This spring I found myself in a classroom at St. Louis University. I was invited by a professor of social work who wanted his graduate students to have a broader religious perspective (than Catholicism) when working with clients.
I explained the Ethical Society with my usual fervor and enthusiasm. I stated what we are: humanists dedicated to ethical living. We teach character values and comparative religion to our children. We consider social action–building a better world–central to our making ethical living real. We honor the worth and dignity of every individual.
A young man raised his hand after I spoke and said: “This is so good to hear. My mom used to drive me by the Ethical Society every day on my way to school and she would say: ‘See that building down there; it’s a place for wayward heathens and pagans and that spire there is a witch’s hat!'”
I reacted in my usual calm, cool way: smiled and said I appreciated his comments, that the spire was actually there to inspire people to seek the highest ideals in their lives, that our founder, Felix Adler said, “Where all come to seek the highest is holy ground.” However, inwardly I felt like someone had shot an arrow into my heart. If this young man had thought that way, then many others don’t understand or appreciate us.
In the past we have been called “black devil secular humanists,” “heathens,” “faithless,” “godless,” “a religious cult,” and “intellectual elitists.” No wonder it is so hard for us to claim and take a stand for our humanistic, ethical identity.
I’ve seen us try: Sometimes some of us are difficult and negative and scornful. “Traditional religion makes people into sheep–followers with no brains.” We are thinkers and certainly not followers. Or, we say, “We are godless atheists and we’re proud of it.”
Sometimes we are unsure: “Well, it means one thing to one person and another thing to another. Since we don’t have a creed or dogma then everyone thinks differently.”
Sometimes we’re desperate: “Well, you’ll just have to come some Sunday–it’s hard to explain.”
Sometimes we’re wise and careful: One member here carries our Statement of Purpose in her purse and pulls it out to explain us.
I want us to move forward in claiming our Ethical Society identity and heritage clearly and with pride and certainty. I think it’s difficult for us because it is so precious and vital to us–often claimed with pain and with the misunderstanding of our loved ones.
But I also think we claimed “an outside the mainstream of society” place for ourselves when we joined and we don’t see how strongly we “fit” into the arenas of society that so desperately need our participation and our values.
We, to this day, offer the “middle ground” that speaks for an ethical evaluation of all decisions and behaviors as to their relevance to personal good and the greater good for all. But it’s more personal than that. By claiming our ethical identity we affirm who we are. We declare our own worthiness and our right to dignity and respect. When we truly experience our own worth–our life potential for joy and service expands tenfold! Our view of those around us comes from the prism of self-worth we own within.
No greater gift in life than to experience: I am OK–regardless of what my boss says, my spouse says, my children say. I am OK–regardless of my lack of money, my divorce, life’s unfairness, my job changes, my illness, my age.
Seneca the Stoic said, “If you see a man who is unterrified in the midst of danger, happy in adversity, peaceful amid the storms of life, who looks down at men from a higher plane, and views the gods on a footing of equality, will not a feeling of reverence steal over you?” That’s the kind of human being we strive to be and experience in our lives.
Therefore we must vigorously claim our humanistic heritage because it is so relevant and critical to our troubled times today and to affirming our own self-worth.
In a St. Louis Post-Dispatch article, “Humanists a Beacon” by William Edelen, he says:
Perhaps the most ludicrous and asinine charge made by those ranting against “humanists” is that they are “godless.” A list of brilliant humanists, who were also deeply religious and spiritual people in the most profound sense, would be endless: Plato, Aristotle, Erasmus, Montaigne, Sir Thomas More, Paracelsus, and one of the greatest thinkers of the 15th century, Nicholas Cusanus, Sir Francis Bacon, Goethe, Albert Schweitzer and practically all of our major founding fathers, from Thomas Jefferson to Abraham Lincoln.
The motivation of the humanistic movement in the 4th century was to produce a fully cultivated human being. Educational programs were upgraded and refined. The inner needs of the religious life combined with a classical education became the ideal.
It was the cultivation of manners that one needed to become a fully civilized human being. Would to God that we could revive this humanistic concept, of what it means to be a fully developed person.
Humanists, schooled in the humanities and other liberal arts, combining the needs of the spiritual life with a classical education–whether theist, deist. Christian, Buddhist, Taoist or Hebrew–could very well be the bright hope of this nation.
We can take pride in our humanist heritage. Today, could we not use an emphasis on “developing a fully cultivated human being–one with manners?” As Ethical Society members, we practice what we believe in our daily actions. Ethical relationship challenges abound on a daily basis for each of us.
The story is told of Winston Churchill, who faced a most difficult diplomatic challenge. When attending a dinner, his distraught hostess came to him and said she had observed one of the guests pocketing one of her best salt and pepper sets. She asked if he could think of some way to get her property back without causing an unpleasant scene. Shortly he went to the other end of the great dining table and pocketed the other set of shakers and sidled up to the thief. He opened his pocket just wide enough for the chap to see the shakers inside, and whispered, “I think they’ve seen us, we’d better put them back.”
Churchill created a humble partnership with the hostess and the thief that quietly without embarrassment achieved the right action and result. Yes, ethical challenges do abound!
Ethical life challenges can only be met by the use of reason and reverence. As humanists and Ethical Culturists, we use reason as our primary resource for evaluating and acting on the world around us. Knowledge brings us wisdom while recognizing the paramount importance of good, ethical living with reverence for all living creatures. This combination, when reason and reverence meet, will produce the most powerful human beings in the world as it has in the past.
Felix Adler, our founder, understood this. I often envision a young man is hunched over a desk in a study in Heidelburg, Germany: It is 1875. Books surround him, Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, Plato, the Bible, and Emerson, to just name a few. All of a sudden, what he has been searching for comes together in his mind.
All religions have a thread of profound truth in them. However, their major flaw lies in their insistence on being the one truth! Therefore religion must be based on the search for truth based on reason (as outlined by Kant in his writings) and in tandem with that, reverence for life and all living things through honoring their worth. Moral codes of conduct for ethical living based on rational thought would ride side by side with a profound respect, deep joy, and appreciation for the eccentricities, flaws, and complexities of human beings.
Traditional Western religions have been based on God and his laws. What abut a religion based on faith in human worth? The next step in religious history would be a religion based on human “good” or worth and grounded in humanistic and philosophical perspective, centered in “right living” today as a reward in and of itself, filled with reverence for one’s self and others.
Achieving such a “religion of the future” would not be easy because our founder, Felix Adler, realized that one wouldn’t be using old parameters of religion so it would be built philosophically and structurally from the ground up.
He drew from Ralph Waldo Emerson, who called “for a new church based on moral science and moral faith.” He drew from Immanuel Kant, who stressed the centrality of ethics and practical reason that could be separated from theology. He drew from his Jewish heritage with its emphasis on social action and reform. He drew from humanist writers down through the ages.
He recognized that by founding this Ethical Culture movement and the first Ethical Society, he would be making some daring life choices. He took an unknown career path rather than retain his mainstream Jewish faith, thereby choosing to be an “outsider” rather than an “insider.” He became a creator of his faith and his life, rather than a follower. He chose the hard way–an uphill path of unfamiliarity and uncertainty.
He was constantly asked: “What is an Ethical Society?” “Are you folks heretics, intellectual elitists, rebels?” “Why make it hard on yourself?” “Why not hedge your bets and have a heaven for eternal reward, and comfort?”
And to this day we humanists, we Ethical Society members are asked these questions! Over one hundred years later–in these dark and turbulent times–we, as Adler did, can be lights for ethical living. We must come out of the dark and claim our identity or die.
Putting Ethical culture and the Ethical Society on the religious map of New York City, spreading it across America and around the world, was Adler’s dream and he did it! Over 100 years later it is our turn. Being as clear as Adler was about who we are–our unique identity–being proud of it and sharing it with others is our mandate. For forces in our society today demand that you and I step forward and claim our place in history.
For I an deeply concerned about trends in our society that are strongly counter to the well-being of all free thinkers and those concerned with the character of our national heroes and leaders.
We are surrounded by ethical/moral dilemmas constantly as this whole judicial/congressional process, our President and congress are mired in moral, mortal combat. I don’t condone Clinton’s actions with Monica Lewinsky but I think the issues are much broader than a philandering president, with regard to privacy and the right to a fair judicial process.
Our Ethical Society is the place where we can speak and act to end the destructive trends in our culture today. We say here that our faith is in honoring the worth and dignity of all, yet our country has strong groups that would deny this basic human right. The religious right attacks gays, women’s rights and other people and issues that do not fit their narrow worldviews. Yet they are ever more powerful in promoting religious views in Congress, blurring the lines between church and state.
Other destructive trends are the ever-increasing influence of materialism and consumerism that tends to obscure what is truly important in life for Americans. We have a shallow culture when appearance and wealth determines success in a human being!
These trends promote an ever-diminishing emphasis on character values, the true strength of and foundation for a successful human being. You ask kids today what constitutes success and they use a very different yardstick–money, athletic ability, career status, to just name a few.
We need heroes like baseball’s Mark McGwire, who captured our attention for his home run hitting prowess, but in his actions around his achievements he role modeled: love of family for his son, sharing of honors for his fellow athlete, forgiveness for his ex-wife by bringing her and her husband to the big game, and honoring the past by saluting Roger Maris’ family.
Outside Busch Stadium there’s a sign that says, “Superheroes are put on pedestals, but real heroes bring us up with them.” We need heroes of good character in every part of our society.
So an Ethical Society community does its work and has as its mission to give another view of life that is character-centered while demonstrating a strong faith in the power of community. Here we support each other in handling life’s unfairness and unreasonableness, its crazy tragedies and hurts.
Here we hold a faith that in community we can build a better world–one free of pollution, hunger, and violence. Today we will hear of “Domestic Violence Awareness Month” and what we can do to support this worthy cause. We must act to build a better world for all on our planet. I’m proud of our Society. I urge us to take an even stronger stand against the trends in our society that encroach on basic human rights and distort what constitutes a good human being.
We cannot be complacent in these times. We must take a stand for our unique identity as humanist beacons of light and reach out to like-minded groups, then spread the word to our families, friends, co-workers and those we meet in daily living. Be able to say with pride and confidence, “Yes, I do belong to the Ethical Society,” and “I want you to come see if it is for you.” Only then can we affirm ourselves as Ethical Culturists.
Why is this so? Because when I claim deep down inside of me–its central principle–to honor the worth and dignity of everyone including myself, I know and experience my rights and my place in this world as a person to be respected, honored and loved. And by the most difficult person of all–myself.
1. Cultural Relativity is a method that directs anthropologists to suspend judgment while investigating the beliefs and practices of peoples in other cultures. The assumption being, that base-line knowledge, as well as understanding, comes from assessing the other in light of her own environment and historical logic.
2. Cultural Relativism is the practice of this method.
I was raised in a small Mormon town in northeastern Utah. Ever since I started college, in far off southern Utah, and befriended a kid from Chicago, I have been a culturally challenged person. My formative adult years, from 17 to 50, were spent reconciling successive onslaughts of unavoidable oppositions in my life. At 17, how was I, a devout, and therefore celibate, Mormon youth, to sustain a friendship with an Irish Catholic Chicagoan, the only “foreigner” and the chief sexual activist on campus. How could I relate to Irish Chicago vs. the mass of Mormon youth, without choosing sides but also without loosing my own identity to the middle?
At 21, a missionary leader in Brazil, how could I reconcile the competitive sales strategy used to gain converts, with the radical communism I had been taught was the true order of God? Twenty-three years old, reading anthropological archaeology and studying Book of Mormon archaeology at BYU, was a fact-supported synthesis possible? One year later, 24, and a new graduate student majoring in archaeology with a bioanthropology minor at Indiana, I encountered the urgent business of emerging whole through the creation-evolution labyrinth. In that hall of smoke, genes, and mirrors, I devoted at least half-time my first year of graduate school coming to grips with the Mormon teaching on race. Each discovery doubled back on others, culture being the amazing marbled layer cake that it is.
The reconciliation of opposites was not always possible. From 17 until now, many choices were made. Despite good will, some conflicts cannot be ignored. Eventually, an anthropologist encounters the limitations of the open-mindedness of cultural relativism and begins to wonder how it really works.
In 1983 I read my first monastic literature, Thomas Merton’s Mystics and Zen Masters, a fascinating cross-cultural examination of contemplative mystical practices, where people work at the interface (reconciliation) between God (ultimate reality) and human. In 1984 I visited a Trappist monastery and met my first monk face to face. In 1990 I began looking for a monastery for ethnographic field work. By 1992 all requests had, politely, failed. In May I booked a flight to Utah to visit my octogenarian mother. I was aware of a Trappist monastery in Huntsville, possibly the quintessential Latter Day Saint town in late 20th century Mormon cosmology. I called the Abbot, explained my purpose and requested a conference.
In January, 1993, I entered Holy Trinity Abbey and did not leave the property for 30 days, the duration of an observership, the time when a would-be monk tries the community on for size, just as cloister life tests him for all to see.
