Opening Words from Sun. February 22 by Don Beere

Good morning.

Why did you decide to join or come to the Ethical Society? That’s the question almost everyone asks or is asked whether a visitor, a new or a long time member. This is part one of my four-part answer. And this is partially why, when my wife and I came here less than a year ago, I felt an immediate compatibility. Our coming here coincided with a major life transition: we retired, moved to a city where we only knew our daughter and her husband, and bought a condo downtown. Ironically what I will describe took place 50 years ago during the very years this building was constructed and opened.

My father was a physicist. When I was 14, I decided I would be at a theoretical physicist. I decided this without self-reflection or questioning. Fast-forward to my senior year in college, the 1962-63 academic year. I was a very unhappy physics major. I could not see myself in a lab or an office, working in isolation from other people. I did not know what to do other than continue to work on my degree. However, in order to graduate, during my last semester of college, I took the one class that fit my schedule and my requirements: Existentialism. I had avoided the humanities and had never taken a philosophy course.

We read Sartre, Camus, Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and Buber. I had never been confronted by such ideas or a philosophical approach. I loved it.

The ideas challenged me. One pertained to choice: Not making a choice is still a choice. Another pertained to living authentically, making choices consistent with one’s being. And, regardless of how we choose, there is no certainty about the outcome . . . This dilemma, when honestly owned, leads to anxiety, an inevitable condition. This links to yet another idea, guilt, a guilt that arises when we do not fulfill our potential or live what is of inherent value and importance. The timing of the course I took coincided perfectly with my personal struggles, in particular with what I would do professionally.

Because I took these ideas seriously, I reflected on my own life situation and my unhappiness. I realized that I had chosen a future based on what my father wanted and not what I wanted. I had done so without self-examination. And, when I made that choice at 14, I did not have perspective. As an unhappy college senior, this existentialism course showed me that I could now chose for myself.

I continued my studies and got my BA in physics in 1963. And then, in 1964, I earned a second BA, this time in philosophy. I chose a new life direction.

Existentialism does not match perfectly with Ethical Society beliefs. On the other hand, the centrality of one’s being or humanness, of living authentically, and of making choices resonate here. When honestly embraced, these are powerful – and for me, 50 years ago, life transforming. That I found a deep connection here in the Ethical Society is no surprise. And, this comes again at a time of a major life transition.

One final observation that might link to today’s platform talk. I have come to understand that almost all existential philosophers were attempting to makes sense of what happened during the Second World War. They were grappling with the horrors of war, our capacity to act inhumanely, and, as a result, in the face of such atrocities, how to live fully and authentically.