In the Face of Violence

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When I woke up this morning, the first thing I read in the news was the horrible news from Colorado.  An audience full of excited mostly-young people had gathered for a midnight showing of a much-anticipated movie — and a gunman took advantage of that full theatre to … do what?  Get noticed, I imagine.

What does it take to blind oneself to the natural emotions of empathy and compassion in order to do such a deed?  It’s beyond me; I only know that it’s happening more and more often.  It’s also enabled by the availability of technology that makes it possible to fire hundreds of rounds without stopping to reload — and giving anyone an opportunity to stop the bloodshed.  And the ability to gather such supplies without calling any attention to the one who is preparing for a massacre.

What response does the tragedy call for from us?  To hug our own loved ones, first, remembering that life is sometimes tenuous.  To continue, or begin, to do the work of teaching empathy to children and adults. To reach out to anyone we know who was touched by the tragedy.  To help our own children and grandchildren understand that this is actually very unlikely to happen to any one person (the ubiquitous media makes it seem so close, especially to young children who don’t really comprehend distances and statistical probabilities).

It also calls for a moment of reason and compassion — to not quickly buy into conspiracy theories, political or religious explanations, or even to try to find what’s to “blame.”  The reasons are complex in any such incident.  There are no easy answers, and no easy ways to prevent the tragedy.

For me, I don’t want to add to the shooter’s fame by repeating his name.  If I’m right and one of the primary motivations today for such mass killings is to “make a name” — to get famous — then I won’t be complicit in that.

But my heart goes out to the injured, to the families and friends of the injured and dead, to the people who escaped and who will still be scarred from the memories, to all who are scared and scarred by such events.

I find myself even more resolved to do my part in building a more peaceful, more compassionate world.

Reading from William Salter: The Higher Life of Humanity

From William Salter, an early Ethical Culture leader who had also been a Unitarian minister; adapted by Jone Johnson Lewis:

“The higher life of humanity is made of our higher impulses, our higher thoughts, our higher strivings. We all must live and we must work (or some one must work) for us to have the means of living. But this physical life is not its own end. It is not enough to eat and drink and sleep, to labor and amuse ourselves. In this way we may keep the body fresh, but the body is the servant of the soul. When we think, when we search after truth, when we aspire to bring our lives into harmony with the best that we know, when we wish to put ourselves in alliance with all the better and nobler forces in the world, then we are most truly ourselves, then we become aware how great are the heights and how rich are the rewards of living. May we enter into this higher life of the spirit today, may we in the brief time of our being together here give a welcome to all good thoughts, to all generous impulses, and may they stay with us and more and more make their home with us, so that gradually, little by little, our lives shall be transformed and transfigured by them.”

A. Eustace Haydon on Humanist Spirituality

A. Eustace Haydon, a signer of the 1933 Humanist Manifesto, Dean of the Department of Comparative Religion at the University of Chicago, a Baptist then Unitarian minister, and for some years a Leader in the Ethical Culture Movement (AEU) had this to say on the spirituality of humanism:

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“The Humanist rarely loses the feeling of at-homeness in the universe. The Humanist is conscious of being an earth-child. There is a mystic glow in this sense of belonging. Memories of one’s long ancestry still linger in muscle and nerve, in brain and germ cell. On moonlit nights, in the renewal of life in the springtime, before the glory of a sunset, in moments of swift insight, people feel the community of their own physical being with the body of mother earth. Rooted in millions of years of planetary history, the earthling has a secure feeling of being at home, and a consciousness of pride and dignity as a bearer of the heritage of the ages.”

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NeuronCompassion without reason is ineffective; reason without compassion is destructive.

“Man has been endowed with reason, with the power to create, so that he can add to what he’s been given. But up to now he hasn’t been a creator, only a destroyer. Forests keep disappearing, rivers dry up, wild life’s become extinct, the climate’s ruined and the land grows poorer and uglier every day.” – Anton Chekhov, Uncle Vanya, 1897

Editing Jefferson

How the National Prayer Breakfast invitation edited Thomas Jefferson:

“In extracting the pure principles which he [Jesus] taught, we should have to strip off the artificial vestments in which they have been muffled by priests, who have travestied them into various forms, as instruments of riches and power to themselves….We must reduce our volume to the simple evangelists, select, even from them, the very words only of Jesus…. There will be found remaining the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.”

More: Doubting Thomas: Prayer Breakfast Theocrats Try To Baptize Jefferson

New Year’s Resolutions That Work

How can you make resolutions you’ll actually keep?

Making general resolutions to change (”I’ll lose weight” / “I’ll stop smoking” / “I’ll do something about my job”) rarely results in actually achieving what you resolve.

Those general statements are good starts, though.

Think smart. That’s S – M – A – R – T — a way to look at your goals, to make them work for you. New Year’s resolutions are one kind of goal.
Continue reading “New Year’s Resolutions That Work” »

Experiment in Listening

“All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make, the better.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

It’s no accident that I gave one of my sons the middle name of Emerson.