The abbot assigned me to feed pregnant cows with one of the brothers and gave me a place in the choir beside a lean old rosy-cheeked brother who appeared taller than I, though he is actually a little shorter. The cow feeding brother took me, a total stranger with no pretense of becoming a monk, reluctantly, from obedience to the abbot. But I had been raised feeding cows and performing every kind of ranch job. A self-described introvert and loner, he started talking with me the first morning, as we brushed the snow from the pole fence, crawled into the stockyard, and set to work feeding bales of hay to hungry cows. We talked and laughed and shared many things non-stop for two weeks. After that the abbot granted me a fairly free reign in the enclosure, and my feeding companion prevailed on me to quit feeding cows, an all-day job in winter, so I could get acquainted with the other men, for the sake of my research. I consented, reluctantly, and he returned to silence. When I returned that spring he took me to visit the hermitage, where he goes overnight for recollection each month. When elections were held, in 1995, to choose a new abbot, he asked if I would feed cows so he could participate without them having to go hungry. As with the hermitage visit, he had secured the abbot’s consent before asking. Since then, we’ve spoken once or twice, though I have spent more than 100 days in the abbey.
On the same day that I started feeding cows, I took my place in choir. The brother who remains to this day my choir mate, greeted me with a toothy, glad smile — no obedience to the abbot required with this guy. He was glad to have me. He guided me gracefully, and in silence, as a Trappist can do, through the dozens of liturgical books, leaflets, and single sheets of paper required to participate in their daily, bi-weekly, and annual liturgical cycles.
One day after Sext, the middle prayer among the seven that make-up the daily Office of the Hours, I turned to him and whispered, “Will you teach me lectio divina?” Lectio, as monastics call it, is a kind of text-based contemplative prayer.
The next morning at 11:00 we met in the small chapel at the rear of the church. I was empty-handed, not wanting to scare him off with mixed messages about my intent to learn lectio. He carried a book by the late Karl Rahner, a Jesuit theologian who taught at the University of Innsbruck. On a piece of scrap paper he had written the word ANTHROPOLOGY vertically, in capital letters. In single words he had broken it down into its classical definition. But he had also written such words as GOD, CHRIST, EUCHARIST, and MAN. He intended to teach me the meaning of anthropology. I felt amused and amazed at the same time, and decided I would remain open.
Our formal meetings generally lasted exactly one hour. Occasional unplanned encounters, in the building where Monastery Fresh Eggs were inspected and packaged for commercial distribution, or in the tailor shop, for he worked both jobs, our discussions ran longer. Sometimes, on warm days when it was not too hot, we went for walks or met on the shaded lawn in front of the church. At rare times other lay people or a junior monk were with us. Our talks were intense, varied, but unswerving in their purpose, which was to come to a mutual understanding of the meaning of Anthropology and of Benedictine Christianity .
Slowly we became fast friends, as our discourse ranged across theology, scripture, the writings of the sitting Pope, life stories, but never a word of gossip, and the ever increasing vulnerability of mutual self-disclosure. There were regular disagreements over seemingly superficial but truly serious matters. He chided and cajoled me to forget about these prepared questions. “Get to the meat of the matter, brother!” Sometimes I got the Benedictine treatment, little notes left in my choir stall with sparely written fraternal corrections, intended to twist my thinking. I reminded him, a good Trappist imitation, firmly, unbending, that I too am under a vow of obedience to my university which had funded the research and to my professional, which held me to fairly standard research methods. Doggedly, but enjoying the hell out of each other, we persisted. I read the Pope’s “Encyclical on Evangelization,” snippets from Rahner, and a little of von Balthazar’s theology of anthropology. He talked about Catholics, Protestants, Buddhists, Muslims, Mormons, Atheists, Men, Women, universal discourse, mutual respect, the nature of man, the love of Christ, the fertility of self-sacrifice, immanence, transcendence, his monastic approach to sexuality, about brotherhood, sisterhood, and humanhood. I talked with him about anthropology; its assumptions, methods, and discoveries, ranging from paleoanthropology to humanistic anthropology. With a growing history together, we can now tap into our shared discourse at an infinite number of jump-off points.
At the end of December, 1996, I took two students with me to the monastery, one to do research on power and the other on health and aging. I asked my choir mate to help out, which he did with characteristic grace. Toward the end of their stay he pulled us into a side office in the Guest House, and once again we set to work, the two young people like the proverbial privileged flies on the wall. He had come across an article written by one of the Church’s envoys to an international women’s conference in Scandinavia, in which she spoke with clarity and urgency about the need for a non-judgmental, cross-cultural discourse on the pressing humanitarian and communication issues of our time. He, in his inimitable style, set the article inside a story that contextualized it by establishing mutually understood coordinates that cut through a large potential hubris, pointing excitedly at paragraphs and phrases in the text, which I read as I talked.
Five to ten minutes into the discussion, I don’t know, it was not tape recorded, he said, and I paraphrase, “Don’t you see brother. This is anthropology. It is all about seeing Christ in the Other.” The concept, “cultural relativism,” appeared in my mind, and I spoke the words out loud, “Cultural Relativism.” I started talking, explaining the concept of cultural relativity as also the practice of cultural relativism and seeing Christ in the other meant the same thing, in our discourse. When I had finished talking and stopped for his response, he bent before me, a modest, intentional Mother Theresa of Calcutta bow, and said, “Wow. ” It was in the first days of January, 1997, he was approaching his 80th birthday and me my 50th. We tried to talk a little, but we were eager to get away from each other. I needed time, and space to process, and for taking notes, a powerful tool for maintaining balance in the field. For the field is a place where cosmologies clash, mingle, separate, recombine, and synthesize — perilous stuff for a social scientist.
This past late December into January I returned and took up the question of the meaning of seeing Christ in the other with 6 more monks. I was familiar with the term and knew quite a bit about its practice, but had never addressed it systematically. Before even tentatively suggesting that I might be on the verge of extracting convergent concepts and practices from the murky waters of anthropology and religion, I wanted to make sure that I knew where my ducks were located on a scattergram. I asked each monk the question: What meaning does the phrase, “seeing Christ in the other,” have for you? Later questions, except for routine ones to verify its place in Benedictine monasticism, were adapted to their responses, to allow me to find out what the phrase means both conceptually and as a practice.
Five of the six monks said that it did have meaning to them, though each described it quite individually. The sixth monk said that he prefers the usage, “Christian Charity,” over “seeing Christ in the other,” though he acknowledged that the two are overlapping approaches to the same thing.
One of the five monks roots the concept in scripture and in very carefully defined and codified terms. His understanding is highly intellectualized and somewhat legal and his application designed to make communication possible. His is, in social science terms, a good case of applied theory. On a scale where the intellectual understanding and practice occupy the right and mystical and spiritualized occupy the left, I would rate him quite far to the right.
The second monk integrates Old and New Testament scripture with psychological theory in his interpretation and practice. He is very Old Testament law-like in an almost zero tolerance for intolerance approach to the issue. Christ leaves no alternative but to see Christ in the other, regardless of the objective evidence available to condemn the person, as we, left to our own nature would do. In real life this monk must apply the concept well, because he is a well-used confessor for many lay people, men and women alike, and is used for the same purpose by some of the monks. He is not as far right as the first monk.
The third monk used Mother Theresa as his model to explain the phrase and its meaning, and the Rule of St. Benedict to establish its precedent as a monastic imperative. He provided examples from daily monastic life to explain how the concept, when applied as a method, enables people who live in an enclosure, a delicately balanced form of community life, to make sense out of, and otherwise mediate, conflictual situations and issues. Of the 25 men in the community, he meets the vagaries of his life with greatest equanimity, if I can be judge. I rate him as having a well-developed synthesis of the spiritual, intellectual, and applied use of the concept, though I position him just a little to the intellectualized right on a sliding scale.
The fourth monk approaches it in a radical, almost pacifistic way. He uses the term “docile,” to describe the attitude and the requirements for action that a monk must take in avoiding judgment so as to meet people where they are. This way, he can serve others without condemnation, even when faced with someone whose attitudes and behaviors are in grave violation of his own sense of goodness. In leadership roles he is able to take stands, sometimes with determined commitment in the face of stiff opposition, with but rare appearance of emotional discomfort. He is a stalwart of the community, with a reputation for contemplative silence and evenness. I rate him a little past midway between the center and the spiritualized left.
The fifth monk is my choir mate, and I’ve already described him. He is described by the other men as a mystic. He is intellectual without intellectualizing. He seems, perhaps to keep himself above the fray and connects best with the bigger picture, not the small. He is called to see the Divine, the Image of God in the Other. When this happens, we become a sacrament to each other; we have the potential of becoming Eucharist to each other. He is far left on the spiritualized side of the scale.
The sixth monk, who is wary of using the phrase “seeing Christ in the other,” prefers the usage, “Christian Charity,” because he thinks it is too much of a practical stretch to see Christ in the other when you know what is going on. Nonetheless, a monk, as with any Christian, is under edict not to judge when it comes to a person’s salvation or any of the existential and eschatological issues related to it. This is a hard-nosed man who wears leadership well, though not without interior and interpersonal conflict. He is fearless in calling men to task, and until last summer I mistook his frank, often blunt, assessments as blanket condemnations of those who crossed him. In August of 1997, however, I had occasion to travel by automobile with him for 6 days, and from that intense interaction I learned that he has a remarkable and highly developed ability to harshly criticize specific behaviors without it spilling over to a judgment of motives, value, or a man’s contribution. He is the hardest one to position, and so I would tentatively place him dead center on the scale. He appears unspiritualized and unintellectualized equally, yet he applies the concept, by a different name, with a remarkable clarity. I am sure the ones he crosses do not immediately see it that way.
All six monks agree on one thing: a monk and a Christian must develop a discipline, call it a method, that sustains an openness in relations with other individuals and groups. This is rooted in the theory that judging the human value of others, no matter how different or strange, is beyond the ability of any human to assess. Judgment is God’s, and people condemn themselves and their endeavors when they do not learn to successfully apply this. As a theory, with predictive value, they are convinced of the tangible and spiritual benefits of the approach. There is, however, no expectation of agreement, no assumption that all beliefs and behaviors are of equal value, and there is the need to act and judge in temporal matters affecting community responsibilities and individual human rights. The applied concept of seeing Christ in the other, is a theoretical construct that predictably makes for the broadest possible inclusion of humankind within one single conceptual community. In practical matters it enables inclusion, whenever this is possible, but enables separation, when this is necessary, without condemnation at the level of a person’s human identity, value, or even the logic of their position. It is possible to misapply seeing Christ in the other, by taking it too literally, as if because a person always has value it follows that what he does always has value. This creates the same conundrum that Paul Schmidt identified in assessing the behavior of Nazis, in his 1955 selective critique and exoneration of cultural relativism, reprinted in Manners and Kaplan, 1968.
Cultural relativity, it seems to me, accomplishes much the same thing, with the same pitfalls. Cultural relativism and Benedictine Christianity may seem strange bedfellows, but the convergence seems clear. Even the benefits and variety of ways in applying the two seem to describe ourselves. If, anything, however, I wonder if anthropologists are not more prone, being a newer discipline than monasticism, to apply the concept uncritically and in the process to dehumanize the people we want to understand, humanize, and elevate. One of the monks [described] St. Bernard, the greatest Cistercian, for me. He said that the hagiography of the Saint made him superhuman and, thus, unreal and unhuman. It was, he said, Bernard’s humanity that made him great. To ignore his humanity, in all its smelly parts, is to dehumanize and, in the end, to make him uncredible.
Relativity, like Christ in the other, is the indispensable methodology of anthropology, we may agree. But it is also a core predictive theory. By applying it, we have learned seemingly unlearnable things about other people. When we apply it critically, and deeply, as many anthropologists do, and as some monks endeavor to do with their own concept, we may discover that we are talking the same language as other people, at some deep cultural level.
Is this a real convergence? If yes, are there others that converge with cultural relativism? If there are, what are they? Are they common across cultures? If so, how do they vary, and how are they symbolically expressed and nuanced? If they are not common, what does this mean? Of course, in my eagerness to understand monks and to find common ground for discourse and relationship, I may have missed the mark completely, in which case I want to know, so I seek your feedback.
I invite you on a trip with me this morning, as I share some of my memories, and the teachings of others, on borders crossed. Not so much a linear progression or a well developed political analysis, this is more of a meditation, and I hope some of it resonates with you, and I hope other parts push you a little, across borders where you haven’t been.
1. The First Border
The first border I crossed was one that everyone crosses, from womb to world, from being protected from the world to setting about discovering it, from being a part of someone else to being on my own. It was the coldest November night at the end of a tumultuous decade. The taxi couldn’t make it down the hill to our house because of the ice, so my mother was pushed up the hill with me inside. I came into the world in the middle of the night at Western General Hospital in Edinburgh, Scotland. Though I remember nothing of this time, it was a difficult one for my family. My mother contracted tuberculosis, and my father fell into depression. Without moorings, we moved from Scotland, to Holland, to the States, finally setting in Iowa City, where my memories begin.
