.2 percent of families nationally being below the poverty line. Because of poverty and lack of access to medical care, the covid pandemic hit indigenous communities much harder. During the early months of the pandemic American Indians and Alaska Natives were 3·5 times more likely to be diagnosed with the disease than non-Hispanic whites and their mortality rate was almost twice as high. It’s a continuation of past reality for American Indian and Alaska Natives whose mortality rate from the 2009 H1n1 influenza was four times higher than the general population. Alaska Natives represented 80% of the state's death toll from the 1918 Spanish flu.

Because we are able to be grateful, we are able to be grateful that we are capable of seeing wrongs, that we are capable of addressing them, that we are capable of moral progress, that we are capable of bending the arc of the moral universe toward justice. Gratitude for gratitude itself embraces all of life, embraces the necessary grieving, and imbues life with the joy of facing toward compassion and fairness. May it be so – and happy Thanksgiving.

Amen.


2021-11-21

Gratitude, Grace, and Grief, part 1


Thanksgiving Day is coming. The occasion is entangled with a romanticized story of European Puritans and the Wampanoag people in 1621 -- precisely 400 years ago now. I’m going to come back to that, but first let’s talk about this thanksgiving -- the practice of giving thanks.

Thanksgiving Day is coming up -- Thu Nov 25. So that’s great: getting together with family or friends or both – and overeating! OK, I know that it can be fraught. Even before covid, many of us found the occasion fraught with risk of getting into unpleasant political arguments -- or dealing with that cousin who would drink too much. Under Covid conditions, a lot people aren’t gathering – and deciding not to might make sparks fly. So, as I said: fraught. I don’t know your family, so I’m not going to give any advice about how to handle them. I’ll just say, it IS difficult, and whatever you’re doing, it’s great, given how difficult things are.

What I do want to say is Thanksgiving is not a special time to be grateful – as if you didn’t need to be any other time. Thanksgiving is a time for a reminder – if we needed a reminder – to be grateful all the time. Every day. Three hundred sixty-five and one-quarter days a year.

Studies confirm how helpful it is to jot down, every day, 3-5 things that you’re grateful for. Gratitude is associated with greater well-being, better coping, and better sleep.

It’s OK if your gratitude list is repetitive, day after day. On my daily lists, “air” comes up a lot. I’m grateful for air. Or I’ll say “breathing” because I’m grateful to be taking in air, and giving it back, with a slightly higher concentration of carbon dioxide and some of my body’s moisture. It is so great to breathe – the feeling of the inhale and the exhale. There’s no need to be original – feel free to steal that one for your list for as many days as you feel like it.

During certain seasons of the year, chipmunks will be on my daily list almost every day. Such delightful and interesting little critters, they are! That’s OK if I’m repeating myself a lot. It’s also OK if I feel like pushing myself just a little bit to think of something different. My mind might go: “OK, ‘blue jays’ instead of ‘chipmunks.’”

But do mean it. That’s why actually writing the list works better than speaking it, or just thinking it. Writing is a little slower, and in the extra time it takes to write “blue jays,” I can feel my way into an appreciation and gladness that blue jays are in the world, and in my world.

Gratitude is how we notice and appreciate grace. Grace is the goodness that you did not earn – that you do not deserve: like air, and chipmunks.

Or friends or lovers, right? They’re a grace, aren’t they? If they’re only hanging around because you earned them, then aren’t really true friends, are they?

To practice gratitude, do not wait for something special to be grateful for to fall into your lap. Be grateful for all the ordinary, pedestrian wonders that are continually falling into your lap. The sun came up. Thank you. If it’s sunny, be grateful it’s sunny. If it’s rainy, be grateful it’s raining. As David Stendl-Rast says,
"It's not being happy that makes us grateful. It's being grateful that makes us happy."
Gratitude does not mean ignoring difficulties, losses, or injustice. It just means also paying attention to the grace that’s all around you, that you are submerged in – the grace within which you live and move and have your being.

When you do this, you are resting your mind on the fullness of life -- on the sense of having an open heart that moves toward an open hand. Gratitude is receptive. Grace does the giving; you only need to do the receiving. Open and receiving, taking in, appreciating what grace provides.
"When we are receptive we are open, aware, awake and actively receiving what life has to offer us. We are in flow, we are in balance. We are both open and focused, surrendered and engaged." (standinbalance.com/receptivity)
When we are grounded in openly receiving, we naturally feel we have more of value inside ourselves and more to offer to others.

Remember that gratitude is not guilt or indebtedness -- both of which actually make it harder to feel grateful. You may feel moved to be generous in turn -- including in new directions, such as giving to some out of appreciation for what you have been given by others -- but it will come from large-heartedness, not because you think you owe something.