The feedback I got from the experiment I tried on the first Sunday – a new kind of meditation, suited for Ethical Culture, that involves talking and listening to another person – was overwhelmingly positive, and I’ll likely be trying that again.  I loved hearing what people found valuable in the interchange. It was different for different people.

What would it mean if we took more time in our lives to really listen to another person? Took some time to deliberately and mindfully practice listening to another, seeing the person in the “now” as we listen, not through a lens of all that we know of the person from the past, not through a lens of what we expect that person to say or do?

And what would it mean if we had others take the time to really listen to us?  Took some time to deliberately and mindfully practice listening to us, seeing us as the person we are in the “now,” not who we’ve been or what they’ve come to expect us to say or do?

For me, this gets to the basic Ethical Culture commitment of attributing human worth to every person we meet — those we know well, those we meet for the first time, those we have never met but have expectations of, been primed by preconceptions (culture? media? experience with others “like” them?).

Some of you who were there said that the question was particularly intriguing.  ”What is something that excites you?”  I chose it for exactly the same reason some of you said you liked it: it’s not something we normally ask ourselves, but it is a question that helps us see what’s really important to us, where we’d like to spend more of our time.

Those of you who weren’t there might try focusing on that for a minute or two, for some self-connection, and then maybe asking a friend if they’d be willing to listen to you for a minute or two — then ask them the same question.

And so I’ll be trying the Ethical Culture “meditation” practice again.  I’d recommend taking the risk of talking to different people each time we try this together — getting to practice talking about something important to you, and listening to what’s important to another person — with a variety of people.  If you find yourself bored or bothered connecting like this with a particular person (I am guessing this is more likely in our imaginations than reality), remember that it’s only a couple of minutes — worth the risk, I think, of even talking to someone you might normally avoid.  Most likely, you’ll be surprised!

And it’s an experiment. If it doesn’t work for a whole lot of people, we can drop it.  If it doesn’t work for you, I invite you to look around and see whether it’s worth letting it work for a whole lot of others, worth your discomfort for a few minutes because it does bring something to all those others.  And if it does work for you — I hope you’ll really enjoy it!

Remembering 9/11

On this day, these are my hopes:

Remember life: that it can end so quickly, so senselessly is a reminder that life is precious.  Can we enjoy more moments we have of life?

Remember what matters most: did people call others on 9/11 from their burning buildings to tell them how far they were on a work project?  Or did they call loved ones to say a good-bye, if they could?  Can we say “hello” and “welcome” while we’re all here? To our loved ones, friends, and people who may become friends if we open ourselves?

Remember risk: on  that day, so many we now call heroes simply did what they could to try to save and preserve lives of others — total strangers, often.

Remember community: one immediate reaction to 9/11 was people reaching out to others, to neighbors, to people they met in stores or on the street, to talk, to share emotions, to help each others.   Can we carry more of that spirit into our daily lives, not waiting for tragedy to bring us together?

Remember justice.  What conditions make it likely that some can be convinced that others, strangers, just becaue of who they are, where they live, or where they work, are to blame for their misery and therefore deserve killing?  Can we learn to create conditions which nurture sharing and unity even in diversity rather than blame, enmity, violence?

Remember love.  We lost much on 9/11 — a sense of security, many individual precious lives, a sense of expansive possibility rather than constricted limitations — but we still have the choice of love.  Can we bring compassion and love to our own selves, and to those in our lives and far away, even when we are afraid?

Those are, I believe, crucial questions of human possibility that we can ponder, questions about the future, even as we acknowledge the reality of that terrible day in the past and all the days since then.

Remember.  Put that which has been broken back together.  Re-member.

Are Pigeons Smarter Than Human Beings?

We as humans factor in far more than basic probabilities — hope, greed, whatever. I found this article fascinating! Are Birds Smarter Than Humans? – PDF file

A Time to Mourn

I cannot fully celebrate anyone’s death. It would make me less than I want to be. It was Osama bin Laden’s celebration of death of others in the service of his ends that led him to inspire so much pain and suffering. I don’t want to be like that, even in a moment.

I mourn the pain that he caused to not just those killed by acts he inspired and planned, but to their families. I mourn the happiness lost to millions billions of people through the fear of terrorism. But I also hold just a small place to mourn the person he might have been but was not — the person he chose not to be.

I remember hearing just after 9/11 from someone who’d met Osama in college in America. That person remembered an evening when Osama was sitting at a piano and picking out notes and singing “The House of the Rising Sun.” I remember, in the pain and shock of what we call 9/11 as shorthand, thinking of what might have been had he not made some choice, somewhere along the way. I can mourn that self he didn’t become and could have become.

That humanity which he long buried in himself and stamped out so that he could do hateful things is one small part of what I mourn today, along with all the other human losses that choice he made led to.

One way we can refuse to be like Osama bin Laden is to stubbornly refuse to be drawn into the denial of any person’s core humanity in service of our own ends.

Yes, it was probably the lesser of evils BY FAR that he was killed rather than left to live and inspire more death and pain and suffering. But I mourn that killing him was the only alternative we could find, based on his own choices.