In his recent novelThe Last Song of Manuel Sendero, the Chilean writer Ariel Dorfmari describes a fantastic proposition. During the reign of the Dragon Pinchot there is a great revolt-a rebellion of the unborn. For six weeks, they hold to their rebellion and refuse to come out into the world, refuse to be born into a world of injustice. One never comes out, and he tells his grandfather, Manuel, to pass on his words to the Caballero: “TelI him, Grandfather, don’t be afraid, when we can come out into the peaceful night… without five men knocking at our door… when nobody will be born without a heart, Grandfather, [when] it’s guaranteed that you’re born with a double heart so that injustice will hurt us so much we’ll have to do away with it once and for all… tell him, Grandfather, proclaim it even if nobody listens to you… even if they call you an idealist and a romantic and a socialist and an anarchist and a stubborn dreamer, it’s worth it just to say it… it’s worth it to be faithful to the joy that conception brings, it’s worth it to love history the way other people have loved a woman or a man… Tell him he doesn’t exist, that he has all the power and none of the love, tell him we’re being born all the time.” In the end, despite the disapperances and injustice in Chile under Pinochet, Dorfman says that it’s better to be engaged in the world for all its pain. It’s better to try and change things, to create something new, to feel and to live deeply, It’s better to have a heart and be wounded than to become numb, and that being born, having the hope to bring life into this world, is in itself a political act.
2. Selective Borders
My mother came to the United States in the mid 1950s to work for a year as an au pair. Her father warned that if she left Holland, she would never come back. She said she’d be there just for a year. When the year was up, she bqan to take classes. She ended up going to nursing school, and then met my father, had a few children, and never did get back to Holland. It took the next generation to return. My sister, who is a cellist, is now a Dutch citizen and lives in Holland. My father came to the United States to do his medical residency. As a doctor, it was easier for him to get in the country than for many immigrants. When it came time for him to apply for a green card, he was given a choice. Either he could apply from outside the United States, in which case he couldn’t come in for 2 years, or he could apply from inside the US, in which case he would have been drafted right away to serve in Vietnam, because he is a psychiatrist and they needed psychiatrists. My parents disagreed with the war, and they left the country, which is why I was born in Scotland. Two years later, they were granted permanent residency and returned to settle. Though my parents did their share of hard work, they came to this country knowing English. They didn’t have to support family back home. They could have had good lives in their home countries, but the opportunity to come here presented itself and they took it.
“Crisis of identity, anxieties born of expulsion, ghosts that haunt and accuse: exile sows doubts and raises issues not necessarily faced by those who live far away by choice. The outcast cannot return to his country or to one he had taken as his own. When you’re washed up on foreign shores, your soul is bared to the storms and you lose your habitual frames of reference and shelter. The distance is greater when there is no alternative,” writes Uruguayan novelist Eduardo Galeano, describing political exile. For the economic refugee, it’s a different situation yet. Desperate to provide for his family back home, he comes to the United States illegally, toils in our fields and meatpacking plants, sews in our sweatshops, serves us in our restaurants, and is constantly held hostage to the fear of deportation. He will never be able to call this place home. He is not wanted, except to do our dirty work. For some Central American and Caribbean countries, one of their main sources of foreign exchange is the money sent home by family members working in the United States. Why was the statue of liberty there to greet my parents, but not these? And do we have any responsibility when we have helped create some of the conditions which push people out of their countries? Supporting death squads in Central America and Haiti, prescribing neoliberal economic policies through the World Bank and NF which have widened the gap between rich and poor, presiding over a staggering transfer of resources from the South to the North through debt? What role does our country’s foreign policy play in pushing migration?
3. New Borders
In the spring of 1947, my father was part of one of the largest migrations in recent history, what he calls “the most tragic moment in the history of India.” From the age of 3, he had lived in Karachi. One of his best fiends, Ibrahim, was a Muslim. But when he was 11 years old, he boarded a freighter with his family and headed into the Arabian Sea to Jamnagar. His father stayed back to close out the business. They worried for him, since he always dressed in the simple cloth of a Hindu. My father was one of the lucky ones. Going by ship, they managed to avoid the murder, rape and torture which greeted migrants from both sides traveling by land. At least 600,000 people were massacred. Although Gandhi had pleaded for a united India, my father saw partition as inevitable and as the natural outgrowth of the British policy of divide and rule. And yet my father says that despite hatred and mistrust between Hindus and Muslims, between India and Pakistan, Indians must recognize that some of the goriest periods of Indian history were tider Muslim leadership, I grew up hearing stories about Akbar, the great Moghul emperor, and the way in which his wisest servant Birbal would trick and advise him.
In 1944, over seventeen days of conversations, Mohandas Gandhi pleaded with the president of the Muslim League, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, against the partition of India. At one point, Gandhi said: “You can cut me in two if you wish, but don’t cut India in two.” His pleas were in vain. Days before his assassination, he asked at his daily prayer meeting for each Hindu and Sikh in the audience to bring along at least one Muslim to prayers thereafter. He read from the Koran, and announced that his next journey on behalf of peace would be to Pakistan. Fifty years later it was Muslims in the Bosnian government who would argue that Sarajevo should remain an undivided city, a city for all faiths and ethnic groups, that Bosnia – Hercogovina shouldn’t be divided into ethnic Serb, Croat and Muslim enclaves. Now Ibrahim Rugova’s calls for a nonviolent solution to oppression of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo are being drowned out by militants from both sides. Must ethnic borders become national borders? Can we find a way to maintain our identity and rights within a nation of many cultures? While people should have the right to self-determination, wouldn’t we prefer to find ways build healthy multicultural nations?
4. Breaching Borders
I grew up when the nuclear age had already begun to mature and people were used to living with the bomb. Still, when the movie “The Day After” came out, every school child’s fears were raised. I was certainly more afraid of nuclear bombs than I was afraid of Russians. It didn’t matter where the bomb would come from, it could come as easily from a crazy leader or an accidental launch or a response from a US attack. The Russians weren’t the problem, I thought, the bomb makers were. In college I studied Russian, and spent the spring of 1990 in Moscow, in the late days of perestroika. It confirmed my feeling that the Russians were not our enemies, though they had managed to create a language that felt as difficult to learn as cracking a code. Even so, trust was difficult to build.
I witnessed relationships between Americans and Russians fall apart when the American accused the Russian of using them to get to the US, or of being part of the KGB. Trust is not easy to build, especially when there are inequities between the sides. I knew it was important if there were to be peace between Russia and the US to be able to understand Russians. There were many things about the Soviet system that I would never understand. On one early evening, suddenly we heard fireworks. They had already celebrated May Day and Victory in Europe Day. We wondered that they could possibly be celebrating now. We learned finally that it was National Border Guard Day. It also, by coincidence, happened to be the third anniversary of the date when German Mathias Rust piloted his Cessna into Red Square, managing to escape detection from the Soviet military, Perhaps the Border Guards had been so busy celebrating, that they didn’t notice this breach of their border.
Governments create borders of fear between their nation and so-called enemy nations. During the Cold War, it seems that many more Americans bought the US propaganda about Russia than Russians buying Soviet propaganda about us. Russians knew their press wasn’t free. They knew their government didn’t have their interests in mind, and they didn’t trust what was told to them. While many Americans opposed Red Scare tactics, a larger percentage bought it, because they believed that we live in the freest nation on earth. The late Martha Gellhorn, a journalist who covered wars from the Spanish Civil War to the wars in the 80s in Central America, writes: “After a lifetime of war-watching, I see war as an endemic human disease, and governments are the carriers, Only governments prepare, declare and prosecute wars. There is no record of hordes of citizens, on their own, mobbing the seat of government to clamor for war. They must be infected with hate and fear before they catch war fever. They have to be taught they are endangered by an enemy, and that the vital interests of the state are threatened. The vital interests of the state, which are always about power, have nothing to do with the vital interests of the citizens, which are private and simple and are always about a better life for themselves and their children. You do not kill for such interests, you work for them.”
5. Crossed by the Border
A few years ago, I visited a friend in Tijuana. He worked in Tijuana for about six years at the YMCA, where they operated a Home for Migrant Youth and were part of a coalition monitoring rights along the border. He took me to the Mexican side of the border at night. An eerie quiet hung over the area. Hot search lights shined upon the small Tijuana River. He explained that what we couldn’t see was the command center of the Border Patrol where they used infrared technology to search for people crossing illegally and where they took people they found and sometimes interrogated and beat them. What I could see were a few vendors who were there to sell the last meals in Mexico to people trying to cross.
Roberto Martinez, the director of the U.S. Mexico Border Program for the American Friends Service Committee in San Diego describes his life in struggle as a Chicano. He says, “My great, great grandparents came from Texas and they lived there before the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed. In other words like we say a lot ‘we didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us.’ They broke the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo right from day one. Lands were taken away, people were chased into Mexico. As settlers swept across the country they took away land, took over mines, took over everything. We basically ended up, our people, my great grandparents, more like indentured servants working for people on the land that they used to own.” While NAFTA makes it easier for capital and merchandise to cross the border, the militarization of the border is making it more difficult for people to cross. For the first time since 1848, when the war with Mexico ended, we now have U.S. troops face to face with Mexican troops on the border. The INS has conducted exercises for its “enhanced border control plan” in the event that the Mexican economy completely collapses. Practiced in the desert with advice from the Pentagon, they rehearse for rounding up immigrants into temporary collection points of fenced-in corrals and identify prisons, county jails and military bases where they could detain and question immigrants who refuse to return immediately. Free trade, free markets, and fenced-in people.
6. An Illegal Border Crossing
This past December, I traveled to Iraq with a group called Voices in the Wilderness. I spoke about this trip at the Adult Forum here in February. I traveled there in direct violation of US laws, which requires State Department approval for US citizens traveling to Iraq. While there, our group delivered $40,000 worth of medicine to a children’s hospital in Baghdad, in direct violation of the economic blockade of the country, which requires licenses for the distribution of essential food and medicine and which prevents Iraq from buying and selling except in the very controlled framework of the Food for Oil Deal. I went because I wanted to see for myself what the conditions were under the sanctions and be able to report on those conditions back in the US. I also went to try and be a good will emissary from the United States, to be able to say to Iraqis who were suffering, that I stood with them and not with my government, or their government, that I didn’t think it was right for the innocent people to be put in the middle of this situation, Like I had found in Russia, the Iraqis immediately understood this. They themselves said, time after time, that they had no problem with the American people, that they saw us as brothers and sisters, that it was the US government’s policy, though, that was killing them.
And I saw the sorts of people our policies were killing: Alla Hammad, a three year old with leukemia, was hooked up to a monitor which would continually emit high pitched beeps. The doctor said she could die at any moment. Radiation therapy, available in Iraq before the Gulf War, has now ceased because of sanctions. Three year old Hattan Karim was suffering from kwashiorkor, acute malnutrition, which had been unknown in Iraq for decades before sandions. Ali was a 45 day old newborn with pneumonia, the smallest child I’ve ever seen. His mother was strikingly beautiful and I sat with her and looked at her tiny baby, which she would rotate into a defective incubator every once in awhile. Five month old Sara Karem, weighed less than half of normal body weight. Her father had glaucoma, for which there was no treatment available. Mustafa Azawi, a young boy with leukemia, clutched his finger, which was black from gangrene. They didn’t even have the facilities to amputate his finger to stop the spread of the gangrene because they didn’t have enough sutures, anesthesia, blood and IV bags, and other instruments to conduct regular surgery. And in this in a country which had the most sophisticated public health care system in the Arab world before 1990. As I talk about these children I saw six months ago, I wonder how many of them are still alive.
One of the first things we did after crossing the border back into Jordan, was to call the US Embassy in Amman to request a meeting. The Jesuit priest in our group made the phone call. They said that they were short staffed because it was around New Year’s and they wouldn’t be able to meet with us. So Simon told them briefly of our concerns about what we had seen, of the lack of food and medical care, and the disrepair of the infrastructure, caused by the sanctions. He then said that we were aware that our trip was in direct violation of a travel ban and the sanctions, and he asked the man to write down our names. He carefully spelled out the names of the five of us and said: “Write them down and say that we violated the sanctions, because when the Day of Judgment comes, our names will be written in the book.”
For me, crossing borders is at the heart of what peace work is, going to the other side to meet the enemy face to face. Sometimes that enemy is another nation, sometimes just an individual, or it could be people of a particular race, ethnicity or religion. Most of the time, I think, we realize that the biggest enemies are fear and prejudice. Crossing these boundaries forces us to confront these fears and then, hopefully, set about the more productive work of defining where true differences or inequities lie and trying to right them.
