On the Wings of an Eagle; Bob Greenwell, Program Director of the Ethical Society of St. Louis

There’s an idea that has been a lifesaver for me. Without it I would have gone off the deep end of life. It has to do with that tension in life between wanting to achieve something, and on the other hand just wanting to enjoy the delight and joy of being. Somehow I got stuck on one of those sides.

Isn’t there a similar tension in our own movement? You know, Felix Adler, our founder, was a great one, a leader, in facing up to sorrows and pains, suffering, of life. But did he sufficiently build in a bridge for us back to just the joy of being?

I believe that Ethical Culture does give us a way to fully express both sides of the tension: living with purpose, and surrender to joy. For Adler was a romantic as well as a sober moralist. Horace Bridges even described him as “mystic and man of action.” His name, “Adler,” in German means “eagle,” and when Felix went off to Germany to study for a Ph.D., his fellow doctoral students called him “Der Amerikanische Adler” — the American Eagle! A premonition for someone who founded a movement on the 100th anniversary of the American Revolution. The name is also fitting in another way. The eagle soars on two wings, and there are two sides to Adler’s founding intuition — his romantic side and his purposeful side — his experience that somehow life is a perfect joy, and his equally strong experience that life is a matter of supreme moral striving. These two sides are the two wings we all need to soar.

For many years I tried to fly on one wing, the wing of Purpose. Now you can do that for a long time, and many of us do, especially if hoisted up by a string of successes. My most recent success at the time was being awarded a full NDEA fellowship toward a Ph.D. in philosophy. But the trouble with all-purpose flying is that failures are inevitable, and even small ones can deflate all the air you need to fly. I met with some failures of not turning in final papers on time. So I quit. I quit graduate school. I went from the refined world of abstract intellectualizing to the concrete world of working in a restaurant and dealing with the hungers and thirsts of real live people. Unfortunately, the solution to over-purpose is not sabotage of purpose, is not under purpose. As the years rolled by, I found myself becoming lonelier, more depressed, more at odds with my own inner self, which from an early age had said, “There’s some mission I want you to accomplish.” I reached a low point one night about 3 am, in the morning — nothing good was on television. It was quiet and dark in my apartment. I basically gave up trying to analyze what was wrong. And it was as if I heard a voice saying to me, “Read some philosophy.” It wasn’t me, speaking — but of course it was me, in some way. Well, I had already given away most of my philosophy books by that time. Thought I’d never have need for them again. But on my bookshelf there was still one book remaining, by the American philosopher William Hocking, professor at Harvard and Yale for many years. It was called The Meaning of God in Human Experience. I wasn’t so sure about God, but I did believe in human experience. So I started reading the book, and it was like reading a novel. It was like Shakespeare to me. I read it night after night after night, hardly any sleep, until about 2/3 of the way through that book, I remember, standing up, jumping up, and exclaiming to the world–I knew everyone was listeningMy God, he has actually done it! He has accomplished what Descartes was trying to do! –That was my philosophical self commenting, but what I meant was that Hocking had managed to take me through his portrayals of human experience to a place where I sensed — I didn’t just think as a logical conclusion — I sensed the reality of the world as something that stretched far beyond my own isolated ego, and I was a real person in that world and that world was great and wonderful, and I was a part of it, even if I never amounted to anything, and that was a liberating experience. Just a few years later, I found the Ethical Society, and sensed that it could support and advance this liberating experience.

Now Ethical Culture has an idea that we call Intrinsic Worth. And latent inside this are some amazing ways of thinking about reality. It carries a whole new outlook about religion itself, about the deepest impulse to experience life to the full, both on the achievement path, and on the path of just wanting to enjoy life. You know, sometimes you have to stop to smell the roses. And other times you have to wake up and smell the coffee.

What is this Intrinsic Worth? A while back, my wife, Kathleen, called me at work. She had the Monday blues. Not because she was back at her 9 to 5 job, but because she wasn’t at a job. Still unemployed. She was feeling low and blurted out, “I’m worthless!” I wouldn’t have honored her frustration if I had argued with her and pointed out all her considerable talents. Sometimes, despite being the guy in the relationship, I say the right thing, and I said to her, “You have intrinsic worth.” She paused and then said, “Yes, I have intrinsic worth.” Just like that, she shifted her entire attitude. In the very next moment she started talking about our cat Moon, who had been there all along, but not noticed in all his majesty. What happened was a shift in the way of thinking. It’s much like the shift from a serious to a humorous frame of mind. You lighten up, loosen up, chill out, relax, reconnect.