Gratitude lifts us up out of market mind. Yes, there’s a big part of life where we need market thinking. We need to think about ensuring we’re not paying too much for what we’re getting, and that we are paid enough for what we’re giving. Market mind keeps score – using dollars as points – and monitors the fairness of exchanges. It is helpful and necessary – but we wouldn’t want to live in market mind all the time.

Gratitude takes us out of market mind. Where market mind is focused on scarcity, gratitude brings awareness of abundance. You are fed beyond measure – perhaps literally so at Thanksgiving dinner. In fact, when you are in gratitude, rather than market mind, you appreciate how your needs are supplied in great abundance. And this allows you to, in turn, give with all your heart without keeping score.

Gratitude is such a powerful orientation toward well-being and joy that perhaps the thing to most be grateful for is that we are beings capable of gratitude. We are capable of appreciating every moment. Even if don’t appreciate everything IN every moment, we can appreciate every moment.
"You can’t be grateful for war in a given situation, or violence, or sickness, things like that. So the key, when people ask, 'Can you be grateful for everything?' — no, not for everything, but in every moment." (David Stendl-Rast)
So gratitude FOR gratitude itself is indeed appropriate.

Gratitude doesn’t mean putting a smiley face on everything. In fact, I want to talk some about the particular inter-relationship between gratitude and grief. This relationship goes in both directions. The work of grieving leads us, finally, out of the pain of loss and into a gratitude for what was. Going the other direction, gratitude for the beauty, health, and security that we have is also tinged with grief as we remember that all these things shall pass.

To see how grief points to gratitude, we need to review how grief works and how grief work works. We need to grieve. Grieving is a need. Grief is not just this unfortunate thing that happens to you, willy nilly (will-ye or nil-ye). Lots of unfortunate things do happen to you, will-ye or nil-ye, but you might or might not grieve them as much and as intentionally as would be good for you.

There’s grieving to be done whenever there’s a big change in your life – because big change means a big loss of what was before the change. We grieve when a family member, or friend, dies, when a relationship ends, when we move to another town, when a pet dies, when a loved one faces significant injury or illness, when a major possibility you were really hoping to realize becomes closed to us.

Through the grieving process we come to reclaim the energy that has been bound to the person, object, or experience now lost. We are then able to re-invest that energy elsewhere. Without effectively grieving, a part of us remains tied to the past. As long as part of us remains tied that way, reinvesting in the new world in which we find ourselves can’t happen.

Grieving, of course, is not forgetting. It’s the working of our way to remembering with peace rather than with pain. The memory of loss will always be tinged with blue, but the memory can come, through the grieving process, to be infused with gratitude for the wonderful gift of what was – rather than with anger, recriminations, or regret for the loss.

That’s the first connection between grief and gratitude: that the grief process is a process of arriving at gratitude for what was as the predominate tone of the memory. Much of the process of healthy grieving is built into us, and will unfold without our direction. But there is a level of intentionality to bring to the process. There’s intentional work to be done. There are tasks to do, and doing them more or less consciously facilitates the re-emergence of wholeness from the broken-ness of loss.

The tasks include, in any order:
  • To accept the finality of the loss;
  • To acknowledge and express the full range of feelings we experience as a result of the loss;
  • To adjust to a life in which the lost person, object, or experience is absent;
  • To say good-bye, to ritualize our movement to a new peace with the loss.
  • And to do all the above with balance: balancing time spent on grief work with coping with day-to-day life; balancing time spent with others with time spent alone.
There’s a lot more to be said about how to healthily grieve, how best to negotiate grieving. Today, I just want to say enough to convey that being intentional about proper grieving brings us through the pain and into gratitude. Grief points to gratitude.

In part 2, we'll look at how gratitude points to grief.


2021-11-20

UU Minute #62

The Hollis Chair of Divinity

[video forthcoming]

Harvard Divinity School’s Hollis Chair of Divinity was established in 1721 by a donation from the wealthy merchant, Thomas Hollis. The Hollis chair is the oldest endowed chair in the United States, the first professorship in theology in the country, and, in the early 1800s, was the most prestigious professorship in America.

The first three holders of the Hollis chair were Calvinist Congregationalists: Edward Michael Wigglesworth (43 years); his son, Edward Wigglesworth (27 years); and David Tappan, who died in 1803 after holding the chair for just nine years. At Tappan’s death, the chair was vacant for two years as the liberal and conservative wings fought over who would succeed to the chair.