It was only two months after I was in Iraq that papers were carrying the Pentagon’s plans for bombing. And now I had been there and I bad met people who might have been killed or maimed in such a bombing. I had seen results of the previous war, the Amiriyah Shelter which was hit by two precision guided missiles on February 12, 1991, killing hundreds of civilians, I talked to Um Reyda, who lost 9 family members in that bombing. I saw the health effects of bombed sewage and water treatment facilities and of Depleted Uranium, What interests could I have that would be served by more of this? Many people will call me naive, but what did one war, pinprick bombings and sanctions accomplish? Democracy in Kuwait? A free Kurdistan? A stable Middle East? To be sure, UNSCOM has had success in ridding Iraq of some of its weapons of mass destruction, but without a
corresponding attempt to demilitarize the region, this is a fleeting victory-unless we plan to keep starving the Iraqis for the foreseeable future.
The structural reasons that have caused instability have not been addressed. For instance, one of Iraq’s aims in both fighting the 8 year war against Iran and invading Kuwait was to get unimpeded access to the Persian Gulf. Four days after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, US Ambassador Thomas Pickering asked the Jordanian ambassador to pass on a message to the Iraqi government: “We acknowledge your need for an opening to the Gulf, and the issue of access to the islands (Warba and Bubiyyl) is one that we could look on favorably.” The issue has yet to be resolved.
7. The Borders of Identity
I’ve been arrested on several occasions (mostly for things I’m proud of), and automatically, the police officer marks W under race. They ask me to check over the information, and I say, I’m not white. What are you, they ask? I’m half Asian and half European. We don’t have a category for that. You have to be one or the other. Can I be Other? Nope, we don’t have an Other category either. So the conversation goes back and forth. Why don’t you have a category for Other? Why can’t you mark both White and Asian? Am I supposed to choose between my mother and father? Eventually, they choose one or the other, and the charges get dropped in less time than it takes to figure out what my race is. Several years ago, I went to the Michigan Women’s Music Festival, a week long gathering out in the woods of women only. I found myself in this discussion group of biracial women, talking about our experiences. There were some similarities, there were some nice people there, but for the most part we had very different experiences, and I didn’t feel like I connected automatically with them because they were biracial women. And I thought, I don’t need to segregate myself like this. How much better to find people I have common values and common interests with.
There is an enormous need for people to categorize themselves and others. For those who fall between the cracks, this is difficult, whether it be biracial people, bisexual, androgynous or transgendered people. Many people, especially those who have been oppressed on the basis of their race, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, base much of their identity on their “otherness.” This is understandable for people’s whose lives have been about struggle. But it is the people in the crack who can hopefully crack open the conventional notions of race, gender and sexuality that, as Maria Root points out “have been constructed in the eye of the beholder of power.” She further writes: “There are different ways of experiencing, negotiating, and reconstructing the border between races [which] have implications for thinking about borders in similarly co-constructed dualities of masculine versus feminine and heterosexual versus homosexual identities… Many of us bring with us multiple perspectives, multiple loyalties, and an optimism that we can transcend race in our discussions of similarities and differences… Whereas Du Bois insightfully forecast that the problem of the 20th century would be the color line, my hope is that the boundaries among and between races will be the new frontier for changing the direction and structure of race relations as we begin the new millennium.” Struggles based on separatism or a biological essentialism just reproduce the structures which gave rise to oppression. We must look for allies among every category of people, and we must not assume that just because someone has the same skin color or reproductive organs as ourselves, that they are committed to overcoming oppression and prejudice.
8. Borders at Home: The City and The County
When I first moved to St. Louis, my mother told me not go into Forest Park alone. Ever. All through my first year of college, I obeyed her, and then summer came and I felt like exploring, and there was the park, big and beautiful, full of people running and playing sports, the peaceful lakes to sit by, museum treasures to explore. And I did. Next I was told not to go north of Delmar. It was actually written in a student handbook, that one should not look for apartments north of Delmar in the hp. But that’s where the cheapest apartments were, so I moved there, and lived for six years in the neighborhood, helping to start a neighborhood organization and community gardens. I loved living in the Loop, Then about two years ago, I started organizing a housing cooperative. We came up with a name, a vision statement, a development plan, we incorporated, looked at other models and began searching for a building. We finally found one of a suitable size and price for sale in the Fox Park Neighborhood, near Jefferson and Russell. All excited, I talked to a friend of mine who warned that he had lived in that neighborhood for a month, and then he and his wife moved because they felt it was too dangerous. We bought the building, and the empty lot next door for a garden, and have been living there while we rehab it. Slowly we are getting to know some of the neighbors. I was talking to the woman across the street, who confessed that she can’t remember my name because everyone refers to me as “Friendly Jane.” She asked what exactly we were doing and I explained briefly the idea of the coop, to live in community with others, to share meals, and she said: “You probably don’t even see me as Black, do you? I’ve lived here for 17 years and I ain’t seen nothin’ like it.”
While going to Iraq may be difficult for most St. Louisans, going into the city is not. For me, it’s become a moral imperative to live in the city. We live in an increasingly divided region, divided by race and class! The disparities are striking, In St. Charles County, the fastest growing county in the metro region, 98.2% of the residents are white. 72% own their own homes, 75% earn over $25,000 a year. In St. Louis City, one of the fastest declining population centers in the US, 51% of the residents are white, 38% own their own home, and only 40% earn over $25,000 a year. Over half of young people in St. Louis City grow up in poverty. As the population spreads out, providing services to city residents becomes more of an issue. Bus fares are about to go up, and many city residents rely on buses to get them from their homes to new jobs in the county. The infant mortality rate has seen a sharp rise since Regional Hospital closed. As suburban style housing takes up more and more land, older city brick homes go to waste. In a striking turn about, there are areas in the city which are more spacious and quieter than in the county since they’ve been abandoned. As we become more segregated by race and class, we lose perspective. We have trouble really envisioning what people’s lives are like. We live in different realities that become harder to bridge. Over the past two months, I’ve lived without a car in the inner city and that has changed my perspective about as much as traveling to Iraq did. I’ve started to realizing the great amount of planning that comes with relying on public transportation, the restrictions on freedom, the difficulty shopping. And yet, I’ve also enjoyed the camaraderie that comes with riding the bus and Metrolink. If more car owners would ride the bus, we could get rid of some of the transportation problems this city faces.
When people talk about racism or classism, they usually seem to be talking about overt cases of bigotry, of racial slurs and racist jokes, denial of jobs or promotion to ethnic minorities. But racism and classism in this city is not primarily perpetuated by out and out bigots. They are perpetuated by people like you and me. People who move to the county because they want their children to go to a better public school, People who want to live in a neighborhood where they’ll feel safe, and they think they’ll find that in the county. These aren‘t bad things, of course, they are everybody’s concerns. But when 300,000 people who have the means all leave the city in 25 years, the result is a huge redistribution of resources, a pulling out of investment, a reduction of services, an increase in poverty, a defunding of schools. It’s going to take a huge migration back into the city, a huge crossing of the border between suburb and city, in order to turn things around. The city can continue to offer its tax breaks to companies, to build stadiums for sports teams, but this won’t keep investment where it matters. It is going to take people investing in residential neighborhoods, maintaining their property, getting involved in their neighborhood associations, and living in racially and economically diverse areas, for things to really change. Otherwise that border between city and county will loom larger than the border between the US and Canada and be much harder to cross.
9. Psychological Borders
The border I keep bumping up against is fear. I was told not to go to Russia because I’ll have nothing to eat. I was told that the best that could happen to me by going to Iraq was spending 10 years in prison–the worst, death, of course. I’ve been told I’ll get raped or attacked by living in the city and by walking at night. I’ve been told that the omnipotent IRS will give me no peace by resisting to pay war taxes. These fears are not totally without basis, though I think the likelihood of getting killed in a car accident probably tops all the others, and nobody’s telling me not to drive. Fear is a method of social control. Eduardo Galeano, in his address to the hundreds of artists who stood against the Chilean dictatorship, says: “We say no to fear. No to the fear of speaking, of doing, of being. Visible colonialism forbids us to speak, to do, to be. Invisible colonialism, more efficient, convinces us that one cannot speak, cannot do, cannot be. Fear disguises itself as realism: to prevent realism from becoming unreal, or so claim the ideologists of impotence, morals must be immoral… To say no to the suicidal egotism of the powerful, who have converted the world into a vast barracks, we are saying yes to human solidarity, which gives us a universal sense and confirms the power of a brotherhood that is stronger than all borders and their guardians.”
As I’ve worked to confront these fears, I realize that what I fear more is being on the wrong side, of contributing to injustice and war. What I fear more is living a boring, humdrum life, empty of meaning and purpose. What I fear is getting too comfortable and too complacent. I hope that life will keep pushing me on into unexpected territories.
And so, as this meditation comes to a close, I’ll argue for borders which are easily crossed, borders of shifting sands, and changing names, borders that are difficult to define, borders that can hold in some kind of identity and culture and yet not exclude, as in the desert. Michael Ondaatje, a novelist of Dutch descent who grew up in Sri Lanka, writes: “The desert could not be claimed or owned-it was a piece of cloth carried by the winds, never held down by stones, and given a hundred shifting names long before Canterbury existed, long before battles and treaties quilted Europe and the East. Its caravans, those strange rambling feasts and cultures, left nothing behind, not an ember…. I was walking not in a place where no one had walked before but in a place where there were sudden, brief populations over the centuries–a fourteenth century army, a Tebu caravan, the Senussi raiders of 1915. And in between these times–nothing was there. When no rain fell the acacias withered, the wadis dried out… until water suddenly reappeared fifty or a hundred years later.” And a new oasis sprung up around it.
Imagine the day you turn 45 — or have turned 45 for some of us — as the infancy of a new life. Sounds odd but a woman 50 today and free o cancer and heart disease can expect to see her ninety-second birthday. Forty or fifty more years can stretch out ahead for many of us.
Aging then, has become a longer, more fluid process in the nineties, but our hearts and minds have not caught up with our dramatic life expectancy! Society has a life plan to the mid sixties, but what about beyond? Where’s the plan for those years? I need to know more!
For a long time, I have wanted to come to an understanding about aging. No one ever explained to me how this most basic process of life would occur! Aging was not real for me until my mid thirties when I looked in the mirror and saw my first wrinkle. I thought I certainly was seeing things, for aging happened to everyone else — not me.
I remember a slight sense of panic and a rush of denial. A wave of rationalization came next — maybe I just needed more sleep or a better moisturizer. I’m too young for this to occur! So what that everybody grows older — there must be a way out of this one!
Well, twenty years later I haven’t found one. In fact, I have had to deal with ever increasing signs of aging and I have bravely tried to cope with “each new wrinkle.” — if you will pardon the pun — of the aging process. Indeed, aging signs have been part and parcel of my past two decades, and they usually come to you and to me with no notice, don’t they?
ll of the sudden without warning, you can’t read the small print in the phone books, your clothes mysteriously don’t fit, and certain peculiar aches and pains occur out of the blue! Some days my mind jumps out of bed while my bones and rest of my body think it over. And then friends, relatives, and members die and the facts of aging really face you down. You notice you read the obituaries more often!
Some days I find myself studying the obituary page with more than passing interest, as if the ages of the deceased carry a clue to my destiny. No wonder I laughed out loud when I saw the New Yorker cartoon showing a man reading the obituary page on which the headlines over the death notices say: “Two Years Younger Than You.” “Twelve Years Older Than You.” “Exactly Your Age.” “Five Years Your Senior.” “Your Age on the Dot.”
Many have written about aging and the passing of time. Ecclesiastes says: “There is a time to be born and a time to die.” Plutarch said: “Be ruled by time, the wisest counselor of all.” Benjamin Franklin warned: “Dost thou love life? Then do not squander time.” Dylan Thomas wrote: “Do not go gently into the night!”
Some write with humor. Eda LeShan — “It’s better to be over the hill than under it!” Gypsy Rose Lee — “I have everything I had ten years ago, only it’s a bit lower.”
Some write with humor. Judith Viorst says in one of her poems:
It’s hard to be devil-may care
When there are pleats in your derriere.
It’s hard to surrender to sin
While trying to hold your stomach in.
Then there are the jokes about aging:
“You know you’re getting older when the person you sleep with refers to your water bed as the Dead Sea.”
“Middle age is when you finally get it all together and you can’t remember when you put it.”
Trite sayings about aging abound:
“You’re not getting older — you’re getting better.” I say,
“Better at what?” “Better than whom?”
“Fifty isn’t old — for a tree! Very funny.”
Some say we must see ourselves aging gracefully. Clearly an oxymoron — just try getting out of bed on a cold day! I must confess — I am aging disgracefully — at times complaining, moaning — noting each new wrinkle and gravity drop.
I remember reading the feminist literature in past times where they said: “Welcome aging — and there’s power and nobility in being the older female. We should view ourselves like fine wines, better with age.” Amen to that I said — just so it isn’t me! What a great idea for other women.