Intrinsic Worth — a shift in attitude. I observed some of the inner dynamics of this shift last January, when I watched the Super Bowl. I loved it. (The St. Louis Rams won, you know.) When the game ended, a TV interviewer went to the sidelines to get the victory reaction of one of the wives. She gushed that the Rams owed their victory to their religious faith in God and Jesus. She added, “He really kept us in suspense. God is so dramatic, isn’t He?”

I must admit, I cringed. What about the Tennessee Titans, the team that lost the Super Bowl? Did God make them lose? Are they out of favor with God? Are they just a bunch of Ethical Culturists? I don’t think so. And what if the Rams had lost? Ah, there’s the question. Would a loss have dented their religious faith?

Of course not! They would have said that it wasn’t their time, or that God wanted them to learn some lesson. Thus there’s an inconsistency. God is to be praised for helping the Rams win, but not to be cursed for helping the Titans lose.

We could just stop here and chalk this up as another case of human irrationality. But if we did, we would miss something vital. There’s something that makes their religious faith a living support of their passion for life. It gives them the confidence and the assured capacity to be able to shift between two different ways of experiencing reality — the same two wings we have begun to talk about: Purpose, and the Joy of Living.

You normally cannot be in both of these modes of experiencing at the same time. Abraham Lincoln once said to an aide, holding up a cup of liquid, “If this is coffee, bring me tea….But if this is tea, bring me coffee!” Being the one thing excludes being the other.

The one attitude is that of simple acceptance of whatever is as perfectly all right, as marvelous, as having Intrinsic Worth, no matter how bad it might seem to us in our limited perspective. This is the attitude that the Tennessee Titans needed to shift to after they lost the Super Bowl. There is a health-promoting time to make the shift. The time to not make the shift is in the middle of the game. We could call this the sense-of-humor frame of mind, because of the way it takes the anguish out of the need to succeed, but actually humor is just one variation of this mode of experiencing. A philosophical name to call it is Intrinsic Worth. A broader name to call it is simply Acceptance, and this has the advantage of being a common-language term that can resonate with people’s experience. Acceptance can range in mood from simple resignation to philosophical stoicism to humor to a joyous ecstasy. We need to be able to shift into Acceptance at appropriate times, and we also need to develop our capacity to experience higher forms of it.

The other attitude is that of Non-Acceptance: non-acceptance of things as they are, the attitude of setting goals and engaging in efforts to achieve those goals, the attitude of striving to perform with excellence — that is, in ways that are better than other ways. I just call this Purpose. Here, too, there is a broad range of emotions, from frustration and defeatedness to self-confidence to the experience of what is called Flow, when all one’s efforts synchronize into one focus, to finally triumphal exultation in achievement. Just as with Acceptance, full human development involves not only being able to shift into Purpose mode when appropriate but also to become more and more skillful in the various ways of being purposeful.

Acceptance. Purpose. Acceptance. Purpose. Sometimes you’ve got to stop and smell the roses. Other times you’ve got to wake up and smell the coffee.

Now the genius of the Judeo-Christian faith — and here we get back to it — what gives it its positive hold on people and its staying-power, is that it provides strong support for full development of both of these attitudes. When you’re in Purpose, you can call on God and the saints and angels to help you achieve your goals. This ability to connect your personal intentions and energies with those of the universe lends great strength to your focus and your determination. Then, when it’s time to switch to the mode of Acceptance, your faith in God allows you to more easily let go, to shift more readily to that state wherein you can catch a glimmer of the exquisite worth of being, just exactly as it is, independent of all your achievements or failures.

These two attitudes are as different from each other as night and day. How can they be related to each other? How can they coexist alternately in the same person? How can they do anything but cancel each other out?

A brief example from physics can help us here. It turns out that at the tiniest levels of physical reality, something very strange is going on. What we find are quanta. These are bizarre little devils. Sometimes they’re one thing; sometimes they’re just the opposite. They can be particles, or they can be waves, but not both at the same time. Particles are, well, particles — just what any well-behaved bit of matter ought to be: distinct bits, localized (that is, in only one place at a time), separate from other particles. Waves are non-localized and spread out, blending and merging with other waves, connected and connecting beyond any clear boundaries. How can the same thing, whatever it is, these quanta, manifest in two different ways, each of which is incompatible with the other? We don’t know. Physicists have not figured that one out yet. But it’s reality.