Jesse Appleton was the conservative candidate, Henry Ware the liberal. The six-member board charged with making the decision was evenly divided. The decision was debated and delayed. Finally, the liberal, Henry Ware, was selected to be the Hollis Professor of Divinity. The conservatives were so angered by this choice that they resigned from Harvard’s Board of Overseers. Liberals replaced them, taking effective control of Harvard and the process by which leadership of the church would be educated.

The conservatives responded by establishing Andover Newton Theological Seminary, which opened in 1808. The new seminary was overtly Calvinist, committed to a creed to which professors would be required to resubscribe every five years as a guard against creeping liberalism.

The schism was sealed. It remained only for the liberals to declare themselves a distinct denomination. But who would lead such a declaration? Eyes turned to the brilliant young minister of Boston’s Federal Street church: William Ellery Channing.


NEXT:

2021-11-15

Reconsidering Rationality, part 2


There’s a form of therapy called Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy that’s been around since the 50s. It’s a short-term form designed to identify self-defeating thoughts and feelings, challenge the rationality of those feelings, and replace them with healthier, more productive beliefs. Be more rational and be happier, right?

The creator of rational emotive behavior therapy, Albert Ellis (1913-2007), wrote a little song about it, which Nicole Turygin brought to my attention. It’s called, “Perfect Rationality”:
Some think the world must have a right direction –
And so do I ! And so do I !
Some think that with the slightest imperfection
They can’t get by, and so do I !
For I, I have to prove I’m superhuman,
And better far – than people are!
To show I have miraculous acumen –
And always rate among the great !
Perfect, perfect rationality
Is, of course, the only thing for me!
How can I ever be so free
And still exist quite fallibly?
Rationality must be a perfect thing for me.
It turns out, there is “a growing rationality movement, with its own ethos, thought style, and body of knowledge, drawn heavily from psychology and economics.” A rationality movement?

Yes, there are books like the Steven Pinker one I mentioned, and Julia Galef’s The Scout Mindset: Why Some People See Things Clearly and Others Don’t. The “scout mindset” is seeking out one’s blind spots, testing one’s assumptions, and changing course – in contrast to the “soldier mindset,” of defending one’s positions at any cost. Galef is co-founder of the Center for Applied Rationality and hosts a podcast called “Rationally Speaking.” And there’s a raft of blogs where rationalistas post their careful reasoning.

This isn’t exactly new – those blogs have been around for between 10 and almost 20 years. Still, it’s now catching on at a higher level. You may not have noticed because the apparent upswing in irrationality has been grabbing more attention. A third of Americans won’t get vaccinated. Many believe in conspiracy theories or pseudoscience.

Maybe it makes sense that rationality would be having a break-out moment. As economist Arnold Kling explains: “The barbarians sack the city, and the carriers of the dying culture repair to their basements to write.”

Maybe that’s what the “doubtless very different St. Benedict” looks like. Benedict of Nursia (480-548), in the early 6th century, composed the "Rule of Saint Benedict", a set of rules for monastic life that were so widely adopted throughout the middle ages that Benedict is thought of as the founder of Western Christian monasticism. This monasticism created enclaves where learning could be preserved as the Roman Empire collapsed.

Alasdair MacIntyre referenced St. Benedict 40 years ago in at the haunting ending of his book After Virtue. Way back in 1981, MacIntyre saw the barbarians not just at the gate but having already sacked the city:
“What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are not waiting for a Godot, but for another – doubtless very different – St. Benedict.” (Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue)
Since I read that back in grad school I’ve been wondering what a “doubtless very different St. Benedict” could be. Maybe the rule of this “doubtless very different St. Benedict” is the rule of probability and randomness, formal logic, Bayesian inference, expected utility, and game theory?

Just as the medieval Christian monastics perceived sinfulness as ever-present even amidst their commitment to a learned and holy life, so the rationalistas understand that delusion is ever-present even amidst commitment to reason. Ambrose Bierce’s “Devil’s Dictionary” defined “rational” as: “Devoid of all delusions save those of observation, experience and reflection.” Which, of course, still leaves a lot of scope for delusion -- and highly rational people know this.

Rationality is one of humanity’s super-powers. And so is confirmation bias. Ninety-nine-point-three percent of the time homo sapiens have been on the planet went by before we hit upon the scientific method – but we did get there. Eventually.

We are bedeviled by cognitive biases, of which confirmation bias is a biggie, but by no mean the only one. We will fall prey to the sunk cost fallacy – which is a tendency to follow through on an endeavor if we have already invested time, effort, or money into it, whether or not the current costs outweigh the benefits. When we should be cutting our losses, we instead keep at an unsuccessful effort in the hope that the costs we’ve already sunk into a project not go to waste. The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan – the way it happened – left much to be desired, but the regret that centered on not wanting the billions of dollars and the thousands of lives to have “all been for nothing” illustrates the sunk-cost fallacy. Better to cut our losses than keep throwing more lives and resources into a fruitless endeavor.