But inevitably we do age and new concerns develop. The truth is aging is at times quite difficult for us! We gain weight, wrinkles and potbellies, while we lose hair, body flexibility, endurance, energy and teeth! And time — well in the supreme irony of life — time seems to speed up while we are slowing down. We say, where did the time go?
Yes, aging gracefully as a concept, seems amusing and outrageous at times, but we are growing older and with any luck we can, with many of the current medical advances, overcome some of our physical issues. But what about our mental changes? For those of us who do not consider ourselves beautiful or handsome, and relied and counted on how smart we are — what towering intellects — what academic achievers we can say about ourselves! It’s a great leveler when the mind starts to slip like everything else, as mine did. Last week, I found myself standing in my walk-in clothes closet with my cordless phone in my hand with not a clue as to why I was there! Yet these moments — although exasperating — don’t reflect the real good health and mental strength that I truly have in my fifties and those around me in their sixties, seventies, eighties, and nineties.
Yet I know I am aging far better than past generations — yet I wonder why. It’s hard for my generation, which is aging so well, to celebrate its achievements regarding age. We are, in fact, the healthiest, fittest, longest-lived people in history. We’re an astonishing experiment in species-wide self-improvement, a phenomenal mammal whose life span has nearly tripled in the blink of an evolutionary eye.
Let me explain: according to the National Institute on Aging, in 1900 the average American was dead by age forty-nine; fifty was considered old age, and only one person in ten survived to sixty-five, which was thought of then as extreme old age. But today, if you’re fifty, you can expect to live an additional thirty-three years (incidentally, thirty-three was just about the whole human life span in 1400), and if you’re sixty right now, chances are you have a quarter of a century left. Think how astounding this is. In less than a hundred years, the average life expectancy has increased by well over 50 percent. What’s more, in today’s world the longevity prognosis for older people is even better than it is for babies. In other words, the longer you live, the longer you will live. The average infant born in 1995 has a life expectancy of seventy-five, but those of us who have made it to middle age — and who manage to avoid addictive substances and random gunfire — will more than likely survive well beyond that!
Yet we don’t celebrate and appreciate the great age we live in. We fight age, and as a society we do not respect or revere it. Internalized attitudes about youth being better and old worse are rooted deep in our psyche and our society’s persona. Standards of beauty and attractiveness reign, that either directly or indirectly scorn or reflect the “aging with grace and dignity” ideal.
Where do these attitudes come from? When we were young, we internalized dreadful ideas about old people. As a kid — let’s face it — fifty was old. My own Mom and Dad, Grandma and Grandpa were viewed by me as old by their middle years, and these ideas, I believe, are still our mental measuring stick for our own aging. Thus we don’t think well of the age group we’re in now as we pass into the fifties and beyond.
Psychologist Ellen Laugh says that when she constructed consciousness raising experiences to improve the physical and mental capacities of elderly people, the greatest obstacle she had to overcome “were the premature cognitive commitments about old age that people make in their youth!”
In Letty Pogrebin’s book: “We live in a society that places high premiums, on beauty and often reduces every woman to her appearance and men to being physically strong.”
Studies confirm this: Rutgers University psychologist Jeannette Haveland’s study of adolescent girls found: “being attractive at the top of average female’s concerns from age ten on.”
The Oregon Research Institute study of youths found “girls as young as twelve to be in a serious state of depression because of their negative body image.” This is why bulimia and anorexia are illnesses connected to this belief.
Tandem to that has been the growth of the “youth” culture, and beauty as ideal has lead to a boom in the cosmetics industry, with such products as age defying cream. Men too have joined the pursuit of youth. Men account for 28% of facial plastic surgery done in this country.
Arthur Marwich, a British professor and expert on beauty, claims physical attractiveness is more important today in terms of how a person feels successful than any time since the Renaissance.
For women it’s a lifelong psychological problem because the desire to be beautiful runs deep in the psyche; also because it is rooted in the tender praise of our parents who placed value on pretty girls, and irrigated by male admiration, we can become buried beneath the top soil of our society’s beauty propagandists.
We struggle with authenticity and artificiality as our bodies age. We ask ourselves these questions: Do I have worth if I am not attractive? What price would I pay to stay young? Plastic surgery? Where do I draw the line and accept my body the way it is?
Facing aging means — letting go of high beauty and handsomeness standards that define who we think we are — our success as human beings. We need to relax and deal with the basic challenges of aging!
Each stage of aging is difficult and unique. Each stage of aging for all of us has different challenges and possibilities:
- Childhood — Our challenge is to master physical world and begin formal education, “deal with being too little or young.”
- Adolescence — Our challenge relates to body changes, intellectual pursuits, autonomy from parents, continuing education, and social skills.
- Twenties — Our challenge lies in career preparation and success, mate finding, and family founding.
- Thirties — Our challenge is to create a solid base for family, career, and financial success.
- Forties — Our challenge lies in dealing with signs of aging showing up, more body changes, children leaving home.
- Then what I call the harvest years arrive.
- Fifties and sixties — Mid century mark hits us, we may have dependent parents. We are not climbing the hill of life; we are on top or heading over. Retirement, medical issues surface as we approach these years.
- Seventies on — Many of us are financially secure. Yet we worry, do we have enough for retirement? We may still be taking care of dependent parents. The fifties on provide the master test for creatively engaging aging.
The fact is no plan has been prescribed by society for these years other than retirement However, each stage of life asks us to rise to its challenges! At each stage, attitude is everything! At each stage, we have common laws of living that can help us!
Experts in gerontology make a clear distinction between passive aging and successful aging. To engage in successful aging you have to make a career choice at each stage. Your job is to revive and maintain your life energy as you age. People who have a positive outlook about the future and marshal their energy to engage that future, live longer. We need new ambitions, interests, and passions. The decision to renew ourselves from the sixties on, requires a real investment of faith, risk, and physical discipline.
Here’s a good story about attitude: Two women turn seventy years old. One “knows” that her life is coming to an end and starts winding up her affairs. The other decides to take up mountain climbing. For the next twenty-five years, she devotes herself to this new adventure in mastery. Now in her nineties, Hulda Crooks has become the oldest woman to ascend Mount Fuji. It’s not the events of our lives that shape us, but our beliefs as to what these events mean.
When Eric Ericson and his wife Joan were in their eighties, they co-authored a book, Vital Involvement in Old Age. They said:
“The life cycle does more than extend itself into the next generation. It curves back on the life of an individual allowing … a re-experiencing of earlier stages in a new form. Like climbing a mountain, it’s finding something vital and important for you to write on the blank slate of your life.”
We need a new ambition or purpose that we grasp passionately! For Jimmy Carter it was being ready to drop everything and offer his skills as a political wise man to mediate world conflicts. For many grandparents it is caring for and supporting their grandchildren, some financially support and see them through college or others take them into their homes to raise. For others it’s climbing mountains, running marathons, working on a Ph.D., or painting — volunteer work that makes a difference. Finding your passion is imperative as we age. Society has no script — we must write it!
At eighty-eight, William Fulbright, founder of Fulbright scholarships and former chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, wore a button — “Aged to Perfection.” I would say aging to perfection for as the years fly by, the world presents us with a rich cornucopia of events, interests, and opportunities. Are we going to say, “We’re too old for that,” or are we going to create our own Mount Fuji experience?
Thus we see ourselves “as a work in progress!” With that attitude I see many wonderful things to do and be: caring about loved ones and oneself, deep friendships, and meaningful work; appreciating solitude, nature, and reading and writing — all ways to experience life intensely.
Aging gracefully appeals to me and with luck and strong intuition we can grow smarter and stronger and more creative in the process of life as we are engaging aging. My experiences can benefit others as they age.
- The challenge for us is to maintain control, confidence, and a sense of humor in the face of creeping or galloping body and mental changes! Face each day anew, using all the modern technology we know about aging such as vitamins, exercise, stress management, and other means to support our aging well.
- Maintaining a strong sense of dignity and self-worth in the face of the “youth culture” orientation of our culture is essential.
- Experiencing a sense of hope and joy and acceptance in the face of mortality and death. Developing the ability to see it as yet another part of life’s process.
Although death is inevitable, the way we age is not!
First, by maintaining the discipline of daily mental exercise. Maintaining the spiritual discipline of forgiving and forgetting others and enriching the lives of those around you. Maintaining physical discipline — getting those bones moving even when we don’t want to is essential.
Second, by cherishing where we’ve been — both in terms of the good and the bad experiences of life. We can let go of the bitterness and anger that can age us quickly.
Third, viewing life with no regrets, for our life history can’t be altered. Strive to live in the present and accept our physical limitations. (No Boston Marathon for me!) Value what we have and keep ourselves open to learning and new experiences. Our river of life will flow joyously and we will cherish the future with all its uncertainties for its sweet unfolding of life events.
Fourth, by being part of an Ethical Society Community where shared experiences of aging with others can help us and where the deeper values of life such as “honoring the worth and dignity of each individual” (no matter what their age) are cherished and experienced. Aging alone is tragic — aging in community is revitalizing.
Now I reap the harvest of my years before. Grandchildren — springing up like flowers — number seven on the way. A loving marriage and a beautiful home and work that is deeply satisfying and gives me the opportunity to creatively engage aging.
Yes! Living well can be the best revenge.
As we pass through the fifties, sixties, seventies and on:
- Let self-denial up till now become self-indulgence as we travel on down the path of life.
- Let us pursue our chosen delights and relish special moments.
- Let us have new experiences that enrich the mind, such as travel, new interests and hobbies, or service to others.
Willa Cather, the writer, saw the task of every life to be to fashion an existence that would free the expressive self, so that we focus on marking our moments instead of focusing on time running out. The present never ages. Each moment is unique and filled with possibilities. Each moment is an opportunity to love or be loved. Life purposes then seem clear: To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth!
If every day then is an awakening of love and self, we never grow old — we just keep growing!
The Millennium is a human artifact and we can make what we want of it: Computer gridlock, the Return of Christ, the rise of the Beast from the Abyss, an alien/earthling encounter, big time party time, or a time to take stock. I’m choosing the last, and asking for a check-up on Ethical Culture. What’s the diagnosis on our growth potential?
When we face it without denial, the answer is a shocker. Our growth potential over 120 years had been almost nil. Compared with other religious bodies that date from the 19th century, we are minuscule. Consider some comparisons:
- Unitarians (1825) — 1,000 churches; 140,000 members
- Mormons (1830) — 4-6 million members, 10 million globally
- Seventh Day Adventists (1844) — 775,000, with schools and hospitals worldwide. (One of my children was born in an SDA hospital in Guyana.)
- Ethical Culture (1876) — 20 societies; 3,000 members
- Jehovah’s Witnesses (1878) — 700,000 members
- Christian Science (1879) — 2,400 churches. No membership figures since 1936, when they claimed 250,000 members.
There are contemporary churches that could hold all of Ethical Culture — active members, shut-ins, friends — in one morning service! What may help us deny this colossal failure is that our top five Societies are thriving, and any denomination would be proud to have any one of them as a flagship in their area. But even they don’t show much growth over a test period of, say, 25 years. In 1977, St. Louis had 452 members, and in 1993, 430 members.
And there is little proliferation: In 10 years, Alder’s movement spread from New York to Chicago to Philadelphia to St. Louis. St. Louis (and the Statue of Liberty) date from 1886. In the 110 years since, there has not been one satellite in the vast mid-west. On the map, we find one 500-strong dot in St. Louis, in a Metropolitan area of 2 1/2 million, and one 100-strong dot in Chicago, in a Metropolitan area of 8 1/2 million. And that’s it! We don’t care enough to share enough. Or have what it takes.
The Ethical Movement has failed to claim more than a handful of people in a century of history. The issue has been addressed repeatedly by many of our thinkers and marketers. Adler tried in 1925. We sometimes claim that our message is a hard one, with no blandishments and religious comforts. We say it’s rarefied and doesn’t appeal to the masses. The latest twist is that the Meyers-Briggs cohort most characteristic of us is a minority group in the larger population. Of course, a lot depends on what we mean by a hard message. Ours is, comparatively, not hard in its requirement of commitment and discipline. My family once lived two doors from a family of Mormons, their eldest daughter a good friend of one of our daughters. We would see them driving their children to church school weekday mornings before taking them to high school! We took their daughter with us to Barbados for a vacation, and she had a Mormon church available to attend on the Sunday we were there. Further, in a recent survey of church giving, Mormons topped the list with 7% of their income, the Unitarians drew bottom place with 1%. Ethical Culturists give less than Unitarians, but were not listed.
Why, some ask, should we consider numbers important? They are not important, if you are part of a small group with a high profile of influence: A Fabian Society, a literary group at the Algonquin Hotel, or one of the famous salon groups that met in the Paris of Victor Hugo. They needed to be small. But we claim to be a religion to help all humanity live lives of greater compassion and justice. We have hardly made a dent. Numbers are important because we need to cross a certain critical mass, a certain threshold of membership, to have the resources to do outreach, to create organizations (schools, hospitals, retirement homes, camps), to produce publications. Even if we limit our mission statement to being educational, we have little to show for that.