We humans also live in a world of double aspect, and we alternate between two utterly different kinds of states. Some of us get stuck in one mode or the other, and never get back. Others get stuck in low-grade forms of one or both modes of experience. It’s also easy, too easy, to imagine that these two modes of experience refer to two different worlds: Heaven and Earth, or a world of spirit and a world of body, or soul and body, and that the two are alien to each other, so that you need to cast your lot with one or the other. Adler ended up using the terms “ideal” and “real” and while these are fine to a philosopher who has penetrated to Adler’s unique meanings for them, they don’t help the average intelligent person, because they inevitably sound like a total separation. So the next insight for us to gain, after first getting clear on the two fundamental modes of experiencing, Purpose and Acceptance, is to discern that there is a secret connection between the two.

What is the Christian or Hindu or Muslim doing when he calls upon God to help him win a contest, or get a job, or save his marriage, or cure his disease? The cry to God is from someone who is in the mode of Purpose, the mode of wanting things to be different, and fearing that it can’t be different or won’t be different. The cry to God is actually a cry from within the purpose orientation to that other state of self in which everything can be experienced as already all-good. It’s as if each of these orientations carries seeds of the other within itself, as though in the end they cannot be utterly incompatible with each other, since, after all, they are alternating states of the selfsame self.

Let’s look at a simple everyday example — waking and sleeping. Even though there are fuzzy lines in between, when you’re awake, you’re awake, and when you’re asleep, you’re asleep. This is a biological form of the shift between Purpose and Acceptance. A couple of months ago, my wife and I had a disagreement that left us considerably upset. You know the old saying, Never go to bed angry? Well, we did. We “slept on it.” In the morning, Kathleen’s mind was so clear that she was able to tell me precisely the ways in which I was wrong. But I had slept on it, too! My mind had clarified to the degree that when I heard what she had to say, I could recognize instantly that she was right. And I was glad. So now, whenever I have a problem, I’ll have Kathleen sleep on it! These kinds of little transmissions happen all the time in our lives, if we let them, ask for them, remove obstacles to them — gifts from the Acceptance frame of mind to our lives of Purpose.

Beauty and art and music are other examples of getting into Acceptance/Joy. Sometimes a sunset can catch you in just such a way that it takes your breath away, and for a moment you forget your cares, or return to your cares with better care, or better purpose. Humor is another important way in which we shift into Acceptance mode. In fact, have you noticed that one of the hallmarks of members of Ethical Culture is a good solid sense of humor? This is no accident. Humor is something to be taken seriously! How is that people with a lively sense of humor get attracted to something with such a serious name as “Ethical Culture,” a movement whose founder wrote a book called The Religion of Duty? What makes humor a leading quality for members of something so serious? Because humor is one of the genuine forms of shift to an attitude of affirming Intrinsic Worth. Yes, Ethical Culture affirms serious ethical living, but it also affirms, as a primary intuition, Intrinsic Worth. When we shift to the Acceptance/Joy wing, the Intrinsic Worth wing, and we are in touch with the cosmic humor, the joy of being, we include within that the joy of human being. We do not have ethics because human beings are bad. We believe in Original Worth, not Original Sin. We have ethics because, and here is the great breakthrough of Adler, because when you give full scope to both wings of experience, when you allow each to penetrate the other, ethics is what appears. Ethics — that is, thoughts and sensibilities about what ought to be done — precipitates out of that mysterious point of creative exchange where Purpose and Joy come together.

Adler the Eagle talked about ethics, but you know what? He didn’t talk much about codes of conduct. He never came up with his own list of 2, 10, or 20 commandments. He talked about ethical energy! He was pointing us in the direction of the source of the creation of codes of conduct.

There is power in the Ethical Culture insight. It is the same power that religions of the world tap into. You know, we talk about the common ground of ethics. But our common ground is not a lowest common denominator. It is not formed by listing all the rules of conduct of all religions of the world, keeping those that are unanimous, and calling that our list of ethical principles. No, our claim to have discovered the common ground of religions is much deeper. It’s our claim to have found what the genuine religious impulse is, and to have cleared away the rocks and the debris. The common ground is the hallowing of the experience of the goodness of being, and the call to enter into that experience so deeply and so receptively that it echoes back into our other mode of experience, where we purposefully deal with the challenges and frustrations of living.

Algernon Black, renowned in our Movement as a great pragmatist, great anti-theorist, great social activist, wrote with total conviction: “The Ethical Movement is a religious movement.” I would like to find a word different from “religion,” because of its association with sectarianism and anti-science, but I haven’t yet. We may have to take the offensive and claim the word “religion” as more proper to us than anyone else! Algernon Black wrote that we “endeavor to meet the needs which have given rise to religions in the past.” Whatever then meets those needs most truly is most truly religion, whether it bears any resemblance to the old religions or not!