There’s the framing effect – the framing of a decision as protection against loss or a possibility of gain. We are built to be more oriented to protect what we have than to gain something more. And that’s not itself an irrational thing – but becomes so in cases where the avoided loss and the accrued gain are just matters of phrasing. For instance, to encourage students to register early, a college tried assessing a penalty fee for late registration. And then they tried offering a discount for earlier registration. Now, the amount of the discount and the amount of the penalty avoided were exactly the same – the bottom-line costs for registering later and for registering earlier were the same. But when it was called a discount 67% of students registered earlier, and when it was called avoiding a penalty 93% of students registered earlier. That’s the framing effect.

Then there’s the overconfidence effect. For certain types of questions, answers that people rate as "99% certain" turn out to be wrong 40% of the time. A variation on that is the “illusory superiority” effect – which we see when nearly 90% of drivers rate themselves above average.

We are bedeviled by cognitive biases. On the plus side, we are also beings capable of learning to recognize them. We can train our brains to notice when they are being sucked in to a fallacy. There are trainings available for calibrating how certain we FEEL that a statement is true with our actual probability of being wrong about it.

We are capable of learning, remembering, and applying the Bayes rule that posterior probability is equal to prior probability times the likelihood of the data, divided by the commonness of the data. Hmm. That sounds like a bit an uphill slog, maybe. I know some of you are, like, “well, duh” – and, I admire that about you. For me, I’m pretty unlikely to remember that equation or even the meaning of the terms – though I was able to essentially get there with the 2 by 2 grid I made for the video you saw about Audrey’s positive test result (see part 1).

How far toward living rationally do you really want to go? Joshua Rothman writes:
“We want to be more rational as individuals, but not to overdo it. We need to know when to think and when to stop thinking, when to doubt and when to trust.”
We want NOT to be duped by our own cognitive biases, but we also want NOT to turn ourselves into cogs in the machine. Rothman’s essay concludes:
“The realities of rationality are humbling. Know things; want things; use what you know to get what you want. It sounds like a simple formula. But, in truth, it maps out a series of escalating challenges. In search of facts, we must make do with probabilities. Unable to know it all for ourselves, we must rely on others who care enough to know. We must act while we are still uncertain, and we must act in time—sometimes individually, but often together. For all this to happen, rationality is necessary, but not sufficient. Thinking straight is just part of the work.”
I’m not sure how rational I want to be – but maybe just a little more that I am. Maybe just a little more.

Amen.

2021-11-14

Reconsidering Rationality, part 1


Consider this question – a test of your rationality. Suppose that:
  • The prevalence of a certain type of cancer – cancer X -- is 1%.
  • The sensitivity of a test for cancer X is 90% -- meaning the true-positive rate is 90%. In other words, for 90% of people who have cancer X and take that test, the test comes back positive.
  • The false-positive rate is 9 percent.
Audrey takes the test, and it comes back positive. What’s the chance she has that cancer X?

You probably want to say there’s a 90% chance Audrey has cancer – after all, the test was positive, and the test was 90% accurate. But let’s break it down. Suppose we administer the test to a randomly selected 10,000 people.
1% of them have cancer X – so that’s 100 people have it, and 9,900 don’t. The test has a 90% true-positive rate, so that’s 90% of the 100 people who have the cancer. 90% of 100 is 90 true-positive results. The other 10 people out of the 100 who have the disease get a false-negative. So we have 90 in the true-positive cell, and 10 in the false negative cell.

What about the other 9,900 people – the 99% who don’t have the disease? There’s a 9 percent false-positive rate. So 9% of 9,900 is 891 people who test positive for cancer X even though they don’t have cancer X. We have 891 false-positive test results. The remaining 9,009 of the 9,900 who don’t have Cancer X get a true-negative test result.

So here’s our breakdown:

Out of 10,000 people taking the test, we get:
True-positives: 90.
True-negatives: 9,009.
False-positives: 891.
False-negatives: 10.

The total number of positive test results will be 90 plus 891 – or 981.

Out of 981 positive test results, 90 of them – 9.2% are true-positive, and the remaining 90.8% are false-positive.

Audrey’s positive test results mean that she has a 9.2% chance of having Cancer X.

Where did our intuition go wrong? Why did we think there was a 90% chance she had the Cancer, when in fact there was a greater than 90% chance she didn’t have it?

We tend to forget about the base rate: that’s the 1% of the population that has the cancer. And why shouldn’t we? The true-positive rate is 90%, whether the base rate is 1% or 50%.