And there is the matter of intensity. We dismiss those who get worked up about an eternal salvation or damnation. We supposedly have a more real and relevant message. But there is no urgency to it. Our kids are not going to devote 2 years post-high school to take it to the ends of the earth — or even to the corner of the block. We don’t have a hospital in Guyana or a church in Barbados on our outreach agenda.
I have a controversial theory as to why we have gone nowhere. It does not address strategies for growth, or marketing technology. It has to do with message. I believe that where rational humanism preponderates, there is no message for people at large. Those who embrace it as their predominating culture, become an intellectual ghetto.
This is not because rational humanism is bad in itself. I count myself a rationalist. I count myself a humanist. I bring a sizable skepticism to my processing of life, religion, and philosophy. But rationalism is inadequate by itself. It has no metaphysic of meaning, no cosmic consciousness to convey, no message of hope for those who suffer and mourn and are afraid. Despite the enormous and earth-transforming influence of modern science, from which rational humanism draws its Weltanschauung, rationalists have not been able to translate that worldview into an encompassing, morally transforming faith that teaches us a meaningful way to face life and tragedy and death, and to deal with the passages of life. The kind of thing that religion has provided.
A NEW QUEST
Some years ago I took a large share in our search for common philosophical ground among our Leaders. We produced a concept-map of Ethical Culture. Now I would call for a new quest: To build a
metaphysic or alternative metaphysics based on Adler’s insights into reality. To do
philosophy in the arena where Adler said it belonged: In face of sin, sorrow, and
I think we are afraid to do this for two reasons: (1) Because we are
not sure that the mental grid of our prevailing philosophy will allow us to achieve validity in
any other way than by scientific processing; and (2) Because anything that smacks of the transcendent and the metaphysical and the spiritual evokes such a knee-jerk opposition from the rationalists among us, still fighting Ingersoll’s 19th century battles, that we back away. But I believe that while rationalism prevails, Ethical Culture is going nowhere. Rationalism can debunk New Agers and Fundamentalists, but it has no answer to the major questions of life and death. It sees us as little more than cheerleaders for a good life (on which we have no monopoly), on our way to extinction.
I will not enlarge on the failures of rationalism. Suffice it to say, that (1) Freud noted that much reasoning is the rationalizing of feelings, that (2) reason is but one of the “7 kinds of smart” (Thomas Armstrong) that characterize human personality, that (3) the primal experiences (as Whitehead claimed) are emotional, that (4) thinking needs creative non-logical leaps to advance (as Edward de Bono and others have shown), and that (5) science, so successful elsewhere, is still lagging in helping us to develop our higher powers, to shape our cultural evolution, and to understand the role of imagination and religion in human survival.
What I am working on is an Ethical Culture metaphysic for the 21st century. And this means going forward. In the late 1940’s just before his death, Horace Bridges, a prolific writer on behalf of our ethical faith, claimed (in The Standard, 1949) that Ethical Culture was formed as an alternative within religion, not as an alternative to religion, and that the succeeding generation of Leaders had betrayed that purpose. He closed his article with a return to theistic faith: Credo in unum deum. Henry Neumann countered by saying that Adler had always allowed a diversity of philosophical positions. For myself, I do not want to turn back, as Bridges did, but I think he is right that Adler’s philosophical position has gotten the shortest shrift among us.
Adler broke away from a monotheistic concept of God, broke away from creation and immortality as thus grounded, broke away from the religion of a God modeled on the V.I.P.’s of patriarchal times (king, judge, general, patriarch), and sought to democratize the concept of reality: To each, respect and encouragement; from each, their best — so that the whole may thrive. He posited a universal unity, encompassing each individual in their unique particularity. A network not broken by death! (More on this later.)
To approach such a reality, we need to recognize, as Beatrice Bruteau said in The Psychic Grid, that we all belong to “conviction” or “consensus communities”, formed by the Mental Grids by which we process reality. To move forward we need to take a look at our mental grids.
I start with William James:
“Our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different.”
Consider two testimonies, to enlarge on James’s assertion, and to illustrate the shift in mental grid that I am promoting.
(A) My wife Karen had told me of an incident in her life, in which she found her way through a blizzard. This was before I met her. I asked her to write up the incident for me. Here it is:
It was the last week in November 1961, I was 6 months pregnant and only had a Springer Spaniel for company.
I had moved to New Hampshire in Sept. 1960, had never been north in the state. Was asked to join my husband on a hunting trip. Followed him several days later driving independently. Stayed for 3 days and then came home with my following him in his car. We were returning by the same route I took going up. It began to snow heavily. At an intersection just outside of Laconia on Lake Winnipeasaukee I lost sight of his car, but assumed he’d kept to the right. (In actuality the route we were taking veered to the left.) The snow got heavier, and heavier. There was almost no visibility. It was past 5:00 p.m., and, with early evenings that far north and the blizzard, I could only see an indentation, which was the side of the road. I kept my eyes on that indentation so that I wouldn’t move into the ditch. I felt that I just had to keep going until I could get to a village, or spot another traveler. I saw no one else on the road, passed no villages and had no idea where my husband was, or where I was going. I just knew that to stop would strand me and be life threatening. I drove for a little over 3 hours. At last I saw on each side of the road tall hedges. I thought to myself at last I’ve found some place to stop. I had, it was my own front yard! The drive, in normal conditions, would have taken a little over an hour. I have no idea what roads I traveled. I had seen no signs. It was a different route than I’d taken going up and I had never traveled any other routes in that direction. In looking at the map it was just a network of small roads. The direction in which my husband drove was the highway. As I walked into the house, the telephone was ringing. It was my husband. He had stopped at a friend’s in Laconia and they had considered taking a four-wheel drive vehicle to look for me but felt I must have just stopped someplace. Besides there were only small local roads and many of them winding in and around the lakes. It would have been hard to know where to start. They had just kept calling, thinking that I might somehow h ave made it home.
There is no need to claim supernatural guidance here, to substantiate what I am driving at. We have to rule out visceral memory, since she had not traveled that route. We could postulate that under the awesome experience, some homing instinct, present in pigeons and dolphins, kicked in. Or we could put it all down to incredible chance. But one thing is certain: There is no sense of rationality being at work, but she found her way home.
Nearly two years later, the baby she had been pregnant with now grown to a 16-month old toddler, Karen and her child were at a Unitarian conference, she at a lecture and he left with the child care group. Normally too polite, even when bored, to get up and leave a lecture, she suddenly felt an urge to leave the meeting. Emerging from the building, she saw, 50 yards away, her toddler, by himself, descending a slope to the dock. He loved water, and there were 40 feet of it awaiting him, and no one in sight. She intercepted him. The embarrassed child care attendants were unable to account for how he had escaped their control. Once again, there was no rational explanation for the urge that overcame her.
Dr. Leslie Weatherhead, one of my English mentors, studied many instances of this kind, and came to the conclusion that we have access to powers that normally we do not tap into.
(B) My other example — lest you think that Karen, as a Unitarian, was vulnerable to “spiritual” experiences that no self-respecting rationalist would countenance — comes from Bertrand Russell, patron of 20th century rationalism, the Ingersoll of this century.
In his Autobiography, Russell tells of an occasion when he was staying with Whitehead, whose wife was seriously and painfully ill:
FROM HIS AUTOBIOGRAPHY (Chapter 6, Principia Mathematica):
During the Lent Term of 1901, we joined with the Whiteheads in taking Professor Maitland’s house in Downing College. Professor Maitland had had to go to Madeira for his health. His housekeeper informed us that he had “dried hisself up eating dry toast,” but I imagine this was not the medical diagnosis. Mrs. Whitehead was at this time becoming more and more of an invalid, and used to have intense pain owing to heart trouble. Whitehead and Alys and I were all filled with anxiety about her. He was not only deeply devoted to her but also very dependent upon her, and it seemed doubtful whether he would ever achieve any more good work if she were to die. One day, Gilbert Murray came to Newnham to read part of his translation of The Hippolytus, then unpublished. Alys and I went to hear him, and I was profoundly stirred by the beauty of the poetry. When we came home, we found Mrs. Whitehead undergoing an unusually severe bout of pain. She seemed cut off from everyone and everything by walls of agony, and the sense of the solitude of each human soul suddenly overwhelmed me. Ever since my marriage, my emotional life had been calm and superficial. I had forgotten all the deeper issues, and had been content with flippant cleverness. Suddenly the ground seemed to give way beneath me, and I found myself in quite another region. Within five minutes I went through some such reflections as the following: the loneliness of the human soul is unendurable; nothing can penetrate it except the highest intensity of the sort of love that religious teachers have preached; whatever does not spring from this motive is harmful, or at best useless; it follows that war is wrong, that a public school education is abominable, that the use of force is to be deprecated, and that in human relations one should penetrate to the core of loneliness in each person and speak to that. The Whitehead’s youngest boy, aged three, was in the room. I had previously taken no notice of him, nor he of me. He had to be prevented from troubling his mother in the middle of her paroxysms of pain. I took his hand and led him away. He came willingly, and felt at home with me. From that day to his death in the war in 1918, we were close friends.
At the end of those five minutes, I had become a completely different person. For a time, a sort of mystic illumination possessed me. I felt that I knew the inmost thoughts of everybody that I met in the street, and though this was, no doubt, a delusion, I did in actual fact find myself in far closer touch than previously with all my friends, and many of my acquaintances. Having been an imperialist, I became during those five minutes a pro-Boer and a pacifist. Having for years cared only for exactness and analysis, I found myself filled with semi-mystical feelings about beauty, with an intense interest in children, and with a desire almost as profound as that of the Buddha to find some philosophy which should make human life endurable. A strange excitement possessed me, containing intense pain, but also some element of triumph through the fact that I could dominate pain, and make it, as I thought, a gateway to wisdom. The mystic insight that I then imagined myself to possess has largely faded, and the habit of analysis has reasserted itself. But something of what I thought I saw in that moment has remained always with me, causing my attitude during the first war, my interest in children, my indifference to minor misfortunes, and a certain emotional tone in all my human relations.
Note three kinds of human experiencing in this episode: (1) aesthetic, as Russell listened to Murray’s poem; (2) analytical, his habitual mode; and (3) mystical. As often noted in mystic experiences, the subject senses the experience not as something predominantly emotional, but as a way of cognition. Truths are “seen”. Russell speaks with caution as to what happened, but he has no doubt of a profound, life-changing experience, whose effects were to last a lifetime. Also, note the legacy of religious teaching to which he related what he was sensing.
The above are examples of mystical experiences that over-pass rationality. I have chosen them for their shock value to rational humanism. But one could also cite numerous everyday experiences in which humans relate to their world by channels other than reason. A Paul Kurtz will speak glowingly of “imagination”, but for him imagination is aesthetically decorative, not heuristic, not probing and probative of the nature of reality. Yet imagination has created our culture.
For Ethical Culture to claim the attention of humanity, and persuade people that we have an encompassing approach to reality that can create meaning and offer significance in face of all that challenges it, we need to be able to present a religion that draws on this broad spectrum of human experience. My outline follows.
An Ethical Metaphysic for the 21st Century
There is one cosmic energy, at work throughout the universe. Science says so. Adler’s multiplicity in unity says so. We must learn to recognize, celebrate, and cooperate with that energy. Religion differs from science in this that science objectifies, studies, and applies force. Religion connects personally to it.
Let’s call it The Force. In its manifestation in nature, Henri Bergson called it the élan vital. But I prefer the Star Wars version. (Obi wan Kenobee would have sounded odd telling Luke Skywalker, May the élan vital be with you!)
Let me illustrate my point about personally experiencing the Force by an exercise with regard to gravity, one of the incarnations of the Force. Go to the riverfront in St. Louis and watch the mighty river flow by. What moves it? Gravity. Why don’t we fly off the face of our planet? Gravity. Our hearts have to pump against it. We need to maneuver around it and utilize other forces in order to fly — which birds learned to do millions of years ago. To sin against gravity is to step beyond support and fall and hurt oneself. And there are ways of consciously and deliberately working with gravity. For example, practising good posture is making good on an evolutionary step in our relation to gravity. (The Alexander technique is based on using our skeletal posture to promote our best relation to gravity.) And as we grow older and weaker, a gravity-conscious person will lose weight so that there is less of it for gravity to pull down. Science can calculate the effect of spatial curvature around a body of mass and use those calculations in sending a space ship to the moon and back. But a gravity conscious individual relates personally and experientially to the force field in which he or she walks. A force field ordered in part by gravity.
And so with the other manifestations of the Force. There are manifestations of the Force that impact us through sunlight converted into carbohydrates and reaching us as food. (The Quaker bows and blesses each meal.) Manifestations of the Force create the electro-chemical cell communication that we call brain activity. And so on. A religious metaphysic will be aware of these forces, will celebrate them, will seek personal and collective connection with them.