As Ethical Culturists, we are to hallow the experience of the goodness of being. The more powerfully we can experience life on the wing of Acceptance/Joy, the more we find that we have renewed energy and sharper insights about what ought to be done when we shift back to the wing of Purpose.

So when life puts us in a tight spot, painful, dark, on the brink of failure, or despairing at injustice in the world, Ethical Culture tells us to make a shift to the other wing, the other mode of experiencing. How do we do that?

Actually, it’s not complicated. We do it by remembering to do it. And we increase our ability to remember to do it by practicing. This is why religion of old has always been associated with dancing and music and words of beauty and incantations and community and overall an atmosphere — an atmosphere that people sometimes refer to as “otherworldly.” But the religious atmosphere is not really or properly otherworldly; it’s other-than-purpose. We create times and spaces for shifting into the Acceptance/Joy mode, both for its own sake, and to practice for the times it won’t be so easy.

For we do get stuck in that purposeful striving. We get tunnel vision and tunnel feelings. That is when we need to draw on our faith. That’s why it’s called faith. Faith, Ethical Culture has discovered, is not belief in something based on someone else’s authority. Faith is believing that you can shift to your other wing. When you’re stuck, when you’re in pain and suffering, it may be hard — seemingly impossible — for you to imagine that you ever had a laugh in your life — forget about imagining that you could experience joy even now. But that is your faith — that the worth of being is real and it is within your capability to experience, not denying pain, but including it and somehow transmuting it, somehow integrating it into a larger meaning and a larger truth.

One way of putting this is that you reach the ability to make a shift by your whole self. No part of you gets left behind; no part in pain gets repressed or denied. When you have had a time of hell in the Purpose mode, when you are in pain, suffering, anguish at the suffering or cruelties of others, and none of this pain has relented, and you shift anyway, that is when the shift deserves the name “religious” — the Religious Response. Religion at its best is the institutionalized cultivation of this response. All of our lesser, easier shifts into Acceptance — through sleeping or humor or beauty — become ways of practicing for the big one.

The movie Life Is Beautiful, powerfully portrays this heroic shift. In the first half of the movie, the hero, Guido, has a gift of making life seem magically wonderful for all those near to him. But circumstances were good. In the second half, circumstances changed. He and his family found themselves in the hell of a Nazi concentration camp. What did Guido do? He still found ways to give his family windows of access to the Acceptance/Joy mode. In Purpose mode, look for ways to survive, to escape. But also cultivate your ability to shift your frame of reference, to see things with a wry eye, to shift into the mode of Intrinsic Worth.

In real life, horrible things happen. In the news in St. Louis, a woman stopped by a store to pick up a quick sandwich. She left the motor running. Her 6-yr-old son was in the back seat, in his seat belt. Just as she was returning, a carjacker jumped in her car and took off. She was close enough to open the back door and start pulling on her son. But he got tangled in the seatbelt and couldn’t get free. He was dragged for miles to his death. A tragedy and horror of this extreme degree cannot be made fun of. It is here, and in such cases, that one must have the capacity to go beyond the humor version of the Acceptance mode, all the way to the full religious response. When Hinduism or Christianity or Islam or other faith helps someone to do this, we should be glad. Through lenses however distorted, they are coming deeply into contact with Intrinsic Worth.

Sleep lies at one end of the spectrum of experiences of Acceptance. At the other end would be the experience of a disciplined, conscious, intense communing with being, and a consequent reception of some message or of some mission to accomplish in the world, just as happens with us sometimes in sleep. This, it is fair for us to surmise, was the experience of Moses when he went up the mountain. He went up to be away from the crowd, away from the stresses of leadership in his highly developed Purpose mode. He went into the alternate state — Acceptance, Joy, Wave, whatever it may best be called, the Worth-Perfection of Being. He came down with a message that changed a people. All such messages will be tainted with quirks of personality and biases of culture, but that does not mean that no creative exchange takes place between the two modes. And we can expect that the more developed, intense, and conscious the two modes, the more the spark of transmission between them may approach the power of lightning.

Ethical Culture brings to us the primacy of Intrinsic Worth! It calls us, urges us, to cherish and develop the Acceptance wing, both for its own sake and for the sake of the other wing of Purpose. Then ethical living will creatively flow.