But, of course, the base rate matters a lot, because there’s a false-positive rate of 9% -- and when the base rate is only 1%, then 9% of those who don’t have the cancer will be a lot more than 90 percent of those who do – making Audrey much more likely, despite her positive test result, to not have Cancer X. That’s good news for Audrey, but maybe not such good news for our human rational capacity.

When I first came across that hypothetical scenario, my intuition was – as maybe yours was -- that Audrey had a 90 percent chance of having the disease. Or maybe an 81% chance – taking the 90% true-positive rate and subtracting the 9% false-positive rate – which is completely wrong. But, heck, I’m a UU minister – before that, a humanities major. Surely actual doctors know their way around epidemiology statistical inference much better than I do?

Some of them do. “The most popular answer from a sample of doctors given these numbers ranged from 80 to 90 percent” (Pinker). As Steven Pinker sums it up:
“That’s right, the professionals whom we entrust with our lives flub the basic task of interpreting a medical test, and not by a little bit. They think there’s almost a 90 percent chance she has cancer, whereas in reality there’s a 90 percent chance she doesn’t.”
Maybe we could use a little more rationality.

I used to be a big fan of rationality – which doesn’t mean that I actually was very rational, only that I thought I was (mostly) – and I thought it was a good thing to be. I was a debater in high school – which is all about making reasoned arguments.

And then I became a philosophy professor – which is all about making reasoned arguments. “A philosopher,” one of my own professors had said, “is someone who can make the best possible argument for any position, no matter how wrong-headed.”

Along the way, I would sometimes hear that I was in my head all the time, that I might be more whole if I were in touch with my body and emotions. Usually this came from people other than my fellow philosophy academics.

Then I started preparing for the ministry and went to divinity school, and I heard it a lot more. Can’t just be all in your head. As I felt my way along toward what was, as near as I could discern, greater spiritual wholeness, something that Scottish philosopher David Hume had said helped me grasp the proper and reduced place of reason. Hume said:
“Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”
There’s no distinction to be made between rationality and rationalization. The role of reason was to concoct after-the-fact rationales for what other parts of the brain had already decided it was going to do anyway. That’s what the studies showed.

Benjamin Libet’s experiments in the mid-1980s showed that the motor signal is headed to the muscle several hundred milliseconds before we become conscious of it. We have already begun the action before the apparatus of conscious decision-making comes on line. In Michael Gazzaniga’s experiments, he flashed the word "walk" in a part of the visual field that would be seen by only the right hemisphere. It’s the left hemisphere that processes language consciously, so subjects were not conscious of seeing the word. Yet many of them would stand and walk away. When asked why they were getting up, subjects had no problem giving a reason. "I’m going to get something to drink," they might say. Our inner interpreter module is good at making up explanations, but not at knowing it has done so.

Then in 2011, an essay by Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber argued that our vaunted human rationality is more about social bonding than for discerning truth. Titled, “Why Do Humans Reason?” the essay noted that if reason evolved to discern truth or make better decisions then natural selection would have weeded out confirmation bias – that is, "the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one's preexisting beliefs or hypotheses, while giving disproportionately less consideration to alternative possibilities."

Confirmation bias is a huge distortion – an enormous obstacle to adopting the belief that best fits all the available evidence. Why do we have brains built this way? Why didn’t natural selection weed this out? Good question! And Mercier and Sperber’s suggested answer seemed to make sense. Confirmation bias exists because forming beliefs that fit the evidence is not the purpose of human reasoning. Forming social bonds is the purpose of reasoning. Human thinking is fundamentally relational because for our ancestors going back millions of years survival had more to do with strong relationships and social bonds of support than it did with reaching conclusions that fit the evidence. Competition between groups placed a premium on group solidarity, and group solidarity was reinforced by sharing an ideology – a characteristic pattern of reasoning.

Homo sapiens have been on the planet for about 300,000 years. The genus homo has been around for between 2.5 and 3 million years. But the scientific method for less than 400 years. Clearly, coming up with a story that really fits best with all the evidence that has been or could be gathered is a low priority for brains like ours. But having a story that we share with our tribe-mates is a high priority. So confirmation bias is actually quite useful: it attunes us to look for evidence that will help us fit in with the people with whom we most need to fit in.

Rationality, then, is nothing but after-the-fact rationalization made up to explain something we did without really knowing why – and we offer these explanations to each other by way of social bonding rather than discerning truth.

You may be noticing a certain irony here. My path toward decreased valuation of rationality was itself highly rational – I looked at empirical studies. One of the key traits of a rational person is a willingness to change their mind in the face of evidence – which, looking back, it looks like that’s just what I did.