The cosmic energy manifests itself in myriad forms. Big Bang forces are still with us. Particles created millions of years ago recycle through us. The Force is in rocks and in the sea. It was in dinosaurs. It’s in DNA. It is in protoplasm and in animal and human consciousness. Menstrual cycles in women are physiological activities generated over the course of evolution in response to the force of that planetary body we call the Moon. (Mens (Latin) = moon.) They are really moon-cycles.
These different forms are created by the operation of what Daniel Dennett in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea calls Algorithms (after a 6th century Arab mathematician in Baghdad). Algorithms are step by step procedures for solving a problem or accomplishing an end. Computers are good at using them, as Deep Blue demonstrated. Dennett underscores the point that they operate mindlessly in nature and evolution, as much as they do in physical and chemical processes. He does not want us to read any cosmic purpose into the process of Natural Selection. There are, as he puts it, no skyhooks to draw the process along, only earth cranes. But he does not explain where algorithms come from. The scientific enterprise assumes that as we explore the universe we will find the algorithms that generate the data studied, like a rock face climber who assumes that there will be footholds and piton opportunities to take him or her to the top.
But as I see it, the process is less one of skyhooks or earth cranes than one of discovering the rungs of a ladder hitherto hidden — a ladder like the one in Jacob’s dream on which angels (i.e., message-bearers) ascended and descended between earth and heaven. Take, for example, the Fibonacci mathematical series, where each next number is the sum of the previous two: O, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, etc. Leonardo Fibonacci discovered it in the early 13th century. But, of course, it did not come into being on discovery by a human. Without the help of Fibonacci, sunflowers had been producing whorls in their flower heads according to the series, and sea creatures had been using it in generating shell patterns. It’s part of the universal ladder. Once discovered, we can use it, but we did not invent it.
This, I think, is what, in part, Adler meant by the reality-producing powers of the mind. Our minds are products of universal algorithmic processes and at the algorithmic level of consciousness, they can understand the algorithms that formed them and other parts of the universe. Part of my scheme, developed below, and echoing a Hebrew approach to reality, would focus on the role played by paradigm figures, giving us access to the Force via personal consciousness. Even non-theists have their Buddha.
The Force manifests as “ethical energy”, as Adler called it. When the Force appears as human consciousness, it creates a sense of choice. And that’s what ethics is about. Adler also called it a “consecrating” energy. It is the commitment of the mind to make a difference, to go along one path rather than another. It is a creative force. And this relates to what I think is the other aspect of the “reality-producing powers of the mind.” It is my belief that Adler got that phrase not only from Kant but from the English Romanticism of the late 18th and early 19th century, an influence that also helps to explain Emerson. Listen to Wordsworth as he speaks (in Tintem Abbey) of:
all the mighty world
Of eye, and ear, — both what they half create,
And half perceive.
That, I think, is the definitive explanation of the “reality-producing powers of the mind.” We spend our time half in perceiving and half in creating. We perceive the algorithmic processes and then we create new realities, spun from our minds. We make truth, as James would say. And so our metaphysic would call for us to create the ethical realities for which Ethical Culture was named.
To cooperate with the Force in this manifestation, an Ethical Society has to live up to its name. Here should be a place where people find respect, care, kindness, peace, fairness, honesty, and goodness at work. Here we should have models of how love works. And for this, Adler said, we need to form the habits that go with experiencing the sacredness of binding ties. He called for spiritual evolution — and how tedious are our endless debates as to what “spiritual” means, as if it could be found at the end of an analytical probe! He said that discipline is necessary. The Societies will grow, he declared, as the Movement gives birth to personalities of abiding ethical faith, who are aflame with it. Such personalities will hand on the torch. This does not imply the absence of tension. When two or more persons share the same turf, there will be tension. Effective Societies are not based on the absence of tension, but on the way that tension is handled. When I was a Methodist, I was exposed to several books on the “path to perfection” — there was this notion, stemming from John Wesley, that a person should actually vigorously strive to bring all their thoughts and desires under the control of love. That Methodists often failed to so, like the rest of us, was true, but they were constantly exposed to the challenge of a higher way of living.
There need to be individual and collective channels to access ethical energy.
Other religions have channels like prayer and worship and ritual to access spiritual power. We need them too. Within our own tradition, we too need to learn methods of meditation and contemplation, to be inspired by symbolic ways of speaking not only to one another but to the depths of our minds within. But again we are too afraid to venture outside of the logical and the analytical. Drumbeats scare a rationalist! A collective song or statement makes us afraid we may lose out individuality. We mainly sit and listen. We fail to use our 7 kinds of smart.
It won’t be easy. Our paucity of numbers does not give us the benefit of great resources of music and poetry and art. But if only we could signal that it is all right to try, a beginning could be made. It won’t be easy because we come from different traditions, and generations. Maybe those who appreciate the kind of music generated for the Long Island colloquium would not appreciate the kind of metric, rhyming, hymn lyrics set to old folk tunes that I enjoy. But if we had enough experiments, we could vary the offerings. It won’t be easy because the people who come to us are often refugees from other traditions and have allergic reactions to anything that associates with their now rejected past.
We also need the inspired and inspiring story. We need an air of optimism to access resources. And spiritual figures help generate this. I recently did a series on paradigmatic figures for two Unitarian churches. I spoke of Amos, and Buddha, and Confucius, and Socrates, and Jesus. I believe that we can respect them for what they believed and also translate their influence into humanist terms. But oh, how powerful those stories are! Even secular humanists see the need to honor an Ingersoll or a Tom Paine or to create their own academy of thinkers. Unitarians, organized in 1825, claim Servetus, put to death for heresy in the 16th century, as one of their own; some Methodists have claimed the enthusiastic experiential religion of Montanus, from the second century.
In like manner, we might do well to look around and ask after our kinship through the ages. Or go one better and lay all human experience under contribution to advance the evolution of ethical living.
The experience of the Force as ethical energy creates insight into as yet uncharted dimensions of human life. It was Adler’s faith that his experience of moral striving for perfection was the best clue to the nature of reality. From that insight he extrapolated beyond this life. The Force creates a network that is not broken by death. He said our dead could be treated as real presences in our households. He said we could work with them as co-creators of a new reality. We have never been able to honor and explore that language! Today we would call it too New Age! Think of it: Protestants remember their dead, Catholics pray for theirs, Mormons get baptized for them, Eastern religionists expect to meet them again in the recycling of life through incarnation. Adler boldly declared that we could “work” with them! Now!
Death is the great value-eating monster. Humanists who hand death a too easy victory do not (as I see it) recognize how death cancels worth, if death means extinction. Humanists claim that there is enough internal validation of the good life for us to pursue it, even though the universe be meaningless and death be the end of personal existence. I think they are in denial, whistling in the dark. Evolution has brought forth a creature, namely ourselves, which has developed a consciousness that can look backward and forward, can value beauty, truth, and goodness, can accumulate experience and enlarge relationships, and then this same evolution consigns us to extinction — if humanism is right. To me that brutally challenges the idea that we have worth. As I said above, it makes Ethical Culturists cheerleaders for the good life, as we head for the cliff of extinction.
I have counseled families that suffered a tragedy: One involved a mother who drove a vehicle with several kids aboard, on a rainy day, hit the curb on one side of the road, hydroplaned across the road, and crashed into a truck. The collision killed her 10 year old and her 7 year old on impact. How would you counsel her about this terrible loss? Tell her to cherish their memories? She needs no urging. But what about the kids?
Draw on Bertrand Russell and Corliss Lamont and Carl Sagan and Herbert Fingarette and all you have to say is, They are no more. They have no further existence. They are not just dead, they are extinct. Gone, into a black hole of oblivion and non-existence. Where you too are headed and like them will soon be utterly gone. I find that an appalling nihilism. Even if there were no other answer, I would prefer to heed Dylan Thomas’s advice to his father: “Go not gently into that dark night/ Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
But on this issue I prefer to extrapolate with Adler and from the insights of those who have contemplated long on death and in every culture and in every time have believed with Robert Browning’s Rabbi ben Ezra: “There shall never be one lost good.” I prefer to go with Jesus’s statement, “Not a sparrow falls to the ground but the Father knows it”, and see that insight as a law of the universe, a description of the conservation of consciousness, that says, The smallest living event registers with the Force. There are algorithms for human continuity that transcend the here and now. As I once said in a long poem reflecting on death: “The universe created me/ Intent on reciprocity.” That’s my anthropic faith.
I have no map to that dimension. I do not need a heaven like a carrot to persuade me to be good, or a hell like a stick to force me into goodness. I appreciate Thoreau’s “One world at a time.” But I need a sense of meaningfulness that is not negated by death. Humanity has long imaged transcendence over death, even in non-theistic religions, and that imagery may well be important to our evolutionary survival. In the 70’s Ernest Becker (The Denial of Death) argued that all human culture is an illusion created to repress our sense of the terror of death, and now in the 90’s Barbara Ehrenreich (Blood Rites) argues that it is our terrifying sense of being victims that creates the urge to go to war. Arousing our sense of terror is a survival mechanism. I sometimes wonder if the dinosaurs in their bigness and speed and danger and overwhelmingness are the ultimate metaphor for death, and that is why they both frighten and fascinate us. We need symbols and experiences of transcendence to battle this terror.
Felix Adler’s ethical insight as clue to reality (“It is this ideal of the perfect life in which I seize the symbol of the utter reality of things.” 5/10/31) is not a non-rational and merely visionary projection. It is contexted in the philosophy of idealism, an idealism that has been embraced by some of the greatest thinkers of the human race, from Plato through Kant to Hocking to its contemporary exponents (e.g., Henry Allison, Kant’s Transcendental Idealism: An Interpretation and Defense, 1983). To find Adler a visionary but to think his philosophy outdated is simply to say that his philosophy does not pass muster viewed through one mental grid. I think Adler’s mental grid is defensible. I think Bob Greenwell (of St. Louis) is right when he says our common ground, to be consistent with Adler, would be belief in “the objective reality of the ethical ideal.”
Adler was no slavish follower of Idealism. He made his own pioneering contribution, through the notion of sociality as a characteristic of reality. For example, in his articles on “The Problem of Teleology” and “The Moral Ideal” (International Journal of Ethics, April, 1904 and July, 1910, respectively), he argues (1) for an understanding of purpose, not as externally imposed on life, but as created by the confluence of two separate causational sequences at their point of meeting, that is, ends are organismic, and serve not to explain nature (as in science) but to evaluate it (as in ethics): “There are no ends in nature, except such as ethically we read into nature.” And (2) that belief in a single divine Being was a necessary characteristic of a stage of human awareness, but must now be replaced by an ideal of reciprocity in a network of equals, each bent on contributing one’s best to a united whole — Reality as Democracy.
I would like to see an Ethical Culture Metaphysic discussed at all levels among us. Not given to some national committee, but explored in every Society and by our Leaders. Perhaps we can develop a metaphysic that will give us the energy to care enough to share enough in the 21st century to persuade a larger number to join us.
THE LOST METAPHYSlC OF FELlX ADLER (in his own words)
The Road Not Traveled
If what has been said regarding the ethical manifold holds good, then a genuine philosophy of life can only be reached by the ethical approach to the problems of life. This has never yet been consistently attempted.
The True Universe Is Spiritual
I am compelled to say once more at the last that the outcome and prize of striving is the assurance that the true universe is spiritual and that we and those we love are included in it. Behind the world of space and time lies the world of ideas.
Beyond The Rational
Feeling and impulse actually make up the major part of life, and can neither be left out of account nor compressed into intellectualist formulas. To describe our highest nature as the rational nature is perilous, since the word rational suggests intellectual. Either we must strain the significance of reason to include feeling and will, which is contrary to common usage, or we should select some other term such as spiritual, to designate that nature within us which operates in science and art and achieves its highest manifestation in producing the ethical ideal.
Ethical Insight Is The Clue To Reality
It is this ideal of the perfect life in which I seize the symbol of the utter reality of things. The world as we know it is itself the veil, the screen, that shuts out the interplay, the weavings and the interweavings of the spiritual universe. But at least at one point, in the ethical experience of man, is the screen translucent. I do not affirm immortality. I affirm the real and irreducible existence of the essential self. Or rather, as my last act, I affirm that the ideal of perfection which my mind inevitably conceives has its counterpart in the ultimate reality of things, is the truest reading of that reality whereof man is capable.
The Spiritual Task
The plan of life must exist before the deed, at least in the mind of the leader, the guide. The various acts recommended must be seen as so many attempts to spiritualize human relations according to the ideal plan. Spiritualize! Not: promote the empirical best, the natural best. Not: You can be a comrade in the Ethical Society irrespective of your philosophical or theological opinions. If this is taken literally, then there is chaos. Certain humanistic undertakings can still be pursued in common, but there is no integrality, no integrity in the movement.
The things of earth are to be used as instrumentalities by which we are to become aware of the spiritual reality.