But now I’m reconsidering rationality – maybe it’s actually possible. And a good thing. Maybe it’s not just for social bonding shared rationalizations, as fun as that may be.

This reconsideration started last August (2021) with a New Yorker article, “Why is it so hard to be rational?” and then I followed up by reading Steven Pinker’s new book, Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, and Why It Matters.” I'll get into that in part 2.


2021-11-13

UU Minute #61

Liberal and Conservative Congregational Churches of Massachusetts



Once the American Revolutionary War ended, the gulf between the liberal Congregational Churches of Massachusetts and the conservative Congregational Churches of Massachusetts resumed and began growing. Liberalism grew, which alarmed the conservatives. Some conservatives began to demand that members affirm a creed and candidates for ministry be examined to ensure their theology was sound. These ideas further intensified the division, as the liberals countered with defense of religious toleration.

Once again we see the linkage between Unitarianism’s two central, animating ideas: critique of the trinity and support for toleration. That linkage, as we saw, first arose in reaction to the 1553 execution of Miguel Serveto, and was embodied in the development of Unitarian churches in Transylvania and in Poland.

By the year 1800, there were 200 churches east of Worcester County, and 125 of them were liberal in their theology. Massachusetts clergy of the time were all trained at Harvard college which was now seen as a hotbed of heresy. The Cambridge Platform of 1648 had established Congregational Polity, and 150 years later the conservatives were kinda regretting it.
“The congregational polity of the churches offered no overarching authority by which a standard could be established or deviation could be discovered and disciplined.” (David Bumbaugh)
There wasn’t much they could do across congregations, so the fighting flared within congregations – typically at times of ministerial succession. When one minister retired or died, the choice of the next one brought out the divisions in the congregation.

The major cross-congregational conflict – the conflict from which the Unitarian denomination in America would be born – was over who would fill a professorship of divinity at Harvard College. We’ll look into that in our next thrilling episode.


NEXT: The Hollis Chair of Divinity

2021-11-08

Wholeness, part 2


Another question asked in this month’s issue of “On the Journey” on the theme of “Wholeness” is this one:
“Is it possible to become whole? Or only to recognize that we are always already whole?"
You, in fact, are always already whole. You are not broken and do not need fixing. If you think of wholeness as something you have to achieve or attain, then there’s already a dividedness right there. Who you are is divided from who you think you should be. There’s a little story from Zen tradition that illustrates this.
Mazu, when he was a young monk, sat long hours in meditation in the meditation hall. One day Master Nanyue interrupted Mazu’s meditation and asked him, "Why are you sitting in meditation?"
Mazu replied, "Because I want to become a Buddha."
Thereupon Nanyue took a brick and started to polish it with a cloth.
Mazu asked him, "Why are you polishing that brick?"
Nanyue replied, "Because I want to make a mirror."
Mazu asked, "How can you make a mirror by polishing a brick?"
Nanyue said, "If I cannot make a mirror by polishing a brick, how can you become a Buddha by sitting in meditation?"
The point here is that one does not sit zazen in order to become a Buddha, or to become anything, or to achieve or to attain anything. You are already a Buddha. You are already enlightened, already whole. If one sits zazen it is only to manifest the intrinsic wholeness that is already there, and to see and recognize – to explore and become more intimate with – the wholeness that is already there.

That’s how any spiritual practice works. If it’s something you do to fix you, to make you better in some way, then it’s not a spiritual practice. There are a number of things you can do to make yourself better. You can take up a course of study and develop your knowledge and expertise in a given field. That’s a great thing to do, but it’s not a spiritual practice. You can take up a regime of diet and exercise that improves your health and vitality. Also a great thing to do – and also not a spiritual practice. Spiritual practice is not about getting any better, but about simply familiarizing yourself with, becoming more intimate with, more broadly aware of, how you are already perfect – and everyone else is too.

Whatever you do that cultivates your awareness of your own and others’ intrinsic wholeness – that’s your spiritual practice. The task, then, is not to become whole, but to recognize that you always already are whole. And yet, within this recognition there is a becoming that happens. The path of manifesting the wholeness that you are is a path of change, of transforming, of becoming – though the path is winding and unpredictable.

In the last couple decades we’ve seen scholars investigate concepts that used to be the province of theologians, poets, and inspirational speakers. In the last couple decades, for instance, there has been a boom in studies about the effects of gratitutde. Scholarly articles about wholeness have also begun appearing. I’m going to particularly talk today about one of those – of which there are a couple excerpts from it in this months Journey Group packet.

These scholars see wholeness as involving three features. First, wholeness involves the capacity to see and approach life with breadth and depth. Breadth means recognizing yourself as “singular yet also a part of a larger collective.” I spoke earlier about belonging. That at-home-ness amidst your social context – that’s breadth. Your uniqueness is recognized and therefore meaningful insofar as it is valued as a unique offering to your group, your community. Depth means you can see beyond ordinary material existence and address matters of what theologian Paul Tillich called “ultimate concern.” There is more to life than getting and spending. If whoever dies with the most toys wins, then winning is not what’s most important. That’s depth. So the first feature of wholeness is that you are a being of breadth and depth.

Second, wholeness involves a life-affirming view of oneself and the world. With wholeness comes hope, support, and compassion in relation to oneself, other people, the world, the sacred, and life itself. As I say, you don’t become whole, you merely recognize the intrinsic wholeness that you already are. And with that recognition comes an increasingly life-affirming approach – an increasing groundedness in meaning and wisdom.

Third, wholeness involves the ability to organize the life journey into a cohesive whole. Here we are referring to the capacity to put thoughts, values, emotions, actions, and relationships into an integrated totality. Well, now, that sounds like something you attain, or achieve, right? But here’s the thing: you can’t make it happen. You can’t make your thoughts, values, emotions, actions, and relationships coalesce into an integrated totality. If it happens, it won’t happen on your schedule.

You can take up a spiritual practice and pay attention to what you are in all your rather disjointed glory – and gradually, unevenly, with a lot of backsliding, probably this more integrated totality may emerge. Not because you wanted it to – but just from appreciating and paying attention to what is rather than what should be.

Developing wholeness involves embracing all of life in its multifaceted complexity. Just keep embracing and paying attention and you’ll find your life begins to organize into a unified whole. You don’t do it – you just get the ego self a little out of the way so that life can do it on its own. Pay attention to the bits and pieces of your life, and they begin, on their own to coherently fit together.

It’s an ongoing, vibrant process. Wholeness is not the antithesis of brokenness but rather involves a changed relationship to brokenness. Indeed, to be whole we must allow ourselves to get fully involved in life, be vulnerable enough to see our brokenness, and get ourselves out of the way so that the broken pieces can find their own way to a new compelling unity out of the broken pieces.

Breadth and depth, a life-affirming orientation, and cohesiveness – those are the hallmarks of recognizing your intrinsic and inalienable wholeness. This doesn’t fix any of your problems – but it helps you see the problems as nothing to be anxious about. Problems thus do not dissolve out of your life, but they dissolve into your life. The problems and challenges you face day to day just are your life. As Zen teacher Bernie Glassman put: “Enlightenment doesn’t mean no more problems. It means no more complaining.”

May it be so. May we see clearly that it is already so.

Amen.



2021-11-07

Wholeness, part 1


Wholeness. It’s our theme of the month for November. November means Thanksgiving. It’s a season of gratitude. November is also the month when chill begins to set in. November and December are, on average, the cloudiest months of the year – so the days tend to be overcast and gray. And the nights, in the Northern hemisphere, get longer and longer. At White Plains latitude, by the end of November the days will be only nine and a half hours long.

The leaves that were so resplendent in October become a dull brown, and by the end of the month the great predominance of tree branches will be bare.

I kind of like the touch of melancholy that seems to pervade November’s cold, gray, and short days. At the same time, I also appreciate the wisdom of plunking Thanksgiving in the midst of November drear. Gratitude, of course, is always in season, but in spring and summer and on through the colors of October we have less need of an institution like Thanksgiving Day to remind us to come back to the ground of gratitude – to extend the roots of our soul down into the soil of gratitude that will sustain us through the winter to come.

Thank you, Universe, for these annual rhythms that give the year a beautiful shape and balance. Thank you, Universe, for love – that I, and we, are beings who love and are loved.

In this time, we come to theme of wholeness – the embrace of all we are. The cherry harvest season is long past now – so there’ll be no cherry-picking of just the good parts, the parts we think we like. We shall embrace the whole thing – embrace our demons, love our inner curmudgeon, welcome the obvious gratitudes and go further to welcome also gratitude for loss, disappointment, and for that touch of melancholy. Thank you, Universe, for the whole range of what life brings, all of it.

Wholeness. One of the questions asked in this month’s issue of “On the Journey” is this: “Some writers approach wholeness as an integration of the diverse parts of the self. Others address it as an integration of self and community. Which is the more compelling for you? Or are they not separable?”

And I don’t think they are, ultimately, separable. But it’s helpful to see the distinction, and then see how the distinction blurs away. Wholeness addresses these two, at first blush separate-seeming, concerns. Wholeness is about integrating the diverse parts of the self.