The idea of organism in its spiritual sense is, for me, the beginning of ethics — the beginning and the end.
The problem is to see that the lost shall not be lost. That the connection be maintained. This can only be at the point of the eternal in each.
A year ago, I made a major life decision to leave the Washington D.C. area — my family and friends — and move to the Midwest. At the time I made this decision, my life was very satisfying and complete. I had raised my family well, had a good marriage and had achieved success in my career.
What motivated me to become Leader here at the Ethical Society of St. Louis was my deep commitment to building and nurturing ethical community. For I believe community, as Einstein said, “will be our salvation.” It is the answer to the growing trend of isolation and individualism that is now part of our society.
Its philosophy can guide us through life’s ups and downs and its people can give us the encouragement and support we need as we meet the challenges of living in a world that is often uncertain, stressful and frightening.
Felix Adler said it well: “Our mission is to give birth to personalities who have attained for themselves an abiding ethical faith and are inflamed with it.” Adler’s zealousness moves me and inspires me in this age of cynicism and disbelief. The challenge of his words are lived out in ethical community. For in ethical community, we meet, connect, share, disagree, learn and grow together; laugh, cry, argue, share deep experiences with one another, and build relationships that will endure when undergirded with a foundation of respect, truth and love. Hand in hand with these actions is a faith as understood by Adler, that he called “the religion of the future.”
All of this occurs, I believe, when we mutually understand and share what our philosophy of living is — our faith in an ethical community. Now faith according to the dictionary, means — and is used by me in this context, as “something that is believed with strong conviction,” rooted in the Latin meaning fidere — “to trust.” It is the opposite of faithless, which means “not to be relied on, untrue, unreliable.”
In the past, my own personal faith journey had left me disillusioned, disappointed, and faithless. The traditional religion of my childhood had made me leery and weary of the demands it made on my self esteem and its distortions of basic realities, that I deemed unreliable and untrue. But I missed the worldview — people as good; having a purpose — and life map that my former faith provided. I missed the community life that it provided for me and the opportunity to serve those in need.
Freed from the struggle to believe what I found unbelievable, as a college student I began to explore major world religions; but like a child once burned, I was determined not to fall into some belief system that couldn’t be validated in my experience. I wanted an intellectually responsible belief system, not blind faith. If I were to find this new faith, I wanted to commit myself to it with both my heart and mind, and ideally this faith would encourage me to embrace the search for truth within a loving community of free thinkers. This vision of mine was a tall order, I thought at the time.
Therefore, through college, I wrestled with the question of how worldviews and religious systems can be tested for validity. Interestingly enough I was quite taken with the writing of the philosopher, Immanuel Kant (who also inspired the thoughts of Felix Adler, our founder) who said there were three great questions in life: What can we know? What ought we to do? and, For what might we hope? These questions, to my way of thinking, were basic to any faith and any religious community. A community that explored these questions seemed right to me rather than residing in a creed-bound community faith that had all the answers.
I discovered in my “faith journey” that all worldviews of a faith nature are simply perceptual screens — “mind maps” if you will — through which we filter our experience of life. Kant called this the reality providing function of the mind. It differentiates us from the other creatures on the planet. For example, picture a football stadium and field in your mind. You can create that reality. A worldview then gives us the handles that allow us to grasp the baffling complexity of the world. They enable us to embrace the mysteries of life, and they provide the answers to questions that human beings feel an urgency to understand, given the mysteriousness of the universe. At their best, they give us an overarching purpose beyond ourselves, for all of them are viewed through each of our own perceptual screens. Let me give you an example of how different realities approach the same subject.
Imagine that three people are standing in a beautiful forest of tall, green pines, quite old, and the sunlight is filtering down through them to fall on the golden floor of the forest. The air is tangy with the scent of pines. The wind gently blows through the pines and they sway from side to side. The first person is a lumber contractor who views the pines in terms of board feet, jobs and how much profit can be made from them. The second person is a biologist with a scientific orientation who views the pines in terms of the history of the interaction of the pines with its environment and admires the intricate ecosystem of the forest. The third person views the pines with a religious or spiritual view. This person experiences the pines in a different way, feels awestruck by their beauty, feels a sense of gratitude for their calm, powerful presence and restorative powers to calm and nurture their soul. This person feels uplifted from daily cares by their presence. All three views have a different “take on life” — a distinct worldview. All three are within you and me, the business person, the rational thinker, the spiritual person that yearns for beauty within and without, who appreciates nature, uniqueness, and the spiritual elements of life.
All of us are looking for that third view — are looking for that transcendent experience that lifts us above our daily lives and gives fresh purpose and direction separate from our everyday thoughts, actions and experiences. That experience lifts us up and helps us endure life’s pain and uncertainty.
Bertrand Russell once said, “Life devoted only to living is incapable of preserving people from weariness and the feeling that all is vanity. Human life must serve some end outside human life. . . . Contact with this higher purpose brings a strength and a fundamental peace which cannot be wholly destroyed by the struggles and apparent failures of daily life.”
In terms of faith then, all of us who are self-responsible, and feel zealously about the pursuit of truth and reason, our perceptual screens of life must stake their claims about reality in a court of reason and yet honor this deeper, more spiritual dimension of human beings. Given there are no definite absolutes in our world map of life, what could be then, a faith that we could appreciate and live by that would hold sway within those boundaries, a faith that would give us the experience and opportunity to serve some end — some higher purpose?
Eighteen years ago, I came to the Ethical Society and was initially drawn to the bright, caring people within the community. I found myself hungering for more knowledge of what exactly does this community believe? What is the philosophical foundation for this movement and why does it seem to fit so perfectly into my own worldview? Could it provide a life faith for me?
I turned to the writings of the founder, Felix Adler, who had also left a traditional religion to build a new movement. Adler’s vision was clear: to build a “religion of the future,” that would unite believer and nonbeliever on “common ground” — that of ethical behavior, ethical living and exploration of truth. This Ethical Society would work toward the building of character values within a community setting. Uniting around ethical deeds, it would respect the worth of everyone, and leave what a person believes in terms of ultimate reality, private to them and be respected as their “filter” of reality.
As Adler said, “An Ethical Society cannot succeed by presenting lectures, doing rituals, establishing social action projects and good works, however indispensable these might be. The Ethical Society’s mission is to sustain an abiding ethical faith and be aflame with it.” How dramatic! An abiding ethical faith and be aflame with it.
He went on to say: “Those whom we love are not given to us merely for our joy and happiness. Their truest ministry consists in being to us the revealers of the divine. They quicken in us the seed of better thoughts; they help us estimate rightly the things that are worth trying for; they help us become more equal to the standard of our own best insight and grow into our truer selves.”
This vision was written over 100 years ago in the 1870’s. But how does this vision match the reality of faith today? How does it go over given the climate of society — a society where belief is out and disbelief is in? But then, isn’t one of the big problems of our times, that any time we take a stand for what we believe in, we are viewed with disdain and disfavor? Hasn’t religion as a center for character values and a haven for those who seek to understand life’s complex problems, taken a big hit in our society today?
U.S. church going has hit a ten-year low. Only 57% of Americans polled trust churches. Hasn’t it fallen into disfavor like so many other institutions within our society today? This basic cynicism and distrust, although often well deserved, carries a big cost. Because we’ve lost touch with what was important about having a religious community, this has resulted in all religions.
Ralph Reed, from the Christian Coalition, author of “Politically Incorrect,” a book about the importance of people of all faiths in being involved in our political process, says, “Gone is our understanding today of religion’s vibrant role in sustaining marriages, nurturing children and strengthening families. Gone is our appreciation for religion as a basis for individual self initiative and social quietude.” He calls for people of all religions to get involved in restoring a good sound moral foundation to our country. There are millions in our country today — unchurched — having fled their traditional religions and unconnected to any religious community. Burned like me, they stay away and pay the price of loss of the benefits of community.
Yes, it seems to me that within our culture today, being ethical is almost embarrassing, and being unethical is rapidly becoming a way of life. The decline of character values as a primary part of personality development has been one of the root causes of the social problems of our times. The media pounces on each piece of fresh evidence of this. No wonder cynicism and despair run rampant. Never has it become more urgent to become ethical agents in our society today. Belief in ethical values must replace disbelief in our culture. Ethical challenges confront us every day of our lives.
This summer, Les and I spent a week at the beach. Two thirteen year old boys were with us — a son of some good friends of ours and his friend. Russell and Matt loved crabs and that night when dinner time rolled around they wanted to buy crabs. One night, Russell bought two crabs for five dollars. When we returned to the house to eat, he discovered he had three. He asked me and a group of people at the table what he should do about the extra crab. What ensued was a great debate among the adults. “You’ll get the employee in trouble — don’t call.” “Too bad, they screwed up, you win, they lose.” “It’s not a big deal, just eat the darn thing.” He asked me and I said, “Russ, it’s not your crab until they say so. Call them up and ask them what you should do.” He called, and they said, “Go ahead and eat it — but,” with a tone of disbelief, “what on earth made you decide to call?” See, they didn’t expect ethical behavior. In fact I believe like most of us today, we expect unethical behavior. So anyway, they said, “Why did you call?” Russ said, “My mother made me do it!”
He was embarrassed about being ethical! Not proud, not pleased — embarrassed. This has to change.
That’s why it is so important to define what we believe and be able to speak to it and act on it. Liberal religions are the most serious offenders in this category. Burned by previous religious faiths, we are so afraid to state what we believe, that we prefer to talk about what we don’t believe. We say, for example, we don’t have a creed or dogma that you must adhere to. We don’t hold a belief in a supreme being. We don’t have a book of revelations or ten commandments. We don’t require that you believe in original sin or see yourself as evil. All good things to know, but we need to step up, take a stand and dare to define what we do believe!
Not just because we do have a strong underlying philosophical foundation, but because there’s power in conviction and faith as long as it is held under the lens of truth and rational thinking. And that’s what Ethical Culture is about. Our philosophy rests on some basic beliefs.
We do believe in human worth. It is indeed my foundation belief here at the Ethical Society. Adler said, “Every human being is worthwhile of their own account. Their personality is to be safe from infringement. By that we mean that human beings should attribute worth to themselves and others. The dictionary says that “worth” is the value of something measured by its qualities or by the esteem with which it is held. It contrasts with a view of myself that holds I earn my self esteem through my value to others. That’s right, within each of us is a center of self worth that should not be violated, that would be held with high unconditional regard, that should be treated with kindness, fairness, honesty and joy. This belief gives us a vision of humanity that allows you and me to find the best in ourselves by seeking the best in others. When we do this, there are direct, positive results.
Therefore, we do believe here in bringing out and fostering the unique talents within us and others. We see human beings as creative, capable and able to shape their own destiny. Rusty Berkus, a writer summed this ideal up: “There comes that mysterious meeting in life when someone acknowledges who we are and what we can be, igniting the circuits of our highest potential.” So we Ethical Culturists strive to cultivate the good in people by learning to appreciate the differences among us. This is what we mean by ethics in action. The great, spiritual moments of our times as we go through life, occur when you and I experience those moments of deep connection to others.
Therefore, for those of us who are members of the Ethical Society, ethical behavior is more than a social convention. Here we actively work to elicit the best in the human spirit. We are optimists, because we believe that human beings have a great capacity for good and we actively seek to build a better world for ourselves, for our children and families, for our community, and for the greater world. All parts of an Ethical Society work to this end, whether it be life span education, social action, community activities or Sunday meetings. All of these activities radiate from a foundation belief in each of us having intrinsic worth and dignity. This allows us to serve a purpose outside ourselves — to find a way to impact on the world and address the cynicism and despair of our times — our age of disbelief.
I love to talk about our work together here at the Ethical Society. I say we do believe in self responsibility and as a group of free thinkers, we are often characterized as a community of non-joiners who do believe in and love the pursuit of knowledge. We do believe in the creative interplay of a caring community. We do believe in working to end social injustice. We focus on building ethical relationships with one another and we honor everyone’s right to disagree without being disagreeable.
I believe this is essential given the challenges of society today. You and I live in turbulent, exciting, dangerous times. Facing such strong social issues as soaring crime rates, poverty, materialism and consumerism, we’ve become ever more acutely aware of the issues our society faces today and the kind of uneasiness it causes within in us.
I believe most Americans don’t want our government to fight about taxes, welfare, or deficits. What we want goes far deeper than these social issues. We believe in our country and think it’s gone awry and want it to start moving on the right track again. And our deepest yearning and need is to have communities around us that work, where people can feel safe, where kids can play outside, where school kids and teachers respect one another and use non-violent ways, where values such as watching out for the neighbors and pitching in to help each other are treasured, and where words like character and ethics have meaning. If these needs were met, then the social issues of our times could be resolved and Americans could sleep easy. A disciplined, compassionate society, grounded in good character values and caring community, is what you and I yearn for, and finding the pathway to that vision is the next step for our culture today.
Our Ethical Societies are role models for the future and will lead the way when we dare — you and I — to act on what we believe.