It’s about the journey toward – or the journey of – an undivided life. It’s about living authentically – with a minimum of what researchers called “surface acting.” A recent study in the Journal of Applied Psychology looked at “surface acting” in the workplace. It means putting on fake emotions and suppressing one’s true feelings. Sometimes our jobs seem to call for that – and the study confirmed that it’s draining. Surface acting is associated with lower job satisfaction, higher emotional strain, and “depleted self-control since acting out fake emotions requires psychological effort and extensive self-control.”

This particular study was looking at the effects of mindfulness, and found that employees who had had minfulness training and were more attentive to their emotional states and the emotional climate around them were less likely to engage in surface acting. On the downside, when mindful employees did engage in surface acting, the negative effects were actually greater – though they generally avoided those effects by being more authentic to begin with.

Why would an employee engage in surface acting? Evidently, they would perceive it to be instrumental – it helps to get ahead at the workplace. The part of you that is concerned with such instrumentality is an important part of you, but it isn’t the only part. You also have the parts that produce the genuine feel that you’re covering up when you do surface acting. Wholeness is about moving toward inclusion of all your parts, not being divided in that way – integrating all the parts of the self.

In the first place, this entails being in touch with what your feelings actually are. Surface actors might not even be aware that they’re faking their feeling because they may be so out of touch with themselves.

In the second place, wholeness would mean a greater willingness to honestly say what you’re feeling. You can say, “I’m feeling some anger rising up when you tell me about that.” You can communicate anger in a calm way – you don’t have to yell, and scream and throw things when you’re angry -- and you don’t have to suppress and deny the anger either. Wholeness isn’t about letting every feeling carry you away – but it is about being able notice and communicate that the feeling is there.

Being authentic to all your inner voices – noticing which one is being loudest at given time, and attending to it without letting it overrun and dominate – that’s integrating the diverse parts of the self.

Another aspect of wholeness is the integration of self and community. This aspect is about belonging. There’s a feeling of wholeness that comes with the feeling of belonging. Self and community are integrated.

If you feel divided from the people around you – if the social setting isn’t one that honors and values your particular gifts and interests – then your life is divided. The self’s way of being in the world and what the community demands are divided from each other.

Wholeness occurs when our lives belong – are at home where they are. Our life has meaning and value to ourselves because it is meaningful TO the people with whom we live and those with whom we work.

Ultimately, the integration of the parts of the self and the integration of self and community depend on each other. The community that accepts us in our wholeness thereby creates the context within which our diverse parts can be integrated. Ultimately, then, the parts-of-self integration and the self-community integration emerge as the same thing – or at least as inseparable.

The phenomena that “surface acting” comes from – and creates – a dividedness at both levels. The surface actor’s self is divided from the workplace community – while also divided from its own true feelings.

“Who and what we are,” writes Barry Magid, “is constituted, and constantly, moment-by-moment, re-constituted, by the world we live in and are part of.”



2021-11-06

UU Minute #60

King's Chapel and James Freeman, part 2



The Anglican/Episcopalian congregation, King’s Chapel, in Boston, faced a clergy shortage after American independence, so, in 1782, they called congregationalist James Freeman, then 23 years old and fresh out of Harvard. Under Freeman’s influence the congregation revised their Book of Common Prayer to delete references to the Trinity.

When the congregation sought to have Freeman ordained, however, the Anglican bishops refused. King’s Chapel chose to take a page from the polity of their neighboring congregationalist churches, and, in 1787, ordained James Freeman themselves – a power which, under congregational polity, is in the hands of congregations, not of bishops or church hierarchy.

King’s chapel was forthwith expelled from fellowship with the Anglican Church – and immediately welcomed into fellowship by the Congregational ministers of Boston.

Freeman began correspondence with the leading lights of Unitarianism in England: Theophilus Lindsey, Joseph Priestley, and Thomas Belsham – which brought Freeman into the community of those calling themselves Unitarian. Through this connection, Theophilus Lindsey was prompted to send books on Unitarianism to Harvard Library, where they influenced a generation of divinity students.

To this day, King’s Chapel is an explicitly Christian member congregation of the Unitarian Universalist Association following a liturgy very similar to the Episcopalian. Their web site today says:
“We are Christian like those who founded our church; and we are willing to continue deeply exploring the astonishing implications of Jesus’ teachings in our world today.”
It also says that:
“with the Unitarian Universalist spirit of today we treasure all the world’s religions, believing that a God of Love embraces us all, freely and fully. We proudly claim our place as the first Unitarian Church in the country, full of free and independent thinkers then, as now.”


NEXT: Liberal and Conservative Congregational Churches of Massachusetts